Solidarity in the fight for justice: partnerships to oppose extractivism in Haiti
Can activists in Haiti and American-based law students and professors create trust, honesty, and a commitment to equality in radically unequal conditions?
Since 2013, the Global Justice Clinic (GJC or “the Clinic”) at NYU School of Law has partnered with a social movement in Haiti that organized itself to assert Haitian self-determination over the emerging industrial gold mining sector. Made up of numerous Haitian social movement, peasant, and human rights groups, by January 2013, the Kolektif Jistis Min (KJM) had uncovered important information about US and Canadian companies that held permits to research, explore, and exploit gold in Haiti. However, these groups also had many open questions and sought support in advancing their objectives. The Clinic and KJM soon began to hold exploratory discussions aimed at determining how we might work together. At first, we framed the engagement as one aimed at advancing human rights in the gold mining sector. Six years later, we see the work as joint opposition to the development of the Haitian gold mining sector itself. This shift, from a position held out as “neutral” concerning extractives in Haiti, to one in which we jointly voice our opposition to extractivism itself, encapsulates our learning over these past six years.
This post is aimed at distilling some strands of a conversation that many of us have had over the years, and for which—here, in this provisional space—we take responsibility as co-authors. We cannot speak for KJM, and we cannot speak for our colleagues or Clinic students; instead, we speak for ourselves.
Here are some provisional lessons we offer in the spirit of dialogue:
- The imperative to consciously construct a “we” together. Seeking justice means that those “benefitting” from globalized capitalism and those experiencing its deprivations and predations must, however provisionally, construct a shared sense of what is possible outside of those polarized positions. Those in the “privileged” position—shifting though this may be in our intersectional realities—need to know that they too are harmed by our current system of inequality and extractivism. Of course, this harm cannot be compared to the crushing realities those on the “losing” end face on a daily basis; and the “privileged” must not escape understanding how their comfort is bound up with the daily suffering of those oppressed by the current system. But those on the “losing” end must see that the “winners” are truly invested in this endeavor and stand alongside them. Only when we see that we are in the same boat can we paddle together in the same direction.
- The recognition that we retain our autonomy even once we are inside the “we”. Each party takes responsibility for its separateness and must continue to use its critical faculties to plan actions and speak in its own voice. We may walk down separate paths in different engagements. We may not agree on everything, and that can be difficult. We do not seek to speak “for” each other, but we do analyze carefully the ways our voices can harmonize with—instead of drowning out—each other’s.
- The importance of doing preparatory work and actively rejecting presumptions and assumptions about each other. For GJC, this means placing racism and white supremacy—as a global economic and cultural system—at the center of our analysis, learning the history of Haiti and its birth through the Haitian revolution, and understanding the role of the United States and the “international community” in Haiti’s enduring crises. Our Haitian colleagues learn that not all foreigners are colonialists or missionaries, that lawyers can work against oppressive systems, and that many communities in the United States—from which GJC students often come—are fighting discrimination, poverty, and racism as well.
- The need for honest human connection. A shared “we” can only be constructed if we come together in a spirit of true openness and engagement as equal human beings. This requires a commitment to honest communication, which can be painful. This connection cannot be built on vertical relations, or the idea that some of us are “experts” or “internationals” while others are “in need of assistance” or “locals.” Instead, we must all enter the engagement with humility, openness, and the ability to laugh at ourselves.
- The need to alter—sometimes radically—expectations about timelines, planning, and “achievements.” GJC operates in a world defined by the rhythm of the semester, the incredibly short academic year, and students who arrive seeking to have an “impact” inside these timelines. KJM operates in some similar spaces, but also in places where time is defined by seasons of rain and drought, political upheaval and calm, and where successes are measured by communities coming to consciousness about their rights, understanding the way extractivism works, and exercising their voice collectively. Finding ways to align our intentions with the rhythm of our work can be challenging, but it is rewarding when it works.
- The importance of naming, analyzing, and constantly re-interrogating the role of money and other material resources, which the Clinic has in comparative abundance and KJM and its community partners often struggle to access. It’s important to acknowledge the power the Clinic has through its location inside a well-resourced institution, with guaranteed student work time, access to travel, 24/7 electricity, speedy internet, and the many comforts of decent food, housing, and infrastructure. For KJM and its community partners, there have been times of plenty accompanied by much longer and leaner periods. It is hard to create trust, honesty, and a commitment to equality in these radically unequal conditions. Openly naming this inequality, discussing its impact on our partnership, and working consciously to dismantle or check the privileges it inherently gives GJC have been crucial. Together, we have tried to walk a path in which each side brings what it can to the table, creating a shared meal for all.
- The need to risk being truly known by each other. In the spirit of the shared “we”, there must be space to eat together, to spend time in each other’s communities, to learn the pace and nature of each other’s lives outside of work. As Harsh Mander has written, solidarity requires “radical love.”
We welcome responses to this post and ask: what has worked for you in creating solidarity across radical divides?
Nixon Boumba is a Haitian human rights activist and member of the Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Haiti Mining Justice Collective).
Meg Satterthwaite is the faculty director of the Robert L. Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and faculty director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, at NYU School of Law.