A Canadian Ecosocialist at the World Social Forum

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Cy Gonick, publisher and co-ordinating editor of Canada’s longest-running left-wing magazine, Canadian Dimension, was in Belem, Brazil, last week, for the World Social Forum. The following are excerpts from his emails from Belem.

The full text of Cy’s letters can be found on the Canadian Dimension Blog.

Day One

An estimated hundred thousand delegates opened the 2009 World Social Forum with a spirited march down the main street of this northern port city of Belem in the heart of the Amazon. An equal number of local residents lined the streets observing the carnival-like demonstration and cheering on the boisterous marchers along with their drummers, banners and chanters. …

This veteran marcher/activist had never before been surrounded by such a sea of humanity as committed as himself to changing the world. I can say that the feeling was exhilarating, bordering on jubilation –knowing all the work in organizing, capacity building and struggles of so many diverse movements that brought these people together but with the usual caution that so much more needs to be done.

Day Two

For me the most exciting thing that happened at the WSF today was the moment the roof collapsed with the ceiling fan crashing down a few feet from where I was sitting in a meeting room along with 60 others listening intently to a presentation against the principle of compensation for environmental damage.

This was the first of a series of presentations on ecosocialism at the 2009WSF, the ones I especially came here to participate in. The concept we were introduced to is that no level of compensation is sufficient to cover the forever damage to nature inflicted by giant resource corporations in the course of their everyday operations.

The only acceptable remedy is one of fully repairing the damage/loss so that the land/waters/air is left in the same shape as it was prior to so-called development. It was just at the point that Terisa Turner (of the University of Guelph and an occasional contributor to Canadian Dimension) rose to ask how very poor indigenous peoples faced with an offer of a large cash compensation could turn it down, that the roof caved in! Fortunately no one was injured.

Day Three

This session, sub-titled “The Significance of the WSF of the Participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the World” examined the WSF’s special effort to include indigenous peoples in the planning as well as the content of the Forum.

It was explained to us by J’ai Sen who chaired the session, that the first few years of the Forum were planned as “white settler” events with virtually no provision for first peoples. That began to change as the WSF shifted from Brazil to Nairobi and Mumbai. But it was only at this 2009 WSF in Belem that a real effort was to be made to not only have a strong indigenous presence at the Forum but their involvement in its planning. Presentations were made by indigenous representatives from Columbia, India, Peru (Hugo Blanco) and Canada (Ben Powers). The meeting was conducted in classic participatory style with statements invited from the audience being responded to by the main speakers.

Hugo Blanco, the remarkably vigorous revolutionary peasant leader, now in his mid 80s, is the leader of the Campesino Confederation of Peru. He added a strong anti-capitalist flavour to the session and his perspective seemed to be fully supported by the other speakers.

The most insightful presentation was provided by the Canadian, Ben Powers of the Indigenous Environmental Movement. Ben also acted as translator for Blanco and other speakers. More than a thousand indigenous peoples, mainly from within Brazil, made their way to Belem, a two week journey for many of them.

Day 4

The three hour session I attended was really interesting. Sponsored by the Ecosocialist International Network, an organization I’m active in, the session featured a discussion on indigenous peoples and ecosocialism with presentations mainly by Brazilian ecosocialists. The session was chaired by Beatriz Leandro of the Brazilian Network of Socialists.

The session opened with Ana Isla, a South American scholar now teaching at Brock University and on the editorial Board of Capitalism, Socialism, Nature, summarizing her research on the impact of the development of the rainforest in Costa Rica that eats up the soil and robs the people of the trees that produce their food and livelihood, eventually displacing them into the cities where women are forced into the sex trade.

Adilson Viera, Secretary General of the Workers Union of the Amazon, described how the resource workers he represents, like fishermen, are ecosocialists in everything but name, resisting the encroachment of capital that destroys their livelihood.

In his history of ecosocialism in Brazil, Mauricius Laxe (Brazilian Network of Ecosocialists) described how it started back in 1991 with the ecosocialist manifesto for Brazil that attracted over a hundred supporters back then. A year later in response to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, regarded by them as capital’s response to the environmental crisis, they organized the march of the oppressed.

In 1996 the association of socialists and environmentalists of northern Brazil was formed and signed onto the first ecosocialist manifesto drawn up by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy on the occasion of the 2003 World Social Formation. A second ecosocialist manifesto has been drafted for this 2009 WSF meeting.

During the discussion following the presentation, Laxe said that the term ‘socialist’ is a drawback especially among peasants and indigenous peoples, and suggested that ecosocialism be replaced by ecopolitics. That generated awide ranging discussion. We were informed that the ultra violent Shining Path Maoist group has given socialism a very bad name in Peru.

Joel Kovel intervened to say that in the old USSR, Leon Trotsky expressed total contempt for rural existence, resulting in a troubled legacy for socialism among peasants everywhere. Joel went on to give a short discourse on how in his last ten years, Marx began to re-evaluate his theses that all peoples had to pass through several stages of history and that none could be skipped and in particular, that capitalism could not be skipped to arrive at the socialist stage.

He hinted towards the end of his life that communal societies might not have to go through capitalism. Joel suggested that ecosocialists need to return to this question as it relates to indigenous peoples in the age of globalization. By this time the ageless Peruvian revolutionary Hugo Blanco joined the session and offered a number of points including that the two features indigenous peoples “from Canada to Chile” have in common are collectivism and love of nature and that in their 500 year resistance to capitalist encroachment on their lands they are natural ecosocialists.

Day Five

The three hour session on ecosocialism featured two very good talks one by Joel Kovel, author of the fabulous book, The Enemy of Nature; the other by Terisa Turner, a prof at Guelph University in Canada. Both Joel and Terisa have contributed articles to Canadian Dimension sometime in the past two or three years.

Joel Kovel is really the father of ecosocialism. He described how this was the second gathering of ecosocialists from around the world, the first having taken place in Paris in 2007. There, a small group of mainly northern intellectuals decided that it was important that the second gathering include a large contingent of indigenous people from the global south. That¹s why they chose to meet in Belem, smack in the middle of the Amazon.

Joel boldly stated that the only way to save the planet is to end capital¹s compulsion to grow. Some form of world government is necessary to impose limits to growth which, if effective, would collapse the capitalist system since its existence requires endless accumulation. But societies will only transcend capitalism with ecosocialism which he defined as production based on free association of workers combined with ecocentric means and ends. Whereas absentee owners can easily damage the environment, when workers come to own the means of production they work with, they are much less likely to damage, let alone destroy nature which they are part of, depending upon it for both their survival and their comforts.

In his concluding remarks Joel said that, inspired by the ecosocialist measures of Cuba and Bolivia under Evo Morales, he is convinced that ecosocialists have no alternative but to intervene in state formations as they currently exist starting with a mass intervention at Copenhagen, site of the UN meeting to reformulate the Kyoto Protocol. Secondly, he urged the development of autonomous zones within capitalist societies that would establish islands of freely associated labour as capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis. Thirdly, he said that what¹s needed now is a mass mobilization of society to demand a series of structural reforms to prevent climate change, reforms that capitalism cannot endure.

Terisa Turner offered the most optimistic prognosis of our immediate future. She described several examples of grass roots movements successfully stopping resource multinational corporations and keeping fossil fuel in the ground. She argued for a joint global strategy of all out support for these efforts of halting resource development combined with consumer boycott campaigns — which would deprive capital of energy and resources and markets. And direct trade deals that cut out the multinatinationals in place of capitalist trade/investment agreements, citing the arrangement between Cuba and Venezuela oil for medical services.

She asked, who is engaged in these efforts? Indigenous peoples with women in the foreground.

What is their means? Direct action to shut-down production and keep fossil fuel in the ground.

She ended her presentation with a call for a people¹s charter on climate change in opposition to the Kyoto Protocal and sanctions against governments and corporations that violate its measures. As for Copenhagen December 2009, she called for a mass organization to stop the proceedings, like Seattle 1999.

[Coming soon: As soon as we receive it, Climate and Capitalism will publish a report on the Ecosocialist International Network meeting that was held in Belem immediately after the World Social Forum.]



  • I agree with Dave Hookes’ view that every effort to limit green house gases should be supported even if such efforts, inadequate as they might be, are being made by bourgeois state formations.

  • Dear Cy

    I am a little worried about the suggestion by Terisa to close down Copenhagen climate summit through mass action.

    Given the urgency of the climate question, namely the approach of a tipping point likely within 10-15 years, every effort to limit Green House gases has to be supported even those proposed by Bourgeois state formations however inadaquate at present.

    The ecosocialist movement on its own is unlikely to be able to muster the resources to implement its proposals in the above time frame. Better to formulate a simple set of demands for action and then use mass mobilisation to make sure the attendees get the message.

    A group of leading climate scientists are meeting before Copenhagen to do precisely that- to impress on the delegates the urgency of the situation.

    best regards