MEXICO CITY - This week's World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in the Mexican resort of Cancun will also serve as a showcase and podium for nearly 2,000 civil society organisations from 83 countries, whose members have been flowing in by the plane- and busload.
The protesters are part of the diverse international movement that is opposed to the current model of globalisation.
Around one-third of the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) present this week in Cancun come from Canada, the United States and Mexico, one-third are from the European Union, and the rest are from Asia, Africa and South America, Melba Pria, the Mexican government official in charge of relations with NGOs, told IPS.
''Cancun will be a showcase for gauging the weight of the NGOs and finding out if the governments of industrialised countries and corporations are willing to listen to them and accept some of their proposals,'' Adam Jones, with the political studies department at the Mexican Centre for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), said in an interview.
The fifth WTO ministerial conference, which will run Wednesday through Sunday in the resort city of Cancun in southeastern Mexico, is crucial to the future of the current round of multilateral trade talks launched at the last WTO meeting, held in 2001 in Doha, Qatar, that is to be concluded by Jan. 1, 2005.
The talks have reached an impasse over many issues, due mainly to discrepancies between rich countries and the developing world, which already turned the third ministerial conference, held in December 1999 in the U.S. city of Seattle, Washington, into a fiasco.
The meeting in Seattle, which ended without an agreement to start a new round of talks, was marked by major clashes between activists and police, and is regarded by many as the starting-point for the ''anti-globalisation'' movement.
But social researchers underline that what happened in Seattle was only the most visible expression of the movement up to that point, and that the groups opposed to globalisation in its current shape and form have been holding protests since the early 1990s.
One of the first mobilisations of the so-called ''anti-globalisation'' movement was the anti-APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum) international day of protest held in November 1996 in the Philippines.
The NGOs complain that the WTO is dominated by the governments of the industrialised world and large corporations, a situation that they say translates into policies that act against poor countries.
While some of the groups are demanding the ''democratisation'' of the WTO and a shift in direction for the international body, others want it to be dismantled.
Taking part in the protests this week will be delegates of a broad range of NGOs, from groups that have consultative status with the United Nations, such as the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organisation with branches in 50 countries, to radical groups known for their violent tactics, such as Italy's Tute Bianche.
Of the roughly 2,000 organisations that will be present, 980 are accredited with the WTO to officially participate in the ministerial conference.
Of the accredited groups, 30 percent are organisations of farmers and campesinos, 20 percent are environmental organisations, and 20 percent are groups that focus on issues like globalisation, gender, human rights and trade.
Some 300 business associations are also taking part, but activists complain that they merely represent the interests of transnational corporations.
The WTO and Mexican government turned down requests for accreditation from at least another 200 civil society groups, arguing that their focus and activities had nothing to do with the issues to be discussed at the conference.
The representatives of the 980 participating NGOs will share the Caribbean resort's elegant hotels and take part in the meetings with the ministers and officials of multilateral bodies in the resort area of Cancun.
In the meantime, the delegates of around 1,000 civil society organisations, mainly rural, indigenous, labour and women's groups, as well as hundreds of independent activists, will be camped out in parks, theatres, and sports clubs 10 kms away in the city of Cancun itself.
The NGOs that received accreditation from the WTO conference will be allowed to attend the ministerial debates. They will also be able to broadcast their proposals and suggestions free of charge on a special TV channel that will function during the conference, and to post documents on the WTO web site.
By contrast, the Mexican government will not allow the organisations attending the parallel People's Forum for Alternatives to the WTO to approach the convention centre where the trade ministers from the WTO's 146 member countries will be meeting.
If the participants in the People's Forum or protesters attempt to press past special checkpoints set up along the only road leading to the conference site, they will face more than 1,000 police officers with strict orders to keep them out.
Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace Mexico, one of the groups that will be taking part in the ministerial conference, told IPS that the NGOs are not interested in using violence, ''despite what some governments want people to believe.''
On the contrary, ''what we are seeking is dialogue, to set forth proposals that have long been taking shape,'' he said.
''When clashes occur, due to the attitude of some police or to a strategy of provocation by a tiny minority of activists, enormous damage is caused to organised civil society,'' he said.
Students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who have admitted to having ties with Tute Bianche, announced that they would equip themselves with helmets, protective padding for arms and legs, and baseball bats to confront the police and clear a way through the cordon for groups that want to reach the conference site.
Alvaro Lpez, with Mexico's National Union of Agricultural Workers, said that members of his group and others would march towards the meeting area, ''and we do not rule out the possibility of blood being shed.''
This week, more than 30,000 people from every region and continent will be protesting globalisation in its current shape and form in Cancun, and will ''push for the failure'' of the WTO meeting, said Hctor de la Cueva, spokesman for the Mexican Network of Action Against Free Trade.
Among the Mexican NGOs coordinating the protests and other events to take place in the streets and squares of Cancun, whose representatives have been in the city for over a month, differences have arisen in the past few days with respect to what format the protests should take.
''I believe the majority of the civil society organisations do not want to derail the meeting, but would like to push the WTO onto a more equitable track to ensure a globalisation process that is closer to the people,'' said Pria, the Mexican government official.
Spokespersons for conservative Mexican President Vicente Fox say freedom of speech is guaranteed in Cancun, but warn that any attempt to shut down the conference will be blocked.
Jones, at the Mexican Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, said most of the activists reject violence.
But, he added, if the clashes with police had not taken place in Seattle and at later international meetings, ''the governments would not have felt the pressure and urgent need to listen to these groups.''
The majority of the NGOs describe themselves as ''peaceful'', and share the common denominator of questioning the present model of globalisation, despite the fact that the tools the activists have used to make their movement an international one, such as the Internet, emerged from the globalisation process itself.
In the past 30 years, civil society has gone from being a mere concept to an organised movement with enormous influence around the world, Jones noted.
Many of the groups present this week in Cancun have also regularly taken part in the World Social Forum, which has drawn critics of the current globalisation model to the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in January or February over the past three years to discuss alternatives to unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.
''In the constellation of NGOs, there are all kinds of interests and strategies, but the ones that draw the most attention from the media are certain violent groups, which discredit the movement,'' said Jones.