Amazonian Adventures!

A Report from the 1999 Encuentro

In 1996 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) invited various individuals, groups, movements and political parties from around the world to meet in Chiapas, Mexico to discuss the commonalities in their diverse struggles. Called the 'Encuentro [1] for humanity and against neoliberalism' it drew thousands of people from the world over. An Encuentro for the Americas only was held in Brasil [2] during December 1999. Here is a report from one of the two UK people who attended as observers [3].


I have spent five days on a boat descending the River Amazon, from the central Amazonian metropolis of Manaus, to the eastern city of Belém do Pará. We are three hundred strong, each swinging in our tiny allotted hammock space, or pacing around the decks like caged wildcats. My morning is spent watching kamikaze caboclos (river-dwellers) and indigenous people paddle their dug-out canoes directly at our boat. We throw food and clothes - carefully wrapped in plastic bags to keep them dry - at their tiny boats. We cheer, as do the caboclo kids when anyone scores a direct hit. The caboclo parents, generally, do not.

Later we round yet another river-bend, and the walls of rainforest part to reveal a dense cluster of skyscrapers on the horizon. This is Belém, capital of the Amazon, and location of the latest Zapatista-inspired Encuentro. The boat erupts into spontaneous applause and people embrace. We have made it back to civilisation! Excitement and smiles pervade the boat.

This strikes me as funny - in the peculiar sense of the word - as I want to destroy so-called civilisation as it is now. Funnier still, as in my days of conversations with dozens of people on the boat, they also, in general, feel the same. But we are undeniably comforted to step back into a concrete world. I think at the time that this week in Belém will be full of contradictions, and much may not be as it seems...

Background to the Encuentros

The first Zapatista-inspired Encuentro in 1996 was an attempt to get everyone from around the world who was interested in the issues Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were fighting about - 'land, liberty and democracy' to use one of their slogans - to discuss possible commonalities. Importantly, the first Encuentro was also designed to fulfill several other functions. Firstly, to give an international 'democratic' mandate for the use and continuation of their armed struggle. Meeting with hundreds of Church groups, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), political parties and social movements was important support for the EZLN struggle. Secondly, the Zapatista army used the Encuentro to keep a high profile, both nationally and internationally, making it harder for the Mexican government and army to escalate the war against them. The EZLN, as an army and social movement that spent 11 years organising and training before they made themselves publicly known on the 1st January 1994, are supreme tacticians. To believe that the first Encuentro was much more than a strategic military decision is merely buying into the romantic Zapatista myth.

This first Encuentro was a huge success. About 6,000 people from trade unions, peasants movements, NGOs, left wing political parties, church groups and autonomous extra-parliamentary oppositional movements[4] from many traditions travelled to Chiapas in Mexico. Common problems were elucidated - capitalism and patriarchy to name but two. However, UK input was minimal, with reports of less than half-a-dozen UK-based people attending, and of these most were academics or curious individuals already travelling in Mexico. As far as I am aware nobody involved in the UK direct action movement attended.

Following the success of the first Encuentro, groups in Spain organised a second in September 1997, again attended by thousands from a similar range of groups. Several UK Earth First! and Reclaim The Streets activists travelled to Spain for this. At this Encuentro there was serious concern about the way it had been organised, and several delegations from 'Third World' countries were concerned about the domineering attitudes, ways of working and cultural assumptions of some Europeans. Out of this came the idea of a purely Latin American Encuentro.

After several rumours and emails about various Latin American countries hosting an Encuentro, in early 1999 there were suggestions that Brasil's Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurias Sem Terra (MST - landless peasants movement, see Do or Die Number 7, pp.88-96) were to host a Latin American Encuentro. In June 1999 an email from Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN stated that they endorsed the invitation to go to Belém in December 1999 for an Encuentro to include all of the Americas.

Confusion Over the Organisers

The next stage in the story is still unclear to me, and to most other participants I spoke to at the Belém Encuentro, so I will start with what I consider to be factually correct, then move on to the speculation. It is clear that the EZLN had endorsed an Encuentro, but they did not state who was hosting it. It is clear that at some stage the MST were involved in the Encuentro. However, the MST (probably Latin America's largest and most important social movement) deliberately did not publicly participate in the Encuentro at all. Finally, it became clear that Belém City Council, run by the radical left group within Brasil's main opposition political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, the Workers' Party, more-or-less equivalent to the UK's pre-Blair Labour Party), was the driving force behind the Encuentro.

There is confusion as to how and why this situation arose. I had heard in advance that the MST were not attending the Encuentro, and as they are a social movement I have great respect for I wanted to ask them why. Following email communication I visited the offices of MST in Belém. It seems that initially the EZLN had suggested to the MST that it would be good if they hosted an Encuentro, and from this beginning several Brasilian groups met to discuss the idea. The MST wanted it to be held in 2001, to give adequate time to network, organise and make the event a success - and possibly to be global, not just Latin America. All the left-wing political parties wanted it in 2000, as 2001 is an election year in Brasil, and they wanted to concentrate on that instead. The various parties then gained control of the Encuentro, and the MST, feeling that it would not fulfill its potential given the short amount of time to organise it, decided to pull out. It seems that the further building of an international movement 'against neoliberalism and for humanity', was sold short by the desire of Brasil's political parties for electoral success.

The Opening Ceremony

The local council booked the main square in Belém for the opening for the Encuentro. It was a hot and steamy tropical night, with a great diversity of people loitering around. Hundreds of red flags from the political parties fluttered: the PT, the Communist Party (PC do B), the Socialist Party of Unified Workers (PSTU), the Socialist Party (PSB), the Bolshevik League and many more. Competing were the black flags of various anarchist groups, many of whom were wearing masks to cover their faces. Many looked a lot like UK punks circa 1979 - but not quite so pasty! Spread around these two noticeable 'types' were a smattering of indigenous people, lots of smartly dressed black men from Quilombos (communal lands where blacks began new communities after liberating themselves from slavery) and some baggy-trousered youngsters from the radical black hip-hop movement. As well as this there were thousands of perhaps bemused locals who had come to see what was going on. It was an amazing sight - every class, culture and subculture from a continent-sized country packed into one square in an Amazonian city. The week was going to be great.

A huge video screen cranked into action. Subcommandante Marcos gave a half-hour speech, live over the internet, from the Lacondon jungle to the Amazon rainforest. This was a shockingly powerful use of the internet. 'Third World' revolutionary to 'Third World' revolutionaries - direct, fast and unmediated communication. Someone comments that Marcos is the only person in the world who could speak Spanish in Brasil and get several thousand people to stand in silence and attentively listen. The power of the symbolism of the Zapatistas was stark.

Do or Die makes it as far as the radical black hip-hop movement of north eastern Brasil!

After Marcos we got speaker after speaker, interspersed with some indigenous peoples doing their traditional dancing. Two people from the EZLN spoke followed by eleven others. Six were from left-wing parties, then one each for the unions, the indigenous, the libertarians and the landless, and then the odd one out Danielle Mitterrand (yes, wife of the dead ex-French leader, representing the white European elite?). This unfortunately about summed up the ideas of 'equality' and 'fairness' that the powers behind the Encuentro seemed to have. As many people from political parties spoke as all the rest put together! Those with power - the political parties, the funders (the local council and Mitterrand) - kept power, and those most marginalised stayed without it. Nobody from any portion of Brasil's very strong black movement participated in the opening of the conference, no women's movement, no gay liberation. Unfortunately I could see that the MST had a point about not wanting to be involved in this!

As the speeches went on the crowd became increasingly agitated. With each speaker from a political party, those in the crowd from the other parties, and anyone else who didn't like them booed, chanted and heckled. This came to a crux when the new PT leader got on stage. He got comprehensively shouted down. It was the equivalent of Tony Blair addressing London's May Day anti-capitalism conference if the Conservative Party were in power. I can't believe none of the organisers saw it coming. It all ended in an on-stage slanging match between José Dirceu, new head of PT, the local (and more radical) PT mayor Edmilson Rodrigues and various sections of the crowd. This start didn't bode well for the days ahead.

The politics behind this farce are perhaps more complicated. Some people told me that the bouts of booing and clapping were carefully choreographed by the various Trotskyist groups. The main point of it being to get José Dirceu shouted off stage, so setting the situation up to be 'rescued' by our heroic mayor, and 'star' of the Encuentro, Edmilson Rodrigues. The basic political point being to humiliate Dirceu, as the new boss, and elevate the political standing of Rodrigues in particular, but generally the radical left faction within the PT. In short, the opening ceremony for thousands of people from all over the world was trashed by left-wing political parties - primarily the PT - for their own advantage. Not really in the spirit of Zapatismo.

The next day was the first day of plenaries and workshops. The concentration of power around the political parties continued. The format of the plenaries and 'workshops' was a panel of, usually old, very well educated men, from the whiter end of the skin-colour spectrum, with certainly no Afro-Brasilian's or indigenous people present[5] (except in their own workshops about 'them'). These panels had the same composition as the elite of Brasilian society. The partidos, the political party people, who are quite used to this way of being organised, seemed happy enough. However, there was great anger from some (most?) of the indigenous, blacks, anarchists, independents and others I spoke to, along with the few other Europeans who were there. That night people from several groups hatched a plan...

The Encuentro Splits

I arrive a bit late after a night of too much drink and too long talking to find the plenary underway with much fewer numbers. Meanwhile outside under an open-sided marquee spilling out with people, tense discussions were taking place. I asked around. The Encuentro had split into two: the official Encuentro, now attended, seemingly by the partidos - political party people - and the 'alternative' or 'real' Encuentro as some labelled it, outside in the cafeteria area. The alternative groups are a mix of well, everyone bar the parties. The FZLN (the political organisation of the Zapatistas) delegation appear, telling us, to rapturous shouting, that we are the 'real Encuentro'.

Several important points are discussed. The issue of the cost of the Encuentro is addressed. We have all been told that we need a registration card to speak. It costs money to register. Thus those with no money have no voice. Stories are relayed of people being turned away at the gates of the University where the Encuentro is being held because they have no registration card. The University is next to some favelas (slums) and various people say that some people from those favelas want to join in with the Encuentro, but cannot as they do not have the fifteen reals (R$15) required for entry.[6] My experience was that the Encuentro was predominantly middle-class. There were of course poorer people around, but it was dominated by the better-off. Given the expense of getting in, and the commercial prices of the food and drink for sale, it could have been no different. The alternative Encuentro decided that anyone present could speak, regardless of whether they had a registration card. The question of those without the money for a registration card to get into the University did not seem to get structurally resolved (I gave my card away to get others in, as I could play 'stupid foreigner' to get access to the University if necessary).

A second issue tackled was what to do with the rest of the Encuentro. The discussion focused on the issue of participation and opening up the participation in the workshops and plenary sessions, both to allow more people to participate and for a greater diversity of people to participate. With the benefit of hindsight this seems a mistake, however it is easy to understand why we focused on participation.

Participation was lacking until the Encuentro split into two. This clearly needed to be rectified. But the split was only ostensibly about participation, it was really about very different views of what constitutes 'politics' and 'political action', not merely methodology. I suspect most of those in the alternative Encuentro wanted decentralised, participative, directly democratic politics, linking distinct groups, while the official Encuentro was a vehicle to promote electoral party politics with its attendant tendencies towards centralistion, accumulation of power by your representative, and thoughtless adherence to 'the party line'. The focus on participation was a good start, but was not followed through to logical conclusions. We got side-lined into thinking about methodological rather than political issues.

Meanwhile, the focus on participation could not progress further, partly due to the EZLN and FZLN delegations. The EZLN delegation was rarely seen. This was probably due to the Brasilian government stating that anyone from armed groups found in Brasil would be arrested. Thus there was tension that the police may try to arrest the EZLN participants (and others from armed groups). This tension was heightened by the news that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) spokesperson had been deported back to Colombia before arriving at the Encuentro.

The FZLN adopted contradictory positions over the days of the Encuentro, at times stating that we were the 'true' Encuentro, then at others negotiating the two back together, with minimal changes made to the 'official' Encuentro that we were all supposed to join back with. I think this is because there was intense pressure on the EZLN and FZLN from Belém City Council, whose Encuentro this had become, to repair the split and make the council look good. Also, there is the 'spirit' of Zapatismo, of everyone putting aside their differences and talking in true dialogue about how we can draw our struggles together against common enemies. This would look hollow if the Encuentro was permanently split.

The EZLN and FZLN were placed in a very difficult position - with conflicting demands made on them by an event whose organisation seemed to have little input from them, yet when it started it thrust them on to centre stage and then collapsed. However, the Zapatistas failed in one important respect. Why did they negotiate 'for' the alternative Encuentro people (the excluded) with the official Encuentro people (the powerful)? Why didn't people from several, or all sectors negotiate? Why should the Zapatistas negotiate 'on behalf of' the Afro-Brasilians, the homeless, the indigenous peoples or the urban anarcho-punks? It is interesting to note that the EZLN and FZLN have not, to my knowledge after thorough searching, written anything substantial about their experience of the Brasilian Encuentro.

The 'deification' of the Zapatistas was, and is, an important problem. Many are attracted by their politics and action, however some are attracted to the myth and mystique and their beautiful communiqués, and others by the political capital they gain by associating with them. According to the Zapatista Committee of Ceará from Brasil, one of the few critical organising voices, the political parties were merely giving formal support to the Encuentro, mainly as a political marketing strategy, to be seen as standing with the Zapatistas (except the faction of the PT who run Belém City Council, who had clear political reasons for becoming highly involved in the Encuentro organisation). This was disgustingly apparent as I engaged in conversation with a man from an indigenous group from the north east of Brasil who was livid that the EZLN should get five-star treatment, while nobody had even bothered to meet him at the airport!

This article may make the Encuentro sound like it was all political high drama, and yes, there were some dramatic moments. However, most people were not heavily involved in negotiations and sorting out problems, but just got on with organising things themselves for themselves. The official Encuentro sessions became less and less well attended, except those for specific excluded sectors, for example, the Afro-Brasilians who just reorganised themselves as they saw fit, but at the time allotted by the 'official' Encuentro. Thousands of informal conversations happened, while those with similar interests would be passed to each other 'word of mouth', then organise meetings. In this way I ended up in meetings with Brasil's hard-core animal rights activists, the urban equivalents of the MST who squat buildings, the radical black hip-hop community from north east Brasil, São Paulo anarchists, as well as dozens more.

It was fascinating to hear whether people had heard of Earth First! and Reclaim The Streets in Brasil, and if so what they thought of them and their actions such as the Carnival Against Capital! in the City of London on June 18th 1999 (see Do or Die Number 8, pp.1-34). The Brits quickly acquired the strapline of 'the mad people who took over London's financial centre'. Many people had been inspired by this action, as it was a rare showing of large-scale resistance to the current social order from within the 'First World'. This was doubly so for the anti-WTO actions in Seattle on November 30th 1999. The anarchist groups in particular had heard of EF! and knew about the anti-roads campaigns as well. I gave out lots of recent agit-prop, which was warmly received. Seeing the London RTS poster depicting the MST marching on the City of London pinned in the MST offices in Belém brought a smile to my face. The spoof newspaper idea (e.g. the Evading Standards instead of the Evening Standard, as used at the March for Social Justice in 1997, and June 18th in 1999) was seen as brilliant and has now jumped to Latin America. Interestingly, Colombia's ELN (Army of National Liberation), the country's second largest guerrilla group, said in their statement to the Encuentro that they "salute the nuclei of rebels targeting stock markets around the world"![7]

After five days of great conversation, meeting amazing people, and watching the excellent entertainment every evening, the end of the Encuentro was a total farce. The Zapatista delegations, Belém City Council and other groups had somehow brokered an agreement, and the two Encuentros joined together for the last day. At the time I had lost all interest in the Encuentro, as it seemed most others had too, so I mainly just carried on with my informal meetings. However, there were frantic efforts to agree on a 'final declaration of the second Encuentro'.[8 ]This document, mostly bland sloganeering, was clearly not consensual as there had been two almost entirely separate Encuentros, and many people had given up on anything 'official' by the final day. It seemed to me to be merely a face-saving exercise for Belém City council, and an attempt to present a united front to the media, and hence to the general public. To me it smacked of a desperate attempt at unifying disparate groups against a common enemy of capitalism, while there had been little attempt at achieving this over the five days by the groups behind the official Encuentro.

Lessons to Learn?

There might be several things that our movement in the UK can learn from this. The experience of the Encuentro should again show that our movement should not work with leftist political parties. We do not share their hierarchical, centralising and authoritarian politics. They will marginalise any group if it helps them towards their political goals, as clearly seen in the Brasilian context above. For instance, the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) and Workers' Power (WP) are very excited by the words 'anti-capitalist' and by what our movement has been doing over the past few years. If the SWP's sister party in Brasil, the PSTU, will help trash the Zapatistas and an international gathering for their gain, we should have no illusions as to whether the SWP and others will trash the direct action movement when the time is right. The Brasilian experience may be no different to what happens around and after the IMF/World Bank Ministerial meeting in Prague in September 2000. Our movement, in my mind, must remain political party-free. However, we should be careful to state our clear political decisions as to why we have not made alliances with certain groups, and be honest to them when we explain our reasoning.

We should also recognise the limitations of events that have a totally open-door policy on attending, and little or no attempt at structure within the event itself. Examples of these sorts of events include the Encuentros, anti-roads camps, and the 'guerrilla gardening action' on May 1st in Parliament Square, London. Examples of the limitations of totally open invitations to attend include: the drunken aggressive man at an anti-road camp means, for example, that many people with children do not attend. Open attendance is not really open attendance for all groups - often the powerful retain and entrench their power whilst the powerless remain powerless. Compare the Workers' Party and Belém City Council to the Afro-Brasilian movement at the Encuentro. Closer to home compare the experience of the organisers of the 'guerrilla gardening' and their friends with that of 'the ordinary punter' in London on May 1st - the organisers were empowered enough to organise their exit from Parliament Square, but the people in Trafalgar Square without organisers remained powerless doing exactly as the police ordered.

The lack of structure at events presents further difficulties. When situations arise that are problematic we have to start from scratch to think about how to deal with them, and the powerful again retain more control of 'sorting things out' than the powerless. The fact that the Zapatista delegations ended up negotiating 'for' the people involved in the 'real' Encuentro while Belém City Council ended up negotiating 'for' the 'official' Encuentro is a good example of how the lack of structure and a new problem ends with the powerful entrenching their position. Likewise, when the Cenotaph monument was painted with graffiti on May 1st, it was the organisers and other well connected (powerful) people who attempted to 'sort out' the 'mess' by appearing on television and in the print media. The mass of people who participated on the day were as voiceless as ever, whereas those whose opinions are more often heard, again had them aired.

I see some further parallels between the Encuentros and the recent mass actions in London. The first Encuentro was a great idea whose time had come. It was well planned, well attended, and opened up whole areas of new political space. The same could be said of the day of action against financial centres on June 18th 1999. Many people were inspired by the Encuentro, and pushed for another, a repeat. This was done, with a second Encuentro in Spain. Here the first cracks began to show. Here some groups saw they could get involved for political gain for their groups or themselves, not the benefit of the movement generally. London's November 30th event at Euston railway station was similar, with people there for many different, often conflicting reasons, and not primarily fighting oppression in general or acting in solidarity with the Seattle protesters and the railworkers. By the Brasil Encuentro and the May 1st 'action', some groups are trying to repeat past successes, but the events are increasingly dominated by disparate groups wanting to latch onto an idea, the result being unfocused, disappointing and hijacked events. The lack of a clear idea of what was to be achieved by having the event, compounded by open access and almost no structure contributed, if not caused, the severe problems with both events.

It is not all negative, though. The international network Peoples' Global Action (see Do or Die Number 8, pp.4-5) was borne out of the Encuentro in Spain. Unlike the Encuentros the PGA has some clear limits on participation; groups should strive to adhere to the PGA hallmarks. This means it is almost entirely composed of social movements rather than political parties and NGOs. Groups and movements are invited to the conference by those already involved. The PGA conferences are smaller and seem more focused. The PGA has also been effective in inspiring people to take action; the last two ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organisation have taken place under siege, partly as a result of PGA calls for action. The PGA is also attempting to build a continuing network of communication and solidarity, where the meetings and calls for action are felt to be owned by the network. Thus we should be optimistic about our situation in the UK - the experience of the recent London mass actions may well lead us in new directions of more focused action, more inspiration and more extensive and real networks..


1) The direct English translation of 'Encuentro' is 'an encounter'. The equivalent term within the radical ecological/direct action movement is 'gathering'. The 'Encuentro' held in Brasil was called the 'Encontro' - Portuguese for 'encounter'.

2) I spell Brasil as it is spelt by Brasilians, as I think we should use the name they give their country.

3) The reader should note that I have done my best to present a personal and accurate reflection of the Encuentro. However, it was all experienced in a second language in ferocious tropical heat, in a completely different culture. There are bound to be errors of translation, cultural misunderstanding, lapses of memory, mis-information etc. for which I apologise in advance.

4) I consider UK EF! groups to be in the latter category!

5) In Brasil racism is brutal, but slightly different from the UK. It is not black/white, but a tendency to discriminate against the 'more black/less white' by the 'less black/more white'. Few people are what people in the UK may consider 'white', yet see themselves as white and discriminate against those they consider 'not white'. Culturally distinct groups, e.g. indigenous, Afro-Brasilian, are highly discriminated against.

6) R$15 is about 3 days work at minimum salary rates (R$100 per month), or equivalent to about £60 in the UK using UK minimum salary rates, or about £30 using Jobseekers Allowance as equivalent rates to Brasil's national minimum wage.

7) Said in a main plenary on the last day of the Encuentro, from a written statement for the Encuentro by the ELN.

8) Another confusion is whether this was the second or third Encuentro. The 1996 one in Chiapas was the first intercontinental Encuentro and the second was in Spain - yet the Brasilian Encuentro was often termed the second Encuentro for the Americas.


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