Dialogues for Peace: Youth at the Barcelona Forum

The city of Barcelona witnessed a vivid illustration of cultural diversity last week, as it hosted the third gathering of the World Youth Festival. Over 8,000 young people from over 50 countries gathered to share their ideas on how to promote youth policies and increase their political voice. Many were sponsored by their home countries or by international youth organizations to attend the non-stop week of dialogue and networking. To assist youth from poorer countries, the registration fee ranged according to the delegates’ country of origin and it´s place on the United Nations 2003 Human Development Index.

At the festival campground, where most of the participants slept, the summer heat of the Spanish coast roused the youth from their tents. By ten every morning they were gathered in conference rooms, engaged in debates about everything from gender equality and nationalist movements to sustainable development and peace building.

The week came to a head on August 12th, which was declared International Youth Day by the U.N. General Assembly in 1998. This year’s theme was “Youth in an Intergenerational Society,” and the conference was focused on interdependence and solidarity between generations. Today's society is the youngest ever – nearly fifty percent of the world's population is under the age of 25. At the same time, the U.N. estimates that by 2050 the number of people older than 65 will have almost quadrupled. Therefore, the need for the old and the young to create networks of support and goodwill is bigger than ever.

Cooperation And Solidarity

gatheredGarbiñe Sáez Molinuevo, 24, is cheerful and well-tanned, and carries the flag of the Spanish Basque region in the ceremonial march to celebrate International Youth Day. She says her membership in the youth wing of a Basque nationalist party has provoked curious questions from others. “People from València and Galicia are always coming to us to ask what to do,” she said, referring to other Spanish separatist movements on the rise. Gabiñe says she has been quick to distance her party’s work from that of the violent ETA, but says that the majority of the Basque, especially young people, are calling for a referendum on whether they should be granted autonomy. “We have an identity,” she says, ”but [the Spanish government] won’t let us have it,” she says.

Meanwhile youth groups are creating international partnerships as well. The women from a Western Saharan delegation sit under a haima, a nomad tent, wearing traditional robes and scarves and serving small cups of hot tea to festival participants. Ahmed Sid Ali, a member of the delegation, said the message they bring to the festival is one of self-determination for the Sahrawi people. Morocco has occupied Western Sahara since 1975 and Ali said the Sahrawi independence movement has benefited from international support, including that of Spanish and Catalan youth groups.

“We are here to participate with the various youth delegations in order to promote the dialogue between the cultures and peoples,” Ali says. “I think it’s very important to widen solidarity and cooperation between the youth organizations, especially to sensitize the Catalan society about the Western Saharan issue.”

Indigenous People In The Spotlight

gatheredTo emphasize the importance of respecting different cultures, an indigenous youth forum met during the festival to create a list of “millennium goals” for the rights of indigenous people, to be submitted to the United Nations. Over 40 representatives from indigenous groups explained the struggles their communities face on a daily basis, ranging from basic survival to drug and alcohol abuse, the lack of health and education resources, and the efforts to keep their languages alive.

Illiteracy is an often-overlooked problem in a world where ten percent of young people don’t know how to read or write. According to Estebancio Castro, a representative of the Kuna People of Panama, lack of education is the main problem facing young indigenous people.

“We in Panama, we still have to learn that Christopher Columbus discovered America, when we were already there for centuries,” said Castro. “It’s like the states still try to teach to the youth that we are inferior to the other societies, telling us that we have been discovered.”

Maya Cousineau-Mollen, an active member of the Innu Montagnese community in Quebec, Ca. agreed. “In my country, First Nation history was ignored for a long time,” she said. “We were lucky if we got two or three lines in the introduction to the history book.”

But for many aboriginal groups, just the ability to control their land and resources is a vital part of their struggle. Upaluk Poppel, a 23-year-old Inuit and a participant in the U.N. indigenous fellowship program, gave an example from her home country of Greenland. After the Second World War, the United States set up the Thule military base there, with the cooperation of Denmark (who has control over Greenland’s foreign policy). But in doing so they evicted the Inuit population. “Denmark and the U.S.A. made an agreement between these two states concerning Greenland. We were not aware at the beginning of what was going on,” Poppel said. “We are the people who live there. So I don’t understand why they would make an agreement without consulting us.”

Dissent at the Festival

Daily workshops on how young people can fight racism, illiteracy and the AIDS pandemic got a little heavy at times. So participants also took the time to have fun, either by hitting the beaches or nightclubs of Barcelona, or sharing in their cultural heritages at daily events like puppet shows from Germany, traditional music from Guineau-Bissau, or capoeira, a Brazilian blend of martial arts and breakdancing.

But if the cultural mosaic on display at the festival looked like a different, friendlier image of globalization, the reality of an increasingly insecure world with tightened borders was also apparent. About 2,500 registered participants were unable to attend due to visa restrictions, mostly coming from African countries. A number of workshops were cancelled at the last minute, and many participants lamented the lack of voices from sub-Saharan Africa and China, places where free speech and democracy are needed most. “In a world where capital can flow freely, people have difficulties crossing borders,” said Xavier Florensa, the youth councilor of the Barcelona Council. “Being young today is still a cause for suspicion and distrust.” If anything, the absence of those participants underlined the importance of the free movement of young people to share their ideas and work together.

Other complaints were raised as well. Some festival participants said that while a number of important issues were raised, few solutions were being offered. “Mostly tolerant people come here to share ideas, but we’re probably not the majority, and that’s the main issue,” said Branislav Tomic, 24, a Serbian who came to the festival on his own. He said the festival’s underlying message of cultural diversity is merely being preached to the converted, and more efforts need to be made to reach out to those outside the fold. “I listened to various workshops and nobody really mentioned how to involve other people who don’t want to be in a certain organization.”

Other participants were unhappy about the decision to hold the festival at the controversial Barcelona Forum, a five-month extravaganza with a four billion dollar price tag built to attract international visitors and boost the city´s flagging summer tourism. The packed schedule of exhibits, concerts, plays, and food fairs at the Forum were paid for in part by corporate sponsors like Indra, Spain´s main weapons manufacturer, Ibéria and partners with ties to arms manufacturing such as Corte Inglés, Telefónica and La Caixa.

“It´s hypocritical,” said Debora Agazzoni, 19. “We don´t know why the Forum didn´t think about this when it organized the festival.” She was part of an Italian delegation who had originally planned a demonstration to protest the Forum’s sponsorship, but scaled down their dissent to an informational stand with a sign denouncing "the dark side of the Forum.” A French activist sporting dreadlocks and a scraggly goatee, 29-year old Mustapha Fedoul from Toulouse, said he would not have come to the festival had he known about the Forum’s funding sources. “We hold a conference on sustainable development, and as soon as we get here we see sponsors like Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Toyota,” he said.

During the closing ceremony, after a performance by a Catalan youth orchestra as well as both flamenco and hip-hop dancers, Fedoul stormed the auditorium stage with a hand-made sign. To the credit of the security guards, they allowed him to give a quick speech before ushering him out. He addressed the values of “responsibility and ethics” espoused by the Festival but in short supply at the Forum. Fedoul received the longest and most energetic round of applause given to any performance that week and provided the perfect end to a festival devoted to young people speaking out against social injustice.

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