Report on a discussion:

WSF and People’s Alternatives: Sharing the Experiences of Belem

Intercultural Resources, Delhi
February 27, 2009

The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. Since then, the WSF has been an yearly event, varying in format and location. In 2004 it took place in Mumbai, for the first time out of Brazil. After being back in Porto Alegre in 2005, in 2006 a polycentric WSF was held, spanning 3 continents (Bamako, Caracas and Karachi). 2007 was the year of the controversial WSF in Nairobi, Kenya, where many felt that large corporate NGOs dominated the event. This was followed by the WSF Global day of Action in 2008. The 9th World Social Forum was held this year in the Amazonian city of Belem, Brazil from January 27 to February 1, 2009, which saw participation of many friends from India as well.

The indigenous peoples’ movements were to take centre stage in the Amazonian region. The Latin American context with its strong indigenous movements and a solid shift to the left was meant to provide a convivial space for these movements to share their political, social and cultural visions and concerns. This can also be seen in the spreading theme of Pachamama - mother earth goddess of the indigenous peoples of the Andes – in discussions related to solutions to intensive and extensive exploitation of natural resources and in the global phenomenon of climate change. Impelled further by the global economic crisis, WSF's 'open space' became an even more intense site to share and work towards strengthening alternatives.

In this context, we felt that it was important for us to organize a discussion with some of those who were at Belem so that they could share their experiences and discuss strategies to add more momentum to the political debates and striving for alternatives in India. This opportunity was also to facilitate a process where some of the experiences at Belem could be shared with a wider concerned community.

Belem Participants:

Ashok Chowdhury, National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
Bijulal, Indian Social Institute
Bipin Rai, Delhi Solidarity Group (DSG)
Guman Singh, Himalaya Niti Abliyan (HNB)
Jai Sen, Critical Action: Center in Movement (CACIM)
Mamta Dash, National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
Roma, National Forum for Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW)
Sandeep Minhas, Himalaya Niti Abliyan (HNB)
Soma KP
Soumya Dutta, Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha


A rich two-hour discussion with those who participated in the Belem WSF highlighted the following main issues:

1. Sidelining of indigenous concerns and issues
The Belem gathering was meant to bring about a shift in the focus of this year’s WSF. Choosing Belem, in the Amazonian region, as a venue was to be an expression of the will to engage with issues related to indigenous people, natural resources and climate change. However, most participants felt that indigenous peoples’ issues were in fact undermined and few groups acknowledged the long history of genocide, marginalization and exclusion. It was also observed that while there were vibrant discussions on climate justice, the question of indigenous peoples’ struggles were either sidelined as a result or subsumed within the issue of climate justice. The Assembly of Indigenous Movements’ Alliances saw the mere participation of only 10-12 indigenous participants. Critical issues like “cultural genocide” were rejected by the full group.

While choosing Belem was meant to be a historical recognition of indigenous peoples’ struggles, the region is also a stronghold of the ruling PT (Workers’ Party) and was strategic in displaying its strength. The complex politics of the Amazonian region was absent from the discussions that followed. Moreover, there was also a conspicuous absence of the recognition of civil society’s historical complicity in the repression and suppression of indigenous peoples’ struggles. As a result, there was no reconciliation process with the indigenous struggles. At the same time, indigenous groups gave a call to everyone to join the Pachamama (mother earth) invocations on October 12 (the day on which Columbus reached the Americas) and to recognize their agenda.

2. Rich analysis on climate justice
Participants noted the strong predominance of climate concerns. Earlier discussions on climate change had remained highly technical and there was no real engagement with grassroots struggles and their responses to climate issues. This time, it was observed, there was a convergence between climate concerns and a grassroots understanding and the need to strategise together. Many felt that the Latin American indigenous groups in particular, and some African groups, had a clear understanding of the issues at hand, seeing climate concerns as a convergence point for bringing together various movement groups, an understanding as yet lacking within most Indian groups.

The critical juncture posed by the financial crisis was recognized as a significant context for a growing interest of trade unions in climate concerns, recognizing at the same time that few were willing to take a position on the tension between the need to change the patterns of industrial development and the defense of labour rights. CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores, the Brazilian trade union affiliated to PT) proposed a meeting at the next WSF of southern trade unions on labour rights and environmental concerns. The discussions on climate justice were seen as a convergence of social, environmental and labour groups, a significant process that needs to be strengthened.

Most felt a clear rejection of market-based solutions. Asserting the ways of indigenous peoples as sound and sustainable based on the principle of using only as much as Pachamama (mother earth) gives, there was growing recognition of such an understanding. However, it was felt that the discussion on alternatives was not satisfactory and lacked depth and coherence. There were no clear paths to move forward, particularly in the context of the uncritical high consumption lifestyles of many who participated in these discussions.

3. Northern NGOs’ domination in climate discussions
Most participants noted the similarity of issues between regions of the South, but also noted the strong presence of Northern NGOs who tried to dominate the thrust and direction of the discussion which often contradicted the perspectives and priorities of the South. While Northern NGOs were keen on strategizing towards the UN meeting on climate change scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in 2010 (Cop 10), Southern groups understood it as a longer term structural and political issue, not based on single events. Northern NGOs, it was observed, attempted to place their agenda as the collective agenda and when this was opposed, it provoked a strong reaction from Northern NGOs.

4. Gendered voices were muffled
It was felt that the space for women’s voices and concerns had shrunk. Radical critiques were not articulated or made vocal. While various issues were informed by gender concerns, they were not gender concerns these were not articulated in the depth and complexity that women had been highlighting. Gender concerns were also absent from the climate discussions.

5. WSF organization as an event
Participants reported that, at the Asian groups meeting on February 1, there was a proposition to articulate an understanding of critical issues from a Southern perspective. This was rejected by the Asian members of the International Council of the WSF (IC) - out of 22 to 25 people, there were 2 Japanese, 1 Korean, 1 Chinese and the rest, Indian. It was observed that the meeting revolved around where to hold the next event, leaving little space to debate real issues. This was is in stark contrast to the Latin American groups, who were attempting to bring about a convergence on key issues and were supported by Latin American IC members. Also taken note was the massive international funding agencies’ sponsorship of the WSF this year and its obvious implications on the content and thrust of the Forum.

6. Participation of the youth
Several participants noted the strong participation of the youth. However, there was also a limited involvement of youth groups in some of the critical discussions. While they were present in large numbers at the Forum and in the rallies, they were hardly involved in the various sessions that took place.

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