FASTLANES: Reflections from the World Social Forum

The past week was neck-breaking meeting as fellow social activists from all over the world convened in this East African city to share stories of struggles and aspirations for a more equitable world. The word UHURU (Swahili for Freedom*) rang in every corner of Nairobi, which is nestled in the East African plateau at more than 5,000 ft. above sea level.


Temperature was cold for those coming from tropical countries like the Philippines at 14 degrees Celsius to the mid-20s. The warmth of solidarity, however, cannot be escaped as whites, blacks, people from northern and southern countries, from the First and Third World mingle in solidarity and in serious discussions on how to face the world’s serious problems such as global warming, ill-effects of globalization, HIV-AIDS, education, peace, justice and sustainable development.


The World Social Forum had, since its inception in Porto Alegre, Brazil at the turn of the millennium, became the platform for anti-globalization campaigns, especially for the world’s struggling population, mostly in the southern parts of the globe.


It is timed almost exactly as the world’s elite gather in winter-freezing Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. The WSF, unlike the WEF, is not done in the exclusivity of Swiss comfort where top CEOs and world leaders gather to also talk about the state of the world, but in this year’s version was in the Moi International Sports Stadium in the Kasarani Suburb of Nairobi.


Just around the stadium was festive as people marched and chanted their struggles to the beat of African drums. Inside the humble tents and in the stadium bleachers-turned lecture halls were serious discussions on issues that matter most to more than half the world’s population. Issues like access to land and other natural resources, global warming, good and accountable governance, sustainable development were being discussed and debated.


I was asked to make the presentation of the 2006 International Sustainability Watch Report of the SusWatch Network in the 23rd of January 2007. The said report highlighted the Barriers to Sustainable Development that directly impinges on the ability of nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America to achieve their Millennium Development Goals, specifically the MDGs on Poverty Alleviation, Environmental Sustainability and Governance.


It was appalling how elite control of natural resources by foreign monopoly corporations aided by the rich countries resulted in destruction of the environment, culture and alienation of the people from the market-oriented economy introduced from the West. It was also noteworthy that these southern countries, be they in Asia, Africa or Latin America, have weak or puppet governments that work more for the interest of their big brother countries rather than for the genuine interest and welfare of their constituents.


In the case of Southeast Asia, for example, it was very alarming that as far as democracy and environmentally sustainable development are concerned, we as a region is not moving forward, but backward. Democracies in our region are taking a beating, from the unabated political killings in the Philippines to the martial rule in Myanmar, the sufferings of the people in Timor Liste, the sorry condition of migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, so on and so forth.


And while this is happening, multi-national corporations from the United States, Australia, Europe, Japan, and even from emerging economic giants China and India, are exploiting left and right our natural resources, from mining in the Philippines to logging in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia. While our governments allow the exploitation of our natural resources to feed on the heavy consumption patterns of the throw-away western world, poor people from countries like the Philippines, mostly women, are shipped out to sweatshops and as domestic helpers and entertainers to serve Philippine sushi or sashimi to rich Japanese or provide health-care to American and European citizens, wash the dirty linen of the rich expats in Singapore or Hong Kong or toil under the desert sun in the Middle East. And resources and labor are appropriated to feed the extravagant needs of the rich countries and their people.


We are living not just in our very own unequal societies, but the world has become so globally unequal. The stories of struggle and despair from more than half of the world’s population as told in the WSF sessions was a very far cry from the wealth being displayed by the world’s elite in posh Davos, Switzerland or even the Southeast Asian leaders in the recent ASEAN Summit in Cebu.


While in Nairobi, I was lodged in the fourth floor of an apartment hotel in sub-urban Langata District, just a few kilometers from the renowned Kenya National Park. From my hotel room, I have a good view of the largest slum in Africa (surpassing the Sowetto District in South Africa), the Kibera slum. The rusting tin roofs of the slum shines every morning as the sun kisses the East African plateau and savannahs. At night, however, it disappears, with only faint flickering lights remaining as the million people living in that slum do not have basic amenities such as electricity.


It was two worlds in a very small place. Near the Kibera slums is the Kenya National Park where black rhinos, Rothschild giraffes, elephants, zebra and other wild beasts freely roam. The social condition in the Kibera slum, however, has brought out the beast in men and women as high crime rates pervade, very high HIV-AIDS occurrence and a pall of many other glooms hovering above it.


On several occasions, Kenyans greeted me, a Filipino with excitement and respect. One asked me to tell the story of how a widow booted out a dictator and how common masses invaded the Presidential Palace more than 20 years ago. The pharmacist in the almost empty drug store in the Langata Shopping Center greeted me: “Filipino! Ah, Corazon Aquino, a very brave woman.”


During the opening ceremonies of the WSF in the Uhuru Park in central Nairobi, an African man approached and greeted me, “Philippines, a land of struggle,” and we exchanged high fives.


When I was recalling how that brave woman booted out a dictator, I have to dig deep into my memory. Not only was I just fresh out of elementary school when that happened, but it seemed an eternity in the past. Very far indeed if what flashes into our present memory is a lady president who rose to power and had, during her watch, allowed or even encouraged human rights violations that until now, we are still counting the number of activists, journalists, lawyers, clergymen and women, farmers, workers, students and educators silenced till kingdom come by assassins.


Reflecting on my short stay in Nairobi for the World Social Forum, I am happy to hear of stories of survival, hope and recovery from Africa. But still, you see the reminders and remainders of past gloom and decadence that still aches their society.


If the people I met were encouraged by the Filipino people’s struggling spirit and love for freedom, I am both happy and sad. Happy that we have encouraged peaceful revolts, but sad that we are again going down. That while our African brothers may be now energized to recover, we are, as a nation, going backward. And if we allow this downturn to turn for the worse, what I saw in the Kibera slum a little distance away may one day happen in our beloved country. And then, I said in my little prayer, as I pulled luggage away, that it should not be allowed to happen in our beloved Pilipinas. And struggle we must, go on.


*Swahili is the language spoken in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. It is a language that is said to originate in the port city of Dar Es Sallam in Tanzania and spread to the plateaus and savannahs of East Africa. The World Social Forum 2007 happened in Nairobi, Kenya, 20-25 January this year.


(The writer is a community organizer based in Cagayan de Oro in Northern Mindanao, Philippines. He is the co-chairperson of the Philippine Civil Society Council for Sustainable Development and represents Asia in the executive committee of the International Sustainability Watch Network.)