A New Start for the World Social Forum

Image Source: NASA Landsat image – Public Domain

On the surface, things look very good. Trees are covering more and more areas. In pictures from above, the Himalayan valleys are green, two-thirds forest. But 90 per cent are conifers. Below them there is hardly any vegetation, biodiversity is being lost, the soil is becoming more and more sterile, dry, unusable and unable to store water. The Himalayas are rapidly becoming what is known as a green desert. There is also less and less snow. This is accelerating the melting of the glaciers.

2 billion people depend on these glaciers for water through the great rivers Indus and Ganges to the Mekong and the Yangtse rivers. As the glaciers shrink, there is less and less water for agriculture downstream. Small farmers are drastically affected. Many others also depend on the water from what is called the top of the world.

In one of the Himalayan valleys, surrounded by 7 500 metre peaks, lies Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu. Here, a meeting was recently held that could show us the way out of this crisis, a way based on the needs of small farmers and rural areas.

The person who did more than anyone else to convince the International Council that this year’s World Social Forum should take place in Nepal may well have been the political sociologist Uddhab Pyakurel. He belongs to the first generation in his village to become literate. WSF changed his entire perspective on life. The social forums he attended, and his encounters with the people there, gave him an awareness of everything from neoliberalism to the importance of combating discrimination. He gained so many new perspectives and ideas. With particular empathy, he tells the story of a Finnish professor he met who had reduced his job to work as a cleaner. In the traditional Nepalese village society, with its caste system, each individual is assigned a specific task from birth and must stick to it for the rest of their lives. Uddhab Pyakurel’s encounter with a person who performed an intellectual occupation while scrubbing floors was shocking. His view of village social systems changed completely. By organising the WSF in Nepal, he hoped that a large number of the participants would similarly broaden their horizons. He believes that something similar also happened. Although many came to the WSF in Kathmandu in the context of specific NGO projects, many of them were affected in the same way as he was.

The first World Social Forum was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001. The first decade was a success as a counterweight to neoliberal globalisation. Over a hundred thousand participants were able to gather year after year at global meetings. Soon enough, forums emerged on most continents, in many countries and even locally as in Sweden. Then the influence declined until Covid-19 made it impossible to hold anything other than an online forum. Now the World Social Forum is re-launching with what even critics see as a success.

The criticism has been that peace issues have been overlooked and that environmental issues have been overshadowed by social issues. The WSF in Kathmandu demonstrated a clear commitment to peace and that environmental and social issues can be given a proper place at the same time. Soumya Dutta of Friends of the Earth India, a network of fishermen, street vendors and other environmentalists, goes so far as to say: “Environmental and social issues are becoming one issue. This is done through things like making the working conditions of those who have to work in increasingly extreme heat as porters a natural part of climate justice efforts.”

Criticism has also centred on the difficulty of the WSF leading to action. An almost antagonistic conflict has prevailed between the advocates of the open space and those who wanted more political mobilisation. In Kathmandu, several pragmatic ways were tried to encourage political action without changing the rule that the WSF is an open space that does not make decisions in the name of all participants. The newly established WSF World Assembly of Resistance was one way to channel this will. Another was for members of the International Council, and not the whole Council, to adopt a statement condemning Israel’s genocide in Gaza and calling for a joint day of action on 15 May. A third was to use the forum to launch what cannot be done in the framework of social forums, such as cooperation between parties and popular movements against the emerging right-wing extremism.

Can the WSF in Nepal provide a new momentum for international civil society cooperation and strategies? In a country facing the dramatic consequences of global warming and with many farmers, the opportunities may be there. Central to the climate justice movement and many other movements is recognising the central role of rural socio-economic realities and farmers. It is also the ability to shape strategies that change countries’ policies. Nepal is one of the few countries or the only that has written food sovereignty into its constitution, so one of the central demands of the global peasant movement has been adopted by this nation: the right of every nation to feed its own people. It is also a nation that has avoided the authoritarian tendencies that are so prevalent in so many other countries in Asia and now in Europe and many other parts of the world. Who knows, maybe the WSF in Nepal will be the start of a new momentum that makes rural movements as important as urban movements in solving the problems of the world today?

Much of what happened at this year’s WSF in Nepal can be seen as the usual stuff of these meetings. A scout builds a skeleton for a Tesla together with other young climate activists. Soon, the car model will join the demonstration train as a critique of ‘electric capitalism’, and will be crowded with lively people fighting for the rights of different groups, for workers, small farmers, women, untouchables, indigenous people, disabled people, LGBTQI people, sex workers, migrants, Kurds and so on.

The World Social Forum began on 15 February with a festive march through the crowded streets of Kathmandu. At the forefront was a banner in support of Palestine and the message ‘Another world is possible’. Once again, tens of thousands of civil society activists from around the world gathered at a social forum. Nepal was chosen partly because it is one of the very few countries in Asia where the authorities are tolerant enough to allow such a meeting. Here was a rebirth of international cooperation possible between popular movements and other organizations; a cooperation with broad ambitions to resist all forms of oppression and also to promote a better relationship between man and nature.

The air in Kathmandu is so dirty you can chew the particles that have settled on your teeth. But there is something else new in the air here. People are increasingly speaking each other’s language. A young feminist from Lalitpur, bordering the capital, calls for action: “We should unite against the neo-liberal and authoritarian era that is increasingly tending towards fascism. The statement from the three-day feminist forum has been widely praised. The young activists who organised the 2016 WSF in Montreal are planning a thematic WSF on intersectionality that will include sexual identities, ethnicity, class, and so on.

The most frequent topic at the WSF is climate and climate justice, which appeared in the title of 43 different activities. Here, issues often focus on land rights and social rights for labourers. The smallholder view is centred on the need for food sovereignty and agro-ecology. Alongside the small farmers’ success in getting food sovereignty into the constitution, organisations such as the Youth Alliance for the Environment are fighting to educate the public about the cryosphere, the part of the planet made up of ice, which is now shrinking with far-reaching consequences.

Some of the prominent leaders of mass movements and intellectuals also participated in Kathmandu. Medha Patkar from India and the Narmada movement was there to deliver a fiery speech during the inauguration against the prevailing view of development in the world. Aleida Guevara from Cuba spoke to Nepal’s political leaders about socialism, the importance of unity and equal rights to health and education for all. Walden Bello highlighted the threat of emerging fascism; Eric Toussaint launched an initiative to start something new again, starting in Porto Alegre, Brazil: what is needed is a worldwide campaign against emerging right-wing radicalism and fascism, this time with the support of both popular movements and parties.

But the WSF in Nepal may be remembered above all as the major breakthrough of a new generation from Africa, ready to take over. The CGLTE OA (Global Convergence of West African Land and Water Struggles), a caravan for the right to land, water and peasant seeds, has been crossing the countries of West Africa since 2016. A group of young activists representing the collaboration in the 16 West African countries had been preparing for a long time.
Today, one of them, Massa Koné, is ready. The many major movements that have left the WSF must be won back, not least the global smallholder movement Via Campesina, which brings together 250 million people, and which is seen by many as the world’s largest popular movement. This requires a renewal of the International Council, the governing body of the WSF.

The West African delegation seemed to have more energy than anyone else in Nepal. When the closing ceremony was over and most people were tired, they continued to sing cheers and battle songs. The decision on where to hold the next WSF became an easy one. It will be held in the West African country of Benin in 2026.

Uddhab Pyakurel is pleased – “Our hopes of being a good host for such an important international meeting were realised. Now I hope that everyone, wherever they are, takes responsibility for making the world a better place. We in poor countries can’t only blame others, it is also important to try to live as we learn.”

Tord Bjork works with Friends of the Earth Sweden, International Peace Bureau and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. He can be reached at:  tord.bjork@gmail.com