Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Alternative world forum pushes for U.N. development goals

The San Francisco Chronicle  Saturday, January 29, 2005


Porto Alegre, Brazil - While the world's business and political elite hobnob at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos, an alternative forum half a world away is separated by more than just distance.

The fifth annual World Social Forum -- the progressives' answer to Davos -- has drawn 100,000 activists from 4,000 nongovernmental organizations and 112 countries to this modern port city.

"It's inspiring," said Maija Nilson, a 23-year-old Swede who works for a nongovernmental organization in Chile that helps poor children. "It gives you strength to keep working." The World Social Forum began in Porto Alegre in 2001 at the height of the anti-globalization movement, when opposing free trade, unfettered capitalism and the power of multinational corporations was at the top of the agenda.

This year's forum, held under the theme "Another World Is Possible," is urging people around the world to press for adherence to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, which aim to cut poverty in half by 2015. The gathering started Wednesday and ends Monday.

"We think in this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country," said Dieter Eich of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. "Brazilian unions dealing with a German company are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if German unions also apply pressure, it can have a lot of impact."

Participants have decried the plight of 27 million people working in slavelike conditions across the world and are voicing concern over child labor, citing International Labor Organization figures showing that 352 million children under 16 are working around the globe. Among them, 187 million are between the ages of 5 and 14.

Forum activists are struggling to determine not only what they are against but also what they are for. The plethora of cultures, ideologies and agendas defies easy categorization.

A panel made up of representatives from tsunami-stricken countries want richer nations to write off their debt. Vinod Raina, a representative from India, said canceling debt would do more good than issuing cash advances that must be paid back with interest.

A delegation of German unions wants to bridge the historical gap between workers in wealthy and poor countries, said Eich. The Italian Green Party proposed buying the Amazon rain forest in order to save it.

Attendees range from Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Nobel laureates Jose Saramago of Portugal and Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina to more than 100 members of indigenous tribes from Latin America, Asia and Africa. As at Davos, the Porto Alegre forum is about networking -- exchanging experiences and business cards.

The forum is also a time to reaffirm alliances, share strategies and perform at cultural events. At last year's forum, held in Bombay, an anti- armament street theater drew large crowds, said Sauro Scarpelli, who heads Amnesty International's campaign to control conventional weapons. "It's not the kind of thing we would do in London," he said.

The opening-day parade Wednesday set the tone, when tens of thousands of people wound through city streets before converging in a central park. Indigenous leaders clad in feathers and body paint chatted with university students wearing Che Guevara T-shirts. Banners advertised agendas: "Against the war and against capitalism," "Education is inclusion," and "Tourism is predatory."

Many participants here noted the lack of a strong North American presence. Canadian political scientist Elizabeth Smythe attributes the paucity of Americans and Canadians to a culture that "deliberately tries to depoliticize inequality." But Glenn Switkes, director of Latin American Campaigns for the Berkeley- based International Rivers Network, was hard at work this week trying to convince Brazilian miners that electrical energy projects and dam construction would threaten their communities and the environment. The miners told him that job creation was more important.

"Meetings like this are great," said Switkes, "but it's a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grassroots." Jurema Werneck, a 43-year-old physician from Rio who has attended every World Social Forum since 1991, concedes that social change is a slow process. But she firmly believes the forum plays a crucial role in improving the world.

"Things would be worse if we didn't do this," she said. "We have to keep fighting."

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