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Tribulations and Inspirations

Report: 3rd Peoples Global Action (PGA) Conference Cochabamba, Bolivia, September 19th-22nd 2001.

By Hazel (with Alex)

Peoples Global Action is a network which links and creates a space for direct and unmediated contact between people's struggles and grassroots movements from around the world.

Growing out of the two international Zapatista encuentros against neo-liberalism, the PGA had its first conference at Geneva, Switzerland in February 1998 (see SchNEWS 156), where representatives and members of movements from every continent launched a worldwide co-ordination of resistance against the common enemies of globalised capital. This led to the international actions held during the WTO ministerial conference in Geneva in May 1998 where many different demonstrations, actions and street parties took place across the globe. The second international PGA conference took place in Bangalore, India in 1999 (see report in SchQUALL), and now this third September 2001 get-together in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In addition to these, there have been two PGA caravans (Europe 1999 and South America 2001), and a number of regional conferences. As well as these events the PGA has played its part in the wave of global days of action we have seen since 1998 (J18, N30 et al), aiming to establish networks of horizontal solidarity between disparate and geographically distant movements in common struggle. The PGA initially focused on free trade agreements, but have since developed to encompass a much broader critique, and aims to spread information and coordinate actions between autonomous groups with a commitment to direct action and civil disobedience. PGA is often associated with the phrases "We are everywhere" and "our resistance is as transnational as capital".

PGA is not an organisation and has no members. Different groups volunteer to act as contact points in each region and are responsible for disseminating information and convening regional and international conferences.

(see PGA website for history and manifesto in full)

The Place

Cochabamba, Bolivia was an apt location for an international gathering of grassroots movements. The streets are filled with poems and murals depicting peoples uprising and social justice, symbols of indigenous resistance like the coca leaf ("long live the coca leaf, death to the yanquis"), indigenous heroes and the inspiring graffiti of the anarcho-feminist group "Mujeres Creando". This city is famed for the "Water Wars" which took place in 2000 when a triumphant people's uprising reversed the privatization of their water by Canadian multinational Bechtel. Since the Government de-privatised the water supply the multi- sectored coalition which coordinated the protests cooperatively administer their local water resources.

"We have been the object of a great robbery, we are owners of nothing... We occupied the streets and highways because we are their true owners. We did it counting only on ourselves. For us, this is the true meaning of democracy: we decide and do, we discuss and carry out. We risked our lives to do what we consider just. Democracy is sovereignty of the people and that is what we achieved" - 6th February 2000. Declaration of the Water Coordination.

The People

The conference was hosted by the Six Federations of the Tropics (the coca-growers peasant federation) and the Domestic Workers Union. Other Bolivian movements present included Mujeres Creando, peasant unions, coca growers, anarcho-punks zinesters, cultural art collectives - responsible for much of the fantastic street art - and youth groups. About 230 delegates from 170 countries were in attendance. This included UK's Reclaim the Streets, South African Soweto Electricty Crisis Commision, an anti-Apartheid group, Italy's Ya Basta!, womens groups from Mexico, Nepalese and Indian peasant federations, landless peasant movements, indigenous peoples, radical trade unionists, Indymedia activists, ecological direct activists, members of autonomous networks and more ...!! Full list of delegates on the PGA website, suffice to say that it was an amazingly diverse and inspiring range of groups and movements!

The Conference

These are some of the points discussed at the roundtable discussion.[For a minutes of these discussions plus analysis of the whole event and the new hallmarks and manifesto visit the website]

* Free trade agreements in Latin America - FTAA, Plan Dignity, Plan Colombia, Plan Puebla Panama and the Andean Initiative for example.

* Water - with the Bolivian experience as a case study. The same issue is arising globally and emphasis was placed on coordinated resistance through the PGA.

* Land - The take over of land continues to threaten traditional communal lands of the indigenous and of the black communities of Africa. This is increasingly linked to World Bank/IMF policies.

* Indigenous - representatives from a variety of indigenous groups present met to discuss parallels between their struggles and ideas for coordinating campaigns

* Gender - Gender was a major focus of the conference with the first round table discussions focusing on gender equity and sexism within social movements. It was conceded that gender issues need to be part of all PGA work.

* Communications - The small round table on communications discussed the importance of enacting strong communications structures between movements, emphasising the need for adequate translation etc. There was strong feeling to support existing structures such as IndyMedia rather than re-invent the wheel, but some discussion around internet access raises more questions to be discussed!!

Conference outcomes include.

* A call for a Global Day of Action was issued for November 9th 2001 coinciding with the WTO ministerial summit in Qatar. (see SchNEWS 332)

* A call to mobilise the Americas against the March 2002 meeting of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Quito, Ecuador. (

Conflicts / Challenges

Given the diversity of groups represented, differing political positions, lack of resources (meetings were run on butchers paper), linguistic barriers, huge meeting size and limited time there were obviously many tensions and challenges stopping the conference running smoothly. Cultural misunderstandings, varying ideas of meeting facilitation, lack of clarity over themes for discussion - and the role of the PGA itself! - generated further frustrations and obstacles for the delegates.

At previous PGA conferences some people have contended that delegates from the North, with greater mobility and access to resources, had tended to turn up as individuals, not linked to organisations. To offset this a ratio of 70% Southern and 30% Northern was established for the conference - but given the location it was naturally dominated by South Americans anyway. While many Southern delegates represented groups such as the All Nepalese Peasants Association (ANPA) - a movement of millions - those from Northern autonomous networks such as AWOL, Australia or CLAC, Canada were coming from groups who are non-hierarchical and have no membership as such, making it difficult to be 'spokesperson' for 'the group'. This distinction between speaking only for oneself or for millions raises the issue of the weight that each delegate may have in making decisions and the need for some to confer with their networks/members before taking a position in a discussion.

The functions of the PGA network and notions of solidarity were also contested terrain, with different understandings and expectations from each group present: some saw solidarity as being largely related to resource sharing, others were hostile to this, seeing it as perpetuating a paternalistic role between North and South. Other groups sought out research assistance from outside groups, international peacekeeping roles or actions of political pressure. Still others advocated horizontal skill sharing and information exchange. Some Northern delegates were defensive when confronted with the role of solidarity - feeling that this ignored the importance of their own local struggles and expecting them to focus on Southern campaigns.

These tensions and many more questions remained unresolved, an impossible task in one week. What is important to remember, however, is that a network is simply that: a network - and groups are autonomous to organise and act as they see fit. What does need to be decided upon however, is how the groups involved in such a network should communicate, make decisions and coordinate actions! And in spite of these big obstacles energy was generally high and patience quite remarkable. and consensus was reached on many occasions.

Responses to September 11th

Delegates faced a lot of hassle at borders: some were stranded at Geneva airport for a number of days, others were held up at the La Paz airport, and an entire bus load were stranded on the Peru/Bolivia border for the duration of the conference. The Bolivian government denounced the PGA as a 'terrorist summit' and Interpol paid a friendly visit. The Executive Intelligence Review published the article 'Terrorism Central: People's Global Action' which is typical of efforts to depict activists as terrorists. During a press conferences held by the PGA, journalists questioned the relationship between the PGA and the terrorist attacks. This line of questioning was met with a calm answer of "We are against human genocide and state terrorism". The fact that the conference occurred just over a week after September 11th did not interfere with the agenda, and the predicted repressive response only serving to reinforce the need for a global campaigns against militarism.


Despite the aforementioned tensions and challenges the conference was an invaluable space for inspiration, the exchange of information and ideas, and expansion of networks and campaigns. The bewilderment and frustration were outweighed by the value of meeting people face to face, of sharing meals and chicha (fermented corn alcohol) and spontaneous dancing and bursts of revolutionary songs. The sheer diversity and energy of so many movements and hearing the tales of such incredible actions world wide was awe inspiring, and a good reminder that we truly are "everywhere".

The PGA is young and developing, and although there are tensions we should not be disheartened. It is a unique network for the unmediated contact it provides grassroots activists. Its existence fosters international resistance to economic globalisation and environmental destruction and gives us the chance to not only deepen our analysis, by learning about a variety of perspectives, but also to coordinate actions to create the kind of world we want to live in - right across the planet.

GET INVOLVED: There will be a European PGA conference on the 31st of August - 4th of September 2002 in Leiden, Holland.

OUT SOON A book featuring interviews from Cochabamba with women activists covering the topics of. ways of organising, children and political choices, gender issues in social movements, culture jamming, an inside tale of the women who helped orchestrate the water wars and more! Contact: