Celebrating A Milestone
Renewing Unities & Charting The Way Forward
Photos by Raymond Panaligan
Over 120 people representing close to 80 organizations from 20 countries took part in the two-day International Conference of Peoples’ Struggles and Alternatives with the theme “Whose New Asia?” from 13-14 August 2015. The conference was an opportunity to reflect on the two-decade long history of Focus, to share stories of battles lost and won, and discuss ideas and pathways towards a better world.
“The challenges we face are even more serious now and we need to strengthen more people-to-people initiatives,” reflected Ajarn Surichai Wun’gaeo of Chulalongkorn University and Chairperson of the Board of Focus, in his remarks to open the conference.
The Conference Video
“Focus was born in the same year as the World Trade Organization, with the goal of challenging that force of which the WTO was said to be the cutting edge: corporate-driven globalization. When we were founded, we were said to be on the wrong side of history. We were undeterred because we were convinced we were on the right side of history, on the side of the vast majority of people who were hurt and devastated by globalization,” recalled Walden in his keynote address.
Walden highlighted other were other key issues and campaigns that marked this 20-year journey.
“Focus was there just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, organizing a peace mission in a last-minute effort to stop the war. Focus went on to organize two international conferences against the war in Iraq: in Jakarta in 2003 and Beirut in 2004.”
In recent years, Focus has become a key player in the global movement on climate change. Under the leadership of Pablo Solon, Focus took a critical approach towards the positions and performance of both the United States and China, the two biggest climate polluters, and championed the leading role of global civil society instead of states in addressing global warming. At the same time, we have participated in the articulation of the paradigm of ‘Buen Vivir,’ or living in harmony with the community and the environment,.” narrated Walden.
Developing greater understanding of global, national and local issues and building peoples’ capacities to effectively confront these issues has been integral to Focus’ work. Whether on issues around financial capital and recurring global financial crises, the appropriation and privatization of the commons, or the continued destruction and commodification of nature, Focus has strived over the years to build resistance and explore and push peoples’ alternatives.
As we have observed over the years, the space for resistance and alternatives is shrinking.
“Democracy and human rights have been central concerns of Focus,” Walden stressed. “We have closely monitored political developments in the countries where we have programs—Thailand, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and India—and we are coming out with analyses of how neoliberal economic policies have subverted democratic rule and, in the case of Thailand, contributed to the return of authoritarian rule.”
Amid these old and new challenges, Walden expounded on a way forward for Focus and its allies.
“As Focus enters its third decade, under the leadership of Shalmali Guttal, its overriding agenda is to understand and act on the trends, developments and crises that have plagued today’s Asia.”
A key concern Walden added “is the way that commodification of the commons, privatization and deregulation have combined to create tremendous inequalities throughout the region. These inequalities have created tremendous stresses and conflicts, including the mass migration of workers, but they have also created the basis for possible new alliances across social groups and across borders that can be mobilized by a vision for a New Asia.”
In closing Walden summed up the trajectory for Focus, “Focus wants to be part of the process of analyzing these processes, coming up with a vision or paradigm for a New Asia and organizing to realize this vision.”
Collective Reflection and Analysis
Combining plenary sessions with smaller World Café-style discussions, participants engaged in a conversation on the state of Asia and the world, the struggles and resistances against the dominant paradigm and ideas and experiences on peoples’ alternatives. The discussions were organized around the four broad themes of economy and finance, commons, climate and environment, and social movements.
Where is Asia?
The key issues and challenges confronting the region were tackled in the opening plenary where Asian activists, reflecting on their own work and campaigns, discussed the peoples’ struggles over land and agriculture, natural resources and the environment, trade and investments, and human rights.
The complex relationship and interaction between humans and nature was a common thread underpinning most of the presentations. Premrudee Daoroung of TERRA from Thailand spoke about the struggles to reclaim the commons against threats posed by development projects like the 26-year-old struggle against the Pak Moon dam and the new struggle over the Tonlé Sap dam in the Mekong; Lidy Nacpil of the Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development from the Philippines discussed the devastating impacts of the climate crisis in Asia and the fight against climate change; Henry Saragih of SPI-Via Campesina from Indonesia discussed the struggle of peasants over land and natural resources in Asia.
Another issue of convergence was around the impact of the dominant development paradigm on peoples’ rights.
Amit Sengupta of the Peoples’ Health Movement in India spoke about the impact of neoliberal globalization on peoples’ health.
“The deep failure of neoliberal capitalism is typified perhaps no more (dramatically) than in the Ebola epidemic which hit the four poorest countries in the world. These countries did not choose to be poor; these countries are endowed with enormous natural resources but because of the systems failure of neoliberal capitalism, they were pushed to (such) a position (that) when Ebola hit, the devastated health system was unable to address it. The Ebola epidemic happened because of the epidemic of neoliberal capitalism.”
Max de Mesa of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA), reflecting on the situation in the Philippines, underscored the relationship between human rights and development.
“Poverty is not just a human rights violation. It is the fruit and also the summary of a bundle of human rights violations.”
All the speakers underscored the importance of peoples’ mobilizations and the need to build and strengthen movements as key strategies for resistance and alternatives.
A very good discussion ensued after the presentations that helped clarify some points made, but also raised some other related issues and concerns for further discussion. Among these are questions over competing rights and overlapping claims, the importance of national campaigns targeting states in the wake of the global crisis, TNCs and hegemony of corporate power, and strategies focusing on global mechanisms and institutions.
After the discussion on critical issues and challenges in the region, food and land rights activist Peter Rosset moderated a TV-style panel discussion with three speakers: Jenina Joy Chavez of Action for Economic Reforms from the Philippines, Charles Santiago, Member of Parliament from Malaysia, and Nutchanart Thanthong of the Four Regions Slum Network in Thailand.
The discussions became even more animated in the World Café-style discussion that ensued around the main themes of the conference. The participants divided themselves into 7 tables to share insights and reflections and debate on key questions posed around the state of resistance and alternatives. The start of each Café session was triggered by an infographic (Growth numbers for Asia), videos (local perspectives on climate solutions and commons) and slide show (photographs on peoples’ resistance). The World Café generated reflections on key issues and concerns, debates on contentious issues and ideas for common actions and alternatives
Day 2 kicked off with the presentation of Indigenous leader Timuay Santos Unsad of the Timuay Justice and Governance. Timuay Santos’ discussion of the Indigenous perspective on development touched on a number of key issues underpinning much of the discourse on alternative paradigms: our relationship with nature and Mother Earth, our relationship with one another and the need for tolerance and pluralism, the importance of culture, the destructive and divisive nature of the capitalist model of development and the interconnections between peoples’ struggles. Many of these themes were further elaborated in the discussions that followed.
Much of the discussions on the second day of the conference zeroed in on the question of alternatives and how to further elaborate, spell out and define the elements as well as the concrete examples of peoples’ alternatives.
Peoples’ Struggles for Alternatives in other parts of the world and what it means for Asia
In the panel on Peoples’ Struggles for Alternatives in other parts of the world and what it means for Asia, leading activists from outside the region led a very insightful discussion. Christophe Aguiton of ATTAC-France painted a picture of the political developments in Europe and the challenges and pitfalls facing the “new wave” of political and social movements pushing for genuine change and the erstwhile failure of radical parties to maintain the course of progressive policies. Reflecting on developments in Greece and the criticisms on Syriza, Cristophe asserted that “this story is a victory of neoliberalism and capitalism. This is a big victory of the conservatives. They are really winning this story.”
Expounding further on the challenges faced by left governments from a Latin American perspective was Silvia Ribeiro of ETC. “In Spanish, being progressive means you are for progress and that is exactly what so-called left governments in Latin America are pursuing. A common element of the development agenda that is being pushed in Latin America and in Asia is the devastating impact on the environment. Environmental destruction is one of the main characteristics of the model of progress and development which is everywhere.” Sylvia put the discussion into the context of the climate crisis and she elaborated further on the role of technology and corporations in pushing false solutions to climate change. Brid Brennan of the Transnational Institute talked about the initiative to push stronger mechanisms and instruments to tame the power of corporations including the legally binding instrument under the United Nations Human Rights Council and the broader movement around the so-called Peoples’ Treaty.
Aoi Horiuchi from AM-Net Japan was requested to share about local peoples’ initiatives in Japan to build local economies. The panel was moderated by Judy Pasimio of Lilak.
The closing panel took the form of a TV-style discussion, which was moderated by Shalmali Guttal. The panel on Peoples’ Alternatives featured four eminent thinkers and allies of Focus who were asked to reflect on the ideas and recommendations put forward throughout the conference and link the discussion to some of the emerging narratives or discourses around peoples’ alternatives, such as feminist economics/alternatives, commons and food sovereignty, global justice, systemic alternatives with a focus on climate justice and Buen Vivir, and new politics.
The speakers included Dr. Marina Durano of the Asian Center of the University of the Philippines, who proposed the notion of social justice as a meta-narrative of an alternative, followed by Peter Rosset from Mexico, who reflected on the perspective of the Zapatista and stressed the anti-capitalist nature of the struggle for alternatives and the centrality of the land issue. The land struggles have taken on various forms from “occupying and reclaiming the land through ‘agrarian reform from below’ to defending the land that is still in the hands of peasant communities.” The next speaker was Seema Mustafa, who discussed the shrinking of popular political spaces and the importance of alternative media among others. The panel was closed by Pablo Solon, former Executive Director of Focus, who discussed the alternatives that emerged out of the struggle in Bolivia to regain popular control over natural resources and development and the current challenges confronting movements in Bolivia.