• The World Social Forum Calls for Urgent Action Against the Crisis

  • By João Romão | 20 May 09
  • This year the World Social Forum moved to Belém, at the edge of the Amazon Rain Forest. More than 100,000 people participated and attended more than 2,000 panels and discussion seminars. Almost a thousand journalists from all over the world were present as well. 

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

    Locals say the city looks different this week: security was clearly increased and the places where the Forum is being held, as well as the city centre 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 WSF is taking place are on the outskirts of Belém, in an area consisting of poor and substandard housing, where insecurity and police patrols usually go hand in hand. It is rather uncommon to meet anyone who speaks English or French in shops and restaurants, at a time when the town is full of people from all over the world. Every time I take a picture, even inside a public bus, someone reminds me 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, surviving on a diet 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. Despite their poverty, the people of Belém express their happiness at having so many visitors in town, regardless of the obvious communication difficulties.

    In Belém, the docks are the heart of the city’s social life: cargo-boats carrying 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 serving markets such as the municipal market and “Ver o Peso”, where the Amazon delicacies which flavour local dishes can be found, as well as fruit, dried fish, shrimp and, everywhere, flies. 

    100,000 march at the opening of the World Social Forum

    The opening march of this year’s Word Social Forum began at the docks, the gathering place for the 100,000 visitors lodged in a city where nature often calls the shots: the march was due to begin at 3:30, precisely the time when the rain, fierce and tropical, starts, always at the same time. In the end, the march started 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 it did nothing other than watch an extraordinary march celebrating all the social demands of planet Earth, to the sound of solidarity activism and the joy of the will to transform society.

    More than 1,200 native Indians coming from the nine countries located in the Amazon Bay gave the party a distinct flavour 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 came together in this Forum: the struggle against slave labour in poor countries or against job insecurity in the developed world; standing up for education and public health services; saleswomen’s emancipation movements; the right to abortion; the struggle against human trafficking in all its dimensions; the defence of indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge; the belief in a solidaristic economy as an alternative to capitalism; the struggle against child labour … 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 were to cheer up Belém that week. The Forum’s party had begun too!

    Amazon Rainforest, a heritage for all

    The huge march kicking off the World Social Forum was followed by more than two thousand debate sessions that make up the programme, organised by major thematic areas which represent the main demands of the world’s social movements.

    The shared goals ranged 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, emancipatory, sustainable and solidaristic economy. Discussions on economic and social democracy were 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 democratisation; 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 crisis and the protection of the Amazon Rainforest were, in the end, the two main topics discussed, in a Forum where nothing was easy: the tropical humid heat made everybody perspire from 8:00 am on, all the access routes to the activities were jammed and it took hours to get anywhere, and poor information regarding where the debates were taking place forces everybody into a painful merry-go-round within the Forum site. To make up for this, one could not help being charmed by Amazonian delicacies and daily discovered new Amazonian fruit juices.

    On the first day, the debates focused mainly on the Amazon Rainforest. Protecting and valuing it is the aim of a large number of organisations, and the protection of the ecosystem and its biodiversity is just one of their demands, which also include defending public services or the right to health, education and social care. The concept of socio-diversity won ground in most debates, which tended to focus on the need to uphold traditional knowledge and awareness of 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 of this kind of usurpation in a debate on 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 without benefit to the peoples who really developed their use.

    Close to Belém do Pará, Icoaraci city is known as the centre of the 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 seen 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.

    Five presidents at the WSF

    Lula was not there to play host, but four Latin American presidents joined their voices in a rally in Belém do Pará, outside the Word Social Forum. They asserted the importance of the WSF’s contribution to the socialist struggle and asked for the support of social movements all over the world. Uninformed rumours preceding the meeting, regarding the time and location of the event, which took place under heavy police and army presence, prevented a mass audience, and only a few hundred of the 100,000 Forum participants were there. 

    Rafael Correa spoke first, and in twenty minutes he put forward a revolutionary programme. The Ecuadorian president began by criticising the arrogance behind the “Washington consensus”, shared by only a minority of leaders, and highlighted the “magic moment” taking place in Latin American 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, who graduated from the University of Chicago, the main theoretical reference for neoliberalism in the past decades, the “Chicago Boy who re-wrote the lesson”, as Chavez would later say, defended a new definition of 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 job insecurity. He defended the idea of placing new emphasis on use value instead of exchange value, and mentioned as an example the Amazon 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 of the 21st Century should “evolve, adapt itself to each of society’s needs, and be non-dogmatic and effective”. 

    Fernando Lugo, elected president 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 twenty minutes to claim the importance of “protecting the land”, using the Amazon Rainforest and its peoples as an 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 Chávez 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 invoking 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 he was about to be torn 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”.

    Chávez was the only one to mention the “murderer” living in the White House these past eight years, who “left through the back door, 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 three hundred 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 globalised 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!” Along with the other presidents, Chávez 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 to 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 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.

    Lula da Silva promoted a meeting with the organisations represented in the World Social Forum International Council. This meeting brought together about 80 people in a hotel room in Belém do Pará. The president of Brazil welcomed the forum, and said the current edition, which he found better organised and attracting a wider number of people, “shows the need for its continuity and its importance for democratic diversity”. Lula promised to do all in his power to render it possible for the WSF to meet in the USA (there are problems regarding entry permits) or in the Middle East (where obvious security questions are raised).

    The meeting started with five short speeches, from previously chosen representatives from Kenya, France, Chile, India and Cuba, which Lula answered quite informally. The Brazilian president highlighted the measures he implemented to benefit farmers: 519 thousand families were “settled” in the countryside since he came to office, which corresponds to more than half of all settlements registered in Brazilian history. He also mentioned the nationalisation of 43 million hectares of land (an area much wider than the whole of England, Italy or Germany.)

    Lula also alluded to the world economic crisis, and suggested it is an “opportunity” to rethink current consumption and development models, similarly to what had been said the day before in the rally with Chávez, Morales, Lugo and Correa. Besides mentioning a new regional investment bank in Latin America, the Brazilian president laid out the steps taken in the past few years regarding regional cooperation in the area and the importance of the social forums in deepening that cooperation. He asked those present to bear in mind that some countries are not in a position to face the super powers (mainly the USA) because of the funding and financial help they receive from them.

    Lula also put forward his position on the current crisis and pledged seriously to increase public investment: “If in business logic one must be careful when it comes to investments, with regards to social needs an increase is required”. The ex-trade unionist also pointed out that in spite of the crisis Brazil did not collapse, unlike in the 1990s when it collapsed twice. He recalled that “in those days, yuppies who couldn’t even locate Brazil on a map were telling Brazil what to do”, and that those countries who favoured free trade when times were better are now advocating protectionism. 

    The Brazilian president ended up making his first public statement about his succession, indicating Dilma Roussef as PT’s next presidential candidate. Besides Lula, Dilma was the only member of the cabinet to take part in the meeting, putting forward an initiative under way concerning the revising of media regulation, including independent media.

    The World Social Forum addresses the crisis

    The international crisis was one of the main issues discussed in the World Social Forum. On the last day, I was asked to give a lecture on it, together with the Venezuelan sociologist Edgardo Lander, in a seminar sponsored by Transform. The name badges on each of the Forum’s participants allowed me to identify at least fifteen different nationalities among those present in the debate on the international crisis and perspectives for solving it: 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.

    Edgardo Lander opened the debate claiming that we are currently living through the end of neoliberalism, which was the outcome of the USA’s political and military hegemony and led to an exploitation of resources that brought the planet close to its limits. In his view, the collapse of capitalism might be the collapse of life itself; this being so, it is of utmost importance, he urged, to establish new means of controlling what we know about the use of such resources: economic and technological solutions that maintain 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 by disregarding its social and cultural consequences.

    In 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 share of wages in the global income, which lead to an expansion in credit for consumption and over-indebtedness of families. This process runs parallel to the liberalisation of the financial markets and the privatisation of pension funds, harbouring 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 wage protection is relatively poor, leading to global job insecurity.

    Lander’s contribution and my proposals for alternatives (public investment, full employment and housing policies, de-privatisation of public services and the development of a solidaristic economy and cooperative 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.

    On Saturday night, the night before the end of the forum, a meeting between delegates from the Party of the European Left and the São Pãulo Forum, which brings together left-wing political organisations from the American continent, took place in a hotel in Belém. At this meeting it was pointed out how urgent it is to find common ways of combating the crisis, and some primary areas for common work were defined: they include new development models, support for the Palestinian cause, and  immigration issues, which are expected to increase in importance as the crisis deepens, stimulating right-wing populism.

    Urgent action at the Alliances Day 

    The last day was Alliances Day and was devoted to extendive meetings with the aim of finding common ground for common action. In the morning there were partial thematic meetings, and some of the conclusions were later announced. 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 in the same high spirits with which it began, despite the exhaustion of most participants, considering how many kilometres had been travelled 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 to other locations, all in 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 neighbourhoods in Belém do Pará, permanently under army and police surveillance throughout the week. In order to avoid such traffic jam, participants could use small and risky boats which linked the two areas in 15 minutes, through the waters of River Guamá.

    Despite mobility and housing problems, most of the participants were quite happy with the Forum, due to the high quality of debates and the chance to make contacts and forge networks for collective action. The Forum regarded itself as a chance to learn and act, and that is what it appears to have been. A common call was made: alternative models of society 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 ideas of how to mobilise people soon, others will.

    One of the main topics debated as far as alternatives for a better society are concerned was that of solidaristic economics: the importance of cooperativism, associativism and self-administration cannot be underestimated as tools to strive for 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 organisations working on media technology to bring solidaristic exchange to greater visibility and foster increasingly closer links between economics, sustainability and finance.

    At a time when Europe, with Sarkozy and Berlusconi, apparently wants 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 more right-wing populist pressure on immigrants is to be expected. In the context of the elections for the European Parliament taking place in 2009, some organisations, 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 legalisation of undocumented immigrants. 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 organisations in Latin America.

    At the assembly where the link between the crisis, globalisation and labour was debated, a call was made for a new societal paradigm, one which does not only demand more regulation but also does not stop short of discussing the aims of such regulatory processes; a new societal paradigm with a new relationship to nature, focusing on use value instead of exchange value, and on democracy and multiculturalism as the ethical 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 a whole. As Walden Bello, from Focus On the Global South said, “we need to radicalise imagination in order to bring about a better world”.