By Mauricio Torres –Tovar (MD, MPH, PHM activist, Colombia)
Cuenca – “where the rivers meet”, at 2500 meters above sea level and just south of the equator, in Ecuador – was home to the First Assembly of the Latin America’s branch of the People’s Health Movement (PHM-LA) from 7th till 11th October. Under the heading ‘Good Living and Health’, this international and multicultural gathering gave a space to health, environmental and human rights activists from 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries to discuss the clash between capitalism and society, its impact on health and the environment, and how to move towards a worthy life in harmony with mankind and mother earth.
The backdrop of the ‘Good Living and Health’ assembly is well known: a multitude of movements and contention related to the defence of land, territory and food sovereignty, of defence of public goods such as water, education and health, and against large mining projects, taking place with increasing intensity in Latin America today. It comes as no surprise then that the assembly’s objectives were to appraise the health and wellbeing of the peoples in the region, to promote discussion and exchange of experiences in the struggle and resistance for the right to health, and to strengthen the organizational and mobilizing capacity of PHM-LA.
A vivid and sometimes very painful real-life account emerged from various panels: communities suffering from huge social inequalities and injustice, the ongoing privatisation of health systems, and the spread of large-scale exploitation of natural resources such as minerals and oil. On the bright side, however, people talked about resistance and action to ensure the right to health and respect the rights of (mother) nature. All over the region, from Chiapas down to Patagonia, communities resist the downgrading of their health, nutrition and education, and seek to regain control of their health, defending their place on earth as a stronghold of life and health.
At the political-organisational level, about 70 PHM-LA members critically reflected on their concepts, principles, organisational form and lines of action. They agreed on the fact that PHM-LA is a network of networks, linking activists, processes and organisations that identify with the principles of the PHM’s Charter of Health as elaborated in 2000 in Bangladesh. To the content of the Charter, a region-specific dimension was added: the sovereignty of health, understood as ‘let’s get health back in the hands of the communities’. This implies a confrontation with the medicalization of society, giving due space to the health knowledge and practice of the peoples, also within government health services. Such sovereignty is seen as attainable, on condition of a reversal (or at the very least a thorough overhaul) of capitalism, which will require strong social movements and ideological and cultural decolonisation.
The participants reiterated their adherence to the principles of the right to health, the rejection of the privatisation of health, and the advocacy of public, comprehensive and universal health systems.
Proposals were made to mainstream the organisation into thematic networks. Networks would be established around themes such as environment, health and food sovereignty, extractive industries and their impact on health and nature, the right to health, and universal health systems. Attention should also be paid to emerging issues specific to the region, such as interculturalism and contrahegemony (with, in the health area, social medicine opposing the hegemony of western medicine), drug trafficking and its impact on health, and free trade agreements and their effects on the right to health and nutrition.
Agreement was reached on the need to develop action on common people’s education in health, to strengthen communication within and beyond PHM-LA, and to reinforce knowledge generation tapping into the peoples’ knowledge and practice. The PHM-LA’s organisational structure based on regional (Central American, Andean region, Brazilian and Southern Cone) coordinating bodies – already decided at the 3rd World Assembly of PHM in Cape Town – was confirmed.
Without doubt, the process of exchange of experiences and knowledge in the assembly was a very rich one, building on and reinforcing the bonds between PHM members. However, time proved rather short for more in-depth discussions on how to advance the political and organizational capacity of the movement, and to concretise the agenda of PHM-LA. This gap still needs to be filled by the coordination of the movement, and its local and national bodies.
We can nevertheless cry out Jallalla! – a beautiful Aymara term evoking hope, satisfaction and gratitude for life and health. The Cuenca assembly was one more step forwards, it strengthened the spirit of all of us fighting for the right to health in the region. Make no mistake, the battle for a new society and better health in Latin America and the Caribbean is on!