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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Crisis as Opportunity for “Another World”

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 21 2009 (IPS) - A World Social Forum (WSF) revitalised by a global crisis that has awakened new interest in the proposition that “another world is possible” – now perceived as either less utopian or more urgently needed – will take place from Jan. 27 to Feb. 1 in Belém, in northern Brazil.

With the economy in free-fall, a more concrete debate will occur in Belém on “the nature of the crisis” and the model of development, according to Cándido Grzybowski, the head of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE) and one of the original organisers of the WSF.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s decision to attend the WSF in Belém on Jan. 29 and 30, instead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos, Switzerland, reflects a change in the alignment of forces.

This year’s edition of the WEF, which brings together the world’s business, political and cultural élite annually, will be held Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 under the theme “Shape the Post-Crisis World”. The WSF originated as a rival assembly, to protest the WEF’s policies and propose alternatives.

In January 2007, Lula chose to attend the WEF in Davos and skip the 7th WSF in Nairobi, Kenya. It was a gravy-train time of strong global economic growth, soaring commodity prices and plentiful foreign investment in Brazil. The markets seemed to promise prosperity for all.

Now, given the economic, energy, environmental and food crises, the ideas of the WSF appear to be more attractive and realistic.


The choice of Belém, the capital of Pará state and the northeastern gateway to the Amazon jungle region, as this year’s WSF venue, indicates emphasis on environmental and climate issues, as well as social concerns, with the participation of poor and ethnically diverse communities living in the world’s greatest tropical forest and freshwater reserve.

The financial crisis that is causing generalised economic slowdown and, in Brazil and other countries, recession, gives a new dimension to the 9th WSF this year. The World Social Forum started in 2001 as an initiative “to counter the globalisation that is now in crisis,” Grzybowski told IPS.

“A clearer agenda” on alternative development models should emerge from this meeting in Belém, he predicted. Greater “convergence in the debates” is likely, at a forum that has been trying to overcome excessive fragmentation of ideas and actions for several years, he added.

Over 100,000 people are expected to participate in close to 2,600 activities in Belém, including seminars, conferences, assemblies, cultural activities, marches and other forms of debate and demonstrations, as well as parallel meetings for local authorities and at the Intercontinental Youth Camp.

The forum is to end with a “Day of Alliances,” devoted to meetings of coalitions and networks to decide on joint actions. This mechanism is intended to foment links between groups and stimulate active partnerships, an area where little progress was made in previous forums, Grzybowski said.

This year’s WSF is novel simply because it is taking place in the Amazon jungle region, where environmental issues have global effects because it is the planet’s largest reserve of tropical forests, fresh water and biodiversity.

In addition, it will be an opportunity for the voices of indigenous people, quilombolas (Afro-Brazilian communities descended from escaped slaves), riverside dwellers, small-scale extractors of natural products like rubber and nuts, and other Amazon peoples to be raised and heard.

It will probably be the WSF that is best attended so far by grassroots activists and community members, according to Grzybowski. IBASE studies found a majority of university graduates and young people at previous forums.

Amazonian social movements and organisations want to play a “leading role,” discussing local models of development and alternatives, rather than just host the forum, Graça Costa, one of the organisers of the WSF in Belém and the national adviser on gender issues for the non-governmental Federation of Organisations for Social and Educational Assistance (FASE), told IPS.

The voices of “original peoples,” like indigenous communities, will be important, as well as critically questioning the hydroelectric power stations that have major social and environmental impacts on the Amazon region, while the energy they produce goes to outside areas and does not benefit the local population, she said.

The practices of Vale, a giant Brazilian mining company symbolising “the model we do not want,” will be called into question, she said. But it is a heavyweight in the national economy as well as in Pará state, so a discussion on its renationalisation, advocated by several movements, will be “very complex,” she said.

The company, formerly known as Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, was privatised in 1997. It exports vast quantities of iron ore, mined in Pará, and supplies a large number of steelworks that are accused of deforesting huge tracts of the eastern Amazon region and exploiting slave labour to produce charcoal.

The WSF final assembly in Belém will debate actions to be taken against Vale, which is expanding its aluminium production activities, and is planning to build a coal-fired thermoelectric power station in Pará to supply its energy requirements.

At Belém, efforts will also be made to reactivate the Pan Amazon Social Forum, which has been dormant since its fourth meeting in 2005. Jan. 28 will be entirely devoted to the Amazon region and its social movements and organisations. This will incorporate regional issues and processes into the world meeting, said Salete Valesan Camba, a ubiquitous WSF organiser representing the Paulo Freire Institute.

This year, the WSF will make more intensive use of the media in its so-called “expanded Belém,” a means of facilitating virtual participation for groups who are unable to be physically present. The process will be “from outside in, and vice versa,” sending out information on the activities at Belém and receiving information about events happening all over the world, Valesan said.

“There is no evidence that the economic crisis is affecting the number of activists coming to Belém,” she said. In her view, the crisis has discredited the World Economic Forum in Davos, so this is “a propitious moment to put alternative proposals into practice.”

However, the world has not yet changed, and civil society “is not yet strong enough to overcome the problems caused by capitalism,” Valesan said.

 
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