People’s Global Action



Cochabamba, the
third largest city in Bolivia, is best known as the “city of eternal spring.”
But, as Oscar Olivera, a factory laborer and spokesperson for la Coordinadora
(the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life) reminded us at the
beginning of the third People’s Global Action (PGA) conference, it wasn’t the
pleasant climate that drew grassroots movements from all over the world to this
highland city for a week in September 2001. Last year, Cochabamba became a key
symbol of the struggle against global capitalism, when tens of thousands of
local people took to the streets against the privatization of their water supply
by the U.S. transnational Bechtel— and won.

As a powerful and
unique coalition of peasant irrigation unions, coca growers, labor activists,
local professionals, young people, and street children, la Coordinadora was able
to overturn the contract signed under World Bank pressure and have control of
the water returned to the people of Cocha- bamba, although not without costs. At
the third massive mobilization in April 2000, where 30,000 people shut down the
city-center for five days, the president sent in military units, including a
sharpshooter trained at the School of Americas who gunned down a 17-year-old
protestor. Months later, though, and spurred by their victory, Olivera says,
“the water is sweet.”

News of the water
wars in Cochabamba spread quickly via the Internet, and the web of international
solidarity—which is at the heart of the PGA network—sprung immediately into
action. On April 23, 2000, for example, the front three pages of the local paper
in Cochabamba carried stories of a protest in New Zealand by activists known as
“The Water Pressure Group” who hosed down the Bolivian consulate in Auckland
from a bright red fire truck, bearing placards reading “Bolivia, the World is
Watching You.”

Transnational
Resistance


This exhilarating
feeling of international solidarity began to dawn on me in 1997 as I sat in the
blazing heat on a squatted farm in Andalucia, southern Spain. Inspired by the
Zapatistas, I attended the second encuentro “for Humanity and Against
Neoliberalism,” which gathered together around 4,000 women and men from around
the world—trade unionists, peasants, indigenous peoples, feminists, anarchists,
ecologists, students, unemployed, fisherfolk, writers, artists, and poets.
Conversations that had begun the previous year in Chiapas at the first encuentro
were continued; people listened to each others stories, of hunger strikes, seed
saving, dancing on motorways, blockading nuclear convoys, squatting land, being
tear-gassed, and reclaiming tribal languages. In spite of vastly different
contexts, we discovered that our struggles are increasingly similar in every
part of the global empire, and that a new, horizontal form of solidarity is
emerging.

A Brief
History Of PGA


It was immediately
after this gathering, at a meeting with representatives of grassroots movements
from the South and North, that the idea for PGA was born. It is hard to define
exactly what PGA is. In many ways it doesn’t really exist. PGA is not an
organization, it has no members or constituted legal identity, no central funds,
leaders or spokes-people. Instead it is more of a tool or a fluid network for
communication and coordination between diverse social movements who share a
loose set of principles or “hallmarks.” Even these have been continuously
modified or expanded over the past three and a half years reflecting the
dynamic, evolving process, which is central to the philosophy of PGA.

The hallmarks
were first drafted at the launch of this worldwide network in Geneva, from
February 23-25, 1998, and attended by over 300 people from 71 countries. A
similarly eclectic international gathering took place in Bangalore, India in
August 1999, home to the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRSS) who, in
Gandhian style, have cremated fields of GM cotton and dismantled Cargill’s seed
factories. These conferences, including this latest one in Bolivia, have been
organized, at least in theory, by a rotating group of conveners drawn from all
continents and social sectors, and a floating support group. Parallel to these,
PGA meetings have also been organized at a regional level (South Asia, Latin
America, Europe) and on specific topics (gender, Plan Colombia).

Since February
1998 then, PGA has evolved as an interconnected web of very diverse groups, with
a powerful common thread of struggle and solidarity at the grassroots level.
These gatherings have played a vital role in face-to-face communication and
exchange of experiences, strategies, and ideas. From the G8 Summit meeting in
Birmingham in 1998, which was accompanied by over 65 demonstrations worldwide,
these have multiplied to encompass the growing list of now household names:
Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Genoa.

Delegates in
Bolivia


The diverse groups
that make up the PGA network are a striking aspect of the conference in
Cochabamba, a richness that brought with it tensions and contradictions. Not
surprisingly, the largest contingent came from Latin America. This included
representatives of some of the most powerful social movements, such as the
Ecuadorean peasants confederation, landless peasants in Brazil, the Zapatistas
of Chiapas, and the Six Federations of the Tropics of Cochabamba. The latter
group, representing over 35,000 subsistence farmer families in the tropical coca
growing area of Chapare, was one of the hosts of the conference; the other was
the National Federation of Domestic Workers of Bolivia (FENAETROB) who organize
for the rights of domestic workers throughout the country, 99 percent of whom
are women. There was a strong presence of organizers from women’s movements in
Latin America, in particular from Colombia, Nicaragua, and Mexico, some of whom
are equally active in trade unions, working on gender issues. Similarly strong
was the presence of indigenous peoples or pueblos originarios: Quiché of
Guatemala, Kuna of Panama, Mapuche of Chile and Argentina, Quechua and Aymara
from the Andean region, and Quichua from Ecuador.

Many of the
Brazilian and Argentinean delegates were from a new network of young, mostly
urban organizations that have specifically organized around Global Days of
Action such as May 1, the Prague World Bank meeting or around the Free Trade
Area of the Americas. Equivalent in a lot of ways to these groups were those
present from Europe, North America, and Australia who have mobilized in the
streets of London, Prague, Quebec, Melbourne, Gothenburg, Genoa, Barcelona, and
Davos. Delegates came, for example, from Ya Basta in Italy, the Movement of
Global Resistance (MRG) in Catalonia, the Swiss anti-WTO coordination, London
Reclaim the Streets, and the Comité de Lutte Anti- Capitaliste (CLAC) from
Canada. (The airline chaos stopped almost all the United States participants
from coming.) Also present were ecological activists from the Rainbow Keepers in
Russia and the Ukraine and a delegate from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public
Employees), the largest and one of the most progressive unions. Two delegates
from Aoteroa Educators, the training branch of the inter- tribal Maori
independence movement called Tino-Ranga- tiratanga, were involved from the
start.


In spite of huge
visa complications and delayed flights, a small delegation from Asia and the
Pacific arrived towards the end of the meeting. From India, there were
representatives of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and BKU,
the national farmers federation. From Bangladesh, the General Secretary of the
Krishok Federation of peasants and landless agricultural workers attended and a
woman from the Aboriginal Association. One of the walls in the main meeting area
was draped with banners from the Movement for National Land and Agricultural
Reform from Sri Lanka (MONLAR). Among the new groups attending were three
representatives of the huge Indonesian farmers federation and a representative
of the Nepal peasants association, both with over 10 million members.

Since the launch
of PGA, there has been a very obvious under-representation of social movements
from both Africa and the Middle East. Unfortunately, neither of these imbalances
was rectified at this conference, partly as a result of visa restrictions, but
primarily due to a lack of links in these regions. However, four delegates from
the new popular movements in South Africa—landless peasants, Forum Against
Privatization, and urban struggles against evictions and service cut-offs— were
able to make it immediately after the mobilizations at the Durban conference on
racism. Other groups from Africa who have been part of the PGA process are the
Ogoni and Chikoko movements in Nigeria and peasant groups in Senegal and
Mozambique. Important discussions about the broadening of the PGA network in
these areas are still to be had. Only a few weeks after the meeting in
Cochabamba, for example, Lebanese and Palestinian organizations sent out a call
to diverse groups in the Middle East to launch a grassroots anti-globalization
movement, spurred by the WTO conference in Qatar.


Criminalizing
the Movement


Even in the run-up
to the conference, we had been witnessing a steady build-up of new
anti-terrorist laws by governments worldwide that are broad enough to include
protest groups such as the PGA network. This issue was already high on the
agenda for discussion, but with the meeting starting only days after the suicide
attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it gained a renewed sense of
urgency. The implications of these attacks on the anti-globalization movement
could be felt immediately. The local and national media declared that suspected
terrorists were taking part in the meeting. Interpol paid a visit to the
conference site. The border was practically sealed to delegates trying to get to
Cochabamba, including a busload of people from Colombia and Ecuador whose entry
was denied. At the opening assembly, the Bolivian press crowded the panel,
waiting for our response to the attacks.

Although no one
person or group can speak for PGA, a multitude of voices from around the world
expressed a sharing and identification with the sudden suffering and pain of
ordinary people in the U.S. These voices equally spoke out against the absurd
use of military power against civilian populations in retaliation for these
attacks and against the double standards of the U.S. government. Many groups had
a very intimate experience of the darker side of U.S. foreign policy. Only a few
hours away in the Chapare region, for example, poor peasant farmers come face to
face with a U.S. military base as part of the aggressive coca eradication
program in Bolivia, much like Plan Colombia.

I found it
difficult not to be overtaken by fear in this newly tense situation, but the
fearlessness of those around me was overwhelming—people who are already engaged
in a battle for life or death in a much more direct way than I have ever
experienced. It soon became clear that the rapidly unfolding responses to the
attacks only affirmed the importance and relevance of two major themes of the
conference, ones that had been proposed long before that fateful September day.

Opposition To
Privatization And Militarism


The first of these
themes was about strengthening campaigns against privatization and militarism.
In the U.S. and Britain, political figures have tried to justify the war on
Afghanistan with revived rhetoric about economic development as a panacea,
particularly in the run-up to the WTO trade negotiations in Qatar.

In the workshop
on land, delegates from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, South Africa, and Asia
described the same stories of lands taken over by agribusiness, either directly
or subcontracted to locals, and the subsequent escalation of landlessness,
hunger, and urban slums. This rapid privatization of traditional communal lands
has intensified with regional free trade agreements such as NAFTA. There was
much discussion on the devastating implications of the new Free Trade Area of
the Americas (FTAA) and the regional development plans in South America. Massive
mobilizations were planned for the FTAA meeting in Ecuador in March 2002.

Similarly, at
another workshop on water, people shared stories of their struggles against
World Bank driven privatization plans in Canada, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Spain,
and Bangladesh. These discussions culminated in the decision for a worldwide
campaign against the privatization of the global “commons,” which includes
market-based “solutions” to climate change such as carbon trading. For
indigenous peoples at the meeting, this was framed in terms of an
all-encompassing struggle for territory and sovereignty and the right of
communities to freely organize their societies, livelihoods, and relation to
nature.

The discussions
around a sustained campaign against militarism were only tentative, but a later
meeting of many PGA delegates in Ecuador came up with some more concrete
proposals. These included organizing a specific gathering on this issue,
inviting movements struggling for autonomy in the context of heavy
militarization in areas of strategic geopolitical importance that are rich in
natural resources (for example, Afghanistan, the Andean region, Central Africa,
the Middle East, East Timor, West Papua, the Balkans, Turkey, and South Asia).
Broader links for this campaign will also be made with groups working against
the arms industry, the prison industry, police brutality, religious
fundamentalism, anti-war groups, women’s peace groups, and migrants. One of the
most memorable days of the conference for most people was a trip to the heavily
militarized Chapare region where the group was welcomed by over 10,000 cocaleros
waving hundreds of rainbow colored “huipil” banners, the indigenous flag of
diversity.

Decentralizing


The second major
theme of the conference was a general agreement that we need to localize
anti-globalization actions and decentralize the network. We had all witnessed
the incredible energy and concentration of efforts in recent years at mass
actions like Seattle that brought previously obscure institutions like the WTO
and the G8 into the public consciousness. But the growing repression of these
mobilizations, manifested in Genoa, the cowardly retreat of the WTO to the
desert of Qatar and the G8 to the remote Canadian mountains resort of Kananaskis
next June 2002, has raised wider questions about where and how we organize
actions.


Issues came up
around the burn-out people had felt after spending up to a year planning for one
or two days of actions, the increasing logistical problems of crossing borders
to reach the meeting places of these summits, and the drying up of many sources
of funding for anti-globalization movements. In any case, this move towards
decentralized mobilizations was perfectly illustrated by the response of groups
around the world to the WTO Ministerial in Qatar. Reports have come through
Indymedia websites, for example, of over 120 actions in towns and cities in over
40 countries between November 9 and 13.

These same
questions also relate very closely to future international PGA conferences. It
was decided in Cochabamba not to hold the fourth one for at least the next two
years and, instead, to focus on regional meetings to strengthen and broaden the
network at the regional and local level. Also, there were various discussions
about having exchanges between movements, where one or two people would travel
to another country and take part in a specific campaign with another group,
learning from each others strategies and forms of organizing. Another similar
proposal was a variant of the “caravan” formula, where, for example, one
participant from each continent would travel in a small group to a specific
region to meet with groups and research a specific issue, and then feed back to
the network as a whole.

A further
proposal revolved around the idea of popular education campaigns or consultas,
which have been used very successfully by the Zapatistas across Mexico, la
Coordinadora in Cochabamba, and in Spain earlier this year. After two massive
mobilizations, for example, la Coordinadora held a popular consulta in the area
served by the water company, asking people whether they wanted these services to
be privatized.

Fifty thousand
people voted, and between 94 and 98 percent of the people said no. The basic
idea is to build coalitions of social movements in towns, cities, and villages,
and together to explore creative ways of getting direct participation, feedback,
and debate from a wide cross-section of society. This could be on a range of
global issues (e.g., militarism, economic globalization, labor rights,
immigration, the environment, women’s rights, and democracy) and their
implications at a local level. People are already starting to work on popular
consultations in Brazil in March 2002 to coincide with Inter-American
Development Bank meeting and in Europe in 2004 during elections for the European
Parliament in June.


Imagine for a
moment a room full of 200 people from around 35 different countries, who speak
about as many languages (although translations are only made between Spanish and
English in the large group discussions). Some are representatives of movements
with 10 million members while others are from smaller autonomous collectives.
All come from a wide range of political cultures with strategies that range from
working within political parties to direct action outside the system (or both).

There were
moments of tension and frustration during the week, some of which raised
important issues for the network. One of these, for example, touched on power
relations between North and South. The role of facilitator, and with it a
particularly Western style of consensus decision-making, was on balance taken on
more often by people from the North, and it emerged that many from the South
felt unhappy with what was seen as an obsession with time-keeping and with
people being interrupted in order to keep to the timetable. The problem partly
stemmed from not having adequate time to agree on a process that everyone felt
happy with and understood and that reflected cross-cultural differences and
decision-making styles.

Another key issue
was that of gender, which it was felt had been neglected as a central theme in
previous meetings. A number of women also made it clear that they felt that
sexism was still very much a problem within the movement and that this has to be
addressed.

By far the best
part of the week in Cochabamba were the informal conversations, one-to-one or in
small groups, over mealtimes or in the evenings over the local Bolivian
home-brew “chicha.” It was here that we discovered the most about each other in
the midst of laughing, singing, and dancing together. “What has actually come
out the meeting?” I’m often asked. I think above all it has strengthened
connections between people and the movements they are part of, encouraging real
horizontal solidarity and renewed hope in a time of many shadows Above all, we
made new friends.             Z

 

Sophie
Style is a writer and activist based in the UK. For more information: see
www.agp.org.