Samba, reggae and drum music pounded at the air above a sea of nylon tents. Earnest discussions sizzled in the steaming heat; people mopped sweat off their foreheads as sporadic protests clamored past. In the eclectic, globalized stew of the fifth annual International Youth Camp, 35,000 people from around the planet gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil during the last week in January to discuss and put into practice their vision of a better world.
Surrounding the Youth Camp was the World Social Forum (WSF), where discussions and debates by activists, writers and politicians took place throughout each day on everything from water privatization in Ghana to alternative media in Patagonia. This year 200,000 people showed up for the WSF. Both events were organized around the theme "Another World is Possible." This other world is meant to be one without war, injustice, racism and economic inequality.
For a week, the Youth Camp’s multitudes packed into Harmony Park, a cramped riverfront location with occasional patches of trees and outdoor showering facilities. It is an offshoot of the WSF, but some argue it has become the heart of the annual gathering due to the feelings of global synergy and community it creates. Though the camp was initially organized to provide cheap accommodation for weary WSF activists, very little sleeping took place. In this 24-hour fiesta of ideas and networking, anyone who might have tried to catch some shut-eye would have had trouble blocking out the hip hop music, campfire concerts, nightly parades and – after about 8 a.m., the scorching Brazilian sun.
The tamer, fresher-smelling WSF crowd who strolled past this primitive tent city of jewelry sellers, radio pirates, upstart shamans and anti-capitalists, might have caught a whiff of this other possible world everybody was talking about.
A Million Heads Think Better Than One Thousand
The Youth Camp organizing cooperative had been fine-tuning the camp’s layout and events ever since the first WSF in 2001. One afternoon, I spoke with organizer Joao Portella Sobral, a tall, bearded forest engineering student from Porto Alegre about the camp´s development. As we talked in the shade of a tree, dozens of people came up to Joao, giving him high-fives and updates on news from around the camp.
"The first Youth Camp in 2001 was small, improvised and relatively unorganized, though there were about 5,000 participants," he explained. "There were no planned activities, just spontaneous music and discussions. The following year more talks and debates were scheduled around political movements, alternative media and the environment."
In the third year, the group revised the Youth Camp to put their political ideas into action. They created environmentally friendly camping areas, provided free computers and software to young journalists, and invited cooperatively-run and family-owned businesses to sell various products and organic food. Throughout the camp, there were also garbage, recycling and compost systems in place and various spaces for community art projects and murals.
The Youth Camp activities were decentralized, and spread throughout the area. "Action Centers" were home to daily discussions on Che Guevara, herbal medicine, women´s rights and other issues. It was a common sight to see dozens of people sitting in circles on the ground, engaged in these talks.
Joao believed the camp was providing a great opportunity for networking among youth from around the world. "It’s a place to realize that you’re not alone and there are people from all over fighting against the same systems of power and oppression. Older people already have organized networks and we don´t, but we’re creating them now. A million heads think better than a thousand."
Camp #&*% Bush
Each section of the camp had a name chosen by its occupants. The Peace Camp was full of Hindu-practicing Brazilians that greeted each dawn with yoga and tambourines. Another was the Hip Hop Camp, which had daily open mikes and a recording center. One night in Camp #&*% Bush, I sat down and talked with a few people about their thoughts on the international gathering.
Naomi de Grenier, a student from France, who is part of an economic organization that works with developing local currency and alternative systems of production, thought the Youth Camp was bringing together people who would normally never meet. "It is important that young people who want the same thing join together. We are all from the new generation of activists, we carry a project for the world. The youth camp provides this common experience that helps to unify similar groups."
Heimuth Duarte had traveled seven days in a bus from Bogota, Colombia to come to Porto Alegre. Duarte is a part of the Federation of Agronomy Students of Colombia, an organization that lobbies for agrarian reform in his country. "It is important for young people to go to spaces like the Youth Camp," he explained. "Here you can get in contact with people from other countries, share experiences and develop effective activist networks."
"Youth are the future," said Jimena, a member of a cultural collective in Cordoba, Argentina. "At the end of this week´s events no one is the same person they were when they arrived. They can take what they learned here and use it to change certain things back in their own country. In them is this other possible world."
We’re All Human Beings
Although hearing leftist big shots like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano speak at the World Social Forum was inspiring, the most profound experiences I had were not in giant stadiums or packed conference halls. They were sitting around campfires in the Youth Camp drinking mate (a thick herbal tea) with Argentineans, discussing with Indian students the implications of another four years of Bush and talking with other like-minded people about everything from melting ice bergs to rebellions in Bolivia.
However, the Youth Camp was not without its problems. Hundreds of robberies took place throughout the week, numerous fights broke out and rapes were reported. On the final night, one of the organizers addressed the camp through a megaphone: "Everyone return to your tents and guard them, there is a wave of robberies and crime sweeping through the area."
In spite of these problems, each night saw fires and flashlights light up the tent city. The air would cool down and people would begin dancing, talking and strumming guitars. Once, when listening to the mixture of languages bubbling up around me, I counted five in a 20-foot radius. In this international melting pot, nationalities, passports and borders faded into the background and became invisible, irrelevant. As one Brazilian explained to me, "We aren´t just North Americans, Austrians, Brazilians … we’re human beings."