To beachgoers, it may have looked like over a hundred bathers suddenly materialized out of nowhere in organized protest. They arranged themselves in the form of an S.O.S. signal at Tule Beach in Baja California, Mexico to send a message opposing gold mining concessions that would stress the water resources in the state.
Policymakers may have been surprised at consultation meetings around a proposed project to construct the La Cruces Dam on the San Pedro River in Nayarit, Mexico. Dozens of indigenous people, campesinos (peasant farmers), and environmentalists packed the hall, holding signs demanding an end to the dam project.
And it may have looked spontaneous to observers around the bay near Topolabampo in Sinaloa, Mexico when a few fishing boat operators protested the construction of an Ammonia plant that threatened the area’s ecosystem and the livelihoods it supports. They rallied their boats in the harbor one day with signs bearing the message “Everyone against the Ammonia Plant! Long live life."
The sudden appearance of these groups can seem almost, well, magical. Yet we found that civil resistance movements in all three places managed to conjure up resources at the right place and the right time because of the strategic way in which they crafted their messages. Almost every resistance action was simply the tip of the iceberg. Underneath it was the collective mobilization of resources that looked uncoordinated.
While movements initially have few resources, and nearly no cash, many thrive and often succeed in achieving their goals. How do they mobilize resources to achieve their objectives? What sort of strategies do they use to generate material resources needed in their campaigns?
To answer these questions, we studied three movements from northwest Mexico:
In all three cases, we found that the key to mobilizing material resources was that movement leaders focused on communicating powerful messages and building public trust, which encouraged volunteers to join them. For example, in Baja California, to counter the idea that gold mining would generate jobs, the movement emphasized the impacts of what they called the “toxic mining” that would destroy agricultural jobs and the natural environment on which the state’s tourism jobs rely. With clear messages like this, these civil resistance movements generated resources on an ongoing basis by energizing and engaging a community of people and organizations hellbent on making a difference.
We want to make clear that these movements are not the same as organizations. Movement leaders and messages are highly visible, but they do not have staff—much less a fundraising department, warehouses for stocking goods, or bank accounts—that would surely help them acquire and manage resources. Of course, movements are often supported by one or more organizations that may have such capabilities, and who may lend some of their resources to assist movement activities.
But the main way movements access resources is by mobilizing people who are willing to invest their own resources and become the voice and driving force behind the campaigns. As one movement leader put it, “We really don’t think about material resources. What is important is the volunteers—the people who show up and are willing to speak, act and combine efforts to make a difference.”
In each of the three movements we studied, an informal central coordinating committee or organization formulated overall strategy for the specific campaigns—making declarations, organizing protests and demonstrations, asking lawyers to fight in the courts, generating good media coverage—that resulted in volunteers who showed up and brought along whatever they had and was useful for the campaigns.
While these movements mobilized both poorer and richer folks, we found that everyone had something to contribute.
Movement leaders crafted the right messages that resonated with people and transformed public dismay and anger into resources and action. Good outreach and communications were thus a central strategy for movement leaders. At the same time, people and organizations only contribute their resources when they trust the movement leaders. In fact, movement leaders only became recognized as such once people were willing to follow them.
While average people are the central source of much of a movement’s resources, theirs are not the only resources these movements are built on. Universities, research centers, NGOs, and even local governments provided very significant support to the movements as well. Not only did a university program enable communities in Nayarit to learn about the potential impacts around the San Pedro Dam, but it also spurred the initial dialogues that helped to organize and bring together diverse communities along the river. In Sinaloa, a single NGO provided the information and organizing strength that enabled local citizens to take action. And in Baja, the understanding of the impacts of gold mining on the water, ecosystem, and economy was supported by national NGOs and research funded by foundations.
These three movements transformed all these resources into victories. In Baja, after decades of campaigns, the movement won an injunction last year against any new gold mining in the state. In Nayarit, the San Pedro Dam project is now stalled with the collaboration of communities up and down the river. In Sinaloa, the movement is much younger, but it has also managed to halt the construction of the Ammonia facilities for the time being.
So while it may look like movement marches and protests come out of nowhere, in fact, they are building on strong communication strategies to mobilize resources, including instilling robust trust between the campaign members. These strategies are not only central to movement success, but movement leaders must also see them as key for mobilizing material resources.
Chris Allan, Ajabu Advisors LLC, has experience with public donors, foundations, and local and international NGOs working in social change, including designing, planning, implementing, and evaluating programs around the globe. He holds a Master’s Degree in Social Change and Development from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and a Bachelor’s Degree from Wesleyan University in African Studies and Biology.Read More
A. Scott DuPree has worked for 30 years in helping build and strengthen social and environmental initiatives in Southern Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Southeast Asia and the United States. He is a professor in the Masters of Development Program “Global Classroom” at Regis University where he teaches participatory planning and grassroots and indigenous activism. Scott holds a Ph.D. in international affairs focused on the dynamic role of civil society.Read More