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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Work Begins on a World of Solidarity

Mario Osava

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 26 2001 (IPS) - The World Social Forum opened Thursday as its hosts launched an appeal for greater social justice and international solidarity, a sentiment underscored by a march of thousands through this Brazilian city, and captured by a throng of 1,600 journalists.

Black women as presidents of Brazil and the United States, and Indians governing Guatemala and Peru, symbolise the equality envisioned for the near future, according to a text read by an actress at the opening ceremonies, which included pulsating African rhythms for a spectacle of banners created by the unemployed and the landless.

The World Social Forum (WSF) opens the possibility of promoting “integration among people and not among merchandise,” said Olivio Dutra, governor of Rio Grande do Sul, as he saluted the delegates of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, social movements and leftist politicians gathered in this southern Brazilian city.

Beginning with this Forum, which is to be held every year, we hope to build “a humanity of greater solidarity, closer to freedom and on its way to equality,” affirmed Tarso Genro, mayor of Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul.

Representatives from more than 120 countries will be meeting in the city through next Tuesday, “to prove that another world is possible,” stated the editor of the French newspaper ‘Le Monde Diplomatique,’ Bernard Cassen, who serves on the organising committee as one of the masterminds behind the event.

The WSF is an attempt to counterbalance the World Economic Forum, which also began Thursday, though across the Atlantic in the Swiss alpine resort city of Davos.

The annual conference there draws corporate executives (from the 1,000 largest transnational firms), financiers and government leaders to debate neoliberal policies that seek to deepen the current globalisation process.

The Porto Alegre conference is an expression of opposition to the “Darwinist vision of human relations and of a society treated like a jungle,” one that is fed by the “neoliberalism of Davos,” maintained governor Dutra.

The realities the WSF must work to change, he said, are the minimum government for the majority while the greater government serves a few powerful groups, and use of technological advances only “to accumulate and concentrate wealth,” instead of improving humanity’s standard of living.

An estimated 2,000 people crowded into the auditorium at the local Catholic University to attend the inaugural session. Beginning tomorrow, 16 panels and 408 workshops will be held, in which participants will discuss a broad range of topics.

The intense applause and shouts of support heard when Cuba was mentioned among the 123 countries participating in the WSF made the leftist orientation of the conference clear.

The enthusiasm can also by explained by the fact that the Party of Workers (PT), Brazil’s leading force of the political left, has governed Porto Alegre for the last two years. Its members include Genro and Dutra, the hosts for this first WSF.

The strongest delegation here is probably the French, in part because of the crucial support ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ has provided the WSF.

But also because France has star representatives, including Danielle Mitterrand, former First Lady of France and current president of the France Liberté Association, and farmer-unionist José Bové, famous for his protests against the globalisation represented by the McDonald’s fast-food chain.

In addition, the French government sent two of its ministers to Porto Alegre, Guy de Hascoet, of the economic solidarity ministry, and François Huwart, of foreign trade.

At a meeting that was clearly left leaning, Oded Grajew, coordinator of the Brazilian Association of Entrepreneurs for the Citizenry, felt right at home. “If only all entrepreneurs were leftists,” he told IPS, saying it is this political sector that fights for social justice and solidarity.

“The world must change its economic development model,” for both social and environmental reasons, observed the businessman, who also heads the Ethos Institute, which calls for greater social responsibility in the business world through taking part in programmes to fight poverty and inequality.

Changing the economic route the world is following “is a question of everyone’s survival,” evidenced by the ecological disaster of rapid global warming, Grajew pointed out.

“We have to accomplish in three or four years what Davos did in 30 years,” stressed Cándido Grzybowski, director-general of the Brazilian Institute of Socio-Economic Analysis, one of the NGOs on the event’s organising committee.

The challenge is not just to counterbalance Davos, but also “to be bold enough to think, to create an affirmative wave of action and a different kind of globalisation,” one that is based on society and sustainable human development, not on the profit- seeking of financial and corporate conglomerates, he explained.

Economic, social and cultural rights, food security, the defining of common ownership – over water, for example -, and the “older issues” like agrarian reform and sustainable cities, will be among the essential matters of “the possible world” that will be discussed over the next five days, and beyond, said Grzybowski.

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