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February 10, 2011

A festival for social justice: reporting from the World Social Forum

It is now the fourth day of this great festival of ideas, discussions and debates about the key political issues of our times and the struggles taking place at local, national, regional and international levels to achieve social justice. The focus is inevitably on African issues of struggle and the various forces impacting local communities and national and Pan African trajectories. This World Social Forum (WSF) is timely given that the continent has become the focus of one of the biggest resource grabs since colonial times—be it for agrofuel demand of industrialized countries, land bought by other countries for their own food production needs, or land-based investment deals that take away community control of natural resources right before their eyes and in spite of their resistance. A large number of seminars and discussions here have focused on landgrabs and testimonies offered from across the continent and around the world. Groups and communities are discussing how to force companies and governments to uphold and respect human rights—social, cultural, economic and ecological—of communities and people; and how to stop the pillaging of dwindling natural resources through unregulated investment.

Set on the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University, 40,000 students are milling amongst stalls, tents and sessions organized by hundreds of organizations; doing street theatre, picking up pamphlets, asking questions. Many of them are volunteers for the WSF and translating during organized events. Their interest and curiosity is inspiring. In fact, just a week before the forum, the new president of the university had decided to suspend the week holiday that was given by the previous president for students to freely attend WSF events. The new president reneged on that commitment and resumed classes, even taking back many classrooms that were assigned to WSF events. The first few days we found ourselves wandering into classrooms where students were patiently trying to sit through classes and shut out the noise and energy emanating throughout the campus due to the social forum. In spite of the logistical hurdles—and not knowing where the next event will be—civil society has rolled right along in making the forum a success.

I have been participating in events and discussions related to climate change, food sovereignty and natural resources. Many of the sessions are trying to make sense of the outcome in Cancún (COP 16) for climate change and what civil society needs to do differently in the run up to Durban, South Africa, who will host the  next major climate meeting at the end of this year. Groups from South Africa are here and already organizing themselves to host civil society organizations in order to create a loud and resounding voice condemning the paltry pledges made by governments in Cancún to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many groups feel that trying to convince governments inside negotiating halls at the COPs will not create the urgent shift we need to see in the climate talks towards binding and ambitious targets for drastically reducing greenhouse gases. There is an acute realization that social awareness and mobilization needs to take place locally with specific strategies to shift national positions on climate change. For Africa, anything above a one-degree global temperature rise will mean drastically reduced cropping seasons, much greater incidences of severe and unpredictable weather with dire consequences for food production and hence food sovereignty. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance is trying to influence national processes around the continent moving towards Durban.

The United States and Europe, however, still determine the fate of the climate treaty and the international targets that will be set. Without a sea-change in U.S. public opinion on climate change as a key responsibility it is hard to see how we can keep the United States government from undermining entirely an international regime that must stop and reverse global warming.  

Roughly six months after Durban will be the 20th anniversary of the Rio Summit—known as Rio+20—where governments will come together with possibly new proposals on dealing with the major environmental problems of our times. It was at Rio, 20 years ago, that the U.N. Climate Treaty was created, in addition to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Despite these efforts we have drastically worsened our global situation—on both the climate change and biodiversity front.

Several groups have come together at the WSF to begin organizing toward Rio+20. They see the meeting as a major opportunity to reframe the debate moving forward in this decade and want to link awareness building and social mobilizations in the next 16 months that include COP 17 in Durban and onward to Rio in the middle of 2012.

Finally, numerous discussions are also taking place on the linkages between the food, climate and financial crises, their impact on Africa and impacts on small producers. IATP participated in events organized by the Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA) on climate change, food sovereignty and the food crisis, as well as an event on “Fighting against price volatility and regulating agricultural markets” organized in conjunction with CCFD-Terre Solidaire, a Catholic French NGO, Mooriben (an organization from Niger engaged on creating food security at the local level, including food reserves), Afrique Vert Mali (Green Africa Mali) and GRET, a French development NGO. In addition, we will be involved in the WSF convergence process today and tomorrow where civil society groups who have been meeting throughout the week will come together to see how we can move forward with our plans on both climate and Rio+20. For IATP, we are interested in seeing how the issues of speculation in carbon and commodity markets, agriculture offsets in the climate negotiations, and their impacts on small producers, can be part of the discussions and strategies to build awareness and counter negative proposals and impacts.

Onward to day five. 

IATP's Shefali Sharma is blogging from Dakar, Senagal at the World Social Forum.

Ben Lilliston

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