March in Tunis

On the World Social Forum – Tunisia, March 26-30

by nathan thanki

The dust having finally settled following the first ever World Social Forum in the Arab world, which took place at El Manar University in Tunis from March 26-30, we must ask ourselves some tough questions about the future of the Forum.

The event was highly anticipated, with many activists from a variety of social movements being drawn to and intrigued by post-revolution Tunisia, and procedures got underway on the 26th with a march through streets that just over two years ago bore witness to the start of the “Arab Spring.” The excitement on the streets was palpable, but it was immediately confined as the Forum took up its three day residence in the university campus.

Tunisian activists complained bitterly about the tight control of the space by the Tunisian government. As a result, many did not participate in the Forum. Graffiti on banners welcoming the Forum to Tunis displayed the mood: many are frustrated with the Forum for taking corporate sponsorship as well as for charging registration fees. And while the Forum was further criticised for lacking voices from Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the university was buzzing with delegations from across the Middle East and North Africa who seemed to take advantage of the opportunity to have face to face meetings en masse to cross-pollinate strategies for their respective struggles.

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Brazilian fractals

by Maria Alejandra Escalante

“I also take it as granted that every created thing, and consequently the created monad also, is subject to change, and indeed that this change is continual in each one.

Gottfried Leibniz 

 

Listening to political conversations about the past, the present and the future of Rio+20 has been a daily ingredient of my life since I first jumped into the global politics realm a year ago. Many words I have read in preparation to what came already. Yet, words fall short when living what Rio+20 meant in all its wholeness. I still need to process what I saw, heard and talked about to come to any accurate understanding of this overwhelming trip to Brazil. Therefore this post becomes my thoughts’ delineation so I can hope to make any sense out of this experience, rather than an explanation or a description for you, the reader, about Rio+20. And as this is more for me than for you, I am doing it my way. According to the theory of fractals, any chosen element has infinite scales of reflections that interact with one another and affect what they are. I see myself an element reproduced in the Earth in Brackets team, the UN as an institution and the rest of the world that does not involve the UN. This view is my best attempt to reach an understanding. 

The idea of sustainable development renovated my faith in the human spirit. It is a brilliant strategy that, in theory, addresses the root problems of this unconscious society: overconsumption and overproduction of everything and all you can think of. I got inspired. In my head I thought that if we pushed hard enough, this new way of living would be a breakthrough in the course of our existence. But that could not happen at Rio+20 because the people of the world cannot reach consensus on any major issue. With sharp words and speeches they, the delegates, convinced and unconvinced each other several times. Words in this context seem to weigh a lot, and the power they possess is a delegate’s best weapon. But delivered how it was, sustainable development could not pass through the UN’s framework. If that was the only idea that I believed in and as it was unsuccessfully adopted by the UN, then I had no choice but to lose my minimal faith in the UN as an international platform for agreements. 

Then me, an individual finding no sense in what is being done, was part of a group of people that, believing or not, was also embedded in this frenetic Rio+20 bubble. I had to respond to them and make them count on me because one thing is to walk away from a system, like the UN one, and another thing is to walk away from the people who are acting as teachers to me. So, for most of the time, I let my apprehension hide away from the common goal. We found a common group goal that more or less aligned with my thoughts: the future we want was not being given by the negotiators at Rio+20. We worked hard to deliver such message. And then I felt that as much as I disagreed in a bigger sense with even participating in a conference that was mostly set to give media comfort and some work, having a cohesive group was important if we wanted to maker ourselves heard loud enough. 

And so Earth in Brackets became known as a radical voice to the youth participants in particular but among civil society in general. We spread around like a plague, covering negotiations, networking with key people, transmitting messages from and to RioCentro, pushing everywhere we could for The Future We Really Want. We were united and had a direction (this seems like an easy task, but it is truly not. We had many meetings to decide which direction to go), and hence we were heard by other groups. Again, in this political world if your rhetoric is not strong enough you are not heard. I felt like we, clearly with the help and input of so many other people who became our “allies”, tilted the balance of the Rio+20 outcome towards our favor. At least a little. Through conversations and especially through the protests and manifestations, we made sure that Rio+20 did not walk out with an absolute victory and be transcribed into History as the biggest and most important conference of the United Nations. 

But Rio+20 is just one reunion within dozens of UN meetings. The UN is just one institution organizing (or trying to) the structure of this modern society. It is just one institution that has existed over less than a century in History. The chances that I, or  that Earth in Brackets, or the final negotiating text will radically change the destructive senseless model of living is pretty slim according to my calculations. So I cannot leave Rio de Janeiro without asking the question: was this whole endeavor worth it? I burst out a gigantic NO, but then I remember my fractal theory. These scales of perception can and may influence each other in ways I cannot even perceive. In that case, the work that we all have done here can potentially have unknown repercussions in the course of the universe. It might change it. But it might not. If something indeed changes, I hope I can perceive it before deciding if it worth it to go to the next COP in Qatar, or not. 

United by Frustration

By Nimisha Bastedo

Throughout the entire Rio process, it seemed as though divisions within and between the different sectors of civil society were too wide to bridge. Attempts to create a major group common statement continued to fail. The most radical youth clashed with those who pushed for smaller ‘victories’ within the same old framework. Sofia Garcia, organizing partner (OP) for the NGO major group, complained that a similar tension reigned in her domain.

Everyone seemed to be insisting so admittedly on upholding their own agenda, that reaching any form of consensus amongst civil society on how to move forward seemed a laughable dream. Deciding on a few overarching principles to put on our ‘Red Line’ banner took hours of debate even though we were only trying to juggle the opinions of a handful of youth. You can imagine how hard it would be to try and do the same with the 18,000 other members of civil society that roamed the halls of Rio Centro.

And yet, as this train-wreck of a conference came to a close, there was a growing platform for unity: frustration. In all of the Major Groups, there is disappointment in the outcome document. There is general disgust in the empty language and watered down commitments, and a sinking feeling that we have only moved backwards since 1992.

Youth are outraged because there is no mention of future generations. Indigenous groups fear the green economy promotes programs like REDD+, that lead to corporate capture of their traditional lands. The science and technology folks complain that their role isn’t embraced strongly enough in the text. Women are outraged that it doesn’t acknowledge reproductive rights. Yesterday, I overheard overheard someone saying that even the business and industry people are not happy (although I can’t imaging what they can complain about when they have governments basically eating out of the palm of their hands).

Discontent brought the people together. It united us to the extent that there was actually consensus on a speech that was meant to be given on behalf of all of the Major Groups at the closing session of Rio+20. Unfortunately, the governments had a more pressing agenda to follow. Two minutes was far too much time to waste listening to the voice of civil society, so the speech was not allowed.

Although the speech went unspoken, it still represented unprecedented cohesion amongst civil society. According to Kiara Worth, OP for the Major Group of Children and Youth, “never before have all the Major Groups rallied behind a statement with such vigour.”

The speech’s basic message was this: Rio+20 has failed to include the voice of the people. It has failed to place our children’s future above national and corporate self-interest. We reject the outcome, and in the face of government’s lack of ambition, we vow instead to move forward as People. (See full statement 2 posts down)

It is a shame that it takes a looming failure to find any sort of common ground on which civil society can stand. But when governments fail to listen to the 7 billion voices they supposedly represent, perhaps this unity in the People is the only place we can find hope.

The Common African Position

by Samuli Sinisalo

By the end of the week, we will know what Durban will deliver. Durban is an African COP, and Africa will have a key role in determining the outcome. A united Africa is a strong force in the negotiations, as the rest of the developing world is likely not to challenge them. What is good for Africa, is good for the developing world.

In September the African Ministerial conference convened in Bamako, and issued a declaration with the key messages for the Durban negotiations. This three page document is really significant – if Africa stays true to it and pushes the goals together.

First, the Bamako declaration highlights the Millennium Development Goals, and how climate change puts further challenges on achieving them. They have not been extensively discussed in the UNFCCC in the past, but they might be in the future. Second, Africa wants the UNFCCC to maintain its status as the forum where climate decisions, based on science, are taken. The declaration also includes the principles of historic responsibility and common but differentiated responsibilities.

More specifically, the African ministers declared they want two separate outcomes from the negotiation tracks. On Kyoto Protocol, the wanted an amendment to Kyoto Protocol for a legally binding second commitment period from 2013 to 2017, with ambitious targets that keep the Annex 1 countries on track for 40% cuts by 2020 and 95% by 2050. In the second commitment period, market mechanisms could only count for 10% of the national emission reductions – rest would have to be domestic action. On the LCA track, the non-Kyoto Annex 1 Parties should take on comparable emission reduction objectives.

Further the Ministers wish to operationalize the Cancun institutions on adaptation, technology transfer and finance – all under the supervision of the COP. The Green Climate Fund should additionally have its own legal personality. On finance, they were concerned the private sector and about the division of funds between adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation needs are increasing by the minute, but private funds steer away, as relocating coastal communities is not as profitable as generating renewable electricity. The concern about fast start finance already seems futile, as the developed countries pledges are already falling short and there is no remedy in sight.

Last, but not least, I want to highlight the part of the Bamako Declaration which calls for maintaining a firewall between the developed countries legally binding mitigation commitments and developing countries nationally appropriate mitigation actions. The latter are conditional on financial support from the developed world. This has been the cornerstone of the UNFCCC for nearly two decades, but is now challenged in Durban as even some developing countries, including China, are ready to negotiate on this.

Some of the African countries are expected to diverge from the common position in the name of short term national gains. The last days will show whether Africa stands united until the end. Will they crumble? What will they compromise?