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Recapping the World Social Forum

The World Social Forum celebrated its ninth reunion in Belem, Brazil in the Amazonian state of Pará from January 26 to February 1, 2009. A lot of expectations are piled on to this peculiar event. 91,000 delegates registered, a majority from Brazil, and probably a majority well under 35 years old. But there are hundreds of regular attendees, folks from India, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Japan, Ecuador, Bolivia, France, Senegal, and dozens of other countries, giving the global south an ample representation. Notably few in number were Americans from the U.S., which I considered something of a relief. There are many representatives of major and minor NGOs and a healthy number of old-style socialist militants too.

The event is a big chaotic mess. It took place on two university campuses, the Federal University of Pará and the Federal Rural University of Pará, separated by about a mile and a half that you could theoretically walk, but most people took the free bus, paid a dollar for a regular bus ride, or took a taxi for about 4-6 dollars. There was also a crazy “put-put” ferry system of small wooden boats that ran from one campus to the other on the Guamá River, which was exotic and fun until you arrived and were stuck for a half hour while the skipper maneuvered his boat into the overcrowded dock area, trying to get a tiny corner to let his passengers out. The Forum program was over 135 pages, mostly small print on large newsprint sheets, listing over 2,000 workshops and roundtables and meetings. In fact, the program was deemed useless by many attendees, as the events were listed at the wrong times, wrong places, and most people I spoke with learned that few of the events they were interested in or in some cases, presenting, were listed at all. (This was true of the three workshops held by Ecologia Urbana of Sao Paolo, one of which was my Nowtopia talk, none of which were listed in the official program.)

This banner was planted alongside the road on the UFRA campus, but I never saw any of the folks behind it (typically, you could find signs and indications without information on how to meet the people).

This banner was planted alongside the road on the UFRA campus, but I never saw any of the folks behind it (typically, you could find signs and indications without information on how to meet the people).

A discussion on urban reform and a much-cited idea, "The Right to the City."

A discussion on urban reform and a much-cited idea, "The Right to the City."

Random snapshot of delegates at Urban Reform talk.

Random snapshot of delegates at Urban Reform talk.

Behind the scenes there are several organizational efforts, an administrative office that runs most of the time from Sao Paolo, and is horribly understaffed and overworked. There is also a mysterious International Committee (IC), which is some kind of self-selecting group with representatives from many parts of the world, and many different organizations, but seems to be unaccountable and lacking in transparency. Apparently this IC makes the decisions about where and when the WSF will be held, and what the theme and scope of it will be, and has some say over how the “movement of movements” is brought together and given space to produce all the workshops and discussions and performances that made up the four days of the event. The Brazilian government says it spent $13 million to support the event with extra security in Belem (the city was chock full of police and military), and in subsidizing the facilities, some travel expenses for various delegations, and more. (Though I was in daily contact with some folks who were insiders, it remained opaque and difficult to understand what exactly the process of self-governance was.)

The big theme of this one was the Amazon, with the first day dedicated to presentations and workshops and performances by and about the people of the Amazon and its rich resources. A major effort was made to integrate the Indians from all the nine countries in the region, and to foreground the questions of native people’s rights, resistance to dam construction and deforestation, and a celebration of diverse cultures and different stages of development. The global economic crisis was of course an elephant in the room too, but the gathering was not capable of a coherent response to that. I heard a rumor of some discussions and meetings going on towards the conclusion that involved various tribal leaders and some of the IC, seeking ideas on different ways to structure a democratic process going forward, perhaps drawing on experiences of Amazonian tribal cultures to help invent some new political forms. Jai Sen of the Indian group India Institute for Critical Action Centre in Movement (CACIM), told me about having a great meeting privately with some Indian chiefs from Rondônia (far west of Amazonia), primarily getting to know them and hear what their issues are, how they see this historic moment.”¦

Trying to summarize this event is impossible. As I left I spent some hours poring over the newspapers that were published during the last days of the Forum. There I learned a lot about the politicians and the official proclamations, the “real news” that occurred in Belem, and got something of an overview of developments. But the overwhelming sensation during the four days was of being in a sprawling political summer camp. The official meetings were far less significant than the endless serendipitous encounters that were nonstop. On the campuses, in the hallways, cafes, and restaurants, and along the waterfront at other establishments far removed from the official sites, meetings and parties continued without a break. Encounters with strangers was the norm, but it was also the case that various friends who had been at previous World Social Forums set up regular gathering points. I gravitated to Jai Sen’s convergence at the Restaurant Palafita (a place on stilts over the River, near the historic center), where many delegates spent the evenings dining and drinking and occasionally dancing. My pal Jeff Conant and his colleague Marcela Olivera from Cochabamba (Food & Water Watch), as well as Javier Taks (Red Temática de Medio Ambiente) from Montevideo, (all involved in what I think they called the Rede Vida, or Life Network) were primarily focused on presenting water issues and building political coalitions to push for water-as-commons. They came to the Palafita many nights too.

View from the ferry moving from UFPA to UFRA.

View from the ferry moving from UFPA to UFRA.

Libyan leader Qaddafi had his own distribution guy with books on a cloth...

Libyan leader Qaddafi had his own distribution guy with books on a cloth...

I was lucky because I had Thiago from the Sao Paolo office of the Forum who helped me and my pals get an apartment, got me a press credential, and generally made a complicated situation pretty comfortable and manageable for us. Meanwhile, he was working about 14+ hours a day and was holding up surprisingly well in spite of having so many people making so many demands on him. His Paulista pals from Ecologia Urbana befriended me, as did a number of cyclists from Brasilia and Belem itself, so I had a great time hanging out during and after the Forum with Brazilian Critical Mass (Bicicletada) cyclists.

A women's rights discussion.

A women's rights discussion.

Not sure what point these cavewomen were making in front of the media center, but they were visually quite entertaining! (They reminded me a lot of women's street theater I filmed in 1988 in Sao Paolo.)

Not sure what point these cavewomen were making in front of the media center, but they were visually quite entertaining! (They reminded me a lot of women's street theater I filmed in 1988 in Sao Paolo.)

Rooaaaarrr!

Rooaaaarrr!

I had a number of random encounters that really enriched my visit. Berto walked up and started talking to me in great English as we got off the Po-po ferry from one campus to the other. He lives in a city of about 100,000 near Belem (Belem itself is 1.5 million!) and is quite involved in political efforts to save the Amazon. He was so warm and curious, like many locals I met at the World Social Forum. They were having the time of their lives!

Berto, a Paranense who warmly chatted me up as we got off the ferry.

Berto, a Paranense who warmly chatted me up as we got off the ferry.

On the Cotijuba tractor ride I chatted with Diego, another local with a real enthusiasm for languages, who had a sweet idiosyncratic English. He was with a couple of Swedes and a boisterous local woman. He’d had a lot of trouble finding what he was looking for at the WSF” the most common lament. Johanna from Sweden explained to me that her visit had been a bad use of her time from her employer’s point of view. She said she could have been getting work done all week at her job” she was happy for the vacation-like trip, but didn’t expect to go again to the WSF, and she would suggest to her employer not to send anyone” but I didn’t find out who she worked for” some Swedish NGO I presume. I met Elizabeth from Portland on the first leg of my flight home. She came with her boyfriend unaffiliated with any organization (he’s involved in sustainable furniture, she works in childcare), and she was very frustrated by her experience in Belem. Typically, they couldn’t find anything and when they did find the place where something was supposed to be, it was often cancelled or moved. My Sao Paolo friends lamented the wide dispersion over two separate campuses, so if something you attended didn’t turn out, it was hard to switch to something else because it would be miles away.

I had an interesting, brief chat with a German parliamentarian, Sascha Raabe (SPD-Frankfurt), while waiting in the interminable line at the Belem airport. I gave him a brief account of Nowtopia and he was quick to affirm that we have different politics, but as the conversation continued, we managed to make it interesting for us both anyway. After being separated in mid-discussion he really wanted to finish his point about why water can’t just be free” because people waste it like crazy” and it set me off on a whole thought process later about my own dogma regarding money. As he was describing it, clearly he’s seeing it as a feedback mechanism with regard to scarce resources. I agree we need some way to encourage more conservationist behavior and negative consequences for profligacy are probably always going to be useful.

Typical milling about on the streets of the UFRA campus.

Typical scene on the streets of the UFRA campus.

My friends who’d been at previous World Social Forums told me this was the first one to be explicitly anti-capitalist. Previous ones had been focused on anti-neoliberalism but hadn’t been comprehensively anticapitalist. I briefly met Walden Bello there, thanks to Teivo, one of the insiders in the International Committee. I noticed that David Harvey was speaking but I didn’t make it to the workshops where he was supposed to speak (I wanted to say howdy, since he’s my daughter’s thesis advisor). The big South American “left-wing” presidents held a summit during the WSF. Brazil’s Lula hosted Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador). All agreed that neoliberalism is to blame for the global financial crisis and together they declared the end of the dictatorship of the “Market-God,” and the necessity of a common exit from the crisis for South American countries. Lula cemented his role as the favorite of U.S. rulers by arguing for free trade and against tariffs and domestic trade barriers. Burnishing his national populism at the same time as he defended free trade, he specifically criticized an Obama announcement to use only U.S.-made steel in public works projects. All of this was on the January 31 edition of Público, a daily paper put out by “F.S.M. Communicāo” which given its broad left and popular tone, including interesting essays from academics, seems to have been a project of the Social Forum, or at least a part of it.

On the cover is a big picture of Lula with the headline “Lula demands end to commercial barriers,” while below the fold the Governor of the state of Pará where the Forum was held, Ana Julia Carepa, is seen at a press conference announcing plans to plant one billion trees in a major reforestation program in her state. I was pretty surprised to read her comments going well beyond anything I ever heard from a Brazilian politician regarding the Amazon or Indians. She publicly declared the Amazon is an indigenous territory with a rich biodiversity. “The view of the Amazon as a green hell devoid of people doesn’t correspond to the truth. There are already 20 million residents and these people have relations among themselves. In other words, the Amazon has people!” To govern an Amazonian state like Pará is challenging, first by its geographic size, then by the pressure of agribusiness and exploration for forest and mineral resources, she said. “It is a predatory and neocolonial economic model implanted here since the second half of the 20th century””¦ She highlighted her administration’s commitment to construct a new model of development for the Amazon, pushed by struggles and social movements that, embedded in the agenda of the World Social Forum, daring to accept the imperative to construct another world. “Sustainable Amazon” the challenge of the future: strategies of local development in the context of a global crisis” was the theme of the first roundtable of the Local Authorities Forum which took place just before the World Social Forum (there was a parallel and overlapping gathering of the Local Authorities Forum of the Amazon).

Clearly the presence of the World Social Forum creates a lot of momentum that pushes local politicians to at least look like they’re doing something! A friend who was part of the follow-up International Committee meeting on Feb. 2 told how the day had been dominated for some hours by a major fight over the Forum’s next location. African delegates had been promised it two years ago, and it’s likely to be in Dakar, Senegal. But some Brazilians and others, imagining that Obama would be an enthusiastic supporter of the Forum, and that the presence of the WSF would push him to the left, urged the IC to consider instead the U.S. as the next host. It’s a nonstarter of course, given the ridiculously restrictive visa system enforced by the U.S. now, but beyond that, the political fantasy that Obama is somehow with the movement of movements you could see in Belem is simply bizarre.

This camp provided a central gathering point for a lot of local hippies, but more importantly, a number of Nowtopian-like initiatives, countercultural practices that weren't as prominent as typical leftist demands and iconography.

This camp provided a central gathering point for a lot of local hippies, but more importantly, a number of Nowtopian-like initiatives, countercultural practices that weren't as prominent as typical leftist demands and iconography.

A Free Seed exchange at the Peace Camp.

A Free Seed exchange at the Peace Camp.

An Agroecology campsite.

An Agroecology campsite.

Couldn't follow the discussion, but the camp dwellers seemed to be solving some kind of problem as I passed by.

Couldn't follow the discussion, but the camp dwellers seemed to be solving some kind of problem as I passed by.

A permaculture demonstration hut from afar.

A permaculture demonstration hut from afar.

The same permaculture hut closer.

The same permaculture hut closer.

Joāo Pedro Stédile, coordinator of the global peasant organization Via Campesina and member of the National Directorate of the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento Sem Terra” MST) attacked the left presidents for supporting banks and capitalists more than the people, for too much lip service and not any real action. The crisis is hitting South America, too, of course, and it shows how integrated the economies are with the world. Neoliberalism is still very influential in terms of shaping a debate that leaves politicians on the defensive whenever they try to invest in or expand the public sectors (unless it’s to surreptitiously bolster certain private interests). Stédile said at a January 29 press conference “The Amazonian populations have to counterpose a popular project; to recover the sovereignty of the people over the Amazon’s wealth; to renationalize [the big mining company] Vale so they don’t mess with forest anymore. We of the MST defend zero deforestation. From here on out, no tree should fall. In the degraded areas, we demand agrarian reform, land distribution to rural workers, and to make reforestation programs as well as new agriculture that doesn’t depend on deforestation.”

In another interesting article Amanda Meta reported on a demonstration in Belem by representatives of schools, NGOs and social movements in Paraguay, Ecuador and Bolivia against Brazilian multinationals like Petrobrás and Odebrecht (both supported by the Lula government via National Bank of Economic and Social Development subsidies), claiming they are directly responsible for environmental and social damages in their countries. Interesting that my friends at Ecologia Urbana also had a panel dedicated to exposing Petrobrás, Brazil’s national oil company, as a murderous corporation. Petrobrás sent over a dozen employees to the gathering to denounce the criticism being leveled at them, but Ze Paolo of Ecologia Urbana was prepared. He had his credentials in order (a Ph.D. in economics) and he used Petrobrás’s own statistics from their annual report to make his case. By the end of the meeting, though a number of the oil workers left unconvinced and remained hostile to the Paulista ecologists, the company’s chief greenwasher, a woman responsible for their public relations, offered to help Ecologia Urbana! We’ll see if that was sincere or not in the months and years to come. (It doesn’t seem impossible to me that someone in that role sincerely might want to help “the opposition”; if you have to lie for your job everyday and you know it, you might want to make amends or get even at some point”¦ Of course she might have been disingenuous and only trying to manipulate them.)

Another newspaper was also published regularly at the World Social Forum” TerraViva which in the trilingual edition I have, starts with a hilarious editorial in Portu-Spanglish, or is it Spanglinol? In it the iconography and rhetoric of the left was rather prominent, but there is also a tone of self-critical urgency. Ultimately the WSF raises a lot of hope and expectations that there could be some kind of unified political movement that helps organize the many disparate and local efforts that dot the planet. If Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest is right, then there are more than a million organizations worldwide that share a basic purpose of trying to repair the planet’s ecology, to alter the way we live on earth. The World Social Forum invites people to come and then leaves us all hanging, because there both is and isn’t a center, a place where the diverse thinking and acting can somehow congeal into a coherent set of proposals to move everyone forward in a new, comprehensive and radically new direction.

Brazilian and U.S. rappers found a home too.

Brazilian and U.S. rappers found a home too.

My own frustration over the call for a Global Labour Charter is perhaps indicative of the underlying dynamics. The old left in its institutional form (unions or parties) shows up and meets with professional NGO staffers, and together they shape a conversation that is rooted in several decades of institutional evolution. The problem, predictably, is that they cannot wrap their heads around a deep break with the framework they’ve worked so hard to establish. The conversation at the meeting I attended led me to write my rant a couple of posts back. Interestingly, the network on Labour & Globalization published a 10-point summary that is actually more sophisticated and nuanced than anything I heard at the meeting. Perhaps outside of the open space in which various national trade union reps aired out their parochial positions, a deeper conversation took place in private afterwards.

Points 7, 8 and 9 of the summary lay out these complementary (and contradictory) ideas:

7.) L&G Network members agree that the climate change crisis will change the way people live and work. Trade unions must develop pro-active campaigns on climate change or decisions will be made by corporations and government without participation by workers and their organizations.

On the next one, #8, the old defensive posture is reiterated: “A top priority for participants in the L&G Network debate has been to defend existing jobs; to promote shared work where necessary through the reduction of workweek without loss of pay; and to demand the creation of new jobs. Job creation programs must focus on sustainable employment such as “green jobs” and jobs in public and social services.” The problem here is that existing jobs ARE THE PROBLEM! Sharing dumb, destructive work is no solution. Nor is demanding that capital provide more jobs. Jobs Don’t Work! Even sustainable “green jobs” still reinforce the basic subordination to capital and the initiative of the monied to determine what work gets done, how and by whom. Aren’t we ready to jettison this insane system that leaves even the organized working class as passive spectators of their own lives?

In #9, the summary statement credits network participants for demanding more public investment for social security and social protection programs” which is hard to be against in a situation where millions are being disemployed and lives are being routinely destroyed. But the most hopeful avenue out of this impasse might lie in the last sentence in this section:  “A more inclusive social and solidarity economy also has been identified as a possible common goal of all existing forms of work, included informal and autonomous ones.” Funny that it is presented almost as an afterthought, when it ought to be the front and center of any agenda for human liberation with respect to our capacity to reproduce life with our shared labor.

Whenever the WSF itself lost my interest, I could always walk into the nearby forest.

Whenever the WSF itself lost my interest, I could always walk into the nearby forest.

I was reading Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy along the way, a really great book. He’s making a basic degrowth argument without using that term much, and like a lot of folks these days he wants to be positive about alternative currency ideas, seeing money as a mechanism of social exchange that can be made to serve other purposes than capital accumulation. I remain skeptical about that, but it was funny that he also admitted that most alternative currency schemes so far have only worked in college towns and mostly only for getting things like massages. I appreciated many of his practical examples, from the growth of local agriculture and farmers’ markets (and the useful work they require) to the invention of a bicycle-powered food processing device in Guatemala. He also understands that our era is one of extreme atomization, and any chance for radical politics will require new networks to emerge: “By some surveys, three-quarters of Americans confess that they don’t know their next-door neighbors. That’s a novel condition for primates; it will take a while to repair those networks.”

Getting to know one’s planetary neighbors through the World Social Forum is a good beginning. Far from sufficient, it is a necessary precondition for the emergence of a new kind of political agency, one that can reinvent political and economic life outside the pernicious logic that traps us now. I’m curious to hear what initiatives emerge from the many invisible networks that have been meeting and consolidating themselves in the spaces opened up by the Forum.

Some talented stencil artists were making themselves heard during the WSF too.

Some talented stencil artists were making themselves heard during the WSF too.

Waiting out the daily rain on Feb. 1 at Prédio Central.

Waiting out the daily rain on Feb. 1 at Prédio Central.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5VLp5RbjEI&feature=related]

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