The only way to really describe the World Social Forum (WSF), that just ended here in Brazil, is a global political "carnaval." Not that there was much of the glitter and hedonism associated with that most famous Brazilian street party which begins later this week. Rather, inside the conference halls and out, this astounding event--part-political convention, part-art and music festival, part-intellectual gathering of social movements, was in a state of nearly perpetual celebratory protest for five days and five nights.
In the friendly territory of the socialist-run Porto Alegre government, one demonstration followed another. Protests spilled into the streets for women's rights, Indigenous rights, Palestinian rights and for land reform. Protestors marched against fundamentalism of all sorts, against hunger and genetically modified agriculture, the IMF, the Free Trade Area of the Americas and much more. The vibe was almost always near-euphoric with horns blaring, hands clapping, feet dancing, flags waving and chants singing out regularly in at least four languages.
Sharp Contrast to World Economic Forum
The World Social Forum began last year to provide a counter vision and voice to the World Economic Forum a staid corporate and government gathering designed to informally facilitate corporate globalization. And while "Davos" -- along with the protestors against it -- grabbed the lion's share of the corporate-media headlines by switching its venue to New York City this year, Porto Alegre was a cauldron of ideas, creativity and debates all under the slogan "Another World is Possible."
Candido Gryzbowski, director of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis, one of the event's main organizers, went so far as to assert that Porto Alegre had left the World Economic Forum in the dust. "We don't need them. Our message, our concerns are more comprehensive," he noted. "We want to create alternatives, not just to neo-liberalism, but also to various types of fundamentalism and un-democratic governments."
Certainly, the World Economic Forum 3,000 person event in New York's Waldorf Astoria was a significant gathering of powerful world players. But the sheer magnitude of the Porto Alegre event far surpassed Davos this year, becoming so large as to be difficult to comprehend, even for its most avid participants.
The program of conferences, workshops and seminars, along with films, music and artistic events ran more than 70 tabloid pages in each language. While last year 15,000 people showed up, this year, all told more than 51,000 people from 131 countries officially participated in the World Social Forum. In the virtual realm, the WSF website found itself hosting another half million visitors a day. Overall, the event was extremely well organized, with barely any noticeable glitches or conflicts.
Tens of Thousands in the Streets -- Peacefully
In contrast with the streets of New York City -- or for that matter Seattle, Prague or Genoa -- police presence in Porto Alegre was once again nearly non-existent as huge marches peacefully wound through the street. The opening ceremony saw more than 40,000 people demonstrating. The anti-FTAA protest, held on the final day, gathered about 10,000. The beautiful and inspiring closing ceremony, held in a giant hall at the main venue -- the beautifully appointed Catholic University -- was packed with a diverse group of 6,000 people; it was simulcast to thousands more at two other venues.
This being a left-political gathering in the heart of Latin America, Che Guevara was everywhere. And this being the beginning of the 21st century, his most-marketable non-trademarked image was for sale in nearly half of the hundreds of vendors' stalls. There were Che books, Che t-shirts, Che CDs, Che baseball caps, Che posters, Che flags, and even little-mini bottles of Che cacaca -- the local cane alcohol drink. By contrast, despite the anti-US government sentiment of most of the meeting, images of Osama bin Laden were nowhere to be found, neither in the vendors' stalls nor the meeting halls. Anti-fundamentalism and pluralism were the themes of the day.
There was also a plethora of music every day in a makeshift amphitheater, all night concerts, and stirring speeches by the stars of the anti-corporate globalization movement Walden Bello, Martin Khor and Naomi Klein, by venerated leftists like Noam Chomsky and Brazil's Luiz Ignacio "Lula" da Silva, as well as by Nobel Peace Prize winners Rigoberta Menchu and Adolfo Perez Esquivel.
Both the "war on terror" and Israeli-Palestinian conflict figured prominently in a multi-day session entitled "A World Without Wars is Possible." The Argentine economic debacle was hotly debated in many a venue, and the scandalous demise of the Enron corporation was high on the agenda. There was a World Youth Congress. A forum of local government leaders from around the world. And there were planning sessions for upcoming international events such as the Johannesburg Earth Summit.
Focus on Alternatives
By most accounts, the World Social Forum evolved in sophistication and approach from a year ago. This was most evident in the growing focus on alternatives. Strategy sessions addressed not only how to combat the WTO, the World Bank and giant corporations, but also on how to build alternative economic, political and cultural structures. The main conference on corporate power, in which CorpWatch participated, focused on a series of proposals to "separate the corporation and the state." The argument went that just as we need to separate church and state to avoid a religious fundamentalist nation and build democracy, it is also necessary to separate the corporation and the state to avoid market-fundamentalist governance. From there sprang a fruitful discussion.
This approach fit well with one of the most interesting and innovative movements to make its voice heard in Porto Alegre. "La Boca Fundamental" (Fundamental Mouth) movement held a series of creative demonstrations and workshops under the slogan, "your mouth is fundamental to fight fundamentalism of all types." Guacira Cesar de Olivera explained to CorpWatch that "everyone has their own, Single Truth -- be it the Taliban, the IMF or the Catholic Church -- and we believe that women suffer most from all types of fundamentalism." These fundamentalisms, she argues, share the basic characteristics of exclusion and domination. The Fundamental Mouth movement took over the inside of the main conference hall one afternoon, urging everyone, women and men to use their mouths to speak out against fundamentalism.
Coming Soon to a Venue Near You
Overall, it's impossible to quantify or even articulate the "results" from Porto Alegre. The mainstream Brazilian media even criticized the absence of a final declaration. But to reduce the diversity of cultures, the plurality of ideas and opinions, the cacophony of alternative visions to a simple declaration would have been counterintuitive to the World Social Forum's "big tent" vision.
Instead, the international organizing committee for the event decided to hold a series of regional World Social Forums over the next year. This increasingly decentralized process will culminate in the 3rd World Social Forum, to be held once again in Porto Alegre this time next year. "An important part of the World Social Forum process," says Atila Roque, an event organizer and CorpWatch adviser in Brazil, "is developing new ways to organize internationally and regionally -- we are at the beginning stages of figuring it out."
And despite the lack of "concrete" results, most here agreed that the World Social Forum is of immense value. Its importance of the ongoing nature was perhaps best summed up by a delegate from India, who told the closing ceremony's jubilant and massive crowd that it has become an symbolic landmark for those working for social change everywhere. "As we move into the 21st century," he told the cheering throng, "Porto Alegre will be etched into the collective historical memory of all those working for a different world."
Joshua Karliner is Executive Director of CorpWatch and author of the Corporate Planet (Sierra Club Books).
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