What’s it all about? Notes from the Third Americas Social Forum.


What’s it all about? Notes from the Third Americas Social Forum.

October 30, 2008

In October, several thousand people gathered from across Latin America and the world for the third Americas Social Forum in Guatemala City. Diego Merino, AJWS Program Officer for Latin America, attended the Forum.  He writes from Guatemala: 

Indigenous women in traditional dress, middle school kids juggling on stilts and performing political skits, farmers, nuns and clergy, professionals, schoolteachers, doctors, labor unionists, NGOs and on and on … here in Guatemala City, a vast array of people organized in the belief that "Another America is Possible."

Social forums are spaces for coming together, sharing experiences and building alliances between organizations and movements committed to a more just, equitable and sustainable world. They began with the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2000. The World Social Forum offers an alternative voice to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of most of the world's most powerful political, industrial and financial figures. Since 2000, as the World Social Forums have continued, they have also begun to regionalize. In 2007 the first United States Social Forum was held in Atlanta, Georgia. This Americas Social Forum is the third to bring together organizations from throughout the Americas.

Social forums help build coordinated responses to powerful forces of oppression and injustice. They draw on the creativity, vibrancy and commitment of popular movements from Canada to Patagonia. At these forums, social movements dialogue with one another, reflect on their successes and challenges, share experiences, and forge strategies and alliances for constructive action.

The third Americas Social Forum drew delegates from Central America, South America, Europe and the United States. They gathered under the banner of resistance, a major theme of this year's forum: resistance to discrimination against Indigenous peoples, resistance to destructive neo-liberal economic models, and resistance to violence against women. The Forum presented an important opportunity for building a cross-continental grassroots movement and strengthening the voices of Latin America's most marginalized people.

A few moments that stood out to me at the Forum:

An Andean indigenous woman with long braids and a bowler hat burns incense in a traditional ritual, on the floor of a packed classroom in which a lively debate is going on about how to use new, creative communication strategies to spread social messages of women's rights. 

Indigenous educators from around Guatemala, members of the Mayan Alliance for Popular Education that AJWS supports, in one of the first public presentations of their work, explain how their community-based schools develop their students' understanding and appreciation of their own culture and history. 

Under a big tent lined with the banners of the Via Campesina, the CLOC (Latin American Coordinator of Rural Organizations), along with Guatemalan and Central American small farmers' organizations, campesinos, indigenous groups and their allies, debate how to develop practices of solidarity economy and fair trade, to generate new economic alternatives that truly benefit grassroots communities. 

In a panel discussion co-sponsored by AJWS on the security of human rights defenders that oppose mega-projects, an energetic discussion ensued around how grassroots organizations can maintain their personal safety while carrying out their human rights activism. Concluding the session, Carlos Barrientos of Guatemala, a leader of the Committee for Campesino Unity, gave a wise reminder to all of us: that in our struggles for justice, "Fear is never a good counselor." 

Huge challenges lie ahead for social movements from the Americas: to continue to confront multiple forms of exclusion and oppression and work to build societies based on equality, inclusiveness and human rights. While we won't know the true impact of the Americas Social Forum for some time, we know that AJWS and our friends who participated in the Forum left with new alliances, new ideas and new energy to sustain us in our work.