The World Social Forum in Nepal

When you write about our adventure in Nepal, make sure it doesn’t read like a tourist guide”

– Satyajit Ray (The Criminals of Kathmandu)

I return from the World Social Forum in Nepal with a haystack full of notes, a head full of a thousand threads, asking my heart how to find and thread the eye of the needle. So I begin with this quote for three reasons. Firstly, to keep writer and reader honest: The Kathmandu bookshelves already groan with the shameless accounts of half-baked tourists, ready to explain it all, or muddle it all; writing as commodification instead of community, for readers seeking recreation instead of transformation. Secondly, these are the words of Feluda, a subcontinental Sherlock Holmes; a detective who fills his ears and notebooks with observations and from bewildering confusion follows the clues, back to the bad guys, over whom he prevails. We need his spirit. Thirdly, because these words are written by the premiere cinematographer of the region, and we need his vision to comprehend the breadth and the detail of this story of stories…

By the Nepali calendar, it’s the month of Falgun in the year 2080. Genocide is underway in Gaza. Indian farmers are facing down tear gas on the road to Delhi. The proxy war continues in Ukraine. Julian Assange is facing final extradition, it’s the 25th anniversary of Abdullah Ocalan’s capture, and locally it’s Democracy Day. The air is thick in Kathmandu – an average of five times the WHO standard for air pollution. And here in little, legendary Nepal, there is an archway over which is printed the invitation: “Another World is Possible.”

How many people are here? Very difficult to say for sure; estimates of attendance made by participants at that opening march range from a cynical 3000 to a glorious 30,000. Students, workers, farmers, NGOs, academics, and activists – from every continent and for every just cause. Lots of drums, and a symphony of songs; traditional flutes and horns; and a breathtaking diversity of indigenous clothing. Too many signs to read, too many slogans to hear, too long a line of march to see its ending or beginning. Whatever the contradictions and confusions that haunt the crowd, whatever analytical dissection may be necessary, it would be wrong to leave out the feelings and emotions that accompany every witness of an event on this kind of scale and stage. If not the other possible world itself, then at least a portal towards it; if not revolution then at least some kind of rehearsal; if not real global unity then maybe its prelude; if not peace then at least a major possibility for its preparation – if not perfect then still as radical as reality itself.

The march circled the center of Kathmandu and returned to Brikhuti Mandap – a large park, central venue of the World Social Forum and the site of the opening ceremony. I find a seat in the shade and take notes. For the next four days there will be about fifty events all happening simultaneously at any given time. So if there is any central unifying theme of the forum, it will be articulated here.

A welcome song in six languages. Walden Bello from the Philippines recalls the origins of the World Social Forum 23 years ago. He quotes Charles Dickens: “It is the best of times and the worst of times.” We are here, he he said, to show that we are resisting depredation, to show our solidarity, and to plan for the future. “Definitely another world is possible – that’s why we’re here.” It is noted early in the program that “neoliberalism” – against which the World Social Forum originally convened – is stronger than ever. “Genocide in the name of globalization.” Every day of this forum the killing continues: “75 years of crimes culminating in Gaza,” the Palestinian speaker explains. While every cause convenes to march together, one message is clear across all the groups: Palestinian flags, keffiyeh, and signs that read “Ceasefire Now!” After she speaks there is a moment of silence (with ten thousand people?!) and there is more unity and power in that silence than even the whole march. And then, a traditional dance by the Indigenous Federation: ten couples from different regions in gorgeous clothes, each so different, each with their unique plants and musical instruments and flags… they began in a circle throwing flower petals, and at the end the men and women advance together in a line with harvesting knives raised in their fists.

The moderator reads out a message of support and solidarity from the general secretary of the United Nations. From my seat I can see backstage, where the USAID tent is quietly confronted and quietly packs up its booth.

Veterans from the World Social Forum process explain and extol its method: Democracy is our only hope, our only resistance against the authoritarianism which is backed by the global economic system. The WSF promotes a process, “a place where everyone can celebrate their agenda and identity.” “Here everyone is in power,” says Thomas Wallgren from Finland; “the WSF doesn’t put power in leaders… we do not underestimate each other and ourselves.”

Indigenous wheelchair dancers! Jeevan Sharma sings a song about a porter in the mountains, lamenting his migrant children. Aleida Guevara says that our biggest problem is ignorance caused by mass media, and that our most urgent cause is to free Palestine. Everything all at once: the truth is like that; over-saturated, layered, swirling. But clarity cuts through the chaos. “We have been living with imperialism for 2000 years,” says Jomo Kwame Sundaram from Malaysia. Wen Tiejun from China counsels the crowd to turn crisis into opportunity; to change the whole development model, emphasizing the self-organization and sovereignty of rural people. Medha Patkar from India got the most applause perhaps: “There is war in every country, not just Ukraine and Gaza. We must build a new world on the basis of nonviolence and truth. We are here for an alternative development paradigm with justice for all. Climate change is a crime against humanity. Rivers should flow freely. Forests are the real ventilators. We should learn simple self-sufficient lives from the tribals. We need a people’s power movement – without it there is no alternative!”

When the opening ceremony is over I get lost in the crowd. Meeting people and observing people: reunions and introductions, agreements and arguments, tensions and relaxations. Gradually I gravitate to a few of the Palestinian delegates and follow them down the block to the Nepal Tourism Board. Over a hundred people crowd into the beautiful wooden auditorium across the lobby from where all the trekkers and alpinists get their permits to ascend the Himalayas, to learn about what’s happening in Palestine. We listen to people in the room and onscreen. On that night the numbers are 28,000 dead and 7000 missing. “I have lost forty friends and family.” Entire families wiped out. We hear from the professor of postmodern literature who can’t get milk or even clean water for his children. “Palestinians were very naive thinking that the international community would do something about this.” Mireille Fanon follows and explains: The UN declaration of human rights is just for white people. Six million dead in the Congo and barely a word! What’s going on in Gaza is a continuum, a paradigm, and a process of dispossession… The media wakes up when savages fight back against the civilized, and likes counting the dead. We still haven’t finished what started in 1492. If anything comes out of the WSF, it better be for Palestine. She ended by quoting her father: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, and fulfill it or betray it.”

Well, it’s not every day you get direct transmission from the daughters of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, not every lifetime that you find yourself in the crossroads and crossfire of all the problems and all the solutions, frozen in the headlights of history. I slept on it and woke up and the dream continued for four days more. I want to tell the story in as few chapters as possible, to distill the spirits fermenting in the crowds. It’s not easy. Competing sound systems, constant cultural performances, a galaxy of smaller serious conversations, and always at least a dozen large auditoriums or tents full with a couple hundred people, simultaneously. Unity but also cacophony. Democracy but with great dissonances. A chaotic fractal of complexity and heat-death. So many melodies that the harmony is difficult to hear. So many rhythms that it’s easy to lose the beat. Most reports from this event have been shorter and more straightforward, but what they achieve in brevity they forego in contemplation of the real depths that cleave and heave our world. This essay is my attempt to hear the music, the music of another paradigm of development, the music of the other possible world.

Movement 1: Rivers

Every day in the mornings for about two hours, a group convenes to discuss rivers. Mostly they are from Nepal and India. Their goal is simple – that the rivers which flow through their homelands should unite them, not divide them; should be a source of cooperation and not conflict. They are up against a lot of obstacles – not just the competing sound systems from two different assemblies happening on either side – but dams, mines, deforestation, governments and corporations; imaginary lines on the land and imaginary lines in hearts and minds as well. Nevertheless, for three days, about thirty people divided by those lines and united by rivers, dreamed and schemed about how to find unity across national borders.

The defense is urgent: “Trans-Himalayan rivers are the lifeline of 1.4 billion people,” says river guide and activist Megh Ale: “If we want to preserve the Ganga we have to be serious: It begins in the Himalaya. Whatever happens in Nepal winds up in India.” The emergency is already upon us. Manshi Asher from India explains that “2023 was the year of Himalayan disasters.” Disaster, she clarifies, “is not an event; it’s a social, economic and political process.” We’ve heard the story before but there are new wrinkles. Starting in the 1990s, dam building became less about creating large catchment reservoirs and more about hydropower. They don’t submerge immense valleys as much, but they do wreck mountain watershed ecosystems. Most recently, this is carried out under the banner of ‘green energy’. Since all dams are now sold as clean and renewable energy projects, fewer laws apply to them. “You can’t question green development.” And, “the bigger the dam, the bigger the commission.”

To mitigate and ultimately resolve the disaster, the participants discussed the need for a trans-boundary people’s dialog and a treaty on trans-boundary rivers. Soumya Dutta from India explains the important principle of ‘first users’ rights’. He also notes that existing river treaties are measured in cusecs (cubic feet per second), and don’t include any of the cultural, political, ecological aspects of rivers. From Thailand, Laddawan Tantivitayapitak expresses hope that the process of developing this treaty might be approached differently. “Digital email networking is not working,” she insists: “it leaves out people on the ground.” The cultural meaning of rivers was richly expressed in these gatherings: “We have a problem with vision,” says Megh Ale; not only about how to save our fivers but about how to see them as what they really are: “Humans have forgot what the river is.” Roots of civilization! Arteries of earth! “They should flow free.” Other participants echo: “Water is a gift of nature.” “To commodify it is a sin.”

One of the clearest calls and campaigns with I heard from this forum, and maybe from the whole WSF was this: Save the Karnali! The river that flows from the peacock’s mouth in Tibet; the longest river in Nepal, which connects three civilizations, from the Tibetan plateau to the Gangetic plains; the sacred source of holy waters for Hindus and Buddhists and Sikhs and Jains – and the last free-flowing river in Nepal. “Can we have prosperity without destruction?” someone asked, to nobody in particular. Three hydropower dams are already planned for the Karnali. A campaign to save it could unite the whole subcontinent, from Kaliash to Kataragama. See you there!

Movement Two: Democracy

Democracy is the heart and the ethos of the WSF. It’s not particularly controversial: there’s hardly anyone in the world today, rich or poor, left or right, East or West, North or South, who is against democracy. Every ruling party and every opposition party in every country claims to uphold it. Even the few single party states are run by principles of democratic centralism within their parties. The divine right of kings is over, and the era of democracy has begun. In Nepal this is very recent, and therefore very sensitive history. But here as everywhere in the world, at the very moment that this political principle is most universal, it is simultaneously losing all meaning.

“Our governments are corporations,” says a woman from Bangladesh. Statistics aren’t difficult to come by; here are a few I found on fliers floating around: The World Inequality Report 2022: “the richest 10%… takes 52% of global income, whereas the poorest half… earns 8.5%.” “The majorities of the world,” explains a statement from Action Aid India, “the system has relegated as surplus population.” Even in Nepal, where the ripe fruit of democracy is still fresh, just plucked from the branch of revolution: According to the Nepal Living Standard Survey, 20% of the population holds 50% of the wealth, and the poorest 20% holds only 5%. The gap is widening, here and everywhere. 800 million people in the world are hungry while 1.3 billion tons of food rots annually. Multinationals evade roughly $500 billion of taxes every year. “Top 10% of the rich possess 72%…. remaining 90% have to live on 28%.” (2022) Chandra Adhikari from Nepal says in a speech: “What kind of world are we going to create? There will be only two classes, the ruling rich, and undeclared slaves.” A statement signed on February 18 by a dozen organizations warned: “Democracy is at risk of becoming an empty shell.”

We have all felt it. Language grapples with the problem, adding adjectives… direct democracy, participatory democracy, deliberative democracy – anything to distinguish itself from bourgeois democracy… but something more than language is necessary. The answers are not forthcoming from the USA which claims to be the first. Even Princeton University scholars were forced to admit years ago that there’s no such thing as democracy in America. Usha Titikshu of Kathmandu spoke from the audience about democracy in Nepal: “There is no more monarchy, now it’s a secular federal republic. The left is in power in alliance with reactionary parties… USAID was kicked out of the WSF but the IMF and ADB control the government. Global justice is a nice slogan but politics are left out.” Not in spite of but because of these reasons, Nepal has a lot to teach the world about democracy. While Princeton has admitted defeat, in the dusty hallways of the rundown Nepal Law Campus, I crowd into a workshop titled “Radical Democracy and Autonomy,” hosted by “the global tapestry of alternatives.” The speakers reflect on the meaning of democracy in the 21st century with a focus on India, China, Mexico, and Kurdistan.

Ashish Kothari from India opens the panel by noting that 2024 is the biggest election year in world history. This year, 50% of the world will be voting to elect their representatives. Perhaps needless to say, we are not as thrilled as we might imagine we should be. Democratic elections have brought us Modi, Trump, Biden, Marcos, Netanyahu, et. al. It’s not just about bad guys in power though, Kothari insists; it’s also about “large populations willing to be brainwashed.” We’ve had faith for too long in what he calls “neoliberal democracy” – and in doing so “we give up our birthright: the power to make decisions.” The largest polling in history is thus really the largest giving-up in history – and this helps explain how it coincides with record inequality, world war, and mass extinction.

“But politics and democracy that are truly transformative do actually exist,” continues Kothari. He encourages everyone to question: “what is our relationship with the nation-state right now?” and suggests alternative practices and ideas of democracy beyond majoritarianism, and even beyond anthropocentrism. He draws inspiration from the village assemblies that grew out of an anti-dam movement in central India a few decades back. Over a dozen years, a process of study circles, assemblies, and consensus decision-making, which eventually resulted in the unanimous communalization of all land, took place in a village called Mendha-Lekha in Maharashtra state. Inspired by this, a federation of 90 village assemblies called Korchi Maha Gramsabha, unites many such experiences of real people power. He also references the Adivasi slogan from Mendha-Lekha of the 1980s: “We elect the government in Delhi, but in our village we are the government.”

There is also much discussion of the Zapatistas, a revolutionary social movement in Chiapas Mexico, which while small in numbers (especially by Asian standards) has had a tremendous influence on people all over the world, particularly when it comes to this idea of democracy. In the Americas, the Zapatistas are pretty well known and respected, but it’s amazing to hear how they resonate in China, for instance, where a translation of a book by Subcomandante Marcos sold a million copies. Lau Kin Chi from the Global University of Sustainability in China suggests that the Zapatista principle of ‘commanding by obeying’ can re-inform the theory and practice of democratic centralism. She notes the conscious withdrawal of the Zapatista military from the civilian communities, and how their experience teaches us to reject hierarchies. Professor Wen Tiejun compares them with the Chinese Red Army in the 1920s, when villages were governed by local leaders who received no salaries.

Then the floor goes to two Kurdish women. The Zapatistas often express their struggle in terms of 500 years of indigenous resistance to colonialism. The communes of Kurdistan – freely associated according to the principles of democratic confederalism – take us back even farther in history. Necibe Qeredaxi from the Jineoloji Academy explains that there is a visible war which is more or less well known, but also an invisible war: “The latter has no name. It started 5,000 years ago.” Radical democracy existed 12,000 years ago, she argues, before the advent of patriarchy. She articulates a different understanding of colonialism, which begins with the enslavement of women. It has culminated today in what Noam Chomsky has called “rotten democracy.” Rokhosh Shexo from Kongreya Star explains how the Kurdish experience of democracy emerged from the recent war: “We didn’t just fight ISIS, we defended ourselves – and not just against external forces but against mental systems.” They went door to door, organizing women, organizing families, and organizing society. In their autonomous villages and towns, “everyone in society has to be part of some organization.” Necibe says that it’s not just about liberating women but about liberating life itself: “We should not beg or demand anything from the system,” she insists: “we should build our own.”

Movement Three: Food

In between panels and assemblies and workshops, we eat. Vendors are selling momo dumplings and other Nepali cuisines in bowls made out of leaves. We are what we eat, so it’s no surprise that so many of the conversations and campaigns revolve around this. Farmer protests, peasant rights, rural reconstruction – all the songs of other possible worlds return to this source – our daily bread.

Krishna Paudel from Nepal frames the global food crisis in two sentences: “We are exporting farmers and importing food… (and) what we are eating today is sending us to the hospital.” A woman from India completes the picture of crisis by relaying the news from the road to Delhi, where farmers are being tear gassed and shot with pellets.

In a workshop titled “Food Justice”, Alex Jensen from the USA summarizesthe findings of a recent global study titled ‘The Food Barons’: Four to six companies control world agriculture from seed to retail. As power over food gets more concentrated and more globalized, diets are becoming more homogeneous and less healthy. The global sale of packaged food was $3 trillion in 2020, and soft drinks alone are expected to gross $2 trillion by 2027. It doesn’t come cheap: the industrial food system is the leading cause of early death around the world; the estimated cost in health care amounts to $20 trillion annually. Diabetes for instance corresponds directly to trade liberalization – countries that sign free trade agreements with the USA experience a 60% increase in soft drink consumption. Agribusiness is subsidized to the tune of $600 billion per year – but that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg. Because the only reason that global food trade is happening at all is because of an annual $7 trillion subsidy for fossil fuels. So the food we eat not only poisons us, along with the soil and the water, but it’s also one of the primary sources of global warming. A statement circulated in Nepal by the Alliance of Agriculture for Food (dated February 14) states: “The air is unbreathable. Water is not drinkable. The soil is constantly dying.” Half a century of the green revolution has revealed its grotesque harvest: production increase and nutrition decrease, with a side of farmer suicides. “We have been living under the WTO regime for decades,” says Ashish Kothari from India. It’s not just the governments: “Corporates have infiltrated every organization,” says Frances Davies from Zambia.

Arjun Karki from Nepal: “there is plenty of land but nobody to cultivate it.” Remittances of migrant workers are the backbone of Nepal’s modern economy, and the money that comes in, he explains, is then used to buy things from multinationals. So the hard-earned wages of migrant workers are used to strengthen capitalism. Meanwhile, rice is airlifted by helicopter to remote villages. There can be no real independence or sovereignty, he says, without rural reconstruction. But how do we go about it? “When we were young we wanted to be revolutionaries. Today’s youth want to be billionaires,” continues Karki: “Every day we are supporting billionaires,” he laments. He might know more than average about this, I learned later, discovering that his NGO is a World Bank partner. But he’s candid: “our whole development model is surrounded by capitalism,” he admits.

Luckily we are at the WSF where the alternatives are legion. “Those who possess the power of understanding to make a meaningful impact are divided into diverse interest groups,” opines the Alliance of Agriculture for Food statement. The WSF is a kind of climax of this problem – all the solutions are here, but clear signals get lost in the interference pattern. This is my attempt to tune into that signal, broadcasting another world. Cidi Otiemo from the Kenyan Peasants League is very clear: “Food is a socialist matter because it brings us together. Peasants are the majority in the world, but they are fragmented. Peasants have power – we are the majority!” But he regrets how farmers’ organizations and movements have been infiltrated by consumerism as a way of life: “Campaign against the WTO and IMF and then go buy food at the supermarket?? What a contradiction!”

But the resolution of these contradictions can be found if you know where to look. Ashish Kothari describes the experience of Dalit women farmers of Deccan Development Society in Telengana, India, where they resisted the green revolution from the very beginning. They shared seeds and land and held both sacred. Five thousand families have food security and sovereignty thanks to their own efforts. Analyzing the experience, Kothari says: “We can’t do organic food without cultural revitalization, without land rights for women, without political and economic control.” Frances Davies from Zambia strikes the same chord; their work is against the criminalization of farmers but “unless we revive our spiritual traditions and sacred sites, nothing we do will ever succeed.”

Sheelu Francis from the Women’s Collective in Tamil Nadu, India, shares another of the most inspiring and hopeful narratives from the whole WSF: their collective in Chennai started in 1994 in response to violence against women. It’s the most urbanized state in India, where 48% of the children are malnourished. There are 35,000 women farmers in their region but only 10% have access to land.  In five years their collective grew to 100,000 members. Their organization works to help them start cultivating organic, traditional crops. In addition to helping women farmers, they purchase land in the name of the collective. They focus on production of millet, which is more nutritious than rice or wheat, and 90% of it is still rain-fed and not ‘chemicalized’. “We are not going for marketing,” she explains – the surplus is exchanged within the collective, or stored. The solution and the slogan is simple: “nutritious food for children.” To accompany this mission, filling the vacuum in education caused by the pandemic, they have organized a children’s panchayat and children’s kitchen gardens. Children are some of the primary consumers of ‘fast food’ so this is not a minor point. To counter the force of advertising, they organize traditional recipe competitions; learning from grandmothers and bringing them into schools. One person notes that Olympic athletes train from childhood and farmers who are much more important to society than athletes, must also be trained from a young age.

From the heartwarming prefigurative small picture, another workshop zoomed out to consider these questions on a much larger scale. A panel of rural reconstruction experts from China, India and Nepal sit together. There is so much ignorance and prejudice and hostility between South and East Asia that the session itself is a revelation; representatives from the two most populated countries on earth, and Nepal between them, “the yam between two boulders,” giving fresh water to both. Yan Xiaohui, part of the Global University for Sustainability, explains that China joined the WTO in 2001 – the same year as the first World Social Forum. China attracted the highest amount of foreign direct investment in the world, but “rural society has borne the cost of globalization.” He describes the rural reconstruction movement in China as “a social self-rescue movement while mainstream society embraces neoliberalism.” Lau Kin Chi from Hong Kong analyzes how an economy based on cheap commodity and plastic exports from China involve a “triple exploitation”: of past labor, of present labor, and of the future generations. Moreover, she goes on, “the whole model of modernization and development is Eurocentric… the most urgent thing is to challenge the paradigm of modernization – not just the multinational corporations but the mentality.” She concludes that the legacy of the Chinese revolution is that the peasants still own the land. Land and seeds: these, along with the people themselves, are the basis for alternative development.

Professor Wen Tiejun from Renmin University, a celebrity in China for his writing and advocacy about rural reconstruction, explained its long history – for over a hundred years there have been organized, large-scale efforts to recover the legacy of rural life. “Globalization is bankrupt,” he says with a shrug and a puzzled smile; “the leading country gave up on globalization!” Rural reconstruction, he explains, is aimed at creating a soft landing from global crises. What’s the difference between a soft and a hard landing? Life or death: “People have no safety in cities.” Dirty water, dirty air, bad food. So by the millions they have been mobilizing urban populations to link up with rural reconstruction. This is not just about roads and schools and hospitals, not even just about farms and food. “Increasing rural incomes is not worth much if it’s used to buy food from multinational corporations… there are no returns on rural investment except for safety, and survival.” There has been a $1 trillion investment in rural infrastructure in China since the 2008 financial crisis. But he emphasizes that much more than buildings, rural reconstruction must be about cultural revitalization. “5000 years of history are not preserved in mega-cities,” he insists, and speaks about the spiritual force of village songs.

Lanying Zhang notes that all of the many waves of rural reconstruction in China have been led by philosophers but enacted by youth. Frances Davies from Zambia recounts the distilled essence of rural reconstruction as told to her by an old woman: “We want our children to come home.” This reminds me of the haunting words of Tenzing Norgay in his book After Everest: “The old people are always crying, always asking how things are, when the children will be coming home. They say they are too old now to do much about the farm… The end cannot be far off.”[1] How can we persuade the children to come home, before it’s too late? Electricity and schools are not enough to keep people in rural areas, indeed they seem to often have the opposite effect. Something more is required. A cultural revolution?! Whatever the program or the ideology, Professor Tiejun insists that governments and peoples need to take responsibility. It all comes down to one question: are the rural people organized?


The movements coalesce and converge and crest, before collapsing, like a wave function, into the ocean of everyday life. They rise above the white noise and the black smoke and rainbow banners, breaching like whales, before crashing again into the mysterious depths of history. The rhythm of these movements and their emergent harmony builds to a crescendo in the final days of the forum. Here the cadenzas begin; the movements sustain the accompaniment for the truth to soar over – the kind of truth that Gandhi called god, the truth that can set us free, free to re-ascend to our origins, free to come home, as every revolution and every song returns, at last, to the beginning. These cadenzas are not mere embellishments or virtuosity of technique, but of that truth itself – above the fray, fearless, soloing: organized Dalits in counterpoint to odious debts; the unmasking of false solutions; and the revelations of the apocalypse – these prepare the deliverance of justice and peace: Peace not of the abyss but on the horizon beyond it, the peace of the green forest, in the eye and the ear and the heart, ready now to swim and climb to the promised land of the other world which is not only possible but necessary.

Debts versus Dalits… “We were born in debt and we’ll die in debt,” say the Indian farmers fighting the goon squads on the road to the capital. Between dammed rivers and rotten democracies and poisonous foods, it can be easy to miss the man behind the curtain, minting millions. If there is an arch enemy against which humanity’s heroes must assemble, its name is Finance Capital. According to a pamphlet distributed by Action Aid, since the Paris Agreement, $3.2 billion has been loaned to the fossil fuel industry in the global South alone. One company – Bayer, the largest recipient – has received over $20 billion in loans for industrial agriculture since 2016. The combined annual financing for fossil fuels in the South between 2016 and 2022 was $513 billion. And while one hand giveth, the other taketh away: Big banks not only are driving the destruction, they are also preventing the action necessary to stop and reverse it, since all the available resources are tied up in debt payments. Nepal, for example, has nearly $4 billion in debt. So whether or not Nepali politicians want to dam rivers and strip mine mountains and export farmers, they have to – this is the only way to pay the interest on their debts. And if they don’t pay, pounds of flesh will be demanded. Even after the world-famous earthquake in 2015, not a penny of debt was forgiven. As the Nepali revolutionary mystic Yogmaya said, seemingly not so long ago: “How riches grow by trickery / You say the debt still stands! / I know the dead man paid his due – / Yet to his boy you say ‘give more’.”[2] One workshop at the WSF had the answer very clearly in its title: “Debt Jubilee in the Time of Climate Change.” From the Paris Commune to the Patan Commune, the banks are the hidden center of power; any campaign or revolution which fails to tackle and tangle with finance capital can’t possibly get far. “Banks,” said Soumya Dutta from India, “are the agenda setters. They are undermining governance itself. They see an opportunity in this crisis. The World Bank also believes another world is possible.” The answer is loud and clear: “Cancel the Debt Now!”

And against all the debt collectors in the world, an army of Dalits is amassing. There were more workshops and assemblies of Dalits from all over South Asia than I could keep track of. A list of some of their titles nonetheless will provide an outline of the program which is pending: Exterminating discriminatory casteism. Discrimination against Dalit children and the way forward. Climate change and its impact on Dalits and marginalized communities. Fusion of class struggle and caste struggle for Dalit rights. Dialogue on caste system and socialism. Global discourse on Dalit emancipation and power sharing in state socialism. And on the last days, as ‘everything that rises must converge’: Dalit Parliament. Where government and civil society have failed, where the bourgeoisie is useless and the socialist parties are not that much better, the most oppressed people in the world are organizing their own governments, developing their own economies and their own revolutions too. “No socialism without overcoming caste discrimination,” says Nepal’s National Dalit Network, insisting that it’s a global issue, not only in South Asia.

The true, the false and the fake… We the people are finding ourselves; unmasking false hopes and foolish fears, false leaders and faux followers, false solutions and fake food. “I don’t trust civil society anymore,” I overhear one woman say in another workshop. It’s “infiltrated by fundamentalism, corporates, governments… the political deception is so deep that you can’t trust or rely on any particular part of society.” We the people are getting savvy – we’ve been fooled more than once and are getting hip to the hustle. One young activist in another forum gives a fiery speech against so-called ‘climate-smart agriculture’: “We won’t believe your technocratic solutions, we won’t let you do this! We’ll reclaim our rights!” In Bangladesh, the rural women won’t eat the ‘fortified rice’ given to them by corporate-funded governments and NGOs. They call it plastic rice.

Apocalypse and Revelation… Every day here, hundreds gather in climate justice assemblies, occasionally a few of them at the same time! There is a lot of clarity about climate change from the comrades in Bangladesh. A third of Bangladesh is coastal, and they’ve been hit lately with an average of two cyclones per year. This results, I learn, are a 65% reduction in farming, and an 80% reduction in the rice harvest. The women who live with this slow death by salinization not only can’t feed their families but their reproductive organs begin to rot. This is a gruesome subject, a far cry from the feel-good climate change camps in the global North where people console each other about ‘compassion fatigue’. “Humans or shrimps?” — the coastal Bangladeshis face this ultimatum at point blank range. And when the water rises, where do they go? “Climate-induced migration and modern slavery” – a whole workshop gathers to explore this imminent mode of production. Meanwhile, upstream, at the roof of the world, things are scarier still. The Himalaya are turning black. 40% of the ice already lost. The Third Pole is heating far faster than the global average. The Hindu Kush recedes an average of six meters per year. Glacial lakes are ballooning in the hundreds and will certainly burst in devastating floods. When these rivers run down or run dry, billions will be thirsty and hungry. Already, acute food insecurity globally has doubled only over the last four years. Celeste Saulo, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, was quoted recently: “Every major global climate record was broken last year and 2024 could be worse.”

A recent article in the Guardian surveyed hundreds of climate scientists. [3]Only 6% of the 380 surveyed think that the 1.5C limit will be achieved. Jonathan Cullen from the UK: “1.5C is a political game – we were never going to reach this target.” Dr. Ruth Cerezo-Mota from Mexico: “I think 3C is being hopeful and conservative.” Camille Parmesan from France asks: “What the fuck do we have to do to get through to people how bad this really is?” Global income is set to shrink by a fifth by 2050, says a recent study published in Nature. So why is there no action? The scientists were asked the same question: Only 27% thought lack of money was a problem. Only 6% thought a lack of green technology was the big issue. And a mere 4% believed that it is a lack of scientific understanding which prevents us from mass collective actions. What’s lacking, they mostly agree, is ‘political will’. “Capitalism has trained us well,” says a climate scientist from the USA. “The good news, says Michael Meredith, researching in Antarctica, “is that the worst case scenario is still avoidable.” Stephen Humphreys from the LSE agrees with millions or people around the world about what’s required: “civil disobedience….” Thousands and thousands have been arrested but so what? How can we scale up individual acts of conscience and courage to the level necessary to affect global industrial policy? Jomo Kwame Sundaram from Malaysia says from the main stage: “The Non Aligned Movement is relevant again. Hope rests there. It should be pacifist but not passive. Asia needs to articulate unity, like the Americas and Africa have done. Let’s rebuild the NAM against the US and NATO. Let’s start with Palestine.”

How can we summon the spirit for such a fantastic challenge? I am reminded of how, and granted a moment of peace and promise, when, earlier in the week, in a youth climate justice assembly, a young man named Jaldeep sings a song he wrote, titled “Green Forest” – which he clarifies, is “the main source of civilization on this earth.” I can’t understand the lyrics in Nepali but he is true of voice, true of heart; unaccompanied by any instrument but supported by history and spirit. The cacophony of competing agendas goes silent to listen to him sing. I can no longer remember the melody but I’ll never forget the feeling: beauty, and courage, and hope – not the ripoffs but the real things. He was introduced as disabled, and I can’t help but wonder who the real disabled ones are – everyone who can walk and talk and see and hear and speak and yet do so very little for each other or even for themselves. Jaldeep and all the many so-called disabled participants at the WSF remind me of Helen Keller, who once wrote to an editor of a newspaper who challenged her views: “It is you who are deaf and dumb and blind.” She described in many essays her lifelong paradox — of being blind and deaf and dumb, but hearing and seeing and saying what nobody else could:

My darkness had been filled with the light of intelligence and, behold, the outer daylit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness! … If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness… Just now the world is full of tragic premonitions… Perhaps, though, there is more hope in the situation than we think. Under the turmoil and wreckage the Great Idea may be hastening slowly, with circumspection and invincible tread.[4]

The forum concludes somehow. We all stride or stumble out into the twilight of Kathmandu. We no longer circulate in a shared beating heart of another world, but return to being mere antibodies in the bloodstream of neoliberal globalization. The next morning on the bus out of the city I see on the side of the road a protest march. They are almost all older women, covered in roadside dust, bundles balanced on their heads, communist banners in their hands. There is no press, no fanfare, no international delegation to recognize and record. We are back in the real world, and there is no archway leading to another possible world, except the portal in our own heads and hearts. I never learn the name of the organization, or the cause which could convince these elders to walk so far, breathing smoke, with nobody to cheer them on. But the Great Idea is with them, “hastening slowly.” Here the proverbial rubber meets the road – in the lives of real people. Who knows if they ever heard of the WSF? WTF? Whatever we may have learned, here is the test – can we apply any of it to the local causes and campaigns which, with no slick stage or flashy banner or glassy pamphlet, traverse our tortured world? We’ve heard the music, but have we learned to dance? How many of us will go back to our communities with fresh ideas? Or did we just come to take pictures? Time will tell, our secrets too.


I’m back in Kathmandu weeks after the forum. I’ve been invited to sit in on a meeting of one of the many groups that mobilized months ahead to make the WSF possible. Here, after the foreigners have gone and the fanfare is over, the usual suspects meet to speak among themselves; to reckon with their failures, recognize their successes, and record their decisions about how to carry on. Younger and older. A farmer. A minister. A student. A media activist. This is the Alliance of Agriculture for Food. The name says how bad things have got – what else could agriculture be for except food?!

They explain it all. Well, agriculture these days is for commerce. Agriculture for business; for export markets; for foreign exchange; for money. Food got lost in industrial agriculture – so this group of people started to ask, what is agriculture really for? If it’s for food, well, then it should be poison-free! And how could Nepal ever compete in agriculture with India and China anyway? But meanwhile, 5000 tons of fertilizer are imported annually. Meanwhile, over 70% of diseases are non-communicable. Products are rotting and imports pour in. A popular song is quoted which everyone knows, about how the village has become a senior citizen home.

But the alternatives are ready, flying like sparks in this meeting which goes on for hours. “Let’s get back to the recipes from when the Buddha was alive.” “Let’s work more with municipalities and less with NGOs.” “We need a team of people ready to get their hands dirty.” “We’re stuck in a bad practice that we can’t do anything without funds. Not just us but the whole society.” Many agree: “The only way forward is voluntary contributions from each of us.”

Throughout the WSF I had asked many Nepalis what they thought of all this. Many had worked for months in advance to make it all logistically possible. What did they hope and expect to come from it? They all answered hospitably and hopefully, but now that the event was over, and they were talking among themselves, the vibe was different; the kid gloves and the cliched kindness gave way to a sometimes ruthless criticism and self-criticism: “Should we ever do this again?” someone asks. There are many positives but more lingering doubts – about unprepared speakers, about superficial discussions, and about conflicts between organizers and movements. The design of the overall program and the layout of the space, many feel, prevented greater convergence: There were five different declarations at the end on food and agriculture. “We failed to make the most of the WSF for convergence.” Many of the meetings “were like NGO conferences; not political. Not daring enough to speak against capitalism because of fear of donors.” “Development and nature can’t go together, despite the efforts of many reports,” says Krishna Paudel: “From this perspective, the WSF was a disaster.” “Did any original ideas emerge about climate justice?” asks Usha Titikshu: “There will be beautiful reports but who will benefit? These are questions for nobody but ourselves. We need a critical review of the WSF process if we want to benefit from this.” Some of the leadership admits: “We got confused with false promises. We made wrong assessments.” But it’s not all doom and gloom: “We need to be more clear about our achievements, not vague, but with specific examples.” “Let’s get out of the conference room; people should represent themselves.” “Research should be led not by paper experts but by the farmers – we can learn from them.” “Change our approach to the state – can we do practice on the ground rather than trying to affect policy by pressure?” A young man: “Even a small place can be a model for the world if we do it right.” Usha again: “It’s easy for us to emotionally express our aspirations. But to be true to those emotions they must be directed into building a strong base.”

A report like this has to end somewhere, and it can only give these last words to the Nepalis and return to where we started. A report from the WSF in Nepal is doubly impossible because two infinities converge here: The Himalayan contradictions of Nepal, and the WSF itself. You can’t get a bird’s eye view on either – both are too vast. Nepal convenes the world system. Manjushree Thapa writes: “Go to any village in Nepal now, and you will find those whose fortunes depend on the world market… Nepalis today are embedded in the world; and the world is embedded in Nepal.”[5] And the WSF in its own way expresses the painful evolution of what Sri Aurobindo called the overmind and Ralph Waldo Emerson called the world soul – as these manifest in social movements and organizations on the stage of history. Its commitment to open space ensures that all contradictions from all continents are represented. There is no omniscient narrator, no possible third person. The challenge is to choose the line, to thread the needle, to chart a course through the turbulence. It doesn’t make it easier that everything here is also enchanted; that millennial mystic energies converge and fill head and heart with mysterious certainties. Can ideology and spirituality and the urgency of geopolitics possibly be reported all at once? Like the Nanda Devi traverse according to Tenzing Norgay: “It is not ‘impossible’ of course, and there is no such thing anywhere.” (After Everest) But like the alpinism, only the Nepalis can be reliably be trusted to guide you. The only way to find the line is by following their tracks. There are no fixed ropes on the summits of world revolution and world awakening but we can try to keep up through wind and breathlessness as the Nepalis lead the way. Shabash, comrades, and thank you: you may be humble and kind in a world ruled by the mighty and mean, but you stand tall in a system which is falling fast, and we look up to you as we look up to the mountains which frame your lives and your dreams and your destiny.


[1] After Everest, by Tenzing Norgay Sherpa,1977

[2] Yogmaya and Durga Devi: Rebel Women of Nepal, by Barbara Nimri Aziz, 2020

[3]  “Hopeless and Broken” the Guardian, May 4, 2024

[4] Helen Keller, Her Socialist Years, edited by Philip S. Foner, 1967

[5] The Lives We Have Lost: Essays and Opinions on Nepal, by Manjushree Thapa, 2013