Diamonds in the Rough

Can a few bold mavericks trigger a global mindshift?

We've reached the first climate tipping point. The Arctic is melting so rapidly that we could have an ice-free Arctic in less than two years. Along with unprecedented heat-waves in the USA and Russia, and snowstorms and freezing weather in northern Europe, we are starting to see conditions of droughts and scarcity that will impact global food production and lead to civil unrest.

Could it be that the crisis we face at this time – the ecological, economic, political, psychological and spiritual peril we face individually, as nations, and globally – is also, if not primarily, a crisis in leadership?

In this scary tipping point moment we're living through, the world cries out for a visionary, transformative leader . . . someone who can sever the ties between state and corporate power, who can shift paradigms, stand up for the planet, move towards transparency and push the world in bold new directions.

In his election campaign Barack Obama poised as being (potentially) that kind of leader, but as soon he was elected, the Washington establishment, the military-industrial complex, Big Finance, Big Pharma, AIPAC, the NRA – that whole corrupt money system that rules Washington – chewed him up and spat him out again. After that he could never summon the courage to take a stand on any of the really big issues.

But elsewhere, there are a few diamonds in the rough (like José Mujica, president of Uruguay) who are resurrecting the lost art of true leadership. They live according to their word, offer themselves as role models, act with integrity, implement egalitarian laws and practices, stand for the poor and the disadvantaged, and most importantly, they recognize that the current model for civilization – the free-market, exploitative, growth-as-God Western model – is fatally flawed and headed towards a destructive and dramatic nightfall. Out of this recognition, they envision a different world and begin, in their local communities, to take small, practical steps towards a sane, sustainable future.

In Spain, there is currently a 30% unemployment rate. But in Marinaleda, a small village in Andalusia with one set of traffic lights, two bars and one central avenue – everyone has a job.

How is this so? Because the 57-year-old former history teacher and father-of-three, who works unpaid as mayor of the town is Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo. Sánchez Gordillo, known as Spain's "Robin-Hood Mayor. He believes that "People are more important than banks, [that] People have a natural right to the land, and [that] land is not something to be marketed," nor exploited. While 27.2% of people living in Spain are unemployed, everyone in this town has a job. How does the mayor do this? Through collectivization of land, equal wage practices, social housing and cooperatives.

As Alasdair Fotheringham writes for The Independent, Marinaleda is run along the lines of a communist Utopia with collectivized lands that offer every villager the opportunity to work the fields, tending to crops and olive groves. “Food should not be speculated with", argues Gordillo, "It is a basic human right. We also believe in the [common] sovereignty of [food] as a way of profoundly changing agriculture in the world, not just one particular place."

He gained fame and notoriety with his supermarket raids. In Robin Hood fashion, Gordillo stole heaps of groceries from supermarkets and redistributed them the food to the hungry and poor, not only to feed people, but as a statement, to draw attention to the real problems that the nation, and world, faces. This act was just one of many for Mr Sánchez Gordillo, who has spent more than 30 years fighting for wealth redistribution via land occupations, cheap housing and co-operatives. In Marinaleda, he has promoted equal wages policies, scrapped the police force and offered mortgages on previously state-owned properties, which cannot be sold on for profit, of just €15 a month.

His only lament is that these local initiates are not being adopted elsewhere in the country or across the world. He believes Spain’s deep recession is the fault of its government. “Unfortunately, this [national] government’s policies have not been directed towards the people’s problems; they were directed towards the banks’ problems,” he says. “People are more important than banks, particularly when the profits are received by a handful of bankers who have speculated with basic human rights. The money they’ve provided doesn’t reach the base of the social pyramid, which is why the economy is paralyzed. It’s the small property holders and businesses who have been hurt the most. [We have] six million unemployed and twice that number living in poverty.”

“The most important thing we’ve done here is to struggle and obtain land through peaceful means, and to ensure that housing is a right, not a business,” Mr Sánchez Gordillo concludes. “And as a village we work together, discuss and collaborate together: that’s fundamental for any society, too.”

Might this down-to-earth, collectivistic, wild-card playing maverick have what it takes to save humanity from nightfall? If so, how long are we going to wait until others follow his lead?