(I attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2003 as part of a Global Exchange delegation. The trip began with several days in Rio de Janeiro exploring issues of socio-economic inequalities, and a separate report reflects on those experiences.
My report on the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India is also available)
Under the theme "Another World is Possible, from January 23 to 28, 2003, 100,000 people from all over the world gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the third annual World Social Forum. The forum began as a response to the World Economic Forum, an invitation-only annual gathering of corporate CEOs and trade ministers who travel to the Swiss resort town of Davos at the end of January every year to plot the future of corporate-led globalization.
In 2001 the first World Social Forum, held the same late-January weekend as the Davos affair, drew 10,000 people to talk about creating "globalization from below," putting human rights, social justice, and ecological sustainability before profits. The second World Social Forum in 2002 drew more than 60,000 participants. Unlike the World Social Forum, the World Economic Forum is a closed event that only drew 2000 people this year.
In comparison, the World Social Forum is an open meeting place where entities and movements of civil society opposed to neo-liberalism and to a world dominated by capital or any other form of imperialism come together to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, exchange experiences, and network for effective actions. The WSF favors an alternative means of globalization which respects universal human rights and the environment, grounded on international democratic systems and institutions at the service of social justice, equality, and sovereignty.
The largest delegation at Porto Alegre was from Brazil, with the second largest one from the United States. France, Italy, Argentina, and Uruguay also contributed sizable delegations, but people came from all over the world. Portuguese, English, French, and Spanish were the official languages of the forum, but people conversed and debated in many more languages. Although the main conferences were simultaneously translated into other languages, monolingual attendees were at a distinct disadvantage. In the smaller workshops that did not have translation services, a favorite language of many people became “Portunhol,” a melodic blend of Portuguese and Spanish.
The Forum started on Thursday, January 23 with an opening plenary with local politicians on stage, about the only time they were to be seen during the entire week as the WSF's Charter of Principles explicitly excludes them from participation in favor of an emphasis on civil society. Delegates greeted Porto Alegre's Deputy Mayor João Verle of the leftist Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers Party) with cheers of "Lula! Lula! Lula!" in favor of Brazil's popular president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva who was elected last fall by an overwhelming majority. On the other hand, Germano Rigotto, the governor from the opposition Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB) of state of Rio Grande do Sul in which Porto Alegre is located, was greeted with boos. The Iraqi delegation was met with cheers, and Israelis and Palestinians joined together in a plea for Peace.
Njoki Njoroge Njehu from Fifty Years is Enough proclaimed that the movement for "global justice is not anti-globalization, because we support the type of globalization present at the World Social Forum: people-to-people globalization." Rob Kerr of Environics International reported on a "Global Opinion Poll" of 15,000 people in 15 countries conducted on behalf of the WSF. The poll demonstrated that the world's population wanted the global agenda focused on social goals rather than just economic growth. The majority of respondents believed that globalization was driven primarily by the interests of multinational conglomerates, and made the rich richer and the poor poorer.
The first day ended with a massive march of 70,000 people through the streets of Porto Alegre, chanting slogans against neoliberal economic policies and the U.S. war on Iraq. Under the slogan "The construction of another world is possible, against militarization and war," for more than three hours, participants marched and called for an end to imperialism and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The struggle against both, in many peoples' minds, became intimately linked together. In a panel "Against Militarization and War" on Friday, January 24, Tariq Ali, a Pakistan-born writer and political activist, eloquently made this argument. Not only is U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf and attempt to exert U.S. economic hegemony over the region, but it is also part of an imperialist history against democratic and nationalistic governments (for example, the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1954). The U.S., as he noted, as never tolerated democratic governments in the Arab world. As others have noted, al-Qaeda is a small, insignificant terrorist organization that only gains recruits and strength in response to western policies.
Medea Benjamin from Global Exchange argued that we need to move from a global society ruled by force to one ruled by law. She pointed to four factors that make organizing against war in the United States difficult: 1) people are traumatized by fear in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and the Bush administration has manipulated that fear; 2) both major parties in the U.S. are pro-corporation and pro-war; 3) the mainstream media is also in the pockets of corporations; and 4) the U.S. has a weakened labor movement. Despite all this, a large mass movement against the pending war, which she believes may start on February 15, has sprung up. A solution to these problems, she suggested, is to replace the oil economy with one based on renewable energy sources (like solar, wind, and hydro).
In a subsequent panel on Land, Territory, and Food Security, João Pedro Stedile of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST, Landless Workers Movement) described how capitalism turns land into a commodity and colonialism leads to inequality and poverty. He emphasized the need for a new form of agrarian reform that democratizes the use of land. This process will not happen overnight, but is a long process. MST's role in this process is to force Lula to make the necessary reforms. Peter Rosset of Food First and Pat Mooney echoed these concerns. Pointing to the importance of food security for sovereignty, Rosset noted how the expansion of multinational corporations like Cargil into areas like India only brought hunger to impoverished areas. It is important to fight against neoliberal free trade agreements and for just prices for farmers. Mooney critiqued Monsanto's development of transgenetic seeds that break a 12,000 year link between farmers and seed. He noted that new technologies do not solve old problems, but only intensify inequalities and increase the level of pesticides in the process. Both the survival of soil and seed are critical to food sovereignty.
The largest event of the forum and a highlight for many was a brief appearance by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on the evening of Friday, January 24. As a meeting of civil society, politicians acting as representatives of a political party are explicitly excluded from the forum, but nevertheless Lula was an overwhelming presence–both as one of the original instigators of the forum and as Brazil's new popular leftist president. Even when he was not there physically, his presence was felt through PT banners and chants. In a talk to more than 100,000 people at the outdoor amphitheater Pôr-do-sol, announced that he was leaving for the World Economic Forum in Davos "to demonstrate that another world is possible; Davos must listen to Porto Alegre." He said that "the world does not want war; it wants peace and understanding." After only three years, the World Social Forum had "constructed the most extraordinary experience in the civil society anywhere in the world." Supporters greeted him with a variation on the football cheer "Ole, ole-ole-ola, Lula, Lula." [Watch a short video clip of the chant (2MB).]
Among the gathered activists, the president's decision to attend the pro-market elitist event on the other side of the world was a controversial move, as Davos and Porto Alegre represent polar extremes for the future of our world. Some saw his attendance as the sign of a maturing political movement which was moving away from confrontational tactics, and an opportunity for the left to present its agenda directly to corporate capital. Others saw it as a further sign that Lula was selling out to monied interests by attending such an event. Rather than mingling with the rich and powerful, he should be working for a equitable redistribution of wealth and a more humane approach to poverty and underdevelopment. Activists feared that his presence would legitimize their activities. In Davos, with the World Economic Forum being held under heavy repressive police presence, Lula became a star of the show. He declared that rich countries should invest money in development and fighting hunger rather than wasting money on lethal military conflicts. Many noted that this year there was not that large of a difference between the corporate and political leaders in the Davos meetings, and the protests outside, with both side opposing Washington's war on Iraq.With 100,000 people in attendance, a wide variety of social movements were present and the forum looked like different parts of civil society depending on where an observer was positioned. For example, a small but significant segment of the forum represented the concerns of Indigenous peoples. For example, in a panel on the impact of the mining industry on Indigenous peoples, Marcelo from the Asamblea de Pueblo Guaraní discussed Shell and Enron's exploitation of petroleum resources on Guaraní lands in Bolivia. Henry Tito Vargas of Vigilancia Social de la Industria Extractiva (VSIE) in Bolivia argued that it was important to develop alliances between people in North America and Europe where multinational corporations are located and the developing world where the impact of their exploitative policies are often felt the most directly and harshly. Víctor López, discussing the situation of the Shuar in the Ecuadorian Amazon, noted how national governments often attempt to exploit resources on Indigenous lands to pay the country's external debt. Local people realize little gain in terms of internal development or social programs.
The Brazilian Indigenous Institute Warã organized a panel on human rights, pointing out that the needs of Indigenous peoples are often different than those of other sectors of society. Nilo Cayuqueo, a Mapuche activist from southern Argentina, recounted the history of Indigenous resistance in South America, with communities seeking to break free of the paternalistic control and domination of Catholic priests and governmental officials. Slowly, Indians have received more control and autonomy over their own lives, a process that activists seek to extend further.
While Lula was embraced at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre even while being forced to maintain a certain distance, another president had a much more complicated relationship with activists at the forum. Hugo Chávez arrived in Porto Alegre on Sunday, January 26, but because of the focus on civil society was prevented from addressing the assembly. Forum organizers stated that Lula was allowed to appear in the role as the president of the host country, but that Chávez's exclusion was in keeping with the WSF Charter of Principles and had nothing to do with political sympathies for or against him. Instead, thousands of supporters gathered late that afternoon at the Legislative Assembly in the center of town to listen to him speak. Chávez seemed to enjoy a reprieve from the civil strife at home. He called the forum "the world's most important political event." But even Chávez's presence distinguished the World Social Forum from its counterpart in Davos–he could not have "dropped in" on the closed, invitation-only World Economic Forum as he did in Porto Alegre.
Even without an official platform in Porto Alegre, Chávez was present throughout in the forum in the form of banners, flags, and workshops on the political crisis in Venezuela. In one such panel, scholar Richard Gott described Chávez's nationalist ideology that he built on a series of historical figures. In particular, he has given new life to the figure of Simón Bolívar, the leader of South American independence. Gott pointed out that Chávez is not anti-capitalist but in favor of national control over capital.
Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker noted that after Chávez's failed 1992 coup he went on TV and in two minutes said two important things: he assumed responsibility for his actions in a country where politicians usually attempted to dodge such responsibility, and he said that he was putting down his arms for now–which people correctly understood to mean that the struggle would continue. Harnecker also noted that Venezuela's institutional revolutionary model is different from other movements that leftists are accustomed to supporting. In addition, the progressive role of the military in Venezuela is different than the abusive role that this institution often plays in other areas such as the Southern Cone. Like Lula, Chávez sees the process of governing as a marathon. One does not start a full speed, but starts slowly and at a steady pace in order to reach the final goal of victory. Rodrigo Chávez, a coordinator of Círculos Bolivarianos (Bolivarian Circles), a grassroots organization designed to defend the government, noted that people say that Chávez is dividing the country, but it is note true. Rather, Venezuela has been divided for the last 500 years and Chávez is attempting to rule on behalf of the majority of poor people rather than a wealthy elite.
The Network Institute on Global Democracy (NIGD) was one of many NGOs and think tanks present at the forum. Heikki Patomäki introduced the work of NGID by noting that they are working to create concrete utopias: concrete because they are realizable, but utopias because they do not exist anywhere at the moment. He considers himself a critical realist that needs to carefully study existing relations because altering society at one point might undermine something else that is valuable. For example, he finds abolishing the WTO as the solution to the negative aspects of neoliberal economics as overly simplistic because we need some type of global trade system in order for these international relations to work. Rather, the economic power of these organizations needs to be shed, or at least redefined so that the power is used for positive developments.
A significant part of the forum was dedicated to organizing against the pending war with Iraq. In particular, the panel Voices from the U.S. Against the War and Imperialism focused on this opposition to the Bush administration's policies. Kevin Danaher from Global Exchange argued that it was time to transfer the U.S. from an empire to just a nation within a community of nations. Achieving this goal will require a mass movement of historic dimensions. Part of the struggle is to create a democratically controlled economy, and a new system of global participatory governance. Danaher noted that when Chileans opposed the Pinochet dictatorship people in the U.S. struggled by their side, but now he was asking for international "support in helping us fight this government that has taken over our country."
Rania Masri from the Southern Peace Research and Education Center noted that Bush's war plans are part of a desire to redraw maps of the Arab world in order to control oil reserves and ensure Israeli domination of the region. Masri described Bush administration plans to use bunker buster and cluster bombs loaded with depleted uranium that are designed to kill people rather than destroy property, and even plans to use nuclear warheads. She asked what are we will to do to end (not stop, because it already started a long time ago with U.N. sanctions that killed half a million children) the war on Iraq.Every day featured speakers spoke to packed audiences in the Gigantinho stadium. Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano spoke on the evening of January 26. We stood on the ramp leading into the stadium, barely able to see him. Galeano noted the ethnocentric nature of western society that led it into oil wars. A linguistic study has noted that the most common word in European languages is "I" whereas in an Indigenous Maya language it is "we."
In subsequent panels, Indigenous peoples made reference to his comments, even while calling for expanded participation of Indigenous peoples in the forum. Particularly in Ecuador, Indigenous peoples have emerged at the forefront of social struggles. In a panel on Indigenous movements, Nilo Cayuqueo noted that although two Indigenous peoples hold ministerial posts in Ecuador's new government this is not sufficient–they also need control over territory. Likewise, he urged Brazilians to pressure Lula for territory. Some Indigenous organizations are proposing holding a parallel forum to the World Social Forum when it returns to Porto Alegre in 2005.
The final conference of the forum was "How To Confront the Empire" and featured linguistic Noam Chomsky. The venue was the Gigantinho stadium which was full to overflowing hours before his talk was to begin. In the end, I ended up watching him on a video feed from an overflow room with the Portuguese translation as an audio overdub. In an eloquent speech, he called for a world not based on violence. September 11 has become merely a pretext to implement pre-existing plans to dominate the world. But he pointed to anti-war protests as a sign of hope. "Protests in the U.S. are at a level that has no historic precedent," he stated. "It reveals public unwillingness to tolerate war." He noted how Davos and Porto Alegre are related–while the World Social Forum is rising with hope and optimism, the mood in Davos was dark and with the World Economic Forum falling in strength and significance.
The World Social Forum closed much like it had opened–with another massive march through the streets of Porto Alegre. On the evening of January 27, 40,000 people marched against the FTAA, against war, and for peace.
On January 28, our delegation visited the 30 de Maio MST settlement in Charqueadas, Rio Grande do Sul. They have developed a cooperative structure designed to produce organic food for the local market and to keep young people on the land. The MST argues that land is part of nature and should belong to those who work it. They oppose titling of the land because it turns it into a commodity which opens the possibility for banks and large landowners to seize the land in payment for debts. In fact, that is how their parents originally lost control of their land. Furthermore, private titles would end the social responsibility of the state to rural communities. As a result, they focus not on property rights but on a true agrarian reform that addresses issues of forms of production that leads to independence. Similarly, they oppose the use of biotech crops and chemical pesticides and fertilizers because it gives more power to multinational corporations and takes control out of the hands of the local farmers. Production is done collectively, and based on the principle "from each according to their ability, to each according to their effort." They see their struggle not just for themselves, but for future generations.
Each MST settlement develops its own models appropriate to their local situation, but overall MST is governed by two basic principles: 1) it fights for land in order to diminish a bad quality of life in the city and to produce food; and 2) to regain dignity and the values of their culture, with freedom and liberty as the basis for a good society. While the MST acknowledges that Lula is an advantage for their movement and its fight for land, the MST will not participate in his government. Rather, they have decided it is better to pressure his government from the outside for positive policy changes, including an agrarian reform that includes access to land, health care, education, dignity, infrastructure, water, housing, and support for the young to stay on the land.
The MST is an inspiration–that another world is possible, one free from war, hunger, exploitation and fear, in which people can work together to make this a better place for everyone.