The World Social Forum is a good place to be if you want to get a handle on the biggest issues that grassroots activists are working on, that communities and movements are resisting, and that we all need to take notice of. This year, the four that really stood out for me are (in no particular order, and making no attempt to be exhaustive, please add your own!):
Extractive industries. The devastating impact that extractive industries - oil, mining, logging - are having on communities all over the world became painfully clear in Nairobi. This might seem like old news but the last couple of years have seen a huge expansion of extractive activities. Tale after shocking tale of pollution, deforestation, displacement, dispossession had been brought to the Forum to be told. People are talking about ‘the new scramble for Africa’ as rapacious transnationals, and some governments (notably China), are carving up rights to the continent’s valuable resources and making life a living hell for the local communities that have drawn the short straw.
New free trade agreements. Non-WTO free trade agreements are what everyone’s getting steamed up about now that the poor old universally-despised WTO is having an identity problem and hasn’t actually done anything at all for a while. Instead, everywhere I went I was urged to ‘Stop EPAs’. EPAs are the ‘Economic Partnership Agreements’ that the European Union has been quietly negotiating with African countries. The deal is due to be signed, sealed and delivered in December this year. Africans are not happy about this, to say the least, having been on the losing end of free trade agreements for quite long enough.
China. It’s become a big player in Africa and there was much debate as to whether or not this is a good thing. As grassroots pan-African organisation Fahamu puts it: ‘Is China simply the latest imperial power out to exploit Africa’s natural resources, putting its own economic interests above environmental and human rights concerns? Or is China’s engagement an extension of ‘South–South solidarity’, enabling African countries to free themselves from the multiple tyrannies of Western debt, aid conditionality, unfair trading rules and political interference? The debate rages below.
‘Repudiate now!’ As in, ‘don’t owe, won’t pay.’
The campaign to drop the debt has not achieved change fast or deep enough. So now anti-debt activists have gone for a change of tack. Indebted countries should just stop paying it. ‘Repudiate now!’ may not be the snappiest of slogans, but it’s definitely where the action is.
And the winner of the Nero Award for Most Ignored Issue 2007 goes to…
I’d assumed that global warming would be high up on the WSF agenda. It affects all of us, it’s happening now, we have a very limited period left in which to avert the worst, and it’s a clear question of global justice: the rich world is creating an enormous problem that the poor world will suffer most from. And the rich world’s various technofix solutions such as carbon trading and biofuels will just dump on the poor even more. Plus, climate change directly impacts on so many of the grassroots struggles that were so vigorously represented at the WSF, from the right to water and land to the protection of forests and the impact of the oil industry.
Yet discussions about climate change were an endangered species at the WSF, and it became clear that it is way down most activists’ priority lists. Several frustrating meetings later and I was well and truly shaken out of my mistaken belief that climate change is the hot issue of the moment.
It may be a high-profile political battleground in Parliament and the British media right now, and there are dedicated activists doing their best around the world, not least in Nairobi during last year’s Climate Change summit. But we are a long way from seeing the massive global grassroots movement for climate justice that we need to sort this mess out.