PHM friends from across the globe came together during the World Social Forum (WSF) in Montreal, Canada from August 9-14 to show our solidarity with people who struggle for social justice, equality, and human rights across the globe.

PHM-North America coordinated the effort to organize a total of six sessions that focused on the impacts of international trade and extractive industries on health. PHM-Europe was very active in several activities and actions around privatization of health services.  More than 110 people from all over the world participated over the course of the three days, as well as 10 people joining remotely via Skype for some very dynamic discussions!

Advocating for “healthier” trade


Co-organized with the Health and Trade Network, activities on trade and health aimed to highlight the impacts of free trade agreements on social determinants of health and give participants tools to advocate for an alternative to the current trade regime, one that actually works for people.

The first session, “Are current trade agreements bad for our health?” brought together a diverse group of presenters to discuss trade policy and how it affects health. Ron Labonte of PHM-Canada and University of Ottawa gave a broad overview of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and many of its potential threats to health, including potential environmental harm and privatization of health services. Jason Nickerson from MSF Canada focused on access to medicines and demonstrated how the intellectual policy provisions of the TPP will reduce the availability of affordable medicines in developing countries. Moving to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Robert Pezzolesi of the U.S. Alcohol Policy Alliance showed how the TTIP as currently written will loosen restrictions on how and how much alcohol gets to the US population. Finally Emma Woodford of the Health and Trade Network explored the growing conflict between the EU’s trade policy and development policy. Joseph Carabeo of PHM-Philippines and Health Alliance for Democracy joined the session via Skype and gave a statement regarding the impacts free trade agreements have had on health of Filipinos.

The second session, “ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement): A public health threat that spans sectors,” gave participants a view of how investor-state dispute settlement works and how it poses new threats to democratic processes. David Schneiderman, law professor at University of Toronto, looking through the provisions of an ISDS chapter of a trade agreement, demonstrating how its provisions can be harmful to health, for example through challenges to patent law or environmental policy. After learning about how ISDS works, participants were part of a role play where the US and EU negotiators for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) fielded questions from stakeholder groups. At the end of the session, Kevin Zeese of Popular Resistance warned of new corporate threats to democracy through the World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative, which will ultimately give corporations more power through a strengthened ISDS process.

Building on knowledge from the first two activities, PHM’s third activity on trade and health aimed to contribute to advocacy and movement building toward developing a system of international trade that is healthy for people and the planet. During the first half of the activity, presenters gave insight into their activism, challenges, and successes organizing around free trade. In a pre-recorded interview with Belinda Townsend of PHM-Australia, Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland highlighted her work organizing around the TPP in New Zealand. A major challenge faced was education and helping people understand such a technical topic. However through media education and people understanding ISDS opposition toward TPP began to arise. Margaret Flowers of Popular Resistance and a national coordinator for the Flush the TPP campaign in the US, continued this discussion with a view on planning and strategies for a national campaign, emphasizing that a broad-based coalition is crucial to success. Last, Gillian Locascio of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition focused on her work on the ground, locally, in Washington State. She explained that balancing seemingly competitive interests and managing relationships has been difficult, but that her organizing work has seen “uncommon partners” come together to push back against the TPP.

Susana Castillo from PHM-Ecuador and the platform Ecuador Decides: No to FTAs submitted a statement via Skype on concerns and actions around the EU-Ecuador free trade agreement. Joseph Carabeo of PHM-Philippines also submitted a statement via Skype giving insights into pro-people economics that Filipino people are pushing to be reflected in economic policy in the Philippines.

The second half of the activity challenged participants to discuss what we want to see in trade agreements. Together, participants developed “Our vision for healthy trade” which listed provisions we would like to see in trade agreements that works for people and the planet. Items on the list include principles of transparency and sustainability, fair trade, getting rid of tribunals to settle investor-state disputes, a focus on worker safety and health, and investment in public health. One group pointed out that we should not aim for a tweaking of current trade policy, but a revolution!

Mobilizing to push back against extractive industries

PHM North America organised three sessions looking at the impact of extractive industries on the broader politics of health. The first session, in partnership with MedAct, Regroupement vigilance hydrocarbures Québec (RVHQ), the Council of Canadians, and Food and Water Watch, looked at the impact of fossil fuel industries on health, with a particular focus on fracking. David McCoy of PHM-UK and MedAct reviewed the five levels of potential health hazards of fracking as explored by MedAct, stating that their final position was that even given all the uncertainties on many levels, there can be no dispute about the health impact of climate change exacerbated by fracking. Carole Dupuis of the RVHQ explored the model that small, rural communities in Quebec are using to organise against hydrocarbon projects — including transport, exploration, and pipelines — especially in the context of a proposed omnibus bill that would largely deregulate hydrocarbon exploration in Quebec. Emma Lui of Council of Canadians looked at the struggles against fracking on the national level in Canada, including successes on the Atlantic coast to stop fracking, noting where struggles are to come.

Darcey O’Callaghan from Food and Water Watch looked at the struggles against fracking in the US, and also led us into a discussion of a longer view of how a health perspective might be used to mobilise against fracking around the world. During the discussion, where  a participant from Algeria spoke of struggles there, we all agreed that a wide variety of technical documents on the health impacts of fracking should be summarised into shorter, more accessible factsheets that could be used as a popular education or organising tool for communities. PHM in North America will begin this work. We also discussed ways to explore campaigns in Quebec and British Columbia more concretely as well.

Due to a scheduling conflict we combined two sessions and explored Health as a Mobilizing Tool and Holding US and Canadian Companies Accountable together. Bryan Parras of PHM-USA and t.e.j.a.s. shared his video, The Condor and the Eagle, that explores the impact of the extractive industries on communities in Northern Alberta near the tar sands development and in Peru, where the Quechua are facing further development in an already highly industrialized and contaminated mining region. He discussed how, in their advocacy, communities often leave health impacts as collateral to ecosystem impacts, even as individuals in communities may be most immediately concerned with the health impacts. He also spoke of a need for help from public health bodies and people who are interested in working on prevention and health broadly. Sister Anne Caroline Wihbey from Brazil, shared her experiences of working in Brazil and Nicaragua, in helping organizing for government officials to recognize the impact of extractive industry developments on marginalized communities.

Moving into the topic of holding US and Canadian companies accountable, Santiago Escobar, Ecuadorian activist, spoke about the lawsuit against Chevron for damage to the Ecuadorian Amazon in which Ontario’s Superiour Court decided that the plaintiffs could pursue enforcement of a judgment against Chevron in Canadian courts. Looking at this case, he demonstrated how health studies and arguments have proven effective for the movement and how the legal efforts that have stretched out for two decades are now finally finding potential success. Candyce Paul spoke of the efforts of the Committee for Future Generations to use health when dealing with mining companies. She noted that although citing health implications makes them nervous and vulnerable, she and her community in Northern Saskatchewan often feels like “we are an expendable population – they just want us to work in the mines”. Ben Brisbois spoke about the impact of health studies in Ecuador, and their ability to impact the Chevron lawsuit. The community rallied around the health study; journal articles were written and were useful in helping to organize, but were also critiqued by top epidemiologists paid by Chevron, stating: “We will fight this until health freezes over and then we will fight it on the ice.”

In the discussion that followed these talks, we explored the benefit of helping communities generate their own community health studies and build capacity and how, concurrently, there is also a need for academic and other institutions to create more equitable partnerships with the communities involved in these struggles. As Canada reviews its environmental assessment protocol, health needs to be featured more prominently, as should be the right of communities to refuse extractive development. We also discussed corporate science, corporate accountability, and the possibility of using pension funds in divestment actions, bringing back the Canadian Bill C-300, and linking struggles across the commodity chain.

The final session in this track on extractive industries, “Workers and environmental health”, explored the tensions between the short-term health benefits of job security, and the long-term health impact on health due to extractive practices.

In a pre-recorded interview, Winnie Ng of the Good Jobs for All coalition in Toronto identified three streams that can work together to address these tensions: workers’ rights, job creation strategies for a green economy, and investing in public infrastructure. She emphasized that different groups can work together under an umbrella of campaigning for good jobs for all to address issues that may be too political or threatening for a single group to address.

Lliam Hildebrand from Iron & Earth, also in a pre-recorded interview, described their work to organize workers through a skills campaign to transition workers in the Alberta tarsands into the solar power industry. Lliam noted some points resistance including workers wanting to start a social enterprise rather than a movement due to the history of conflict with movement structures within environmentalists.  

Moving into larger movements Sean Sweeney from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, a grouping of 52 unions, asserted the need for public ownership and control over energy. He compared European and US unions, noting that European unions are more influential in discussions of climate change, work, and health and are looking toward green investment, green jobs, and worker participation in this transition. On the other hand US unions have been slow to address environmental concerns, and advocated the need for US building trades unions move toward a Workers’ Climate Plan.

Janice Martell from the MacIntyre Power Project in Ontario discussed her current work securing  health services and benefits for mine workers who were exposed to aluminum dust (1943-1979) and suffered poor health consequences, such as respiratory issues, cognition problems, and cancers. After the formal tracking and state benefits for many victims ceased, Janice’s union has been supportive of her work by approaching it through a lens of social justice, along with the Canadian Steelworkers Union, to begin tracking these health problems from the community level in a more formal way.

The discussion that followed these presentations from workers/organizers focused on how activists and movements can help move forward a possible paradigm shift toward occupational exposures in the courts—where companies are held accountable to workers and communities for health consequences. Current uncertainty in science was brought up as ripe for activism to allow for advocacy and shifts in policy. Further, cross-constituency organizing can make sure that no group falls through the cracks and be very convincing as to the gravity of these health hazards to individual workers and communities.

Organizing against privatization of health services

PHM-Europe friends from PHM-Northern France, gathered at the World Social Forum. In addition to attending some of the activities organized by PHM-North America, they joined with activists from across the globe who are fighting the growing privatization of health services in Europe and in other countries.

PHM-Northern France, through the efforts of Vladimir Nieddu, co-organized a workshop against privatization of health and health services. Co-organizers included Yves Hellendorf (Belgium), the UGTT trade union represented by Kacem AFAYA (Tunisia), and the South Social Health union (France) represented by Hakim Baya. Though the workshop had few participants, the group was able to have an exchange about common mechanisms of health privatization for the purpose of finance and capital.

The World Social Forum held convergence assemblies, which took place throughout the forum along particular themes, bringing different organizers and participants together through a central idea. PHM-Northern France attended the convergence assembly “Against the Privatization and Commodification of Public Services” which was very well-attended. Following presentations and discussions on the particular situation of each country, the convergence assembly developed a “Declaration of Social Movements on Privatisation and Access to Public Services”.

In the declaration, the group identified dates on which a coordinated, worldwide mobilization plain against this privatization would take place: April 7, 2017, World Health Day and June 23, 2017, World Public Services Day.

PHM-Northern France also participated in a workshop concerning the criminalization of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel.

For the full report of PHM-Northern France’s participation at this World Social forum follow this link (in French).

We acknowledge the following people and organizations who contributed to PHM activities at the 2016 World Social Forum:

Erika Arteaga, PHM-Ecuador

Joseph Carabeo, Health Alliance for Democracy, PHM-Philippines

Susana Castilla, PHM-Ecuador

André Crespin, Third World Health Aid (Médcine pour le Tiers Monde/Geneeskunde voor de Derde Wereld), PHM-Europe

Carole Dupuis, Regroupement vigilance hydrocarbures Québec

Carolyn Egan, Good Jobs for All Coalition

Margaret Flowers, Popular Resistance

Lliam Hildebrand, Iron & Earth

Meera Karunananthan and Emma Lui, Council of Canadians

Ron Labonte, University of Ottawa

Gillian Locascio, Washington Fair Trade Coalition

Geraldine Malaise, Third World Health Aid (Médcine pour le Tiers Monde/Geneeskunde voor de Derde Wereld)

Janice Martell, McIntyre Powder Project

David McCoy, MedAct, PHM-UK

Penelope Milsom, PHM-UK

Alice Munro, MedAct

Jason Nickerson, Médecins Sans Frontières Canada

Delen de la Paz, PHM-Philippines

Julie Steendam, Third World Health Aid (Médcine pour le Tiers Monde/Geneeskunde voor de Derde Wereld), PHM-Europe

Winnie Ng, Good Jobs for All Coalition

Darcey O’Callaghan, Food and Water Watch

Bryan Parras, t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Service)

Candyce Paul, Committee for Future Generations,

Robert Pezzolesi, US Alcohol Policy Alliance

Sébastian Saugues, PHM-Europe

David Schneiderman, University of Toronto

Sean Sweeney, Murphy Institute at City University of New York

Third World Health Aid (Médcine pour le Tiers Monde/Geneeskunde voor de Derde Wereld)

Belinda Townsend, PHM-Australia (PHM-Oz)

Elizabeth Wiley, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

Emma Woodford and the Health and Trade Network

Kevin Zeese, Popular Resistance