Fourth Social Forum of the Americas

ASUNCION, Paraguay – Flags of all colors waved over the festive multitudes marching through the streets Wednesday at the opening ceremonies of the Fourth Social Forum of the Americas; Andean music and smoke from incense drifted through the air as Andean women in their black bowler hats and pleated polleros mixed with university professors, development workers and dreadlocked youth.


The event has drawn an estimated 10,000 participants involved in social movements from around the world to share and strategize at the National Sports Center in more than 300 work sessions, panel discussions and presentations.


Nobel Peace Prizewinner Rigoberta Menchu set the tone for the event with sharply worded comments about U.S. militarism and the decline of capitalism, calling them the biggest threats of our time.


“It’s a process that is dragging us all with it, causing a social decadence that is unleashing itself in violence among the people,” she said. The neoliberal economic model that has been imposed from the North, if not reversed, will result in self-extermination, she said.


“We can’t dominate the Earth; she dominates us, and the great economic, political and spiritual decadence we are living now is due to our lack of understanding of our relationship with the Mother Earth.”


Menchu will address the group again on Friday in a session discussing the concept of “buen vivir,” or living well – a focus on a decent life for everyone, as opposed to consumerism.


The conference was planned amid the hopeful environment of a newly mobilized Paraguay, under the first progressive government in 61 years. As recently as two weeks ago, conference organizers posted the hopeful notice that the event was on President Fernando Lugo’s agenda. But two years into his term, the embattled president, mired in partisan politics with a conservative parliament, has just been diagnosed with lymphoma, and is currently in Sao Paulo receiving cancer treatments. He still hopes to address the conference on Saturday, along with Bolivian President Evo Morales.


It’s a critical moment for this country, still emerging from the shadow of a brutal 40-year dictatorship, followed by what’s been called the “pseudo-transition” of more than a decade of leadership by friends and followers of that dictator. 


The packed program of “auto-gestionado” or participant-organized activities range from environmental themes such as climate change and its effects on food sovereignty; strategies for resistance to free-trade treaties; water sovereignty; the role of women in the recuperation of collective memory; alternative views on the junction between Latin America and Christianity; journeys from feminism to other movements; The social, ecological and antimafia struggle in Paraguay and America, from the communities, toward transcendence.


Inside the conference sessions, some in tents with grassy floors and others in sleek new conference salons, people pass their mate cups and thermoses in a constant reminder of our South American locale. Outside, the savory aroma of beef, pork and sausages drifts through the air as vendors tend their parrillas. And in a distinctly Paraguayan touch, the bilingual program is presented in Spanish and Guaraní, a language that is still very much alive, as I quickly discover.


Via Campesina, a peasant  movement from around the world, has set up a lively camp on field outside the conference center, and a rousing speech is coming from one of the tents. I chose a session called “Toward Cancun and beyond: Social movement strategies in the climate change struggle after Cochabamba,” where organizers from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, the U.S. and Canada, among others, met to prepare for this November’s followup to Copenhagen, which will take place in Cancun, and to move forward on the establishment of a people’s Climate Justice Tribunal. The tribunal was one of the proposals to come out of an alternative climate conference held in April in Cochabamba, Bolivia.


“We want to arrive in Cancun ready to establish this, to say this is our perspective, these are the responsible parties, and we want to move ahead with a justice process,” said Beverly Keene from Seattle, Washington.


Alberto Arroyo from the Red Mexicana Frente al Libre Commercio (Mexican Network Against Free Trade) stressed the urgency of promoting a different response than that established during the climate talks in Copenhagen. 


“Copenhagen erased the idea of differentiated responsibility that was established by the Kyoto Protocols,” Arroyo said. “It was a huge step back, and if we’re not careful, in Cancun they will try to officially exclude the proposals we created in Cochabamba.”


The event will run through Sunday.


Tracy L. Barnett, www.tracybarnettonline.com, is the founder of The Esperanza Project, www.TheEsperanzaProject.org, a bilingual new media initiative. She is currently traveling through Latin America reporting on sustainability issues for the website and for an upcoming book. She is the former award-winning travel editor of the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News and an environmental writer.

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