Border Social Forum and the New Wave of Border Activism

Border Social Forum and the New Wave of Border Activism

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January 24, 2007

By Kent Paterson, Americas Program, International Relations Center (IRC)

Nearly one thousand people gathered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Oct. 12-15, 2006 at the first ever Border Social Forum (BSF). Modeled after the massive World Social Forum that draws tens of thousands of people every year, the Ciudad Juarez gathering featured dozens of workshops, a border “reality tour” and street demonstrations against the Bush administration’s planned series of new border walls and the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the conclusion of the BSF, delegates from U.S. and Mexican non-governmental organizations issued a 23-point declaration that calls for sweeping changes in immigration, human rights, labor, economic, and environmental policies on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Packing into a van along with other New Mexico youths, Rodrigo Rodriguez and his friends headed south to Ciudad Juarez one brisk day this past fall with a serious purpose in mind: finding common ground with other young people from throughout the borderlands on immigration and other issues that affect their communities.

“The forum itself is just an awesome spot for people to come together from all over the place to network and work together to figure out ways, develop ways, to work together and further their causes,” said Rodriguez, a youth intern with the Albuquerque-based Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP). Dedicated to the empowerment of low-income populations and people of color, Rodriguez’s group played a leading roll in New Mexico in organizing last spring’s pro-immigrant protests.

Like other social forums, the Ciudad Juarez forum aimed to bring together a broad spectrum of people working in social movements to discuss, debate, and ultimately formulate an alternative political agenda under the slogan “Another World Is Possible.”

Not an organization per se, or even an attempt to form yet another coalition, the BSF showcased the struggles of dozens of NGOs in the borderlands and beyond. While many of the attendees had youthful faces, their movements mark time struggling for racial, social, and economic justice in the region. Veteran BSF organizers cut their teeth in previous cross-border mobilizations that fought NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, battled the proposed Sierra Blanca nuclear dump, and struggled for a halt to the femicides that became public in Ciudad Juarez in 1993.

Ruben Solis, co-director of the San Antonio-based Center for Justice, and leading BSF organizer, considered the BSF as representing a new stage in cross-border movements that picked up steam during the 1990s. “It’s creating a new wave, but it recuperates and brings together all that’s happened before in a phase of new development,” Solis said.

A key goal of the Border Social Forum was to merge often “competing” agendas of non-governmental organizations into a mutual solidarity front , according to Solis.

Among the numerous U.S. and Mexican groups participating in the Ciudad Juarez forum were the Southwest Public Workers Union, Center for Justice, Bracero Project, Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, Pastoral Obrera, Labor Studies and Action Workshop, Center for Research and Worker Solidarity, Grassroots Global Justice, Just Transition Alliance, Mexico Solidarity Network, and Justice for Our Daughters.

Signaling a new burst of activism, the BSF figured high in several significant movement initiatives that visited the Mexico-U.S. border during 2006. Other examples included the Indigenous Summit of the Americas held just days before the BSF, the growing transnational movement against the toxic dump at La Choya proposed for the Sonora desert on sacred Tohono O’odham lands, and the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign that toured the northern Mexican border states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.

In all the resurgent movements, mass actions including highway protests and international bridge blockades were prominent features. Organizing two partial closures of the Santa Fe Bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas, to protest of the Bush Administration’s “Wall of Death,” the BSF was no exception. Cross-fertilization of the movements is evident in many aspects, reflected, for example, in across-the-board demands for immigrant rights, Native American sovereignty, and environmental justice.

Transcending regionalism, the BSF connected the struggles of African-American Hurricane Katrina victims to flood victims in northern Mexico, criticized border walls in both the United States and Israel/Palestine, called for the freedom of five Cuban prisoners held by the United States in maximum security prisons, and expressed support for the democratic struggle in Oaxaca waged by the Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).

Organized in the months following last spring’s huge pro-immigrant rallies supported by millions of people in the United States, the BSF likewise came on the heels of a backlash by conservative forces that witnessed the U.S. Congress approving a 700-mile series of new border walls, as well as the passage of local ordinances in municipalities from California to Pennsylvania that seek to deny undocumented workers housing and other services. At the same time, a number of U.S. state and local governments are enlisting state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Ciudad Juárez: Laboratory of the Future?

Moreover, the BSF was held at a time of increasing polarization, violence and environmental contamination in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands. Once dubbed the “Laboratory of Our Future” by author Charles Bowden, Ciudad Juarez was an appropriate place to convene the BSF. Marked by great contrasts of wealth and deprivation, the city was slammed with widespread flooding in the weeks prior to the forum and many poor neighborhoods were washed out. Since the 1990s, wages in the hundreds of foreign-owned maquiladora plants have decreased, narco-violence has gone unabated, and scores of sex-related serial killings have remained unpunished. First noticed in Ciudad Juarez, the femicides have since spread to other parts of Chihuahua state and different states of Mexico.

Adriana Carmona, a lawyer for the Chihuahua City-based Justice for Our Daughters and the Women’s Human Rights Center, said national and international protests have forced the Mexican state to take new reports of disappearances of young women seriously, and also begin addressing some cases of domestic violence, but that impunity reigns in femicides suspected to be committed by members of organized crime. “We still don’t have a systematic, permanent campaign in Ciudad Juarez directed against violence towards women,” Carmona said.

Prior to the passage of NAFTA in 1993, the U.S. and Mexican governments pledged to begin cleaning up the border environment and improving substandard infrastructure. Labor and environmental side agreements attached to the trinational pact were supposed to protect the environment and workers’ rights.

Almost 15 years later, backsliding is everywhere. Schemes for new toxic dumps, leftover contamination from old industrial sites, and air pollution from overly-congested border crossings are just a few of the negative border realities today.

“We don’t believe the environment is getting better,” stated San Diego-Tijuana activist José Bravo, the executive director of the Just Transition Alliance. Bravo criticized both the U.S. and Mexican governments for not prioritizing environmental justice and not putting adequate resources into environmental protection.

As for labor rights, Bravo pointed out that corporations simply threaten to move to Asia if the costs of doing business on the border are perceived as too expensive. “Maquilas will move around the world to see which country will offer the best deal,” he said. Bravo’s group provides an excellent example of binational agenda-building, working with five different networks of people of color and environmental justice in the United States, as well as with the United Steel Workers Union.

article continued here

and you can read the Ciudad Juarez Declaration here

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