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Green Across the Globe

Activists from over seventy nations met in Australia last year to forge a global Green network. Here's what happened.

by Polly Stupples

Published in the Winter 2002 issue of Orion magazine



Illustration by Jason Holley

IT WAS A MUGGY AFTERNOON in Canberra. Australia’s capitol city, deserted over the Easter holiday, was ghostly quiet. As I approached the National Convention Center, a vibrant hum spilled out onto the leafy grounds, rattling the air. A multilingual crowd thronged the lobby, pinning on name tags, swilling organic tea and coffee, standing in line to register for what was touted as “the most optimistic political event of the new millennium”—the Global Greens Conference 2001. Curious, I joined the queue.

The “Green movement” is a slippery term for a diverse group of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, activists, and individuals who challenge modern industrialism—particularly the social inequality and environmental degradation it creates. Their ecocentric vision celebrates the interrelation of ecological, social, and economic processes and demands that we consider our relationships with other countries, future generations, and nonhuman organisms. While the word “Green” conjures up verdant environmentalism, the Green umbrella has also sheltered other social movements: civil rights, feminism, the Third World movement, the peace movement. Green groups now stand on four fundamental principles: ecological wisdom, peace, participatory democracy, and social justice. The simplicity of these principles belies their far-reaching implications.

Over three days last Easter, I joined the eight hundred politicians and activists from more than seventy nations who converged to forge a Green global political network. The idea of formal international cooperation had been percolating among Greens since the Rio Earth Summit and, in 1996, the Australian Greens came up with the concept for the Global Greens Conference. This event was the official launch pad for the Global Greens: the stage from which they proclaimed their existence as a global political entity and defined their intentions in a detailed charter.

I was there officially as a journalist and unofficially as an ordinary citizen of the world, bored by my own apathy. The political cynicism I had worn for the past fifteen years did not come from a lack of interest, but from doubt that the political duopoly (center-left, center-right) offered voters any real choice in the way their lives were organized. When the Green Party became part of New Zealand’s current coalition government, the duopoly was shattered and my curiosity grew. For the Greens appeared to be inside the government but somehow outside of it as well—to be looking further into the future, and as a consequence, more deeply into the present. They didn’t want to tinker with the current system, rather to rewrite it without its careless injustices. I went to the conference partly to see the shape of this alternative future, and partly to see why this group that had always championed the local felt the need to go global.

THE FIRST THING THAT STRUCK ME in that cacophonous lobby was the international reach of the Green movement. I had assumed that it was largely the domain of affluent Western nations who could “afford” to place the words “environment” and “economics” in the same sentence. I could not have been more wrong. Individuals from Belgium to Benin, from Montreal to Managua, are equally concerned about the future. Even the conference planners were surprised by the popularity of the event. “When we started, we didn’t know even a fraction of the Green parties that we eventually found existed,” admitted conference organizer Margaret Blakers. “For example, the Mongolian Greens, of whom we had heard rumors, we only managed to contact about ten days before the Asia-Pacific meeting; the Jordanian Greens turned up on someone’s e-mail about a month before the conference and we managed to get a representative here. Now we know that we are all part of a larger movement. That is a very strengthening knowledge.”

That knowledge includes the fact that the movement is growing rapidly. The Scottish Greens tripled their support in general elections in June, and the Australian Greens doubled their support in the national election in November. You could call it the flush of spring except that some Green parties are thirty years old. Greens are members of Parliament in over 250 governments around the world and, if more countries turned to proportional representation, there would be many more. Tens of thousands are local councilors. Green parties exist in over eighty countries and, in the months since the Global Greens Conference, activists in Indonesia, Croatia, and Bangladesh, and new Green parties in Mauritius and in Papua New Guinea have contacted the Global Greens.

Green parties emerged from environmental and social justice movements, often galvanized around a specific conflict, like the fight to save Australia’s Lake Pedder from hydrological development or the fight against a fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan. They continue to pop up around the world, in places I had to search my atlas to find. What motivates these groups is easy enough to imagine (economic injustice, lack of potable water, political corruption, vanishing natural resources), but what prompts each local group to take up the Green mantle?

A growing number of people around the world are translating their concerns about globalization into a set of alternative principles: sustainability, better environmental management, equity, political transparency, an increased focus on the community. “Inevitably in an increasingly democratic world,” says Blakers, “political parties will form to express those ideas.” Green parties have emerged in postcommunist Eastern Europe, in newly democratized East Timor, and similarly in the Philippines. There are pragmatic as well as philosophical reasons for new groups to align themselves with the Green movement. Linda Arrigo, of the Taiwan Greens, explained that the high profile of the German Greens gave credibility to their organization and that financial support from the international Green community was also an incentive, enabling them to bring foreign experts in to support their cause.

With the formal establishment of the European Union, Green parties in the area felt the need to have political representation at the regional level. In 1984, a handful of European Green parties came together to form the European Federation of Green Parties (EFGP), which has since expanded to include thirty-one member parties. Ensuring that the E.U. worked democratically was one of the EFGP’s major objectives, and European Greens have continued to support regional and global networking. Greens from North America and Latin America met in 1997 to form the Federation of Green Parties of the Americas, while the Swedish Green Forum has sponsored meetings between the African and European Green Federations, and the first meeting of the Asia-Pacific Green Federation in 2000.

In a postindustrial world, where local problems can have global causes, the formation of a global network to monitor those causes seems like a natural progression. Half of the biggest economies in the world are transnational corporations. A minor political party may feel impotent in the face of such power, but a minority party connected to an international web of political resources and activism may feel and act quite differently. At the Canberra conference, the tiny island nation of New Caledonia asked for help to protect its coral reefs, which are currently threatened by nickel mining. That request generated an international working group including representatives from Australia and Canada (where the mining companies are based) and France (the colonial power), which will lobby for World Heritage status for the reefs.

Going global for a movement dedicated to the local seemed to me to be a bit like wearing a “No Logo” t-shirt. I asked New Zealand Green Member of Parliament Nandor Tanzcos what gives. The global organization, he explained, is “more a network than a structure. I don’t think any Green party is going to give up its local autonomy. If the Green movement ever loses the paramountcy of the grassroots, we will have lost what we’re all about. We will have lost our hearts.” To be fair, the Greens have always advocated a global perspective on local issues: “think globally, act locally.” It’s just that they no longer consider local action, on its own, to be sufficient. “Grassroots means grounded in people and communities,” argued Margaret Blakers, “not confined to operating only at a local level.”

It was clear that the Greens had been communicating on the global level for some time, as delegates from Africa and Europe greeted each other like long-lost friends. But at this conference, the informal network was given an official structure called the Global Greens Coordination, comprised of representatives from the four regional Green Federations. This group, and the role it will play, is a work in progress. For now its central functions are information-sharing, resource-sharing, encouraging the creation of new parties and, potentially, coordinating targeted political action.

“THE FIRST TIME I went to a Green Party event,” reflected Tanzcos, “it was really clear that this wasn’t a bunch of politicians. It was a bunch of activists, who were also working within the parliamentary arena. The political background I come from says that power doesn’t actually lie with Parliament—power lies with people, and Parliament continues because we comply. So I believe that power ultimately rests with ordinary people, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful to be represented in that arena as well.”

The Green movement shows an extraordinary capacity for inclusion, or perhaps division is a luxury it cannot yet afford. For every politician at the conference, there was a small army of activists and lobbyists: Friends of the Earth, Papua New Guinea’s Fly River Provincial Council of Women, the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, and Peace. This polyphony is surely the movement’s greatest challenge. How can it hope to organize itself in a coordinated manner? On the other hand, does it need to? Ecology tells us that there is strength in diversity as well as in unity.

Perhaps we are witnessing a new form of political and civic organization, one that is more capable of representing our true variety. Commentators have written extensively on the anti-globalization movements: the rhizomelike networking between diverse groups working in their own ways towards a common goal, or at least against a common enemy; the demand for diversity in an increasingly homogenous world. “The resistance flows not from a unified class seeking a new unified hegemony,” writes American academic Harry Cleaver, “but rather from myriad currents seeking the freedom of the open seas where they can re-craft their own movement and their interactions free of a single set of constraining capitalist rules.”

This tolerance of difference means that Green groups can work together on global issues without compromising their local integrity. And, as a collection of minority voices tackling major issues, the Greens need to pool their resources. A small number of resolutions accompanied the newly created Global Greens Charter as official conference outcomes, and indicated the potential of the Greens’ global activism. High on the list was the development of a judicial World Environment Organization, to be run in a manner similar to the International Tribunal on War Crimes. This WEO would hold individuals, governments, and corporations accountable for environmental damage, and would be equivalent or even superior to the WTO. One option, according to Blakers, “would be to amalgamate the existing fragmented U.N. environment/development agencies - United Nations Environment Program, United Nations Development Program, and the Global Environment Facility.” The Greens also advocated the reform of the World Trade Organization, to make its structure democratic and its goals sustainable. These are long-term goals, requiring tremendous work at national and international levels.

To protect the human rights of activists living in undemocratic countries, a group of “threatened” Greens at the conference, including Wangari Maathai, Ingrid Betancourt, and Arnaud Ricalde de Jager, launched the Green Shield Network. While being Green in New Zealand may get you into a political tussle at the pub (if you’re lucky), advocating Green politics in many nations can get you into far hotter water.

De Jager is a young Mexican Member of Parliament whose life is in danger due to the Mexican Greens’ efforts to recycle some of Mexico City’s waste. The Mafia family that runs the waste disposal business for the city doesn’t like competition. Wangari Maathai is a veteran activist, founder of Kenya’s, and now Africa’s, Green Belt Movement (responsible for planting over twenty million trees and empowering the lives of thousands of African women). Victim on many occasions of police brutality, she chatted to me during a bus ride in Canberra about her most recent time behind bars. “My Green friends from all over the world,” she said, waving her hand expansively, “sent e-mails and letters, and finally I was released and as soon as I was free, I went back to work immediately.”

That the lives of so many Green politicians and activists are being threatened is a testament both to the growing power of the movement and to the power that the movement challenges. The name of Colombian Senator Ingrid Betancourt’s party, Partido Oxigeno Verde (Oxygen Green Party), reflects her campaign to clean up the air in Bogotá, but her desire to also clean up corruption in politics and business has made her a target of all the heavies. Betancourt’s family has fled Colombia for safety, while she remains with a retinue of bodyguards to continue her work, campaigning for the Colombian Presidency in 2002. Her moving speech at the Global Greens Conference received a standing ovation. “To be Green in the new millennium,” she urged, in a voice cracking with emotion, “we have to . . . defend our values, our principles, our ideals, above everything else, even above our own life.”

As a living example of something approaching saintliness, Betancourt is a powerful icon. “Today we have an opportunity,” she urged. “There is still time to stop the system of self-destruction they want to impose on us - but this depends on our character, on our commitment, and not on what they will grant us from their power. For that reason the first thing that we should defeat is our own skepticism.” The words resounded in my head and heart. I looked at my little tape recorder busily turning passion into pithy quotes. Betancourt was challenging me to believe in the group of people cheering, whispering, laughing, dozing, in this dim auditorium, and to believe in my own capacity to generate change. If she couldn’t convince me, how much harder would it be to convince people wearied by government corruption that politics was worthy of their attention? I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

Asking us to believe in our power as individuals in the face of increasingly anonymous power structures seems, on the one hand, to be patently absurd. Yet skepticism, as well as belief, can be fatal. Global suicide rates have increased by sixty percent in the last forty-five years. “The increase in youth suicide appears to be a global trend, particularly amongst developed countries,” notes the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

To turn back the cynicism of the younger age is one of the central aims of the Greens. Green parties have a disproportionately high level of support among the young, who face their own unique array of problems (from being increasingly viewed as a commodity in affluent nations, to lacking education and even basic human rights in poorer countries). The Global Young Greens met for the first time in Sydney, prior to the main conference. In Canberra they gathered in bright flocks in the hallways and sprawled on the lawns, excited by and engaged in political debate.

THE MOST VISIBLE OUTCOME of the conference was the ratification of the Global Greens Charter, a sizeable document detailing the Greens’ philosophical background and specific policy aims. It does not aim to represent each local party’s policies, but rather to outline a set of core beliefs and political objectives. We were given a copy with our conference pack and its contents were debated in workshops, over lunches, and deep into the night.

Writing the political manifesto of a global movement with input from over seventy nations is no small organizational feat. The Charter is the result of years of methodical drafting and redrafting. It draws on the charters of individual Green parties and on the Earth Charter. While it shares significant ground with the Earth Charter, including fundamental principles like sustainability, the Global Greens Charter is specifically a political document. Where the Earth Charter asks that “the nations of the world renew their commitment to the United Nations,” the Greens Charter advocates strengthening the U.N. as an organization for conflict management, giving greater power to countries of the South within the U.N., abolishing the veto power in the Security Council, making the WTO subservient to the U.N., and establishing new international judicial bodies to be run under the auspices of the U.N. The Earth Charter outlines a new ethic; the Greens Charter outlines pragmatic political steps that embody that ethic. Margaret Blakers sees the Global Greens Charter as potentially “achieving real change because it is linked to organizations (i.e., Greens parties) that have political and activist objectives and also the means to pursue them (i.e., political campaigning and parliamentary representation).”

The Charter is a defining document. While the Green movement has been united in questioning the assumptions that underlie the industrialized world, it has been split as to how change should progress, and how much is enough. It has not previously oriented itself around a well-defined center. The Charter offers this nexus.

The document is based on six principles: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, nonviolence, sustainability, and respect for diversity. It treads a fine line between being too specific for global application and being too vague to be constructive, but it resolves this by listing clear political objectives: from emissions reduction to arms reduction, from advocating zero waste to advocating proportional representation. “Great documents,” warned Scottish Green Marian Coyne, “don’t automatically make great politics—it’s what we do with this charter that will confirm its value.”

What took my breath away about the Greens Charter was the broad agreement it outlined across a spectrum of issues from an extraordinarily diverse group with disparate cultural backgrounds. I felt as though I had previously been viewing the world in black and white. Now divisions exploded, barriers collapsed, cultural differences dropped away before the desire to change the world, profoundly, from its current path. Was this revolution or just my imagination running away with me? There was the palpable feeling, at the conference, that this event christened the political arm of a new kind of global uprising.

Did I want to take part in this uprising, or would I choose the well-warmed seat of critical observer? Could I not do both - act with my eyes open? On returning to New Zealand I made a decision. I made it partly because of Ingrid and partly because the Green movement enshrines diversity in its founding charter. Within that clamor of heterogeneous voices, there seems always to be space for others.

On Friday I navigated the industrial crosshatch of inner city Christchurch, to Bedford Row, a narrow gray lane capped by a shifting sky. I passed a table on the sidewalk, fluttering with petitions, and an aging bicycle with a sheepskin seat-cover propped against the brick wall. I turned into a small bright office. The mounds of documents and rows of stacked files reminded me of a Dickensian lawyer’s lair, but the smiling woman who greeted me was no Uriah Heap. She ushered me into an armchair and we talked about the weather. A bitter southerly had bolted up from the Antarctic, heralding the first days of autumn. She handed me a form; I filled in the blanks and parted with a $5 membership fee and a small donation. Once out in the thin sun, I glanced through the petitions on the table: protection for the Hollyford Valley, incentives for organic agriculture. Halfway down the street I stopped and turned to look back. The only piece of greenery was a sign beside the doorway I had exited: it read Green Party of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Chagrined at both my pride and my foolishness, for the first time, I had cast my lot.

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You can find the full text of the Global Greens Charter online.

Polly Stupples lives close to the mountains in southern New Zealand. She is an emerging writer who finds her solace and muse in the natural world. She was, in 2002, a newly enlisted member of the Green Party and is involved, in a supportive role, in establishing a local Green candidate for the next election in her area.

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