Monday, 9 April 2007

And Only Two Months Later...

...I've finally got round to posting my summary thoughts on the World Social Forum! See below if you're interested.

In other news, the Hammer & Tongue poetry slam final (1st May) is hurtling towards me and filling me with some apprehension but mostly with excitement. All I need to do is gather up the various bits of scrawled-on paper from around my bedroom and somehow transform their contents into punchy three-minute performance poetry nuggets (because everyone loves a punchy nugget). I need to do this quite soon. Well, very soon. In between all of these other things I'm meant to be doing. Ah, I'm sure it'll be fine. I'm currently being haunted by the pigeons of the past, they seem determined to claw their way into a poem somewhere...we'll see what happens.

Anyway. I'd best get on with some research I'm doing for the Camp For Climate Action (which I can't recommend enough to you all - come along, it's going to be amazing).



P.S. So far, according to my helpful web-counter/stalking service, over 440 different people have read my Global Warming Swindle post. Which does make me feel glad that I put it up here, although I have a sneaking feeling that more than 440 people watched the programme, so I still have some way to go yet...


Perspectives From The World Social Forum (WSF)

At the end of January I represented People and Planet at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The WSF is an incredible global gathering of grassroots activists and social movements, with the emphasis firmly on people and groups from the Global South who are struggling against injustice and environmental destruction in their own communities.

This year, around 60,000 people came to the Forum, and I had the privilege of meeting – and attending workshops, discussions and rallies with – a range of incredible activists from around the world. I wrote the following summary with People and Planet campaigners in mind, so it focuses particularly on the issues P&P is currently working on - climate change, extractive industry, trade, and AIDS/HIV; however, I hope that it might be of interest and use to anyone - not just P&P campaigners - who wants to hear more about the perspectives of Southern activists on these vital global justice and environmental issues.The Big Issues
Although thousands of different groups staged hundreds of meetings over the four days of the WSF, certain issues kept coming up again and again. These included:

Free Trade Agreements

There was enormous concern over the damage caused to the lives and livelihoods of the poor by unfair trade rules, with especial focus on EPAs (European Partnership Agreements). As the World Trade Organisation’s own efforts to install more and more unfair trade rules seem to have stalled, individual states and groups of states have started coming up with bilateral agreements of their own, with EPAs between Europe and Africa being the most high-profile and pernicious example. A new campaign is building around this issue...

Debt Repudiation

When it comes to snappy slogans, “Repudiate Now!” isn’t going to go down in campaign-soundbite history. But despite the awkwardness of the phrase, the concept behind it could represent the next major step in the campaign around “Third World” debt. Southern activists – particularly the Jubilee South coalition – were rallying hundreds of groups at the WSF behind the concept of debt non-repayment (which is what repudiation means). Tired of all the posturing from wealthy governments, and the tiny crumbs of debt relief (with strings attached – if you can imagine crumbs with strings attached to them) offered so far, Southern activists have changed their direction of attack and are instead demanding that the governments of poor indebted countries simply refuse to hand over their repayments. If they are successful, then the implications for the economies and banks of wealthy countries – many of which are propped up by international debt – could be enormous. If nothing else, this could be a way for the poorer countries to hold the rich ones to ransom and demand serious changes to anything from trade rules to Structural Adjustment to access to medicines and technology.

Extractive Industries

Some people are calling it “the new scramble for Africa” – but it isn’t only affecting African nations. People all over the world are finding their lands, local environments and ways of life threatened by a growing hunger for resources from the high-tech throwaway cultures of the wealthier countries, as well as from the breakneck (but uneven) development of countries like China, India, and Brazil. I met activists from across the globe who are struggling against rapacious mining and drilling corporations as well as corrupt governments in the battle over land, health, and the environment – and sometimes winning. There are surprising success stories out there that we rarely hear about – with the Ogoni women’s non-violent campaign against Shell’s gas flaring in Nigeria being just one example.

Biofuels and Carbon Offsets

This goes hand-in-hand with the issue of extraction, as it involves struggles over land rights and the environment, and links into climate change. I met campaigners from Brazil who were almost spitting blood in their rage about their agricultural land being turned over to growing sugar cane for ethanol production (“feeding cars instead of hungry bellies”), and Indonesians who had watched rainforest being razed to the ground to create palm oil plantations (thus contributing more to climate change than the petrol they’re meant to replace). I also heard the stories of people from Latin America who’d been promised income from carbon offsetting plantations and had instead been locked into financially crippling legal agreements to oversee unproductive stands of dying trees, planted in the wrong place in the wrong climate. When I asked the Indian activist and academic Dr Vandana Shiva what UK campaigners should be focusing on, she said “BP and Shell want to remove Indian farmers from their land and replace them with biofuel plantations”. Meanwhile, as several Southern activists pointed out, fossil fuel extraction continues apace – biofuels seem to be supplementing, not replacing, oil, coal and gas…

HIV and AIDS Independence

One of the most inspiring meetings I attended took place in a room packed with (mostly African) AIDS activists. They were there to share their experiences, forge alliances, and put forward their ideas for action. Their tone was almost unanimous: they were sick of having to rely on donations from wealthy countries – often channelled through corrupt governments – to provide the care and treatment that their communities so desperately needed. They were full of suggestions for raising the money themselves, tackling corruption and finding ways to take control of this issue into their own hands. I asked what campaigners in the North could do to support them; I was told that the best thing the North could do would be to stop screwing over their economies with unfair trade rules, privatising their healthcare through the IMF, supporting corrupt regimes and using intellectual property regimes to keep the price of AIDS treatment too high. In other words, although they conceded that right now they are dependent on money from organisations such as the Global Fund, they were more interested in trying to remove the barriers that are preventing them from developing their own healthcare and treatment programmes in the longer term, rather than just calling for more donations.

Plenty More

I wasn’t able to go to everything! But campaigners for labour rights, gender equality, gay/lesbian rights, corporate accountability and a whole host of other issues were very much in attendance. For a flavour of all this – and for the story of the local Kenyans who stormed the event after they couldn’t afford the entry fee – see my earlier posts from the Forum itself.

The Other Issue

Climate change, however, was not on the agenda – or at least, it was only being explicitly discussed in a handful of sessions. Yes, that surprised me too at first, until I realised that the majority of Southern activists are spending their time dealing with more immediate and pressing issues, and that the great majority of the research into climate change science and policy is still restricted to the wealthier countries. I did meet a number of activists who were very well-informed and inspiring, but they were very much the exception. As things transpired, I ended up standing up myself in front of the Assembly of Social Movements at the end of the Forum, and trying to remind everyone (in hopefully not too nervous and garbled a way) that climate change is not just an environmental issue, but an issue of global justice – a position that is becoming increasingly popular amongst those Southern movements and governments who are becoming vocal on climate change.

Some Campaign-Related Thoughts

Following on from all of that, here are some of the conclusions I personally drew from all of this (although you’re obviously free to disagree!):

  • There is an enormous amount of amazing and inspiring activism going on all over the world that we rarely hear about. It might help us if we try to remind ourselves that we are not alone in this country, or even in the English-speaking world – there are so many people out there whom we could work together with, and learn a lot from. If anyone working on any of the above issues wants to be put in touch with the relevant Southern activists I met at the Forum please let me know - it is vital that we continue to build these links.

  • Although making links with Southern activists around the stand-alone issue of climate change may be difficult, there is real potential for forming alliances around the related issues of fossil fuel extraction, access to energy, biofuels, land-grabbing carbon offset projects, and the concept of climate justice (everyone has the right to develop, and the countries that have got rich by polluting the shared atmosphere have a responsibility to provide clean technology to the rest of the world). We have a lot of potential allies out there who are struggling right now with these various impacts of our global fossil fuel addiction, and who ultimately share our goals.

  • Many of the issues relating to poverty, uneven development, inequality, health and the environment which are affecting people across the world are either being directly caused or massively exacerbated by international rules on trade, investment and debt. These are issues where Northern governments – and thus, potentially, Northern activists – currently have far more direct power to influence things than people in the South (with some exceptions, such as the possibility of debt non-repayment); however, the voices of Southern activists must be included in this debate if we are to find equitable solutions. Finding ways to tackle these root causes will be very difficult and require global networking and alliances, but could potentially have enormous effects.

  • Many influential people in developing countries were educated in the North. Many people who are currently international students at UK Universities will go on to play very significant roles in their home countries. Could student activists in the UK be doing more to work together with international students on these issues?

Some different perspectives:

Jess and Adam’s new Internationalist blogs

A more critical viewpoint from Firoze Manji of Pambazuka News

...and another one from Kathambi Kinoti, with a particular focus on the involvement of women at the Forum.