I don’t necessarily expect to be welcomed into a closed, board-room meeting. Or, the secret negotiations of nation-states as they deliberate economic agreements, or arms deals. But, when a process like the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS) markets itself as a participatory, transparent, democratic, and multi-stakeholder process, my expectations are a little different.
Yesterday, I was part of a group of 20 people representing campesino and Indigenous movements as well as social justice and environmental NGO’s who attempted to enter the Roundtable on Responsible Soy (RTRS). Initially, a small group of just five of us requested permission to enter the final session of the meeting in order to read a declaration. We were prohibited from entering the meeting. In a drama that lasted over two hours, the management of the Roundtable together with the Hilton Hotel security and local police, decided that they would rather silence the voices of people that represent the frontline of soy expansion, activists, scientists, and students rather than live up to their stated goal of open and multi-stakeholder participation.
The RTRS is meeting for two days this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We wanted to enter the meeting so that we could express our concerns about the fallacy of “responsible soy”, and the exclusive nature of the Roundtable process. Three campesino representatives from Paraguay–who all traveled over twenty hours on bus–hoped to express themselves for just two minutes in front of the Roundtable participants.
When we arrived to the Hilton in the late afternoon, the hotel was surrounded by security guards. We attempted to enter through a side door, then the front door, then another side door. At each entrance, security officials told us that if we were here for the Roundtable, we needed to go to the the back of the hotel where we could talk to more security and show them our accreditation. In order to participate in the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, you must get accredited in advance. But, not only that–it’ll cost you just over $400.00. As easy as it is to forget sometimes, there are still many people out there that don’t have internet access (the primary way to sign up for attending the meeting). And, the vast majority of real stakeholders in the soy debate–the campesinos and Indigenous people whose communities are being devastated by expansion–have seldom come across $400.00 in their lives. Yesterday, in the Hilton Lobby, one of the RTRS coordinators explained that all the people who are participating “signed up and paid the fee of $400.00.” Elvio, one of the Paraguayan campesinos looked at him and firmly said, “I’ve never seen that amount of money in my entire life.”
After an hour and a half of debating and discussing, it became quite clear that we were never going to be allowed in to the meeting. Our fellow protesters who had been waiting outside joined us in the back lobby and unfurled two banners. One said, “Soja Responsable por pobreza, muerte, y destruccion” (Soy is Responsible–For Poverty, Death, and Destruction) and the other “ADM, Bunge, Cargill: The ABCs of Rainforest Destruction”. The Paraguayan campesinos read a declaration against the Roundtable and the way in which it promotes the notion that “responsible soy” exists when in reality there is no such thing. RAN has signed onto this declaration, along with hundreds of social movements, networks, and NGO’s around the world.
Finally, the police forced us to leave the hotel. And, although the organizers of the RTRS told us that they would come back with a response as to whether they would let us in or not, they never returned. The police followed us all the way around the hotel, and as we walked peacefully (our group of 20) they ran to put up metal barricades around the front of the hotel. The chief of police for the local area demanded that we get off the public sidewalk near the hotel, and leave the area entirely. Democracy?
One of the Roundtable participants came outside and told us that the meeting organizers had closed off one of the exists from the meeting room so that participants could not see our hear us. They were all forced to go out the front of the hotel, thereby avoiding us entirely. It strikes me that democracy is always strengthened through healthy debate and a variety of perspectives. Our experience yesterday epitomized exclusivity, and mimicked the very same processes that persist in society and continue to disenfranchize the most marginalized people.