• Diary of the World Social Forum 2009 in Belém do Pará

  • By João Romão | 25 May 09 | Posted under: Social Forums
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    Before the WSF

    The World Social Forum starts this Tuesday, in Belém do Pará, close to the Amazon Rain Forest. More than one hundred thousand participants are expected, to attend more than two thousand panels and discussion seminars, as well as over a thousand journalists from all over the world.

    Everything seems overwhelming for this city: people are staying in boats and private homes, on conditions far bellow those imagined when they booked their accommodation months ago, thousands of kilometers away. Young people who have opted for camping must face the pouring rain, which comes in the short but torrential spells typical of tropical areas. The Transform delegation, which I'm a member of, is lodged in the comfortable abode of a religious order active in popular education, about fifty kilometers away from the city.

    Locals say the city looks different this week: security was clearly increased and the places where the forum is taking place, as well as the city center and the main access routes, are under surveillance. Road blocks for cars and even buses are common, so that the passengers can be searched. The universities where most of the WFS is taking place are on the outskirts of Belém, in an area made of poor and substandard housing, where insecurity and police patrols are usually hand in hand. It is rather uncommon to meet anyone who speaks English ou French in shops and restaurants, at a time when the town is crowded with people from all over the world. Every time I take a picture, even inside a public bus, someone reminds me of how dangerous it is to display a camera in public.

    On the streets of Belém one can find push carts attached to skinny donkeys or even men, carrying fruit, tyres, cardboard boxes or crates with empty bottles. At night, many streets are taken over by female, male and transgender prostitutes and the taxis avoid stopping at red lights. People’s bellies are swollen because of malnutrition, based on plenty of rice, pasta, beans and cassava flour.

    For European standards, even for those of Portugal, fried (and quite fresh) fish, assorted wonderful fruits, or even the typical and absolutely delicious duck in Tupuci sauce, are rather cheap. Albeit its poverty, the people of Belém express their happiness for having so many visitors in town, regardless of the obvious communication difficulties.

    Even before the WSF as such starts, there are plenty of things going on in town. The Transform network is one of the organizations behind the Word Forum for Science and Democracy, which aims at launching a project to be perhaps included in the next World Social Forum. I myself attended a debate on «Emerging Ways in the Struggle for the Democratisation of Science», where it was discussed how capital is taking charge of scientific evolution, by controlling the product of its research (trademark registering, legislation on intellectual property) and the means for its accomplishment (by means of «donations» or funding of public research centers): in terms of cognitive capital, science has now the power of direct intervention in creating value and innovation has replaced capital reproduction.

    But it must also be said that innovation has paved the way for new types of activism and diversity in researching can be a weapon against knowledge control. Programmes for mass adult education carried out in India throughout the twentieth century, based on models of scientific research aimed at the concrete problems of the population and valuing traditional knowledge (in areas such as food, farming, or water management, for instance), are an effectual way forward for science to address local needs. Amazonian shamans have also come up with new models of research, in which science adds up knowledge to that already produced by indigenous peoples,

    Such approach rejects a positivist categorization, putting forward the need to study socio-diversity against bio-diversity (which neglects social relations) and refuses the notion of «participatism», for it invokes traditional knowledge to contribute partially to science, whereas the task of scientific research must rather be to reinforce the knowledge the indigenous peoples of Amazonia produce about their own living conditions.

     

    Day 1: 100 000 march on the opening of the World Social Forum

    The hundred thousand participants in the WSF who crossed the city of Belém stopped the traffic and brought the locals to their windows. The huge police deployment was intimidating enough, but did nothing but watch an extraordinary march celebrating all social claims on planet Earth, to the sound of solidary activism and the joys of the will to transform.

    In Belém do Pará the docks are the heart of the city's social life: cargo-boats bringing in and out goods containers, tourists on bay cruises, trendy and brand new bars and restaurants, just like in any converted dock area in Europe, side by side with cheap local bars backing up markets such as the municipal and «Ver o Peso», where those Amazon delicacies which spice up local dishes can be found, as well as fruit, dried fish, shrimps and, everywhere, flies.

    The march this Word Social Forum opened with left from the docks, the meeting point for the 100 000 visitors lodged in a city where often nature calls the shots: the march was due to begin at 15h30, precisely the time when the rain, fierce and tropical, starts, always at the same time. So, the march didn't leave before an hour later, when the rain was gone.

    The hundred thousand participants in the WSF who crossed the city of Belém stopped the traffic and brought the locals to their windows. The huge police deployment was intimidating enough, but did nothing but watch an extraordinary march celebrating all social claims on planet Earth, to the sound of solidary activism and the joys of the will to transform.

    More than 1200 native Indians coming from the nine countries located in the Amazon Bay gave the party a distinct flavor and demanded that their rights be respected: the right to health, to the ecosystem, to their thousand year old culture, which learns from the present and also wants to have something to say about the future.

    All agendas meet in this forum: the struggle against slave work in poor countries or against job insecurity in the developed world; standing up for education and public health services; trade women's emancipation movements; the right to abort; the fight against human trafficking in all its dimensions; the defense of indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge; the belief in a solidary economy as an alternative to capitalism; the struggle against child labor... fighting for human dignity in all its dimensions is the shared motto of everybody in this forum, where all the social movements' ambitions for transformation meet.

    When the march came to an end, in a huge rally at Praça do Operário, the city was brought to a standstill. The visitors slowly went back to the docks. In many squares downtown stages were built for the cultural events which will cheer up Belém this week. The forum's party has begun too!

     

    Day 2: Amazon Rainforest, a heritage for all

    After the huge march at the start of the World Social Forum, Wednesday saw the beginning of the more than two thousand debate sessions that make up the program, spread out by major thematic areas which point out the main claims of the world's social movements. 

    Such aggregative goals range from the demand for peace to fighting against militarism and all types of discrimination, standing up for self-determination and the rights of all peoples, or for the protection of nature and ecosystems, as well as upholding a democratic, emancipating, sustainable and solidary economy. Discussions on economic and social democracy are divided into six large areas, including freeing the world from capital's domination; wide and sustainable access to the shared property of humankind and nature; knowledge, culture and media democratization; upholding the rights to food, health, education, housing, employment, decent work and media; and building and spreading democratic and participatory political and economic structures and institutions. 

    The economic world crises and the protection of the Amazon Rainforest are, in the end, the two main topics discussed, in a forum where nothing is easy: the tropical wet heat makes everybody sweat from 8 am on, the access routes to the activities are all jammed and it takes hours to get anywhere, and poor information regarding where the debates are taking place forces everybody into a painful merry-go-round in the precinct. To make things up, one cannot help being charmed by Amazonian delicacies (today I risked tacapa, a kind of limy soup I would refuse to eat in any other circumstances, and I refrain from going into further detail...) and come across new Amazonian fruit juices daily (today I tasted the wonderful cupuaçu and tabereba). 

    On the first day, the debates focused mainly on the Amazon Rainforest. Protecting and valuing it is the aim of a large number of organizations, and the protection of the ecosystem and its biodiversity is just one of their claims, for they also include defending public services or the right to health, education and social care. The concept of socio-diversity is winning ground in most debates, which tend to focus on the need to uphold traditional knowledge and awareness about resources and how to use them. Social life in the Amazon Rainforest is structured around these resources, but they are increasingly falling prey to private appropriation, supported by the complex mechanisms protecting intellectual and industrial property, in the hands of large corporations and miles away from the lives of indigenous peoples.

     One activist from the Ecuadorian Amazon summed up the problem in this obvious usurpation, on a debate about bio-piracy: «we cannot understand how something we have used for generations suddenly becomes private property and we can no longer use it». Indeed, large corporations, mostly from the USA, have been granted patents on the use of thousands of Amazonian plants. The products thus obtained are massively sold with no benefits at all for the peoples who really developed their use.

    Close to Belém do Pará, Icoaraci city is known as the centre of craft production of traditional Amazonian pottery. It is a city in the depths of utter misery, with substandard housing, built on concrete and wood structures, where painting is seldom seem and the sewers flow openly on the smelly streets. Basic sanitation is available to only about 10% of houses in Belém and it gets much worse in the remaining areas of the Pará state. The World Social Forum is taking place in one of the poorest areas on Earth.

    Correa, Lugo, Morales and Chavez at the WSF

    Lula was not there to play hostess, but yet four Latin American Presidents of the Republic united their voices in a rally in Belém do Pará, outside the Word Social Forum. They asserted the importance of the WSF contributions to the socialist struggle and asked for the support of social movements all over the world. Previous to the meeting plenty of rumours regarding the time and location of the event, which took place under heavy police and army stakeout, prevented a mass audience and only a few hundreds of the 100 000 attending he forum were there.

    Rafael Correa spoke first, and in twenty minutes he put forward a revolutionary program as such. Equator’s president began by criticizing the arrogance behind the «Washington consensus», shared by a minority of leaders only, and highlighted the «magic moment» taking place in Latin Americ’s politics – ten years ago no one could foresee that new left wing governments would be elected, expressing the will of the people and the results of the social movements’ struggle. An economist, graduated in Chicago, the main theoretical reference for neo-liberalism in the past decades, the «Chicago Boy who re-wrote the lesson», as Chavez would later say, defended a new definition for the role of the State and the need to rethink the idea of planning, for today «those who plan the most are the rich countries and the large multinational corporations.»

    Correa called for a joint effort of national powers and collective action against today’s capitalism, which regards labour as a tool for capital and bases competition on jobs’ insecurity. He defended that new emphasis should be placed on use value instead of change value, and mentioned as an example the Amazonian Jungle, «the most precious of all humankind’s property.» He further argued that a new concept of development is needed, based on new regional forms and new collaborative processes between different regions. According to Correa, «socialism hasn’t challenged capitalism’s main objectives – mass consumption and the generation of more and more wealth – and only attempted to achieve them faster; therefore, socialism in the XXI Century should «evolve, adapt itself to each society’s needs, and be non-dogmatic and effective.»

    Fernando Lugo, elected for the presidency of Uruguay one year ago, also pointed out that «the history of the nine World Social Forums runs parallel to a profound change in Latin America’s politics: the social movements’ struggles have been the pillar of change, built on the streets, under the trees, in many struggles and elections, with wins and losses.» «What we’ve achieved so far», he said, «was enough to defeat neoliberalism, but it takes much more to build the society Latin America deserves.»«it takes a lot of patience to sail in Amazonia, but in Latin America we can only build a new continent if we’re impatient. A new world is not only possible, it is becoming real», he concluded. 

    Evo Morales didn’t need all of his 20 minutes to claim the importance of «protecting the land», using the Amazon Rainforest and its peoples as example. «I don’t want to be invited, I want to be convened», elucidated the president of Bolivia, who demanded «justice and humanity instead of ambition» and asked the social movements not to forget about him, because «he might make some mistakes, but he never betrays his friends.» 

    Hugo Chavez was the last to speak, stressing the twenty minutes each of them had to speak as an instance of how socialism works. However, he spoke for almost fifty minutes, and spent most of them summoning Fidel Castro’s legacy and the meetings he had in the last twenty years with the Cuban leader. He saluted his companions and remembered Tupac Amaru, an Indian chef who, when about to be tore apart by four horses at the hands of Spanish colonisers, said with dignity: «I am going, but I shall be back, turned into millions of people.»

    Chavez was the only one to mention the «murderer» living in the White House these past ten years, who «left through the backdoor, straight to history’s garbage bin.» He further challenged Barack Obama to give a sign of real change, giving Guantanamo back to Cuba and withdrawing the USA army from Ecuador. He pointed out, however, that his hopes aren’t «too high» and demanded only that «Venezuela’s sovereignty be respected.»

    Venezuela’s president reminded the audience that 300 years of capitalism have brought about hunger, inequality, child labour and nature’s destruction and contamination, and that these problems were only made worse as global capitalism took hold. Thus he called for a new socialism as a common goal, shared with the social movements: «there’s no third way – it’s either capitalism or socialism!» As well as the other presidents, Chavez pointed out the importance of the social movements, because «a new world is possible, a new world is needed, a new world is being born.» The long speech – which caused a few people leave – ended with a cry of hope: «Motherland, Socialism or Death! We shall win!»

    The meeting was supported by PSOL and promoted by MST (The Landless Workers Movement), who did not invite Lula da Silva. However, the Brazilian president joined the other four at a night rally focused on the opportunity to build a new development model and a new society. In this rally the new measures against the crisis being deployed in Latin America were put forward; they include a major increase in public investment, namely in housing and energy, and the foundation of a regional investment bank to help growth and development.

    The Crisis in the World Social Forum

    The international crisis was one of the main issues discussed on the World Social Forum. On the last day, I was in charge of delivering a lecture about it, together with the Venezuelan economist Eduardo Lander, in a seminar fostered by Transform. The search for alternatives to capitalism was paramount in this forum, attended also by Olivier Besancenot . The Party of the European Left met the Porto Alegre Forum, in order to find common routes.

    The identification cards on each of the forum's participants allowed me to identify at least fifteen different nationalities amongst those present on the debate on the international crisis and perspectives for solving it, fostered by Transform: 60 people, most of them young (from South Korea, Vietnam. India, Nepal, USA, Brazil, Venezuela, Finland, Greece, France, Germany, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Italy) crammed the tiny room and more than half had to sit on the floor.

    Eduardo Lander opened the debate claiming that we are current living the end of neoliberalism, which was the outcome of USA's political and military hegemony and led to an exploration of resources that left the planet close to its limits. Following this approach, the collapse of capitalism might be the collapse of life itself; this being so, it is of uttermost importance to bring about new means of controlling what we know about the use of such resources: economic and technological solutions that hold on to current paradigms and ideas of development and consumption will only make the crisis worse. The time has come to build a new society, one which refuses to approach economic issues disregarding its social and cultural consequences.

    On my lecture, I put forward the current situation as a crisis of overproduction of the capitalist system, whose main features are a tendency to decrease the weight of wages in the global income, which lead to an expansion in credit for consumption and over-indebtedness of the families. This process run parallel to the liberalization of the financial markets and the privatization of pension funds, harboring the speculative processes that lead to the current crisis. On the other hand, the free movement of capital made it easy to transfer productive investments to places where wages protection is rather poor, making way for global job insecurity.

    Lander's contribution and my suggestions for alternatives (public investment, full employment and housing policies, demercantilization of public services and the development of a solidary economy and cooperativism networks) gave rise to an interesting debate, with lots of different contributions, which is only natural, given the wide range of national situations familiar to those in the audience.

    The international crisis and the anti-capitalist struggle had been the motto of Olivier Besancenot's lecture, two days before, at the Sister Dorothy Tent (Sister Dorothy was an activist for the peoples of Amazonia, and was murdered). The leader of the new French Anti-Capitalist Party explained that he intends to unite different political organizations in order to find alternatives to neoliberalisn, and Heloisa Helena, from the PSOL, who organized the event, reminded that the current crisis is not occasional but an unavoidable outcome of capitalist growth.

    On Saturday night, the night before the end of the forum, a meeting between delegates from the Party of the European Left and the S. Paulo Forum, which brings together left wing political organizations from the American continent, took place in an hotel in Belém. At this meeting it was pointed out how urgent it is to find common routes to fight the crisis, and some primary areas for common work were defined: they include new development models, support for the Palestinian cause, and emigration issues, which are expected to raise in importance as the crisis deepens, leading the way for right wing populism.

    Alliances Day brings the World Social Forum to an End

    The World Social Forum came to an end last Sunday in Belém do Pará. The last day was Alliances Day and was devoted to extended meetings with the aim of finding common grounds for common action. In the morning there were partial thematic meetings, and some of the conclusions were later disclosed. In the afternoon it was time for the Assembly of Social Movements, and some global campaigns to be launched in 2009 were then made public. The forum claims it is urgent to find alternatives to capitalism, because another world is possible and necessary.

    The forum ended with the same merry high spirits it had started with, despite the fact that most participants were obviously exhausted: many were the kilometers traveled over inside the Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA) and the Universidade Rural da Amazónia (UFRA), looking for rooms poorly signed and debates which were rescheduled again and again or moved somewhere else, under an intense and wet tropical heat.

    A road was specifically built to access the two universities where the Forum took place, but it was always jammed. It crossed the Terra Firme, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Belém do Pará, permanently under army and police surveillance throughout the week. In order to avoid such traffic jam, those attending the forum could use small and risky boats which linked the two areas in 15 minutes, through the waters of River Guamá.

    Despite mobility and housing troubles, most of the participants were quite happy with the forum, due to the high quality of debates and the chance to make contacts and bring about networks for collective action. The forum regarded itself as a chance to learn and act, and it seems to have been so. A common call was made: alternative society models are urgently needed – models aimed at defending the people and respecting the ecosystems. The global crisis was regarded by many as an opportunity: if the left does not come up with mobilizing answers soon enough, others will for sure.

    One of the main topics argued for as far as alternatives for a better society were concerned was that of solidary economics: cooperativism, associativism and self-administration cannot be discarded as tools to strive for the control of the means of production and challenge capital's hegemony. In the paper released after the assembly on this topic at the last day of the forum, an International Campaign for Ethical Shopping was put forward, as well as the aim of bringing about some form of articulation between organizations working on media technology to bring solidary exchange to the foreground and foster increasingly stronger links between economics, sustainability and finance.

    At a time when Europe, with Sarkozy and Berlusconi, apparently wishes to erect a fortress against immigration, the forum has also discussed forms of cooperation and solidarity between the North and the South, because the current crisis will worsen unemployment levels and some right wing populist pressure on immigrants is thus to be expected. On the context of the election for the European Parliament taking place 2009, some organizations, including Solidariedade Imigrante, have come up with a proposal for a day of action, to take place in May, in Europe, against the Immigration Pact and the Return Directive and demanding the legalization of undocumented migrants. Immigration issues had already been raised at the meeting between the Fórum São Paulo and the Party of the European Left, and SOS-Racismo, attending the meeting informally, made contacts for common action with organizations in Latin America.

    At the assembly where the link between the crisis, globalisation and labor was debated, a call was made for a new societal paradigm, one which does not only demand more regulation but does not stop short of discussing the aims of such regulatory processes; a new societal paradigm with a new relationship with Nature, focusing on use value instead of exchange value, and on democracy and multiculturalism as the ethic basis for public well being; a new societal paradigm based on a new concept of development, demanding global citizen-based solutions and a new balance of power in politics and society as whole. As Wanden Bello, from Focus On Global South said, «we need to radicalize imagination in order to bring a bout a better world.»

     


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