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Another World Is Possible

(by Cynthia Peters, ZMAG)

For social change activists, the idea that another world is possible underscores everything we do—every neighborhood meeting, every demonstration, every debate, every letter-writing campaign, every boycott, every civil disobedience, every effort to mobilize others and ourselves. But it’s not often that this private premise becomes public slogan, as it was in Porto Alegre last month when 50,000 people from around the world gathered in Brazil for the World Social Forum (WSF).

Broadcast on banners across the city, featured in demonstrations, and prominent in conference literature, the idea that democratic grassroots organizations could create a new world was the theme that brought activists together to share information, build international connections, and learn from each other’s struggles.

The second annual World Social Forum, held from January 31 to February 5, 2002, is the progressive reply to the World Economic Forum (WEF)—what Corp- watch’s Kenny Bruno calls “a cocktail party on steroids for elite business and political leaders”— held this year at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. In contrast to the upscale, invitation-only WEF, held in the symbolic and real-life heart of global capitalism, the WSF was an open meeting, hosted by a city in the global south where the dominant Workers’ Party has run the city government for 12 years, reduced poverty, crime, and corruption, and developed a participatory decision making process for determining how the city budget should be spent.

While the well-appointed ballrooms, dining halls, and hotel suites in New York City helped coax $100 million from the pockets of only 3000 WEF attendees, WSF participants turned gymnasiums, convents, and open parks into sleeping and eating quarters, and used every hotel room in the vicinity. The decor and spirit in Porto Alegre centered around the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevara, whose image was emblazoned on graffiti walls, T-shirts and pins and whose own words echoed the very deepest hopes of the forum: What matters “is the decision to struggle, which matures every day, the consciousness of the need for revolutionary change, and the certainty that it is possible.”

Part conference, part celebration, part protest, the WSF is designed to build international solidarity among those fighting the effects of neoliberal economic policy and the stranglehold of World Bank and IMF mandates designed to shape third world economies to service debt rather than meet human needs. Speakers representing grassroots organizations from all over the world, their speeches simultaneously translated into French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish, addressed audiences on international trade, food security, indigenous peoples, sustainable environment, health, water, and patents. Hundreds of small-scale workshops gave participants a chance to talk to each other, share experiences, and plan ways to link their struggles.

In addition to WSF workshops, several “parallel conferences” sprang up around the city, including about 10,000 youth who pitched camp in a nearby park. They slept in tents, met under temporary shelters, conducted workshops, cooked, set up their own radio station, and celebrated until dawn. It was at the youth camp that some 70 representatives of Indy Media (www.indymedia. org) from around the world, met in person for the first time to coordinate their fast-growing international network of activists dedicated to producing independent Internet, print, radio, and video news coverage of world events.

Some 2,000 peasants involved in the network of landless workers’ movements called Via Camp- esina cooked meals and slept in a gymnasium. During the day, they attended events in a nearby auditorium, sharing strategies about how to fight land enclosures, and build successful squatters movements and land takeovers. Movimento Sem Terra (MST)—Brazil’s Landless Wor- kers’ Movement—is perhaps one of the most successful grassroots movements in Latin America. In a country where less than 3 percent of the population owns two-thirds of Brazil’s arable land, the MST has settled over 300,000 families and helped them win land titles to over 15 million acres. Joco Pedro Stedile, the leader of the MST, notes that their greatest success is not only that hundreds of thousands of peasants no longer go hungry, but also that they have won a measure of power and dignity.

Although women were frequently underrepresented on panels and in workshops, gender politics emerged in various ways. Perhaps most noticeable was the feminist response to religious and market fundamentalism worldwide. “Your mouth,” said the huge banners hung in the university courtyard, is “fundamental against fundamentalisms.” Women were stationed throughout the university handing out glossy cards with the option to “scratch and win.” This was no lottery, however. Scratch off the surface and you reveal a woman’s mouth, which we are advised to use to speak up. “When the right wins, women lose their rights.”

Special sessions at 6:00 every evening featured “Women’s Voices Against Fundamentalism,” and included testimonials from representatives of Brazil’s National Federation of Domestic Workers, Afghanistan’s Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Algeria’s international network of Women Living Under Islamic Law, and the U.S.’s Arkansas Women’s Project. There were also special workshops for women farmers, and on domestic violence and the international traffic in women and children.

One interesting aspect of the WSF was the effort to create cross-continental ties among Africans and those of African descent. At a special conference organized by the Afro-Brazilian Committee and the African Social Forum, panelists asserted the importance of reparations for victims of colonialism and slavery, the need for quality education and for accurate histories that tell the truth about Africa and Africans in the Diaspora, as well as the need to eliminate racist depictions of Africans in the media. Meanwhile, indigenous people from several continents called for the elimination of racism worldwide, including the protection of native languages, culture, and political autonomy. Neoliberal economic policy extends the 500-year history of genocide against native peoples by creating economic conditions that undermine communities, force people to move to cities in search of work, and result in the dissolution of family and community ties.

It would be a mistake to construe the WSF as a defensive we-can- meet-too response to the WEF. In fact, “Porto Alegre has left the World Economic Forum in the dust,” according to conference delegate Joshua Karliner. “We don’t need them. Our message, our concerns are more comprehensive. We want to create alternatives, not just to neo-liberalism, but also to various types of fundamentalism and un-democratic governments.” Indeed, the WSF moved significantly beyond claiming a better world is possible to actually envisioning what that better world might be.

Limiting markets and protecting resources from corporate control were frequent themes. Declaring, “life is not for sale” and posing a direct challenge to government and corporate claims to patents on life, biotech activists from around the world launched the Porto Alegre Treaty to Share the Genetic Commons. The treaty establishes the earth’s gene pool as common property that cannot be bought or sold by any individual or institution.

Similarly, water is a social good that should not be bought and sold. Medha Patkar, from the Movement of Displaced People’s Against the Narmada Dam in India, believes that “water is a right of the people” and “we should demand the best management of it from the public administrations.” Yet, instead, thousands of dams are being built in countries like Vietnam, China, and India as a result of agreements among governments, the World Bank, and investors whose only concern is to exploit resources for profit with no concern for people or the environment. Along with anti-dam activists from all over the world, Patkar is calling for a new way of looking at natural resources—as part of the common good, not private property to be owned and doled out according to market principles.

In one workshop, packed with hundreds of participants, the theme “A better family is possible,” prevailed, with panelists discussing ways to construct and support alternatives to the nuclear family model.

A major panel on “solidarity economics” brought together activists from Spain, Brazil, France, Argentina, and Peru, all of whom work in organizations dedicated to building alternatives to neoliberal economic policy. The idea of solidarity economics is to generate diverse grassroots experiments in cooperatives and other new arrangements, all trying to create production and consumption methods that produce not only goods, but also solidarity among economic actors.

This year’s WSF also featured testimonial from Z Magazine/ ZNet’s Michael Albert who detailed the basic principles of participatory economics—self-management, diversity, equity, and solidarity (see www.parecon.org.)

In addition to envisioning a better world, the WSF creates a forum for activists to develop a concerted strategy for winning. Canadian writer and anti-corporate globalization activist Naomi Klein cautioned against the WSF becoming too dominated by “talk” at the expense of developing shared agendas for contesting power. Colombian activist Hector Mondra- gon argued that the thousands of organizations and individuals attending the WSF should work towards developing “points of unity,” common strategies, and concrete ways of providing solidarity to each other. Mondragon reminds us that the WEF elite don’t get together to share experiences, but to plan further gains and to consolidate their power.

There was a lot of talk at the World Social Forum—more progressive speeches, debates, exchanges, and roundtables compressed into four days than most of are exposed to in four years. But that wasn’t all. There were two large demonstrations—the opening march of about 40,000, and the culminating FTAA protest of about 10,000. Throughout the week, there were spontaneous demonstrations. At the forum’s opening and closing ceremonies, there was theater, a dance troupe of Brazilian street children, music, fireworks, hot air balloons, and parties that lasted all night.

One of those parties was just breaking up at 5:30 AM when about 1,000 people arrived at the banks of Lake Guamba for an ecumenical Sunday morning prayer service. In the dark just before dawn, with a light rain falling, Frei Betto—the Brazilian liberation theologist—reminded us that we stood poised at the edge of daylight. “This is the moment when night changes to day,” he said, and he invoked the many struggles that activists all over the world and throughout history have fought and won, that have moved us from symbolic night to day.

The World Social Forum 2002, and the social change movements that it inspired and strengthened, takes us a long way away from the night—the “cocktail parties on steroids” for the rich at the expense of everyone else—toward the day—when cooperation, solidarity, justice, participatory self-management, prioritizing human needs and rights, and a true celebration of human diversity become the fundamental building blocks of a better world. Which truly is possible.

(Cynthia Peters is a writer and activist; she is also director of Boston’s East Timor Action Network.)

 

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