Q&A: Ecological Crisis: Next Challenge for World Social Forum

Ten years after its founding, the World Social Forum (WSF) has come to represent a rallying point for activists and grassroots groups committed to shaping an alternative world view.

"It is very important that we have this space for all of us to come together and shape a vision that reflects our concerns," says Nicola Bullard, a senior associate of Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank championing issues that matter to people in the developing world. "We have been able to build our own discourse, our own thinking, our own legitimacy."

"It is certainly an alternative to the elite, who build their own spaces all the time," adds the Australian national, who has been a member of the WSF's international council since its inception. "The WSF is still relevant today."

Yet the social movement - as opposed to a political party - has evolved, taking on newer issues that have emerged, including concerns over climate change, which dominates economic justice debates.

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the WSF will hold a series of events that will kick off on Jan. 22 in Greater Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. A programme of activities dubbed the "Greater Porto Alegre 10 years Social Forum," to be held on January 25-29 in Brazil, will be one of the highlights of the celebration.

"Another world is necessary" to deal with the current ecological crisis, observes Bullard, a Melbourne University graduate who has worked on global trade, human rights and women's issues in Australia, Thailand and Cambodia.

IPS met Bullard at her book-lined office in the Thai capital for an interview ahead of the next gathering of the WSF in Brazil.

Q: The World Social Forum (WSF) to be held later this month in Brazil will be a milestone. Does the movement have much to celebrate?

A: Absolutely. When the first WSF was held in 2001, no one imagined by 2010 that there would be over 40 different social forums planned for the 10th year. It is certainly a moment to celebrate and also to reflect on what we have achieved and what we haven't been able to achieve and to look ahead at what we need to do next.

It is particularly timely given what happened in Copenhagen in December during the climate change talks. There is a resurgence, a critical momentum for economic justice that emerged during the talks. There is a new energy, a new challenge that the WSF can build on.

Q: On the subjects of achievements, what do you hold out as success stories of the WSF in the past decade?

A: The idea that the WSF is really a space that is ours. It is not a space for protest or a space created in response to an official event, such as at the WTO (World Trade Organisation) or IMF (International Monetary Fund) meetings, where we have to gather on the margins. But the WSF is a physical and political space created by us and for us and the agenda is ours - a bottom-up process.

Secondly, the WSF has, through a lot of critical thinking and a pretty open process, been able to grow over the years. There are different kinds of events, different kinds of people attending, a diversity of issues discussed and the very deliberate attempt to have a pretty horizontal participatory and inclusive process.

Q: But has there been an attempt to measure such success, to say these are concrete achievements linked to the WSF that it can be proud of?

A: This is the endless debate we have had, because some people would argue that the impact of the WSF should be measurable by the actual political changes on the ground, and that the WSF needs to be more strategic and have clear objectives.

On the other hand, other people would argue that the WSF is an open space, and that is its strength and particular beauty, where trade unions and people from political organisations or indigenous people can come together and share ideas and build common perspectives and language.

But there was a lot of momentum in the way the WSF positioned itself against the (World Economic Forum) meetings in Davos.

During the meetings in Davos, the WSF was seen as an alternative event that takes place in the South and where the agenda is very different from what is discussed in Davos. The fact that more political leaders want to be part of the WSF shows that it is an important place for them to be seen and be associated with.

Q: Talking of Davos, where the captains of international trade and commerce meet in the Swiss resort to plot the shape of the world's economy, let's move toward the global financial crisis. The WSF certainly had little part in what happened, but is there anything the WSF stood to gain from this crisis?

A: I think the fact that the critics of the global financial system were so readily at hand because there were academics and writers and activists who had been talking about these for years needs to be recognised. Suddenly these were the people journalists and the media were going to. In that respect, the analysis and the critics coming out of the WSF suddenly found a resonance in the public arena.

Q: Another issue the WSF sought to make its mark on was opposition to the war in Iraq launched by former U.S. President George W. Bush. You certainly failed to stop that U.S. invasion.

A: The WSF was important as a mechanism for making the February 15 (2003) global day of action against the war in Iraq such a strong protest. The WSF provided a kind of legitimacy for the global actions against the war. It was important in delegitimising the war.

Q: The current global concern, as you mentioned earlier, is climate change. It is supposed to be on the WSF's agenda in Brazil this month. How will it be addressed?

A: The WSF has always said that ‘Another world is possible'. What the climate change crisis tells us is that ‘Another world is necessary'. It is very clear that the ecological crisis is a systemic problem. In so far as the WSF is talking about alternatives, I think up until now many groups at the WSF have concentrated very much on economics. We need to enlarge that to accommodate the ecological frame and build strong networks with indigenous movements and other sectors that we have not worked with before.

I also think this will be an interesting challenge to the traditional Left, which had a fairly materialist view, or somehow believed in the idea that development means progress. But the ecological crisis is a real challenge to that view. What does development mean if the price you pay is the complete destruction of the eco-system?

Q: How truly global is the WSF 10 years after its conception? Does it have a wide following in Asia?

A: Even up until now the WSF continues to be a very European- and Latin American-dominated process. We have had several really good social forums in Asia in places like (South) Korea, India, Pakistan and even Thailand. But I don't think the WSF has really dug deep roots in Asia. That is my impression.

Q: Why?

A: There is a unity of common experience in Latin America and they have two languages that unite vast sections of the continent. It is difficult in Asia because of the many languages, because of the size and the diversity.

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