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The Politics, Potentials, and Meanings of the WSF in Belém : The Significance for the World Social Forum of the Participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the World

Discussion Note for a Workshop at the World Social Forum in Belém

Date and time : January 29 2009, Turn 2, 12:00 – 15:00

Location : UFPA Professional, in the LP Pavilion, in the Auditório Joé Accúrcio

Organised by : CACIM (India; www.cacim.net (external link)) & NFFPFW - National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (India)

Note: This document is available at CACIM @ Belem in French, Portuguese, Spanish and also in Hindi

Speakers-Participants (as of January 13 2009)

Ana Esther Ceceña – Economist and Researcher at the National Research Institute, at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City

Andrea Smith - Cherokee; co-founder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence; Assistant Professor in Native American Studies and Women Studies at the University of Michigan in the US

Chico Whitaker - Member of the Brazilian Organising Committee and the International Council of the WSF, representing the Brazilian Commission of Justice and Peace; co-founder of the WSF

Lee Cormie - Faculty of Theology at St Michael’s College and the Toronto School of Theology, in Toronto, Canada; long association with indigenous peoples’ movements in the Americas; student of the epistemology of movement

Marcos Terena - Founding President of UNI - Uniao das Naçoes Indígenas (‘Union of Indigenous Nations’) in Brazil; President, ITC Inter-tribal Committee; Director of the Memorial of Indigenous Peoples, Brasilia

Roma – Senior organiser in the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers (NFFPFW), India

Tom Goldtooth - Dine' and Dakota; Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network in the USA - oversees the work of IEN and assists IEN staff in policy work around environmental protection, environmental justice, climate justice, energy, toxics, water, globalisation and trade, and sustainable development

Winona LaDuke? - Anishnaabe activist/scholar; Director of the White Earth Land Recovery Program in the USA


Final version, for discussion, Jai Sen, for CACIM, January 13 2009[1] – COMMENTS INVITED !'

Abstract :

The 2009 World Social Forum is being organised at Belém in Brazil because it is in Amazonia, which is under threat. Equally however, Amazonia is also symbolic at a world level of the existence and struggles of indigenous peoples – who have been colonised and exploited by settler societies for centuries and today remain under intense threat across the planet. For several reasons, which we list in the main text below, we believe that it is extremely important to empathetically but critically look at, interrogate, and debate the Belém Forum, as a concept and as practice, in terms of the interests, rights, and worldviews of indigenous peoples; and from ahead and during the Belém Forum, and not after. It is not necessarily clear that the Forum as a process and event will fully respect the specific and unique perceptions of such peoples, and this should not be taken for granted.

While the broader ecological objectives of organising the Forum in Belém are certainly of the greatest importance, given the other meanings of the Belém Forum it is also vital to understand the manner in which these are intersecting with the struggles of indigenous peoples in Amazonia, in Brazil, in the Americas, and all over the world.

We have therefore organised a process of debate before the Forum (ie during December 2008 - January 2009) and now, a major Workshop during the Forum. We will have with us several key indigenous activists and scholars, to examine and debate these questions.

The terms under which the WSF’s International Council accepted the holding of the WSF in Belem, and in Amazonia, in June 2007 included several significant social and ecological objectives. (See ‘Amazon region's candidature to host the World Social Forum 2009 (external link)’, dated May 29 2007)

These included the plea that :

The Amazon region is the planet's last forest frontier. Besides, it has the planet's most valuable freshwater resources, biodiversity and great social diversity, which is represented by its traditional populations and indigenous peoples. The threats upon this human patrimony do not involve only climate changes. They are also accelerated by current development policies that point towards the growth of predatory activities such as single-crop farming and cattle-breeding, exploration of mineral commodities and installation of infrastructures that open up space to these predatory processes, which are proved to have very little positive effect on the Amazonian society as a whole. Therefore, hosting the World Social Forum has a great symbolic value to the region and will reinforce various efforts that aim at giving visibility to the importance of protecting natural resources and respecting the diversity of lifestyles, which are being threatened by the growth of neoliberal globalization process in this region, one of great strategic importance to the planet.

There is no question that Amazonia is important at the world level as a symbol of the planet’s environment and of its diversity and fragility. Equally however, Amazonia is also symbolic at a world level of the existence and struggles of indigenous peoples – who have been and are under threat across the planet [2]. For several reasons, which we list below, we believe and propose that it is extremely important to empathetically but critically look at, interrogate, and debate the Belem Forum as a concept and as practice, in terms of the interests, rights, and perceptions of indigenous peoples; and from ahead and during the Belem Forum, and not after :

  • The very special significance that the World Social Forum has come to have in terms of the articulation at a world level of non-state voices – and therefore, in principle, that such a meeting could have for indigenous peoples -, but given also the complex and contentious relationship of power between such worlds (the 'civil' and the 'incivil') that exists in all societies in the world [3]
  • The history of deep controversy around the organising of the Forum at Nairobi in 2007, which at one level was about precisely this question, the contentious relationship of power between the ‘civil’ and the ‘incivil’[4];
  • The extraordinary and powerful changes that are taking place in Latin America today, involving the indigenous peoples of the region; and –
  • The implications for the Belem Forum - and for the WSF as a world process - of having amidst it indigenous peoples as an organised force, now that the World Social Forum is today finally recognising indigenous peoples and inviting them in, and is giving them centre stage in Belem.

While the broader ecological objectives of organising the Forum in Belem are therefore certainly of the greatest importance, given the other meanings of the Belem Forum it is also vital to understand the manner in which these are intersecting with the struggles of indigenous peoples in Amazonia, in Brazil, in the Americas, and all over the world.

We therefore propose a process of debate before the Forum (ie during December 2008 - January 2009) and then a major Workshop during the Forum.

Context

The history of Brazil since the 15th century has in part involved a massive extermination of the indigenous peoples of the territory that came to be called Brazil - through the colonisation of the territory by the Portuguese and the Spanish and then through the subsequent takeover and integration of the territory by those who came to form the ruling classes of the new country. Though different in detail, this is also largely true of the indigenous peoples of most other countries of Latin America. Although the indigenous peoples of these territories have in all cases fought back, it has been the other peoples – the settlers - who have in all cases taken over; with Bolivia being the first case where the indigenous population of the territory have taken back the power.

In many ways, although there were indigenous peoples once inhabiting most of the territory now known as Brazil, the struggle over Amazonia has been the symbol of these struggles in Brazil. On the one hand, the basin of the Amazon and its tributaries have been the cradle of hundreds of tribes since time immemorial; on the other, the basin occupies about half the country’s vast total area, right in the heart of the country, and it is also the home of allegedly vast deposits of minerals. There could scarcely be a more contentious issue.

As a consequence, over the past half century, on the one hand there has been a massive attempt to take over and colonise Amazonia - through the construction of a Trans-Amazonian? Highway, through the construction of other roads such as BR-364 and the bringing in by the government of hundreds of thousands of non-indigenous settlers through land colonisation projects such as Polonoroeste; and through the populating of the little populated north-western parts of the country through the Calhe Norte project, ostensibly to defend the country against invasion.

On the other hand, since the early 1970s, and despite an experience of massive violence inflicted on them by these incursions, the indigenous peoples of Amazonia and Brazil have - with the support of the-then liberationist church and of sections of national and international civil society such as anthropologists – not only struggled locally but also gradually come together to form associations through which they could collectively defend and assert their rights. (The historical enormity of this process of convergence needs to be appreciated; till the mid 1960s, most of the these tribes were completely isolated – not only from dominant society, till then largely located in south-east Brazil, but also from each other.) And more recently, they have also come together with other indigenous peoples in Latin America, and from some parts of the world, to form diaphanous and still-fragile regional and global associations. An important part of this has been campaign and advocacy at the UN level, which has gone so far as to lead to the declaration by the UN of 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People [5].

Along with this, in the context of the World Social Forum as a world process, it is important to mention that much of this impetus has come from and around the lives and struggles of the indigenous peoples of Latin America, and to a degree Australia and New Zealand, rather than the indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, or even Europe. Among other things, there are radically different conceptualisations among the indigenous peoples of the world of issues such as indigeneity and of relations to settler societies. So it is not as if these are universally settled questions.

The period since then has seen momentous developments in the struggles of indigenous peoples of the world. In January 1994 – immediately after the UN’s ‘International Year of the World’s Indigenous People’ – came the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, led by the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. (There are many who say that this rebellion was the inspiration for the WSF and for the global justice movement of which it is a part.) In the decade since then, the prime ministers of several settler governments – New Zealand, Australia, and Canada – have apologised to the indigenous peoples of those territories for the crimes historically committed against them by the (white) settler populations. And in 2005, the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, led by Evo Morales and his Movimiento al Socialismo (‘Movement Towards Socialism’), were democratically elected to power.

Even if this is a crude sketch, and even if there is much more that could be said in this area, it is in this broad context that the World Social Forum to be held in Belem needs to be seen. The WSF has grown spectacularly over the past seven years, and is seen by some including by some of its organisers and ideologues in different parts of the world, as today being the most important space in the world for non-state, ‘civil’ actors to convene, converge, and articulate their voices. But the historical and current reality is that what is called civil society is still being dominated, in most countries, by settler populations; whereas, and as pointed above, the Belem Forum has specially been convened in order to put forward the voices and claims not of settler peoples but of indigenous peoples – explicitly the indigenous peoples of Amazonia, but implicitly, given the embrace and scope of the World Social Forum, the indigenous peoples of the world.

This is a remarkable break from the past since until the 3rd WSF that was held in Porto Alegre in 2005, the indigenous peoples of Brazil – let alone of the world – had virtually no place in the Forum. It was till then exclusively a Forum for dominant civil society, for the settlers of the country and for their equivalents around the world. The organisers of the WSF in Brazil have made major efforts since then to change this situation, but this is the history and reality of the Forum there. And it is also a reality that the WSF has, by the Charter of Principles it has itself formulated, ruled out the possibility of the Zapatistas participating – because the Charter prohibits “military” (armed) groups from attending – even though many say that the Forum, and the global justice movement of which it is a part, has been inspired by the Zapatistas. On the other hand, it could be said that although not an exact parallel, the Belem Forum has the potential to be, for the indigenous peoples of the world, what the 2003 Durban Conference on Race and Xenophobia was for people of colour (and certainly, among others, for Dalits in India).

This reality, of the relation of indigenous peoples to the Forum, then has to be seen in terms of the other objectives for the Belem Forum, to defend Amazon as an ecological entity. But if we keep this reality in mind, this aspect too has a complex basis. The historical reality of Amazonia is that it is not, as imagined by many outsiders, populated only by indigenous peoples. To the contrary, since the second half of the 19th century it has a history of being settled by outsiders – through colonisation by rubber barons who left behind a large population of seringueiros (rubber tappers), and then spontaneously by miners, loggers, and other adventurers. And so now, a century and more later, the region has a very significant population of non-indigenous peoples – the sections referred to in the candidacy proposal as “traditional populations” - whose claim to Amazonia is also strong and legitimate. Since the 1980s, these different populations of Amazonia have come together in many ways, but expectably, given the differences in their histories and their relations to the world around them, there are also differences in how they see Amazonia.

Our understanding is that in this complex context, it is extremely important to empathetically but critically look at, interrogate, and debate the Belem Forum as concept and as practice so that it does not, eve if unintentionally, become a process of a complex subordination, but rather what it is intended to be, an emancipatory, liberating event.

We have attempted to contribute to it being this by :

  • Strenuously reaching these ideas and this proposal out to organisations of indigenous peoples and traditional populations in the Amazonian region, as well as to organisations of indigenous peoples in other parts of Brazil, the Americas, and the world, and asking for their participation and collaboration;
  • Debating these issues as much as possible ahead of the Belem Forum, on WSFDiscuss and other listserves[6];
  • Organising a major Workshop on this theme at the Belem Forum;
  • Preparing a film and a report on the Workshop that can both carry the debate forward and also contribute to a critical appreciation of the Belem Forum; and –
  • Inviting others, and especially organisations of indigenous peoples, to carry forward this process.

In organising this event and process, we acknowledge that we are aware of the work of the Working Group on the Participation of Indigenous Peoples in the WSF[7], of the steps being taken to hold consultations with indigenous peoples and traditional populations throughout Amazonia during the current months and ahead of the Belem Forum, and of the Solidarity Fund being established from within the WSF to enable the participation of indigenous peoples to participate in the Belem Forum (albeit, presumably because of resource restrictions, of indigenous groups from Amazonia alone). We strongly appreciate and welcome all these steps. But we nevertheless feel – and perhaps all the more because all this is being done that there is a need to engage with the full complexity of the reality – and the full reality of the complexity. In this spirit, we believe that the debate and Workshop we are proposing are strongly consonant with and complementary to these other activities, and in support of the participation of indigenous peoples in this WSF and in the WSF as a process.

Finally, as organisers we had proposed that given its objectives, we should only go ahead with actually holding the Workshop in Belem providing that we have achieved a significant participation by indigenous peoples from the Amazon region and from elsewhere, in the meeting and in the debate leading up to it. We are very glad to now confirm that given the response we have got till date, both from speakers and likely participants, we are going ahead with the meeting.

Proposed Objectives of the Workshop :

Especially given the history of controversy around the organising of the Forum at Nairobi[8], but also given the significant contributions made to the WSF process by the specific culture of each WSF event, we propose the following as the objectives of the Workshop – and where we are asking all speakers to pay special attention to these issues :

  1. To critically engage with the meaning of the WSF being held in Belem, in terms of the socially and ecologically significant objectives that were defined by the promoters and proposers of the 2009 WSF in Amazonia and specifically at Belem (see ‘Amazon region's candidature to host the World Social Forum 2009’ (external link), dated 29 May 2007)
  2. To critically locate Belem, the location of the 2009 WSF, within a larger social and ecological history of the Amazonian region, and through this, to critically examine the logic and meanings of organising the world meeting of the World Social Forum there;
  3. To critically examine the actual experience and practice of organising the WSF at Belem, in terms of the original objectives set for it; and –
  4. Insofar as Amazonia is, in addition to being symbolic of the planet’s environment and its diversity and fragility, is also symbolic at a world level of the existence and struggles of indigenous peoples, to also critically examine the politics, potentials, and meanings of the WSF as it is being organised at Belem for the indigenous peoples of the world; and –
  5. Insofar as the Belem Forum has for the first time brought the indigenous peoples of the world to centre stage, to critically examine the implications for the WSF as a world process of having indigenous peoples within it as an organised force,.

Footnotes

[1] This is the final version of this Discussion Note. We at CACIM have prepared this draft based on comments we have received on the earlier drafts from Dave Ranney (US), Gina Vargas (Peru), Lee Cormie (Canada), and Marcos Terena (Brazil), as well as revisions that have arisen on the basis of discussions within our group. We thank all those who have taken the time to give us comments – and, with a view to making the meeting we are proposing as rich as possible, urge all those who now read this to also send us their comments ! At the same time, please note that the list of speakers given is only as of date, and might change somewhat by and at the time of the event itself.

[2] Although the candidacy proposal cited mentions indigenous peoples, it does so as being only one of the two main population groups in Amazonia (the other one being “traditional populations”). See later in this document for a discussion of the significance of this.

[3] For a discussion of the concept of incivility, see Jai Sen, November 2007 – ‘The power of civility’, in Mikael Löfgren & Håkan Thörn, eds, 2007 – ‘Global Civil Society – More Or Less Democracy?’, special issue of Development Dialogue, no 49, pp 51-68; available for download on www.dhf.uu.se. (external link)

[4] See : Onyango Oloo (National Coordinator, Kenya Social Forum), March 2007 – ‘Critical Reflections on WSF Nairobi 2007’ (external link). Debate SA discussion list <debate@lists.kabissa.org> WSF-Nairobi autopsy by Oyango Oloo. Date: 29 March 2007 1:52:31 PM GMT+05:45.; Wangui Mbatia and Hassan Indusa, February 2007 – ‘The World Social Forum 2007 : A Kenyan Perspective’, on Red Pepper Online (external link). Prepared on behalf of the People’s Parliament, Nairobi, Kenya; and : Gina Vargas (Articulación Feminista Marcosur), April 2007 – ‘A look at Nairobi’s World Social Forum’, forthcoming as chapter in Jai Sen and Peter Waterman, eds, forthcoming, 2009 – Facing History : The World Social Forum and Beyond title under finalisation, Volume 2 in the Challenging Empires series. New Delhi : OpenWord? Books.

[5] It is an interesting footnote that although the concept of a plural indigenous peoples had by then already been accepted by the UN system, when the UN came to declare this year, it resorted – or was forced by its member governments to resort – to referring to them in the singular, ‘indigenous people’, implying that all indigenous peoples of the world constitute a single monocultural bloc, different in a singular way from ‘others’.

[6] WSFDiscuss is an open and unmoderated forum on the World Social Forum and on related social and political movements and issues. To subscribe, simply send an empty email to .

[7] Anon, nd, c.2008 – ‘Working Group Meeting on the Participation of Indigenous Peoples in the WSF 2009’ (external link). Accessed mk 101108.

[8] See above, for references.


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