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Glimpses of the 2016 World Social Forum

With 200 simultaneous workshops spread among a dozen university buildings in several Montreal neighborhoods,  it was a little challenging to recognize the scope of the 2016 World Social Forum.  Nonetheless, it was clear from day one that thousands of people were there, and that it feels good to be part of a global social movement bringing together people dedicated to human rights, social justice, alternatives to predatory capitalism, and a halt to climate disruption.

We couldn’t see or experience it all, but here’s a few glimpses we captured along the way…


“I Went Looking for Ghosts and Found Coffee”

At the Forum’s opening ceremony we were drawn to a group of people with a banner about the 43 students kidnapped and presumably killed by police 2 years ago in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico.  They invited me to attend a session with David Schmidt. 

Although—or perhaps because—he was raised in a fundamentalist family with aP8110109 profound fear of demons, Schmidt says he’s been fascinated by ghost stories since he was a boy.  It was the stories about fantastic creatures and weird occurrences he heard from Mexican friends that prompted him to visit a village deep in the mountains of Oaxaca.  There, he not only learned about the spiritual lives of the region’s Mixtec residents, but he also learned why so many people are forced to emigrate and about the raising of coffee.

In later travels, he learned about the benefits of fair trade for coffee growers.   One could say he’s become an evangelist for fair trade coffee, which he says has been a great boon to the Mixtec village where he had lived.  “Now when I go back it’s not a ghost town anymore.”

He’s a good writer and an excellent story-teller.  You can find out more from his website, Holy Ghost Stories.


Dismantling Corporate Power

dismantle corp power

There were dozens of sessions coordinated under the umbrella, “People and the Planet Before Profit.”  I tried to get into one called “A North-South Dialogue on Extractivism,” but all the seats were full and people were already standing in the doorway.

Instead, I went down the hall to “Corporate Rights or Human Rights? The case of Investor State Dispute Settlement.”  This forum on the impact of bilateral investment treaties and the investor rights provisions of multi-lateral “trade” agreements brought together three dozen well informed people from several countries.  As trade justice activists have been pointing out since NAFTA went into effect 22 years ago, P8110129these agreements allow investors to bring claims before private tribunals (also known as the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process) if they believe laws or regulations hamper their potential for profit.  The process is based on commercial arbitration practices, not on judicial review. A United Nations database lists 696 “Known treaty-based investor-state arbitrations,” 26% of which have led to rulings on the side of investors.  

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama plans to put before Congress during the “lame duck” session after the election, includes an Investor Rights/ISDS chapter, as does the pending Canada-Europe Trade Agreement (CETA) and TTIP, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that the Obama administration has been quietly negotiating with the European Union.   

Given the dominant role played by Canada-based firms in the global mining industry,  it was no surprise that extractive industries merited a lot of attention.  The session was the first I heard of a global campaign called “Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity!”  This campaign critiques P8110133voluntary corporate codes of conduct and is calling for a “binding instrument” through the UN to hold trans-national corporations accountable for human rights violations.    

The concept is not just backed by radical NGOs.  It also has support from the UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution in 2014 “to establish an open-ended intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights, whose mandate shall be to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises.”  The Working Group’s next meeting will be in Geneva in October.  


Wandering the Halls

In the evening we tried to attend one of the 22 “Grand Conferences,” or large lectures featuring major speakers.  Our choice was “Change the System, not the Climate,” with Naomi Klein and others on the agenda.  In the tunnel underneath the Judith Jasmin Building at the University of Quebec at Montreal,P8110145 we found a line of people waiting to get in.  Working our way to the end, we snaked through corridors, up stairs, around corners, walking for 5 or 10 minutes before reaching the end, where we introduced ourselves to an organizer from Quebec City who works on climate with retired public sector workers. 

After another 5 or 10 minutes moving forward in line we were told the crowd capacity of the hall had been reached. But we were also told we could stay in line and attend a different “Grand Conference,” this one called “Education, Environment and eco-citizenship: the art of living together.”  That sounded interesting.  But again, after a few minutes we were told the room was at capacity, so we wandered some more in the below-ground corridor that connected several UQAM buildings.  Soon we found ourselves back in a line, which we followed into an auditorium that turned out to be the forum on “eco-citizenship.” 

There, the program was in French, with no translation.  Given the limitations of our French comprehension, we decided to leave and spent an enjoyable hour browsing tables set up by left-wing (mostly anarchist-leaning) bookstores.  We also met Ricardo Levins Morales and bought a couple posters.  (Visit his Art for Social Justice website.)


Workers of the World Take on “Free Trade”

On Friday morning I decided to check out a forum on “unions and trade P8120176agreements.”  This time I got there early enough to get a seat and a headset; the session was going to have translation.  The panel had a French-speaking moderator and speakers came from Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, the Basque region, Tunisia, and Mexico. Then there were “interveners” from Argentina, Colombia, and Belgium.

Because the translation was not well done (especially from Spanish to English) I may have missed a lot.  What I got was a well-informed but pretty standard discourse on why “free trade” agreements are bad for workers.  A few key points:

  • Some Swiss communities have declared themselves “TISA-Free Zones.”  TISA is the “Trade In Services Agreement,” a profoundly dangerous proposal that obviously has gotten more attention there than in the USA.
  • The labor chapters of the trade agreements are weak.
  • There is a need for convergence of labor with different struggles, e.g. climate.
  • The advent of the neo-liberal trade agenda has created a need for unions to work together, including along North-South lines.  It’s about time!
  • There will be a “Continental Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism” on November 4.  More info here in Spanish.

jornada continental

There were several topics I would have love to hear more about:

  • How are labor movements responding to the opposition to neo-liberal trade agreements that are rooted in nativism?
  • What have we learned from successful and unsuccessful resistance to other agreements?
  • How is labor building alliances with other sectors that would be harmed by privatization and deregulation of services in a Trade In Services Agreement?

Unfortunately, there was no time left for questions or discussion after the 6 panelists, 3 interveners, and 5 more short speeches.


Border Struggles and Migrants Rights

The afternoon workshop on migration benefited from a good facilitator, 4 speakers who were able to deliver their comments clearly and briefly, and a good translator (once we got the proper headsets instead of the ones that were translating the speakers in the adjacent lecture hall). 

Stefanie Kron, the moderator, started out by noting the exclusion of hundreds of Social Forum participants from the Global South whose visas were denied by the Canadian government, an example of harsh policies targeting migrants.  She also noted the “externalization” of border controls by the EU and the US governments, such as the US push on Mexico to increase the number of migrants it arrests and deports crossing its southern borders (see my recent article).  On the other hand, she noted the rise of transnationally connected movements for the rights of migrants.

I was impressed with the comments of Mostafa Henaway, from the ImmigrantP8120224 Workers Center, a Montreal group that’s been around for more than 15 years.  He described problems with guest worker programs in which the rights of workers to migrate is tied to specific employers, a condition which makes it risky for workers to demand just conditions.  Nevertheless, organizing is going on, including a hunger strike protesting indefinite detention.  He also noted that Canada is the 2nd largest exporter of arms to the Middle East, giving the country some share of responsibility for the violence that has caused so many people to flee.  

Later, in response to my question about building alliances between movements for peace and movements for the rights of immigrant workers, he observed that the immigrants’ rights movement in Canada is rooted in anti-xenophobic sentiments that flowed from the beginning of the “war on terror” after the 9-11 attacks.  

P8120255Rosa Nelly Santos, from Honduras, talked about the large numbers of people who have fled due to hunger and terror.  Thousands of migrants have just disappeared; their families don’t know if they died on the road or what.  Her organization, COFAMIPRO, brings together mothers to search for their missing children. 

She also emphasized that the right not to migrate, i.e. the right to have a decent, secure life at home, has to be an emphasis along with the rights of migrants.   

In the end, Stefanie Kron outlined 4 points for further attention:

    P8120207

  1. Opening and preserving legal channels for migration,
  2. Strengthening trans-national organizing,
  3. Raising the visibility of the migration issue within the Social Forum process, and
  4. Organizing additional trans-national gatherings.

Sounds like a good agenda to me.


“People and Planet Over Profit”

The final official event we attended was a Convergence Assembly on free trade and extractivism.  In Forum-speak, a “convergence assembly is a gathering focused on presentations of initiatives for action.  These assemblies aim to broaden the coalitions of civil society that work in related fields and wish to act together.  They are a step to build or reinforce an international network of actors of change that give themselves priorities of action.”

What that meant in this case was a lively program with short speeches touching on resistance to pipelines in Canada, tailings dams in Brazil, mining in Guatemala, and “free trade” agreements everywhere.  The November 4 Day of Action for Democracy and Against Neo-Liberalism was promoted, as was the call for a week of action to confront corporate impunity when the inter-governmental working group on transnational corporations meets in Geneva in October.

This assembly had good translators, effective facilitators that kept the program moving at a quick pace, a few minutes for participants to meet people in nearby seats, and even an open mic time for participants to speak about their own projects.  Throughout the program, one activist added to a global map every time a new campaign was described and the projectionist located relevant web pages as actions were announced.  

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This was one of 22 convergence assemblies that took place during the week.  It was a good way to end the day.


When the Forum ended, organizers reported

The World Social Forum (WSF) is very proud of this 12th edition of the WSF, the first to be held in a Northern country.  The event counted 35,000 participants, including 15,000 who were present at the opening march, where 125 countries were represented. Let’s remember that at the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001, 20,000 people took part in the event. Therefore, considering such numbers, the organizers are more than satisfied as to the results of a first World Social Forum held in a Northern country.

In total, 1,300 self-managed activities took place, as well as 200 cultural activities and 6 parallel forums, the organizers said.  In addition, the planning involved 26 self-managed committees. 

By next week we should be able to find a calendar of initiatives posted on the World Social Forum website.  See you there!

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