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It's Important to Communicate in the Global Village

Ashifa Kassam

"Until the lion learns to speak, the tales of hunting will be weak." - Canadian music artist K'Naan.

For most of us, the term "global village" conjures up a picturesque place where countries from around the world share in economics, culture and language.

Not for Diego Pesantez.

For this man, born and bred in Ecuador, the "global village" is exploitation at it's best, a village where the labour, natural resources and educated population of South America is continually being auctioned off to Western countries at rock-bottom prices.

Pesantez is working to change this. Seven years ago he founded SOLIDARITY, which aims to level the playing field in the global village by teaching English to social justice activists in Ecuador.

In this country where the indigenous language of Quitchwa mixes seamlessly with Spanish, and English lessons can cost up to two months pay, the free lessons his program offers are invaluable.

And while it may sound like a simple idea, SOLIDARITY is changing how this poverty-stricken South American country views grassroots development.

Most of SOLIDARITY's free English lessons go to employees of non-government organizations. Their enthusiasm is evident in the steady stream of students who come to school long after their workday has ended. From 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, students trek into Quito's La Escuela de Espanol Colonial, where foreign, English-speaking volunteers run the classes.

While the classes are free, each student must cover their own supplies, amounting to approximately $20 US a month. Class sizes are restricted to 10 people and, if all goes well, every student will leave with a working knowledge of English at the end of the two-month class.

Return is high

What these students can then achieve is priceless. For the Ecuadorian offshoots of groups like Amnesty International and Habitat for Humanity, English allows the staff to effectively communicate with their namesakes around the world.

For organizations like Arbol de L'Esperanza, English means they can write grant proposals and obtain funding from Western granting agencies. And for the Fundacion Caritas Alegres, English lessons enable an English web page that can recruit overseas volunteers and raise awareness about their programs for underprivileged children.

In case working knowledge of English isn't enough for the NGOs to complete more complicated grant proposals or web translations, SOLIDARITY also arranges for their foreign volunteers to provide free English translation services. All of this is housed under SOLIDARITY's mandate to encourage NGOs in Ecuador to forge stronger partnerships with foreign organizations.

But most importantly to Pesantez, knowing English and having access to English translators makes Ecuadorians less vulnerable to exploitation. In a global village where one language dominates, English offers activists in Ecuador a direct lifeline to human rights groups outside of the country.

It's a lesson he and other Ecuadorians recently learned the hard way. Despite vehement protests by indigenous groups, a 503-kilometre oil pipeline was recently built through four environmentally protected areas of Ecuador, a project that was led by the Canadian oil company EnCana in partnership with several other Western companies.

While the protests over the pipeline were so fierce that they resulted in a state of emergency being declared in some areas, their plight garnered little international attention. A few news pieces were written, Greenpeace and other prominent international environmental groups weighed in with their concerns and the well-known Californian tree-sitter and environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill was arrested in Quito for protesting the pipeline's construction.

There were some severe consequences to being virtually ignored by the global village. Today the indigenous population who live closest to the pipeline complain of clouds of smoke from burning natural gases, black pools of waste oil, rivers that house 300 times the allowable levels of poisonous chemicals and a loss of fertility in their farming lands due to pollution.

These communities, where cancer occurs at a rate that is 30 times higher than non-oil producing areas of Ecuador, have seen little of the oil revenues generated by the pipeline and continue to wait for potable running water and health care to reach them.

Many who flank the pipeline today in Ecuador lament that had they had more attention and been more able to cement partnerships with Western organizations, there may have been no pipeline.

Their experience informs SOLIDARITY and motivates Pesantez. Over the years, he's helped hundreds of activists stake claim their spots in the global village. Now he's looking to expand his program to help even more activists protect their communities from exploitation and capitalize on better communication with the West.

It's his homegrown way of coping with our global village.

After years of experience in the field of human rights and social justice issues in Canada, Ashifa Kassam started to wonder how others around the world have been coping with their own challenges. With the intent of satisfying her curiosity, she is currently traveling across continents to volunteer with various grassroots development organizations. Originally from Calgary and educated at Queen's University, this freelance writer and activist aims to tell stories that will take readers far beyond tourism.

Copyright © CBC 2007

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