Network aims to 'tackle the big issues'

Issue 

Young people around the world are organising to campaign for social and environmental justice. Over the last five years, a network has begun to develop, opening up the possibility of bringing many of these groups together in collective action. It's called ASEED (Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment and Development). In Amsterdam, SARAH STEPHEN for Green Left Weekly spoke to JOHAN FRIJNS, an activist involved in ASEED Europe, and one of the founding members of the network.

Could you begin with a bit of a background to ASEED?

The network started a year before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Brazil in 1992. There was a meeting in the Czech Republic where representatives from European Youth Forest Action (EYFA) and Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) in the United States got together with more or less the same feeling, that the Earth Summit, as it was being called, was going to be hijacked, and wasn't at all going to be what we were hoping it would be.

Activists could see that it wasn't going to tackle the issues that really mattered, like over-consumption and unequal economic arrangements. So they thought that youth needed to have a say in it. As a result, they set up a global campaign called "ASEED for UNCED". It was at that stage just a campaign, not a network or an organisation. Very quickly it got in contact with the Asian Students Association and other groups around the world.

It turned out to be quite a successful campaign, which brought the conference to the attention of thousands of young people. Not just by publishing material and writing articles, but by organising actions in specific countries directed towards the general population and youth, and also actions directed to the delegates at the conference, to the UN and to the governments. The preparatory meetings were all attended by ASEED activists, and there were actions taking place.

At the conference itself, there was a large delegation of youth groups; and by doing actions in the meeting, we got the attention of the media with the message that this wasn't going to be the rescue of the planet, as it had been announced.

Afterwards, the Third World Network in Malaysia hosted a meeting where about 45 people from all the groups that were active in the campaign came together for two weeks, and we set up ASEED as a network. Since then we have continued our activity, mostly in regions. We are a global network in a sense, but we haven't yet got to the stage of campaigning on an issue globally.

What are some of the campaigns that ASEED Europe has been involved in?

In the last two years, ASEED Europe has focused on a few different areas. One of these is the European unification process. The ratification of the Maastricht Treaty has huge implications for the environment and development in the world, because it is pushing for more economic growth in Europe. The unification process is taking up a lot of resources globally, but is also ruining the environment in Europe with the building of trans-European motorways, the expansion of airports and things such as this.

We have been focusing on the lobby groups that are behind the European Union, mainly the European Round Table of Industrialists which includes Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Nestle, etc — all the big names.

The heads of all these companies form one cosy group, and have a very big influence on European decision-making. If you compare their reports with the official EU statements or white papers, sometimes you can find the same exact wordings in both. We started to expose this.

If you put in the press that the idea of the Channel Tunnel and Scanlink [the bridge between Denmark and Sweden] comes from the chairperson of Volvo, Adam Philips, who put this in 1993 in their "Missing links" paper, it's very clear that this thing is presented as a public project, but it's just the agenda of multinationals.

Each time there is a summit, we go there with a lot of people and try to get into the press conference, and we try to catch their attention by holding up banners and shouting, and this has worked quite well for the last few years. This way we can reach out to hundreds of newspapers in Europe.

Last year we occupied their lobby office in Brussels for a day with 50 people, to confront them directly. From their own office we faxed to all the heads of these companies to tell them that their office was occupied by environment groups. So that was one of the big campaigns, and it will continue in the future because the EU is in the process of expanding, and the Maastricht Treaty will be revised. We think that the EU as it is should go. We're not against European cooperation, but as it is now it's not in the interests of the people.

One of our other main campaign areas relates to transnational companies in Europe. We have been able to trace what individual companies are doing in different countries. For example we get someone wanting information on a cement factory — a Dutch or a Danish one — so we find it out and send it to them. In this way we help groups in Eastern Europe fight these companies better.

Last year the IMF/World Bank campaign was a very big thing. As both the 50th anniversary and the general meeting were going to be held in Madrid, it was a great opportunity to set up a campaign. We wanted to make sure that everyone in Europe who is involved in progressive movements at least knew that this meeting was happening, and that there was an opportunity to come. We published a lot of material, and sent out a newsletter every month.

In the end we went to Madrid to attend the alternative forum, which was partly organised by ASEED, and to disturb the official meeting. We were very successful, and went almost every day to the meeting places, and disturbed press conferences and the official conference.

We want to continue to focus on the World Bank and the IMF, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Eastern Europe; and to support campaigns in the Third World for real debt reduction, against structural readjustment, or on specific World Bank dam projects, for example.

There are two other areas that we are involved in. The first one is our media project. There are discussions about how public opinion is being shaped, whether you can influence it or not, or whether we should just forget about it. We also take control of the media as much as we can, by producing our own material, and developing skills in this area.

Our second area is the women's project — I'd actually call it a gender project. It also partly focuses on the network itself — what different roles women and men play in the network, in decision making, for example. For this, several meetings are going to be organised, mostly women only. We are also organising activities relating to the women's conference in Beijing.

Does ASEED have a set of common aims, put together in some sort of charter?

It's a recurring discussion, whether we should have a charter or something similar. ASEED Europe tries every six months to make a decision on it and it never works. On the one hand, it would be good because we do share some common ideas; but on the other hand it's not so clear.

I think we are distinguished by the thoughts we have on environment and development, but also by the methods we use. We try to make noise. It's a bit of a reaction to the quiet NGOs (non-government organisations) in Europe, which have filled up the whole space for NGOs. There aren't too many radical groups focusing on environment and development that are being heard.

What role would you like ASEED to play in the future?

First, I would like it to be a real global network. To achieve this, it's hard to plan. These things either grow and develop or they don't. In Malaysia two years ago we said that what is needed is to strengthen all the regions, or "hubs" as we call them, so that they're equal, so we can actually start doing global campaigns. Because if you have no money and no phone, you can't even discuss a global campaign.

There was a commitment then for richer hubs to support the poorer ones so that in one or two years they'd be equally strong, but it hasn't worked.

Then in a global network, you should slowly come to some broader agreements on what needs to be done, both globally and within each region. So, for example, with the IMF/World Bank campaign, we should agree on debt reduction, abolishing structural readjustment as it is, and then divide tasks from there.

There are a lot of groups doing global networking. I would like ASEED to be distinguished by its methods — that people would get a bit nervous with us. I think that with respect to the World Bank, they know ASEED now.

We publish a lot of articles in different magazines on the European Round Table, and they don't like that. They want to be influential in the background and don't want to be exposed as the real force behind the European unification process. And the World Bank, they start to think that we are everywhere. But we are far from getting them really worried. It would be nice if they got a bit more worried about us.

What I would not like ASEED to become is just another campus recycling network. It's good that a lot of people do this, but ASEED I would like to be a network that tackles big issues.

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