After 14 days, in 12 communities, travelling over 1,600 kilometres across Bangladesh, India and Nepal, the South Asian Climate Justice, Gender and Food Sovereignty Caravan 2014 delivered its declaration to the 18th People’s South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) Convergence.
With approximately 150 delegates from 11 different countries, the caravan had the express goal of learning, organizing and creating solidarity within the region. With peasant movements and workers’ organizations from all three countries participating, as well as being supported by La Via Campesina (the international peasants’ movement), it was obvious from the beginning that the caravan would draw a lot of attention from communities unused to meeting foreigners.
From the humid low-lying water plateaus of Bangladesh, to the bustling metropolis of Kolkata, to the plains and mountains of Nepal, every community had a unique story of how their very existence is under threat and how they are fighting to keep their cultures, and ultimately the planet, alive.
Plenaries and workshops were held in each of these communities, where topics as broad as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gender, agro-ecology, land rights and, of course, climate change were discussed. Despite the differing lived experiences, there were two strong messages which appeared at every level: those who cause the most destruction should bear most of the responsibility, and the system which created this problem will not be the system that saves it.
Many of the peasant farmers in the communities had basic, if any, formal education, but they were well aware of the unjust system which penalizes them for living a traditional lifestyle which has little to no impact on its surrounding environment. As President of the Bangladesh Krishok Federation (BKF) and long-time activist Badrul Alam describes it, ‘small-scale farmers are not contributing to climate change; in fact, they are the ones fighting it.’
There were many challenging aspects of the caravan; however, learning a lesson in borders proved the most infuriating and costly. Bangladesh is a Muslim country and, despite its shared history with India, the rise of a Hindu nationalist government has meant greater scrutiny of anyone who may be perceived to follow Islam.
Most of the Bangladeshi participants were denied entry visas for India and were forced to leave the caravan. For those who successfully received Indian visas, they were once again halted at the India/Nepal border in a perfect display of the circular logic that is international borders.
The Nepalese authorities would only issue entry visas to those who had Indian exit stamps; however, the Indian authorities would only provide exit stamps to those who already had Nepalese visas. Neither side was willing to budge, and for many of those remaining on the caravan this was as far as they would go.
Somewhat symbolically, while waiting, trucks full of consumer goods freely crossed the border in both directions. The caravan reached its final destination of Kathmandu on 22 November to partake in the three-day People’s SAARC Convergence, a grassroots alternative to the official SAARC conference (a meeting of the heads of state of India, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh) being held in the city at the same time.
Representatives, delegates, NGOs and individuals from each of the eight member countries were present, as well as many other international guests, and it was in this environment that the caravan was welcomed with open arms.
The stories and experiences gathered along the journey were put together to form the declaration which was presented on the final day of the People’s SAARC Convergence. In it were 12 clear demands, which for many communities are the only proper solutions to the ever-increasing challenges they face.
The declaration and demands will also be presented at the next United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meeting (otherwise known as COP 20) in Lima, Peru which runs from 1-12 December.
Another regional caravan has already been proposed for 2016; however, the true revolution is happening daily in the fields of the agrarian farmers and the offices of member organizations such as BKF, Bangladesh Kishani Sabha (BKS), All Nepal Peasants’ Federation (ANPFa) and La Via Campesina. As one caravan delegate from Sri Lanka added, ‘we need system change, not climate change, but we are the ones who have to change it.’