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Issue 32

World Social Forum 2005
By Benjamin Dangl

Maybe it had to do with the beer, or the heady mixture of languages, or the humidity, but it felt like something unique was growing out of the sweaty discussions and incessant drum circles. It wasn’t the same energy one feels at a large protest or indoor activist conference, and it was more than a tropical version of Woodstock. There was a feeling at the fifth annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil that something extraordinary was happening.

In this week-long party of ideas and networking, another world seemed very possible. But when such an event occurs, it’s hard not to wonder what will happen when everyone goes home. What went wrong at this international crossroads? And where might it go from here?

A key ingredient in this globalized stew was face-to-face conversation with like-minded people from around the globe. At a time when communication is dominated by cell phones, television and the Internet, 200,000 people congregated in one city just to talk with each other. There were Indian students sitting under trees conversing with aging members of Brazil’s Workers Party, Argentineans sharing maté (a thick herbal tea) around campfires with Canadian media activists and North Americans listening to stories of water privatization from Ghanaians.

“You always leave the World Social Forum with more than you arrived with,” Pupi Palero, a member of a program in Mendoza, Argentina that works with micro-credit for women, said. She has been to the WSF in Porto Alegre four times. “Sure, there are people who go to the forum and then just leave and do nothing. Others are inspired to work more. Like me, on a personal level the forums gave me a lot of hope, and after going to the first forum in 2001, I realized I had to do something, so I began working more with organizing and activism in Mendoza.”

For many participants, the forum is all about global networking. “You can run into a large amount of diversity, and people from all over with information about anti-capitalist politics, human rights and the environment and so on,” Jimena*, from Cordoba, Argentina, said. “But, more than the conferences, it offers a chance to meet people and talk with them about the different themes important to them, get to know what the problems are from their country and region, get contacts and organize for specific actions and programs.”

The WSF was founded in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil to parallel the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering of business and political leaders. Whereas those at the Davos forum believe the world can be improved through free market business deals, the WSF is a process of seeking and building alternatives to neoliberal policies. Four of the five social forums have been held in Porto Alegre. Last year it was in Bombay, India and this year it was back in Brazil during the last week in January. From day one of the WSF, activists of all ages arrived in Porto Alegre. Some traveled in bus or plane; others hitchhiked.

A space for the democratic exchanges of ideas and experiences, the WSF is home to panels and workshops led by intellectuals and representatives from social movements and civil society groups from around the globe. Previous participants include Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and Naomi Klein. The events are organized around the WSF slogan, “Another World is Possible.” This other world is meant to be one without war, injustice, racism, and economic inequality.

For all of its colorful topics and variety, the instant gratification of the forum left some people wondering how much they were actually learning. “It is contradictory that you get a lot of information, exchanges and experience in such a short time,” explained Leo Kuehberger, a PhD student from Austria and author of the book We Make History about the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy. “For example, if I wanted to understand the experience of factory workers in my town it takes months, years. So can I really understand that much in a week at the social forum?”

The 2005 WSF didn’t come without its faults. For example, workshops were often canceled or relocated without any prior announcement, translators sometimes never showed up, or a band played next to the tent, drowning out the speaker. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, some of the best aspects of the forum were not the organized events, they were the informal talks people were able to have day and night with each other on topics ranging from Bush’s re-election to alternative media in Patagonia.

The forum was comprised mainly of tents and buildings, some of them mildly air conditioned, situated along the beach of the Guaiba River. In the middle of the WSF expanse was the city’s Harmony Park, home to the International Youth Camp, an event organized to provide cheap accommodation and youth oriented activities for WSF activists. Some 35,000 people stayed at the camp, which was full of non-stop discussions, debates, film screenings, partying and music.

The Youth Camp, because of its central location and festive atmosphere, was the life of the party. Yet the energy of both events fed off of each other. “There are so many young people here, and the WSF produces an incredible awareness in them,” Paolo*, student from Porto Alegre commented. “They’re the ones who will be the intellectuals and leaders in the future. The forum allows youth to interact with the most imminent intellectuals of the left, who are able to pass their experience and knowledge on to younger people. It is an experience that will stay with them forever.”

Other aspects of the forum were more problematic. “One huge issue at the WSF was gender dynamics,” Nadja Millner-Larsen, a recent graduate from New York’s Bard College, said. “There was an enormous lack of women on the panels at the social forum. I attended this one panel on the anti globalization movement and at the end of it a lot of women stood up and said, ‘How can we create another world when we don’t have healthy gender dynamics in these panels?’”

“Some of the men said, ‘Okay, we should pay attention to this.’ But others on the panel had this age-old response that been going on in the left since the sixties. They said, well, classes aren’t equally represented, nor race, therefore you shouldn’t be so outraged by the underrepresentation of women.”

“This is skirting around the issue,” Millner-Larsen continued. “If a black person in a white audience asked why there aren’t black people on a panel, the speakers wouldn’t say, ‘Relax there aren’t any women either.’ Here we are thirty years later and we are still arguing class and gender against women … it’s shocking. To allow this unequal gender distribution to be sanctioned within the official forum obviously has this kind of trickle down effect in the youth camp.”

In addition to hundreds of robberies and numerous fights in the Youth Camp, rapes were reported there as well. “There was a high level of violence in the Youth Camp, Millner-Larsen explained. I felt more scared there than I really have traveling anywhere else. I got the sense that being alone in the camp was a really dangerous thing.”

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

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