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Thematic Social Forum on Mining and Extractivist Economy: an outstanding success that builds a platform for continuity

In the face of an intensifying assault on nature, the relentless drive to displace people from their lands for mining and other extractivist projects as well as the assault on workers rights, the Thematic Social Forum on mining and extractivist economy was timely. The threat posed by the rise of the far right in many parts of the world, with an extreme extractivist agenda, made sure that the Forum had a strategic relevance, beyond the core issues related to mining and extractivism.

The People’s Dialogue had already mooted the idea of a Thematic Social Forum on mining as early as 2015, when we hosted an exchange of activists from Latin America involved in mining struggles. However, the ideas underpinning the Thematic Social Forum can be traced back to the Assembly on Mining and Extractivism, held at the World Social Forum in Tunisia in 2013. At this Forum we noted that:

“Extractivism is resulting in the displacement of peasant, indigenous people and rural populations, as land is grabbed for mining, oil extraction, plantations and dams. The rights of indigenous populations to make decisions about their land and to veto developments they reject is consistently violated.”

Already in this statement, one can see traces of the Right to Say No, which became such a prominent issue of discussion at the TSF.

It is in that context that the declaration of the Tunisian Assembly proposed: that:

“We all commit to link our struggles and build a common global political platform and movement against this current form of highly destructive extractivism.”

It is exactly the realisation of building a common platform to unify community and workers’ struggles and resistances that marks the significant achievements of what was collectively accomplished at the TSF. The centrality of the demand of “The right to say no”, which was overwhelmingly and organically endorsed throughout the different processes of the Forum, played a critical role in ensuring a very high degree of unity and cohesiveness at this Thematic Social Forum.

At no point was the great diversity of peoples from a very wide range of countries and realities a hindrance to concentrated discussions and debates dedicated to answering the question: what can we do together?

It is not often that activists from 28 African countries can assemble with their sisters and brothers from many different parts of the world. All in all, 60 countries were represented in the Thematic Social Forum. Had it not been for the inevitable visa problems we would have had more countries represented and even a greater diversity of activists present. Especially relevant to note was the presence of activists coming from very difficult situations, yet extremely relevant with respect to the destructive role of mining. There were participants who came from situations of authoritarian rule, civil war post conflict reconstruction, state capture and the dominance of corrupt and crony capitalism. The strong feminist perspectives expressed and the highlighting of the role of women as well as the specific issues confronting women, was clearly an outcome of the very strong presence of women in the Forum. XX women registered, which represented XX% of the Forum participants.

The opportunity to come together from such a wide range of realities and experiences meant that the Forum acted as a vital space to fill the absence of a common platform necessary for generating a global movement. Not only were we able to adopt a declaration that summed up the unities achieved during the four days of discussion but the adoption of a common programme of action gives the Forum a very powerful dimension to unify struggles and resistances across the globe.

The Forum surfaced many important, yet difficult debates that will have a continuity into this Forum process, well beyond our 2nd encounter in Asia in 2020. Locating the intensification of extractivism, within the context of the rise of the populist and authoritarian right was an important theme that occupied the attention of participants. As was the fact that the problems of mining and extractivist economies could be located within a systemic analysis that reinforces the sense of the urgency of the problem as well as the multi-dimensional nature of the crisis.

The debate on what stance to take towards mining was a difficult and complicated discussion. Although a number of participants were in favour of keeping the “coal in the hole” the “oil in the soil”, i.e. no to mining, the twin notions of a just transition and fundamental economic and social transformation were widely embraced. The complexity of exiting global value chains, on which our economies are dependent, and the fact that the transition to a low carbon economy would require inputs from mining, suggests a transitional approach, when considering strategies towards alternative paradigms and systems.. It was also widely accepted that mining has been conducted for hundreds of years at different scales and thus it was unlikely to come to an abrupt halt.

There was a common view that large scale commercial mining and extractivist activities and operations conducted by large national and transnational corporations, are the targets of our resistance and proposals for alternative economic strategies and paradigms, that go beyond capitalism.

It is in this context that the debate on the role of artisanal mining was played out. Of course, artisanal mining covers a wide spectrum of activities, bordering on commercial and even criminal activities on the one side, and vital subsistence activities involving millions of women, who supplement subsistence agriculture for part of the year, on the other side. Several networks and movements participating in the Forum work with these women and are a core constituency, not just of these formations but the Forum itself.

An outstanding feature of the Forum was the integration of the ecological and climate dimensions of extractivism, such that there was widespread empathy and support for the proposition of the rights of nature. While, it was not possible to settle this debate for purposes of adopting the Forum declaration, a foundation was established for constructive debate on the importance of this in the resistance to extractivism. The rights of nature will form part of the building blocks of several preparatory processes leading to the next Thematic Social Forum on mining and extractivist economy.

What was particularly remarkable and represents a key achievement was that these discussions were conducted in a comradely and non-polarising way. There was a strong recognition that diversity and plurality of views are not weakness but a key pillar on which the success of the Forum was built. Even more encouraging was that the airing of divergent views at no time served to hamper identifying the considerable areas of convergence such that we could develop a common agenda, programme of action and a declaration, which can be the basis for a process of soliciting endorsements from many formations that could not reach Johannesburg. Such an effort will contribute to the building of the momentum towards the 2020 TSF in Asia and give our process even greater legitimacy.

The central role of the protagonists in the Forum, i.e. the activists involved in the resistance to mining and extractivism contributed to this constructive spirit and atmosphere. Bringing together movements from different parts of the South was enormously empowering in overcoming a sense of isolation and atomisation, often experienced by remote communities. The subordinate role played by support organisations, NGOs and development agencies marked this Forum from other processes where mining and extractive economies are discussed. It gave it a very powerful and meaningful dynamic. Equally significant was the role of faith based organisations not just in the context of serving as a prophetic voice but as a protagonist in the struggle against mining as well as a key ally of those in struggle.

The respect between the different components of the Steering Committee, amongst the organisers and participants must be regarded as a defining character of the process and must be nurtured as we go forward.