WRI Trienniel 2nd Report

Blog by Milan Rai

Can international conferences like this be justified? Lots of my friends think not. I have breaking news from Peace News on this score – the survey they dared not print. Well, no one has not dared to print it, actually, but it dramatises the story.

Earlier today, in the morning plenary session, we had a searing moment which really made the whole thing worthwhile. We had two plenary speakers. One was Samarendra Das, who has been working for 16 years with poor communities facing displacement and pollution and brutal repression from the mining industry. The other was Elavie Ndura (her name is actually much longer – she said a paragraph-long name – but this is what is printed in the programme), a peace-oriented scholar from Burundi now based in the USA. Elavie made general remarks about the need for collective struggle, though she said that for herself she was not one for street protests or arrests (“prison would kill me”).

Samarendra made an incendiary, wandering speech without notes. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the mining industry, its penetration and subversion of international institutions and national politics and popular movements, which formed the backdrop for his cri de coeur, a passionate call for relevant research and street protest. As leading Indian intellectual Jai Sen said in the question period, “I heard rage in your heart, trying to reach out to build a fire in us. How can we build this fire and make it a global fire?”

The moment of clarity for me came later in the question time, when Rosa Biwangko Moiwend of the Office for Justice and Peace in West Papua, got up and spoke from the floor. She said (roughly speaking): “The Indian experience we have been hearing is the reflector of West Papua, my homeland, where ‘mountain is sacred’ [a point Samarendra had emphasised was a global phenomenon among tribal peoples] and ‘the land is mother’. If you destroy the land, mother cannot give you life and your people will die [in a film clip we saw, women at an anti-mining protest shouted 'kill us, because when you take our land we die']…. Maybe we will die.”

Rosa said that people in India were struggling by themselves, now we had to connect the struggles around India with the struggles in West Papua, and the global struggles elsewhere against the extractive industries. She said: “This is an important moment.” What was needed was to link not just organisations, “because organisations work to their own interests”, but also people, so that our peoples can know that they are not alone. She asked the forum how these links could be forged from this conference. A question I am not sure anyone is going to answer.

That moment of clarity was the sense of connection, face to face, like a breath going from one body into another and strengthening both, between two struggles unaware of each other. Some writers and intellectuals associated with these struggles may connect them intellectually (Samarendra knew lots about West Papua, as well as lots of other places), but grassroots activists have never heard of their parallel work, parallel defeats and parallel victories. How can this kind of thing happen, how can the possibility occur, without face-to-face international conferences? This is the justification for the carbon crimes we have committed to come here.

Okay, the breaking news. I conducted a poll of 25 international participants (there are said to be 100 internationals coming over the period of the conference, though I haven’t seen that number). No one was aware of the carbon cost of their flights (except me). Two were planning to do carbon offsetting. Some objected to offsetting on grounds of principle (not to buy a good conscience as a mercantile transaction).

Before I came, I worked out that the carbon cost of my flights (I’m also going to Nepal before coming back) was about 1.8 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. I haven’t come to a conclusion as to what to do about offsetting. While sceptical about the commercial offsetting projects, I can’t help feeling something has to be done. The real answer would be to make a corresponding cut in my emissions for the rest of the year. I don’t know how I could do that.

I reported these findings to Howard Clark, co-chair of the proceedings, and he suggested I report back as a ‘news item’ tomorrow – he is encouraging people to give theatrical or other non-linear presentations of news at the start of each day. Well, I say “encouraging”. Today he was down on his knees literally begging….

On another note, I’m not sure how much I’m going to be able to write. My RSI is interacting in a creative way with my frozen shoulder and the pain may get too much. I am taking voluminous notes at the moment. This may come down to one-word evaluations of presentations….