Dispatches From the World Social Forum

 

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Since 2001, the World Social Forum (WSF) has provided civil society organizations and people’s movements around the globe with an opportunity to gather, share ideas and formulate alternatives to the dominant economic and development policies advanced at the annual World Economic Forum. To get a sense of what grassroots groups have gained from the WSF and what it means for the global justice cause, RPE asked delegates who attended the most recent 2004 Forum in Mumbai, India to share their reflections.

 

Jose T. Bravo is lead organizer and site coordinator for Just Transition Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of five environmental justice networks that advocates for environmental justice and labor issues nationally and internationally (www.jtalliance.org).

On January 14, my first day in Mumbai, India, I attended an orientation by Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), a U.S.-based network of groups opposed to corporate globalization. During this orientation we heard from several speakers, including a journalist and editor from a main Mumbai newspaper. Then we heard from two gentlemen who represented a construction union, the second largest union in India. We ended the session with presentations from two dynamic leaders who spoke about the reality for women in India. As I listened to these women speak, I noted many similarities in how women organize for justice in the United States and in Mexico.

Later that afternoon, the GGJ delegates were divided into five groups and sent on site visits. My group boarded a minibus and went to a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai where we met with people who were running a center for community support and job training. At this center we learned that people could only live in their respective slums for 11 months out of the year; after 11 months they had to move to a different location. So, hundreds of thousands of people are literally displaced every 11 months. We were told that the government requires this of all people who live in slums so that they do not take control of the land they live on. The only exceptions were the few people that have been living in slums for 30 years or longer and who were allowed to make their homes a permanent residence. The center was also used as a drug rehab for residents that needed treatment.

On the way over to the next site, our hosts explained that we were about to go to the municipal dump, which is 300 hectares square (about 741 acres). As we arrived I felt overwhelmed by the 50,000 people who called the dump their home. As we walked along with the crowd, including children anxious to talk to us, each community leader explained their job. Some of the people only pick bottles and others pick up plastic for recycling; still others are in charge of burning the giant mounds to recycle the metals that are left behind. The smell of plastic and paper being burnt was sometimes too much to withstand. I felt very sad at the fact that the children did not look very different from my own.

On the second day GGJ delegates boarded three buses that took us to an activist camp at a nature preserve. The trip, which included three hours in traffic, took us 30 to 40 miles away to the outskirts of the city. When we reached the activist camp, we participated in a welcome ceremony that included chants and songs as well as the Indigenous Environmental Network delegations' ceremonial activities. After the ceremony, we broke out into 10 workgroups and discussed issues such as the World Bank, community organizing, labor organizing, the environment, youth participation, free trade/global trade, Indigenous rights, women's self determination, criminal justice, and legal advocacy. The workgroup that I volunteered for (because of the need for Spanish translation) was on free trade/global trade. We discussed the impacts that trade is having on India, the United States and Mexico.

 

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[The following morning, January 16, we went to the] site where the WSF was to start later that afternoon. At 3:30 p.m., we made our way to the main stage area where there were people as far as the eye could see. The opening ceremony was spectacular. It included cultural performances by dancers from all over the world. After the organizing committee gave the welcome, we heard author and activist Arundhati Roy speak. She posed several challenges, including a demand for “regime change” from corporate domination, empowerment of the grassroots, and focusing on two corporations that are making money from the war in Iraq. I was shouting, “Halliburton and Bechtel, they can go to hell!” We all left the ceremony energized and ready for the task ahead.

 

The next day, we went to the first panel that included GGJ delegates. The panel, entitled "In the heart of the empire," included people from the United States, Mexico and Colombia. It focused on creating solidarity with other social justice movements worldwide. Many people were very surprised that people in the United States faced issues of government and corporate abuse that approximated their own. This was the case throughout the WSF.

Later, I went to a panel on labor issues faced by unorganized workers. It was a session with about 25 people, including delegates from Iran, Egypt, Latin America, India and Asia. I represented the perspective of the United States, specifically, the U.S.-Mexico border region. I also attended a workshop on popular education where participants shared methodology and retention advice. I was especially interested in educating people who cannot read or write. In India, art and street theater are used extensively. For example, we role-played a scenario in which a community fought against a dam project—an issue that people at this session had faced.

On the 18th, Chavel Lopez of the Southwest Workers Union, Torm Nomprassuert of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and I attended a workshop called "Actual Effects of WMD: The Case of U.S. Toxic Agent Orange in Vietnam." Chavel, a Vietnam veteran, was a victim of Agent Orange defoliant spraying while a soldier. We reported to the panel that the chemicals are still being destroyed by incineration in communities of color in the United States. We mentioned the fact that children are still exposed to Agent Orange and other defoliants in the United States and in other countries like Colombia under the auspices of the war on drugs, and that there were organizations—even a network—working on military toxics issues. We were asked to put together a delegation to visit Vietnam by Madam Nguyen Binh, the former vice president of Vietnam and the key negotiator in France during the withdrawal of the U.S. occupation of Vietnam.

That afternoon I went to "The Peoples Forum Against Coca-Cola" panel with some of the labor delegates of the GGJ. Luis Javier Correa Su?É?í?Ǭ°rez, national president of the National Union of Food and Commercial Workers of Colombia, asked me to translate for him during his portion of the forum. One of his issues with Coca-Cola is that six of his union's leaders have been assassinated for protesting unfair labor practices and unhealthy conditions in many of the Coca-Cola plants. This was a very enriching experience and I was glad that I could assist in translation.

On the 19th, I participated in an anti-Coca-Cola march at the WSF grounds, where several hundred people rallied. When the workshop started, there were only three people, but as the time went on more and more people came in. We discussed Just Transition Alliance (JTA) and the links that JTA makes with workers and communities struggling with environmental and economic justice issues. As I started to describe some of the sites where we are doing work the participants started sharing their own experiences. We explored different ideas and scenarios together.

On January 20, I met with people who were representing the victims of the toxic gas release in Bhopal, India. They were parents, children and other family members of people who had lost their lives or were left maimed by the accident. I was especially interested in meeting with them because JTA is starting a new campaign around Dow Chemical Company and Dupont in Louisville, Kentucky. Dow now owns Union Carbide and is reneging on the settlement with the people in Bhopal. Likewise, Dow and Dupont are leaving a community in Louisville severely contaminated and trying to abandon workers with an unjust retirement plan. Dow and Dupont are planning to move the Louisville plant to La Place, Louisiana, right in the middle of “Cancer Alley”.

That afternoon I met with the GGJ Indigenous delegation and helped to set up a ceremony with an Indigenous elder that I had met on the second day of the WSF. This elder was from Mexico and he had brought a bundle of charcoal from the great fire of the Condor—the Indigenous peoples of Latin America—in Teotihuacan. I had spread the word that we wanted Indigenous peoples to meet at the ceremonial fire and be part of the ceremony. Sixty Indigenous people, including several from different parts of India, came and we participated in a wonderful ceremony. We ended with prayers for the safe return of all WSF attendees to their places of origin, and for the success of people’s movements throughout the world and for world peace.

Why We Went to the Forum

AGENDA (Action for Grassroots Empowerment and Neighborhood Development Alternatives) is a grassroots organization based in South Los Angeles that organizes poor and working class communities and communities of color around social and economic justice issues. This year AGENDA/SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education) was fortunate enough to send three of our community leaders and one staff member to the World Social Forum in India as part of the Grassroots Global Justice delegation.

Being a part of the GGJ delegation gives us an opportunity to “represent a different face from the ‘belly of the beast’ and to show solidarity with global movements against corporate globalization,” said Jennifer Ito, director of CIPHER (Community Institute for Policy Heuristics, Education and Research), the research arm of AGENDA/SCOPE. We see the World Social Forum as an important vehicle for our members and staff alike to explore firsthand the connections between our struggle and those of peoples and organizations throughout the world. 

Members and staff who have attended the World Social Forum for the past four years have brought lessons back home to deepen our understanding and critique of the global corporate agenda and its impacts beyond Los Angeles. Learning about alternative economic policies and health-care systems has also expanded the boundaries of what is possible in our current Jobs and Health-care campaign. Gloria Bradshaw, a community leader with AGENDA said, “I was surprised and saddened to see such extreme poverty and poor living conditions of people (young and old) in India, but left inspired by the people and organizations fighting for the same thing we’re fighting for here in Los Angeles. Justice!”

 

Southwest Organizing Project is a multi-racial, multi-issue community-based organization based in Albuquerque, New Mexico that works for racial and gender equality, and social and economic justice. This report came from SWOP delegates to the WSF, including Marco Romero, Victoria Rodriguez, Marjorie Childress, Eileen Garcia and Michael Montoya, while they were attending the Forum.

Hola Friends and Family:

The World Social Forum has been inspiring, chaotic, educational, massive, and challenging both spiritually and intellectually. Large numbers of people have attended from all over the country. Represented here are tribal groups, organizations working with poor people who live in slums, women and Dalit groups, trade union federations, international intellectuals, youth, grassroots groups from throughout the world, media, and international non-governmental organizations, just to name a few. The Forum has been full of dialogue, art, cultural expression and great food. We have all gone to many different workshops and panel discussions. Every imaginable discussion has been taken up here, [including dialogues about] gender, labor and youth issues, immigrant and migrant rights, the right to food, human rights, popular education, economic and social security, and tribal issues.

For those of you who have been to one of the previous WSF events, we should explain that this year's event is held on a campus, [much] like a state fair. We walk through a sea of banners and posters at all times, surrounded by hundreds of different organized groups parading throughout the venue. Social movements seem very real to us here. The energy that is evident at all times on the grounds of the site is truly breathtaking.

Our trip has provided us with the opportunity to be in different venues. For example, the Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ) delegation has taken several field trips: one, to a tribal organization outside the city, and another to what the locals call slum dwellers’ organizations. People who live in India's slums are fighting for basic services like water and electricity, and also for the simple right to have a roof over their heads. Many of these structures are considered illegal and the residents often have their homes torn down. It should be noted that half of the population in Mumbai lives in slums—that’s about 8 million people. These structures are scattered throughout the city, some are large areas and others are simply a row along a road. We noticed several instances of ostentatious skyscrapers looming over the slums. These skyscrapers are topped by no-holds-barred homes that look like mini Greek palaces, pillars and all.

We also took a trip to a tribal organization outside the city. This was a great exchange. We felt privileged to witness the interchange between the tribal group and Indigenous delegates from North America. We broke into groups that discussed a variety of issues. It was interesting for us to see how people who live on the other side of the world [face issues similar] to our own and use similar language to discuss their circumstances.

We have been pleased to see a very strong women's movement here, as well as an overt acknowledgement of the role that class plays in economic and social structures. We have also learned a lot about the caste system and the plight of Dalits (formerly referred to as “untouchables”). Although Indian law has changed the formal discrimination against Dalits, in practice it is very much part of the day-to-day reality. We have all been overwhelmed by the sheer size of the population in Mumbai and by the degree of poverty that exists here. It is one thing to intellectually know about the poverty, [and] quite another to witness it. It is humbling and makes us very aware of our own privilege.

On a critical note, we have observed that the less-than-perfect models of how we communicate in large groups have been replicated on a large scale here at the WSF.  Overcoming our outmoded, hierarchical norms of running meetings is an ongoing struggle. Another all-too-familiar sight is the preponderance of men and intellectuals on all the panels. While we acknowledge that academics and intellectuals are a great resource for our movement, we feel that these norms reinforce the class and gender divisions in the movement. These divisions are so completely evident that the [makeup] of the panels is almost obscene. Also, there is a great separation between youth and the larger WSF. The youth have to travel a long distance from the youth camp to the main venue, and they have their own parallel conference that is not integrated into the WSF.

Across the street from the WSF is another parallel conference called the Mumbai Resistance 2004. This conference opposes the WSF on the grounds that it is reformist and in dialogue with the imperialists. They take issue with Western foundation funding of the WSF. They also point out that the WSF charges delegates money to attend and it excludes particular groups. From our perspective, we do not believe that the WSF can truly be considered representative of the international community as long as it excludes groups such as the Zapatistas, who have so much to teach us all about resistance to capitalism and survival in the face of overwhelming forces.

We find that the critique of the WSF posed by the MR 2004 to be quite valid. At the same time, we have all gotten much out of our experiences at the WSF, and don't see that the MR 2004 has a concrete proposal of its own for how the movement for justice can proceed in a manner that is inclusive of all the diverse social movements that exist throughout the world.