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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Reconciling Social and Environmental Needs

Mario Osava* IPS/TerraViva

SALVADOR, Brazil, Jan 31 2010 (IPS) - One of the greatest challenges facing the world today is to attend to the urgent social needs of the planet’s population, and particularly the one billion people living “on the brink of survival”, while dealing with the equally urgent demands of the environment.

This warning came from Brazilian Social Development Minister Patrus Ananias at the Thematic World Social Forum meeting held here in the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.

Meeting the basic needs of the one billion human beings suffering from hunger today will require the production of massive amounts of food and other goods, which will inevitably affect the environment, he noted.

Ananias addressed the Forum on behalf of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was unable to attend under doctors’ orders after suffering a bout of high blood pressure on Wednesday.

Close to 600 people filled the conference room of the Hotel Pestana on Salvador’s beachfront to hear government authorities and activists air their views in a discussion panel on “Dialogue and debate between social actors and Brazilian government representatives”.

The panel was the key event at the Thematic World Social Forum meeting held in Bahia this Friday through Sunday as one of the numerous “decentralised” meetings organised as part of this year’s World Social Forum (WSF).

As potential means of overcoming the apparent contradiction between food production and protection of the environment, Ananias stressed the solidarity economy, family farming, the creation of cooperatives and “above all, reducing consumption.”

Another apparent contradiction, though one that is totally false according to Ananias, is “between economic growth and social inclusion.”

Brazil’s experience has demonstrated that social policies such as the family allowances provided to 11 million extremely poor households in exchange for meeting basic requirements (school enrolment for children, for instance) and pensions for people with disabilities actually helped the country to weather the effects of the international financial crisis.

The redistribution of income and social safety net that lifted millions of families out of poverty and turned them into consumers contributed to economic recovery through a “virtuous circle” of economic growth and social justice, he explained.

“We are eradicating hunger,” said Ananias, adding that, according to a recent study, if the country’s current policies are maintained, poverty in Brazil will be reduced to the level of a developed nation by 2016.

At the same, however, the high rate of violence in Brazil, resulting in the premature death of tens of thousands of young people every year, casts a pall over the country’s economic and social advances. For this reason, Ananias called on the social activists participating in the meeting to join in a “pact for life” and do their part to combat the causes of this violence.

For his part, Bernard Cassen, one of the founders of the WSF in 2001, said that in the world today, governments face contradictions that they fail to even recognise when searching for solutions to the problems facing the planet.

The multilateral free trade negotiated among governments through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is the “number one enemy of the environmental imperative,” yet this fact is not considered by those same governments when they meet at climate change conferences aimed at reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, he said.

Promoting international trade results in an increase in emissions through the burning of fossil fuel required for transportation, noted Cassen, who is also one of the founders of the Association for the Taxation of Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC).

He therefore views the failure of the U.S.-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as a major victory.

What is really needed in the world today is “to produce locally, strengthen food sovereignty, and ‘relocalise’ the economy,” he concluded, referring to free trade as “a weapon used by the powerful to the detriment of democracy.”

Brazilian Minister of Strategic Affairs Samuel Pinheiro Guimarães, another panelist, highlighted the fact that the Lula administration adopted a strategy similar to the WSF by organising over 60 national conferences at which the Brazilian public and civil society groups were able to freely voice their views and help shape state policies.

In a message to the participants in the Bahia thematic meeting, Lula praised the World Social Forum as a process that generates “transformational power and energies” and is much more than merely a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of the international business and banking elite held at the same time of year in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

Meanwhile, João Paulo Rodrigues, one of the coordinators of the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), stressed the need to continue to struggle for faster agrarian reform, in order to foster sustainable agriculture and generate employment for young people in rural areas.

Brazil is one of the countries with the highest concentration of land ownership in the hands of a small few, with a great many unproductive large landholdings, he emphasised.

Also on the panel were trade union leaders like Artur Henrique, president of the trade union federation Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), founded in 1983 with the participation of Lula, a union leader himself at the time.

Henrique stressed the key role of employment in the development model to be pursued, and particularly the importance of decent conditions for workers, with an end to employment practices akin to slave labour and the highly precarious nature of work in the informal sector.

Nair Goulart, vice president of Força Sindical, another trade union federation, was the moderator of the discussion panel, and reported that more than 10,000 people had registered to participate in the three days of discussion and other events comprising the Bahia forum.

An analysis of changes at the international level was presented by United Nations Assistant Secretary-General Carlos Lopes, who is also the head of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR). Lopes highlighted the “end of the unipolar world,” reflected by the changes that have taken place over the last decade – coinciding with the existence of the WSF – such as China’s accumulation of 2.7 billion dollars in reserves and subsidisation of consumption in the United States.

The rise of the Group of 20 (G20, made up of the finance ministers and central bank governors of world’s leading economies) as a forum for discussing the fate of the world is another result of these changes, although it arose as a “palliative” for global imbalances, he noted.

New forms of international negotiation have gained hold in areas like trade and climate change, and decisions can no longer be adopted without the input of poor countries, such as those of Africa, he said.

But “the new world is not here yet,” and inequalities persist, said Lopes. Moreover, the crises that the world currently faces are “multifaceted” and it is impossible to even adequately gauge their true scale.

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