SOS conference: camping, climate justice and activism

July 15, 2016
Conference participants camped in Musgrave Park in tents around fires maintained by local Indigenous elders.

A joint review by Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members.

This year's Students of Sustainability (SOS) conference, organised by the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN), took place in Musgrave Park, Brisbane on Jagera and Turrbal country July 7-11. SOS started in Canberra in 1991 and is the longest running, annual student conference in Australia.

Each year it hosts workshops, panels, protest actions and other social justice activities, based on sustainability, climate change and First Nations struggles. While there is an official program, the event is flexible and allows for impromptu workshops and activities to be organised in the open spaces.

SOS is organised and run on a voluntary basis by students, but is open to anyone who wants to participate.

This year's conference had a strong anti-capitalist current running throughout the workshops and panels even when it was not expressly articulated as “anti-capitalism”. The problems of climate change, the struggles faced by First Nations peoples and other social justice issues were identified as being caused by an unsustainable, corrupt system that, for the sake of the planet, cannot be allowed to continue unchecked.

The political and activist content were also notably increased this year with workshops discussing eco-socialism, Marxist ecology, building the revolution in Brisbane, challenging the system, the eco-socialist and feminist Kurdish struggle, climate justice, refugees and many others.

There was also a well-attended workshop, titled “Radicalising the environment NGOs”, that criticised the bureaucratic nature of environmental NGOs and spoke of the genuine frustrations of grassroots environmental activists have with NGOs that try to control movements and refuse to allow anti-capitalist campaigns.

The ASEN Annual General Meeting, held on the last day of the conference, passed a unanimous resolution to change its charter to become more explicitly anti-capitalist.

International guests

International guest speaker Amanda Lickers from Canada presented a workshop on media justice in which she spoke about youth-led Indigenous media and activist organisation Reclaim Turtle Island. This organisation grew out of the making of a short film in opposition to the tar sands, a major oil extraction project in Canada that is destroying Indigenous land and affecting the climate.

Lickers said the documentary was created as “propaganda to encourage Indigenous people to take direct action.” Since then Reclaim Turtle Island has produced numerous podcasts, documentaries and other forms of media, while also providing activist training. All their projects are connected to First Nations land-based struggles. Lickers believes it is very important to have First Nations people telling their stories through their own eyes, something that is rare, including progressive media, where the majority of films are produced by those with greater access to resources to produce films.

Lickers emphasised the importance of showing police violence towards Indigenous people through their own eyes. Reclaim Turtle Island regularly works with indigenous activist groups across Canada and all their films are done in consultation with those leading the campaign, with the number of views seen as secondary to what helps the campaign. Reclaim Turtle Island also works with victims of sexual assault in their movements, drawing links between consent to the land and consent to the body.

A disappointment was the guest speaker from an NGO in Bolivia, who opposed the Evo Morales government and crudely presented propaganda of the right-wing opposition. This is despite the fact that the Morales government is responsible for massive replanting campaigns, institutionalised Indigenous autonomy, a Decolonisation Ministry and nationalised various companies to fund anti-poverty social programs.

A letter of concern about this has since been sent to SOS organisers in the hope that in future they will liaise with local Latin America activists to ensure their guest speakers contribute content in line with the rest of the conference.

Other activities

For the five days of the conference, most participants camped in Musgrave Park in tents set up around fires that were maintained by local Indigenous elders. Food was prepared and served by conference participants taking on volunteer roles and campers were woken each morning with a “breakfast song”, which consisted of organisers playing guitars and singing about porridge.

Each night after the panel sessions there were performances from conference participants, as well as First Nations metal band The Dispossessed and Latin American band Flamingo Jones. During these performances films and documentaries were also shown on the local tennis courts. On the final night there was an open mic where many renditions of the song Bella Ciao were sung.

The conference also included a number of protest activates and actions including a NAIDOC march, which featured placards and banners saying “Song lines not coal mines”, “Close the gap not communities” and other demands. There were also a number of group photo stunts organised by Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members, including one in solidarity with the Kurdish struggle and calling for the Australian government to remove the PKK from the terrorist list, another in solidarity with Iraqi victims of an ISIS terrorist attack, and another demanding an inquiry into the Iraq war with a call to lock up war criminals not refugees.

Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance members in conjunction with Green Left Weekly presented a number of well-attended workshops, including the Eco-socialist and Feminist Kurdish revolution, Capitalism vs Climate and Climate, Capitalism and Refugees.

RYSA members welcomed the depth of political discussion and accessible workshops. We can highly recommend to students and climate activists that this is THE student conference to attend each July.

At future conferences it would be great to have all-in sessions to allow for discussion, organising and conference resolutions on how we can build a strong anti-capitalist climate justice movement in Australia.

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