Activist Poet: Homero Aridjis

This week several of my friends shared their fond remembrances of Prof MK Prasad. For us at CEE, MKP was the mentor with the twinkle in his eye and a gentle rebuke or prodding, even as he solicitously asked about our families, and encouraged us in our work as environmental educators.

Professor MK Prasad was a rare combination of utmost humility and simplicity with the mind of a brilliant academic, a fighter’s spirit, a scientist’s rigour, a leader’s passion, a prolific writer, and a relentless campaigner for the environment. As one newspaper article mentioned ‘activism and writing are not always identical. The activist has to be amidst people organising and motivating them while garnering available scientific facts. A writer has to confine himself to his study for long hours to research, read, think and write.’ Prof MK Prasad, like some of his other fellow members of the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad (KSSP) beautifully combined activism and writing. This was also a unique characteristic of the Save the Silent Valley Movement that Meena described—the coming together of poets, writers, activists and citizens for an environmental issue.  

There is perhaps one other similar story that echoes this movement. The story of Homero Aridjis, a Mexican poet, novelist, activist, and diplomat, and founder of the Group of 100 a group of intellectuals and artists who united to tackle and environmental issues in Mexico, and raise awareness of environmental issues internationally.

Homero Aridjis was born in 1940, and grew up in the Mexican state of Michoacán near the area where Monarch butterflies gather for the winter. He recalled how as a child he saw Monarch butterflies flying across his village every winter. There was also his annual school excursion to the sanctuaries in the nearby mountains to see the butterflies. On these excursions he also saw that the mountains were being deforested with the connivance of politicians, loggers and local farmers who were cutting down the oyamel fir trees where the Monarchs roosted. Since then the young Homero became concerned that this would mean the loss also of the Monarch butterflies as the forests were their habitat. The Monarch butterfly, a fragile insect that flew thousands of miles from Canada to Mexico every winter sparked the poet in him, and he wrote many poems about butterflies. The butterfly also became, to him, a symbol of the environment. As he explained: I love poetry and the environment for me is the poetry of life. I can’t be living now in a world without poetry or be a member of humanity without feeling the poetry of human beings.

As he grew older, and embarked upon a career in the Diplomatic Service, being posted as his country’s envoy to several European countries, Homero’s passion for the environment was also growing. One day in 1985 he read a letter sent by a philosopher friend to a local newspaper. He felt that a single small voice of dissent would not make a difference, but he thought that if the writers and artists of Mexico joined together to make a strong statement, they would perhaps stand a chance of being heard. A few weeks later, on 1 March 1985, a fierce critique of the environmental havoc amidst which we live was signed by 100 leading personalities in the arts, literature, culture and science in Mexico.

The statement was published in the national and international media. Thus was born The Grupo de los Cien — the Group of 100 which took up the cause to reverse ecological damage and environmental degradation in Mexico, raising awareness about the threats to many species and habitats and campaigning to ensure the continuance of Mexico’s rich biological diversity.

Due to public pressure the President of Mexico in 1986, declared the habitat of the Monarch butterfly and five other sanctuaries as ‘protected’. But illegal logging and other destructive activities continued in the forests. Homero took up his pen as a weapon and wrote many articles in the newspapers and many petitions to draw attention to this. His diplomatic posting as an ambassador to UNESCO helped him to take the battle to an international stage. Before he left UNESCO, the committee of the natural heritage approved the monarch butterfly sanctuaries as protected Natural Heritage of Humanity.

The Group of 100 continued to take up critical issues that that threatened the delicate balance between environment and development. They campaigned to seek protection for the beaches where sea turtles laid their eggs, and that resulted in ending the commercial killing of sea turtles in Mexico. In 1995 they launched a fierce   fight against a planned industrial salt plant that would have had catastrophic impacts on the lagoons where gray whales came to give birth as well as the surrounding environment and local communities. It took five years of battles before the plant was cancelled. Homero bore the brunt of the hostility from vested interests and even received death threats. The Group of 100 remains active to this day, fighting the same battles, with the same undiminished spirit.

As Homero Aridjis put it: You have to have a commitment and a conviction to defend the environment even if you know that the forces of destruction are very big. You have governments, you have corporations, you have individuals, you have criminals, you have many people against nature. That is very difficult but you as a human being and a person with an environmental conscience you have to do everything you can, always in peaceful ways and in legal ways, to defend the environment. You have to defend the things you love.

MK Prasad and Homero Aridjis two warriors who fought with pen as well as sword.

–Mamata