Social Forum of the Americas

March led by indigenous peoples and nantionalities of the Americas
Activists demonstrate against repressive anti-abortion laws in Nicaragua
Reading of final declaration of the Assembly of Social Movementsphotos by Marc Becker

housands of Maya farmers took over Guatemala City’s main boulevard in a massive march on October 12. Men and women carried banners advertising the names of their indigenous and peasant organizations. Protesters denounced the privatization of land and water as they marched through the city’s elite Zona Viva, past the U.S. embassy, to a rally in front of the National Palace.

Billed as the "forum of resistance," the gathering intentionally culminated on the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Elites previously celebrated October 12 as the Day of the Race, but now indigenous people have claimed it as a day of resistance to exploitation and oppression.

This was the third meeting of the Americas Social Forum and the first one held in Central America. It previously met in Quito, Ecuador in 2004 and in Caracas, Venezuela in 2006 as part of that year’s Polycentric Social Forum.

With the participation of more than 7,000 delegates from throughout the Americas and Europe, the six-day event condemned neoliberal economic policies and pledged to build a better world. The main themes of the forum included resistance to neo-liberalism and imperialism, achieving diversity and equality, creating communication and knowledge, embracing indigenous and Afro-descendent people and nationalities, and building a movement to a better world. Cross-cutting themes were gender and diversity.

The forum ran from October 7-12, bridging two symbolically important dates. On October 8, 1967, Che Guevara was captured in combat in Bolivia. Sympathizers have subsequently celebrated that anniversary as the Day of the Heroic Guerrilla. True to form, the first full day’s activities closed with a special celebration of Che’s life.

In addition to being a forum of resistance, the Guatemala meeting was an overwhelmingly indigenous event. In March 2007, Joel Suárez from the Martin Luther King Center in Havana, Cuba invited delegates at the Third Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala (the Kuna name for the Americas) to the 2008 forum. "For it to be successful," Suárez emphasized, "the forum must have an indigenous and female face." Because of the costs and complications of travel, most participants naturally come from the host country. Guatemala is the most indigenous country in Latin America, with about 80 percent of the population belonging to one of 25 different Maya groups. As a result, Maya languages and colorful local dress were common throughout.

Indigenous people met at the forum to discuss issues of land, water, food sovereignty, and plurinationalism. Organizations affiliated with Via Campesina met under a "carpa campesina" or peasant tent. Affiliated groups hung their banners off the walls of the tent and a ceremonial altar was placed in front of the lead table. More "ethnicist" organizations met in a neighboring auditorium called the Iglu (Igloo) that also featured a ceremonial altar in front of the speaker’s table.

Delegates and speakers moved back and forth between the two locations, engaging in similar types of debates. Humberto Cholango, president of Ecuarunari, the movement of highland Kichwas in Ecuador, emphasized the broad nature of indigenous struggles. "From a position of unity, we bring together other social forces, not only indigenous people who have been excluded and abused," he said. "A large majority of compañeros and compañeras, young people, women, students, and workers are also victims of the neoliberal model." This theme of unity and of linking struggles and bridging divides ran throughout the forum.

Blanca Chancoso, an indigenous leader from Ecuador and long a key player in the social forum process, pointed to the importance of land and resources in social movement struggles. "Water is not a commodity, water is life," she said. "We are also saying that land is not a commodity, land is life."

The forum came in the aftermath of voters in Ecuador approving a new constitution that embraced that country’s plurinational nature. Delegates repeatedly returned to this theme over the course of four days. Plurinationalism, Cholango argued, was a broad political, social, and economic concept. It means fighting for a new political process and for a new concept of state structures, not just for a small representation in government. He contended that plurinationalism would open up a path to a socialist state that would provide social justice for everyone in the country.

In addition to plurinationalism, "sumak kawsay" or living well was an indigenous theme that spread to the rest of the forum. Bolivia’s foreign relations minister, David Choquehuanca, had introduced this concept at the 2007 indigenous summit in Guatemala. He noted that typical development plans look for a better life, but this results in inequality. Indigenous people, instead, look to how to live well.

Roberto Espinoza from CAOI (the Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas/Andean Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations) emphasized that "sumak kawsay" involved indigenous values of reciprocity and an emphasis on collective rather than individual rights. Benita Simón, a Maya delegate from the Guatemalan town of Huehuetenango, was one of those who returned to that theme. "Living well for us is also taking the position of moving from actions of resistance to actions that allow us to take back power," she said.

Indigenous delegates declared in a summary of their debates, "We have arrived at the consensus that the primary enemy of all of the species that inhabit the planet and the cosmos is capitalism." Neo-colonial governments were responsible for the continuing underdevelopment that leads to unemployment and out-migration. For this reason, they were fighting to "refound our states and develop a path toward plurinational states."

During the forum, indigenous organizations solidified their plans to hold the Fourth Continental Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala in Puno, Peru, in the last week of May 2009.

Indigenous people also discussed their participation in broader social forums, including the upcoming World Social Forum at the end of January 2009 in Belem, Brazil. Epinoza insisted that indigenous people not only be a folkloric presence, but be integrally involved with debates on substantive issues. There has been a problem of a lack of indigenous representation on the International Council that organizes the WSF. Espinoza acknowledged that CAOI has been invited to sit on the council, but with other pressing and more local issues it is often difficult to commit the resources necessary to attend these meetings. This reflects a broader problem with the social forum process: that it is often those with the time, resources, and visas necessary to travel who attend them.

Joel Suárez noted that the Guatemala forum had more of a female face than previous meetings. The Nobel Women’s Initiative, a group of women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize, released a statement in support of Mesoamerican feminists. They urged government "protection and respect for the rights of women and feminist leaders," and expressed concern for the deteriorating situation of millions of women in Central America, particularly in regards to attacks on abortion rights and feminicide.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative pointed with alarm to growing state violence against feminists in Nicaragua and, in particular, against longtime leader Sofia Montenegro. Members of Montenegro’s MAM (Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres/ Autonomous Women’s Movement) were at the forum to denounce Daniel Ortega’s government for these attacks. When Chancoso, for example, listed Nicaragua as part of the red tide sweeping Latin America, Gonzalo Carrión stood up to correct her, insisting that despite the historic association of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, the current government was not a left-wing government.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative stated with certainty that Another World Is Possible, "and that the world must include gender equality and a life free of violence for all women." Women, they said, "are a central part of our dreams and actions to achieve a better world." Women at the forum organized a tent with a full range of activities. They drafted a final document that called for "profound and radical transformations in the relations between human beings and nature, in order to guarantee living well." Similar to statements from indigenous movements, they declared that "we do not prioritize nor rank neither struggles nor oppressions, because all actors and emancipatory causes are interrelated in the process of constructing another world." The ability to link struggles and build coalitions is one of the most positive outcomes of the social forum process.

Several of the early World Social Forums were characterized by star power, with well-known leaders on the left speaking to large audiences. Those performances are now entirely gone, replaced with a much more horizontal and participatory process. At the same time, while the early forums deliberately shied away from embracing government officials and political parties, with the changing coyuntura or political context of a definite shift to the left in Latin America, forum organizers are now increasingly willing to open spaces for political leaders.

While Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was not at the Guatemalan forum, his policies, particularly the anti-neoliberal ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos de las Américas/Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), had a definitive impact on the forum. Rose Brewer of Afro-Eco, for example, noted that "both south-to-south and south-to-north fights against the FTAA have been successful," and pointed to ALBA as an encouraging development. The Coordinadora Latino Americana de Organizaciones del Campo/Coordinating Body of Latin American Rural Organizations) similarly highlighted the importance of ALBA in its final document.

Evo Morales, the first indigenous president of Bolivia, was to make an appearance on the third day of the forum, but was not able to attend. Instead, participants held a "day of continental solidarity with Bolivia." Morales sent a message that emphasized that the climatic, energy, food, and financial crises, he argued, "are not the project of human beings in general, but of the current inhumane capitalist system."

Morales noted "profound coincidences between the indigenous movement and social movement organizations" that together could find a "certain equilibrium in the world." He noted that people "speak a lot about socialism, but we have to improve this socialism for the 21st century." He called on people to "build a communal socialism, or simply that of living well, in harmony with the Earth." The day ended with a call to support an October solidarity meeting in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.

The United States has always played a relatively marginal role in the social forum process. Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ) has worked hard to bridge that gap. They brought an energetic delegation of several dozen activists from the U.S. to Guatemala. Michael Leon Guerrero explained that GGJ was formed in 2002 as a vehicle to "build a different solidarity with social movements around the world where we can start to talk and together develop joint strategies around how we deal with neoliberalism and the conditions that are facing our countries."

The forum ended with a meeting of the Assembly of Social Movements. Representatives from a broad range of social movements who had met during the week’s events made three minute presentations to the assembled delegates. The declarations reflected the broad range of issues present at the forum: militarism, mining, housing, immigration, women, media, food sovereignty, debt, environment, and indigenous rights. Transgender activist Sherlock Pérez made a statement in favor of the recognition of sexual diversities that was particularly well received.

Finally, the Assembly read its declaration: "We are participants in a historic and decisive moment for humanity." Referencing the collapsing global markets during the week of the forum, it pointed to the "failure of the capitalist system that social movements have been warning about for years." That system has generated "more exclusion, marginalization, violence, and the irreversible effects for life on the planet such as global warming." Given this context, "we are living in a time of change in which our people are advancing in the construction of alternative model."

Together with chants and speeches, the rally ended with the singing of the social forum hymn that proclaimed "another world is possible if the people want it."


Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and member of Community Action on Latin America in Wisconsin.