Maybe it had to do with the beer, or the heady mixture of languages, or the humidity, but it felt like something unique was growing out of the sweaty discussions and incessant drum circles. It wasn’t the same energy one feels at a large protest or indoor activist conference, and it was more than a tropical version of Woodstock. There was a feeling at the fifth annual World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil that something extraordinary was happening.
In this week-long party of ideas and networking, another world did seem very possible. But when such an event occurs, it’s hard not to wonder what will happen when everyone goes home. What went wrong at this international crossroads? And where might it go from here?
A key ingredient for this globalized stew was face-to-face conversation with like-minded people from around the globe. At a time when communication is nearly dominated by cell phones, television and the Internet, 200,000 people congregated in one city just to talk with each other. There were Indian students sitting under trees conversing with aging members of Brazil’s Workers Party, Argentineans sharing mate (there is an accent over the e) (a thick herbal tea) around campfires with Canadian media activists and North Americans listening to stories of water privatization from Ghanaians.
"You always leave the World Social Forum with more than you arrived with," Pupi Palero, a member of a program in Mendoza, Argentina that works with micro-credit for women, said. She has been to the WSF in Porto Alegre four times. "Sure, there are people who go to the forum and then just leave and do nothing. Others are inspired to work more. Like me, on a personal level the forums gave me a lot of hope, and after going to the first forum in 2001, I realized I had to do something, so I began working more with organizing and activism in Mendoza."
For many participants, the forum is all about global networking. "You can run into a large amount of diversity, and people from all over with information about anti-capitalist politics, human rights and the environment and so on," Jimena, from Cordoba, Argentina, explained. "But more than the conferences it offers a chance to meet people and talk with them about the different themes important to them, get to know what the problems are from their country and region, get contacts and organize for specific actions and programs."
The WSF was founded in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil to deliberately take place parallel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual gathering of business and political leaders. Whereas those at the Davos forum believe the world can be improved through free market business deals, the WSF is a process of seeking and building alternatives to neoliberal policies. Four of the five social forums have been held in Porto Alegre. Last year it was in Bombay, India and this year it was back in Brazil during the last week in January. From day one of the WSF, activists of all ages arrived in Porto Alegre. Some traveled in bus or plane; others hitchhiked.
A space for the democratic exchanges of ideas and experiences, the WSF is home to panels and workshops led by intellectuals and representatives from social movements and civil society groups from around the globe. Previous participants include Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and Naomi Klein. The events are organized around the WSF slogan, "Another World is Possible." This other world is meant to be one without war, injustice, racism, and economic inequality.
For all of its colorful topics and variety, the instant gratification of the forum left some people wondering how much they were actually learning. "It is contradictory that you get a lot of information, exchanges and experience in such a short time," explained Leo Kuehberger, a PhD student from Austria and author of the book We Make Historyabout the anti-globalization protests in Genoa, Italy. "For example if I wanted to understand the experience of factory workers in my town it takes months, years. So can I really understand that much in a week at the social forum?"
The 2005 WSF didn’t come without its faults. For example, workshops were often canceled or relocated without any prior announcement, translators sometimes never showed up, or a band played next to the tent, drowning out the speaker. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, some of the best aspects of the forum were not the organized events, they were the informal talks people were able to have day and night with each other on topics ranging from Bush’s re-election to alternative media in Patagonia.
The forum was comprised mainly of tents and buildings, some of them mildly air conditioned, situated along the beach of the Guaiba River. In the middle of the WSF expanse was the city’s Harmony Park, home to the International Youth Camp, an event organized to provide cheap accommodation and youth oriented activities for WSF activists. Some 35,000 people stayed at the camp, which was full of non-stop discussions, debates, film screenings, partying and music.
The Youth Camp, because of its central location and festive atmosphere, was the life of the party. Yet the energy of both events fed off of each other. "There are so many young people here, and the WSF produces an incredible awareness in them," Paolo, student from Porto Alegre commented. "They’re the ones who will be the intellectuals and leaders in the future. The forum allows youth to interact with the most imminent intellectuals of the left, who are able to pass their experience and knowledge on to younger people. It is an experience that will stay with them forever."
Other aspects of the forum were more problematic. "One huge issue at the WSF was gender dynamics," Nadja Millner-Larsen, a recent graduate from New York’s Bard College, said. "There was an enormous lack of women on the panels at the social forum. I attended this one panel on the anti globalization movement and at the end of it a lot of women stood up and said "how can we create another world when we don’t have healthy gender dynamics in these panels?"
"Some of the men said, ‘Okay, we should pay attention to this.’ But others on the panel had this age-old response that been going on in the left since the sixties. They said, well, classes aren’t equally represented, nor race, therefore you shouldn’t be so outraged by the underrepresentation of women."
"This is skirting around the issue," Millner-Larsen continued. "If a black person in a white audience asked why there aren’t black people on a panel, the speakers wouldn’t say, ‘Relax there aren’t any women either.’ Here we are thirty years later and we are still arguing class and gender against women it’s shocking. To allow this unequal gender distribution to be sanctioned within the official forum obviously has this kind of trickle down effect in the youth camp."
In addition to hundreds of robberies and numerous fights in the Youth Camp, rapes were reported there as well. "There was a high level of violence in the Youth Camp, Millner-Larsen explained. I felt more scared there than I really have traveling anywhere else. I got the sense that being alone in the camp was a really dangerous thing."
Another controversy this year was the drafting of a manifesto of demands and proposals, which was strange for an event that prides itself on not (perhaps use – having demands or proposals) or this – having such results. The points of the manifesto included the promotion of equitable forms of trade, the implementation of anti-discrimination policies for minorities and women and demanding debt cancellation for third world nations. It was created by 19 high profile WSF activists and writers including Nobel literature laureate Jose Saramago, Le Monde Diplomatique director, Ignacio Ramonet, and Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano.
For some, the manifesto was a healthy step for an event many believed had been counterproductive. "It’s not possible to continue to say ‘another world is possible’ if we do not make some proposals about how to reach this other world," said Ricardo Petrella, one of the presenters at the press conference on the manifesto.
Others believed that 19 intellectuals deciding what 200,000 people believed in contradicted the WSF principles. Brazilian International Committee member Cândido Grzybowski, was unhappy with the decision to create the manifesto and refused to sign it. "The contents of this proposal are perfect, and I believe 80 percent of the forum participants would agree with it," Grzybowski said in an interview with TerraViva. "What kills this proposal is the method with which it was created and presented… It goes against the very spirit of the forum. Here, all proposals are equally important and not only that of a group of intellectuals, even when they are very significant persons."
Leo Kuehberger didn’t believe the WSF manifesto had much significance. "The WSF is a process that cannot be controlled by anyone. I don’t care what the results of the forums are. Maybe most people don’t care about these proposal or points. No one looks at these things and says , ‘Oh, we should concentrate on that this year.’ It is not about the results on the micro-level. There may be results on paper, but most people care about results made in a personal way, a direct, person-to-person experience."
The day after the forum, the circus left Porto Alegre. People packed up their tents, stuffing numerous pamphlets and dirty clothes into their backpacks. Artists, musicians, writers and students piled back into buses and cars for the long ride home. Sweaty activists with laptops under their arms boarded planes, some leaving the palm trees and samba to return to snow and subzero temperatures.
Next year, the WSF is scheduled to be spread out in regional forums around the world, and in 2007 it will take place in Africa. For many, it is difficult to say what the future might have in store for the WSF, whether its popularity and significance will fade, or whether its organizational aspects will change dramatically. "Now it is an open situation, everything is possible," Kuehberger explained. "Maybe in two years there will be no social forum, or maybe it is growing. We’re in a very open situation."
Gustavo Orego works with a participatory democracy NGO in his home town of Rosario, Argentina and has been to four of the social forums. "When the forum stops being a necessity, people will stop going," he explained. "The forum is not an end, it is a medium. Now it is a necessary encounter."
Benjamin Dangl is the editor of www.UpsideDownWorld.org, an online magazine about activism and politics in Latin America. This article was initially published in the March, 2005 issues of Clamor Magazine.