Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Global counterforum draws over 100,000 social activists

Chicago Tribune  January 29, 2005

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil -- The exclusive ski resort of Davos, Switzerland, is on the other side of the globe from the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. This week, both are host to conferences of people trying to change the world.

The two could hardly be more different. While the World Economic Forum in Davos is filled with business elites hoping to hobnob with Bill Gates, Bill Clinton or Bono, the World Social Forum conference in Porto Alegre is for everybody else. Since Wednesday, more than 100,000 activists, agitators, intellectuals and trade unionists from scores of countries have gathered in Brazil to spend six days talking about how to save the world, or at least to try to figure out where to begin.

Created five years ago as the left's answer to the Davos gathering, Porto Alegre now has its celebrities too. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke the first day of the conference, announcing his endorsement for a global campaign to end poverty. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is arriving Saturday and will visit Brazilian poor trying to lay claim to unused land. The forum also has attracted a handful of Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel literature winners and more than 100 indigenous tribes from throughout the world.

Celebrities aside, the core theme of the more than 500 meetings a day is about building bridges between organizations, across nations and disciplines. "We think in this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country," said Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. Just as corporations span many borders and governments negotiate multilateral trade agreements, unions and advocacy groups also must form transborder alliances, he said.

The German unions have sent several delegations to Porto Alegre to try to bridge the gap between workers in wealthy and poor countries, Eich said. "For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply," he said. "But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact."

Sharing strategies

For social activists, the forum is a time to network and share strategies, said Sauro Scarpelli, an Italian who heads Amnesty International's campaign to control conventional weapons. He described his experience at the last forum, held in Bombay, in which he saw how successful local anti-armament groups were in using street theater to attract attention to their cause. "It's not the kind of thing we would do in London," he said. When the World Social Forum began in 2001, it was the height of the anti-globalization movement, and stopping free trade and the power of multinational corporations were at the top of the agenda. These days, those gathered in Porto Alegre are struggling to determine not only what they are against but also what they are for.

The opening-day parade set the tone, which depending one's point of view could be described as diverse or chaotic, optimistic or idealistic. Either way, it was a serious party, as tens of thousands of people wound through the streets before converging in one of the city's central parks. Indigenous tribesmen in feathers and body paint chatted with earnest university students wearing Che Guevara Tshirts. The crowd waved banners with slogans such as "Against the War and Against Capitalism," "Education is Inclusion" and "Tourism is Predatory."

The conference's sessions are as varied as a university curriculum. Among the opening day's offerings: a pan-Latin American panel of farming groups discussing strategies for agrarian reform, a Brazilian-led meeting on women and sustainable development, a meeting of anthropologists on the effect of globalization on human rights and a discussion of racism, sexism and homophobia led by an organization representing black Catholic lesbians.

Post-tsunami debt relief?

While some of the discussions are theoretical, others have urgency. On the first day of the forum representatives from India, Indonesia and other countries affected by the Asian tsunami asked that their nations be granted total debt relief. Canceling out the debt of the affected countries would do far more good in the long term than issuing cash advances that will have to be paid back with interest, said Vinod Raina, the representative from India.

The group, dubbed Jubilee South, said it was concerned that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and individual countries will use the tsunami as an opportunity to saddle the devastated countries with even more interest payments.

While the forum is filled with European intellectuals, Indian trade unionists, African activists and Latin Americans of every stripe, the United States' delegation is modest, composed mostly of longtime antiglobalization non-governmental organizations. Canadian political scientist Elizabeth Smythe, who has attended numerous social forums, attributes the absence of people from the U.S. and Canada to a culture that "deliberately tries to depoliticize inequality."

Another forum veteran, Jurema Werneck, a physician from Rio de Janeiro, admits she sometimes is disheartened at the slow rate of social change and the re-emergence of war and rising inequality. But she still thinks that meetings like the World Social Forum play a crucial role.

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

By Samuel Loewenberg