The World Social Forum Returns to Brazil

Thousands of activities during the week of the forum were organized around 10 thematic objectives that were defined after a broad survey of organizations involved in the forum process. These themes included peace, anti-capitalism, sustainability, knowledge, diversity, sovereignty, fair trade, participatory democracy, and the environment. After an absence of 4 years, the World Social Forum (WSF) returned to Brazil during the last week of January 2009. More than 100,000 people descended on the city of Belem at the mouth of the mighty Amazon river to debate proposals and plan strategies for making a new and better world.

The forum first met in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001 as a gathering of social movements dedicated to fighting neoliberalism and militarism. Nine years later, Latin America has shifted significantly to the left, and the forum has played an important role in that process.

The forum began on January 27, as all of the forums have, with a massive march through the streets of Belem. The theme of the march was from Africa, where the last unified forum was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007, to the Amazon. A drenching tropical rain momentarily stalled the planned events. The march concluded with a massive rally featuring speeches and music.

Thousands of activities during the week of the forum were organized around 10 thematic objectives that were defined after a broad survey of organizations involved in the forum process. These themes included peace, anti-capitalism, sustainability, knowledge, diversity, sovereignty, fair trade, participatory democracy, and the environment.

Gathering in the Amazon, Indigenous and environmental issues became a central focus on the Belem forum. The meetings began on January 28 with a "Pan-Amazonian Day" with a focus on climate change, food sovereignty, and regional integration. Indigenous delegates formed the words "save the Amazon" with their bodies.

ImageIndigenous peoples also had a very large tent where they held a series of discussions on the environment, territory, development, and other concerns. The sessions ended with a broad ranging conversation on the crisis of civilization, environmental collapse, post-development strategies, and how to build a better life. Indigenous delegates made a call to organize a global mobilization for mother earth on October 12, 2009.

Miguel Palacín from the Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indígenas (CAOI) noted that "for Indigenous peoples, our participation in the forum was very important." The principle themes that they discussed included the crisis of civilization, decolonization, collective rights, self-determination, climatic justice, and defense of the Amazon.

Forest peoples, stateless peoples, and Afro-descendants also had their separate tents. In addition, there was a tent dedicated to human rights, and one named for Dorothy Stang, a nun who was assassinated 4 years ago because of her outspoken defense of the poor and the environment in the Amazon.

Another tent had a full series of events celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution.

Palestine held a strong presence throughout the forum, particularly with the forum coming in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion and massacre in the Gaza Strip. "In the name of the Palestinian delegation and the Palestinian people," Jamal Juma stated, "I would like to thank the Brazilian people, the Brazilian government and the organizers of the social forum for this opportunity for us."

A highlight for many at the forum, and by far the largest event, was a meeting with the leftist presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay. Their presence involved a certain amount of irony and contradictions in the organization of the forum.

The forum first met as a meeting of civil society at a time during which no leftists governed in Latin America. Armed groups and political parties were explicitly excluded. Nine years later, Latin America has swung significantly to the left and a rejection of neoliberalism has quickly become the dominant discourse. Leftist leaders are attracted to the idea of participating in the forum, both because of their ideological affinity with its politics as well as a way to shore up their social movement support.

On the afternoon of January 29, Via Campesina organized a small, invitation only, meeting with social movements with Chávez, Morales, Correa, and Lugo. That evening Lula joined the 4 leaders in for a public event in a much larger venue. Both events were held off the main site of the forum, allowing for the impression that it was an event parallel to the forum while still not being part of the forum.

In the 2003 forum, newly elected Lula was cheered at a massive rally similarly held parallel to the forum as the hero of the event. Two years later, he was booed by many at a similar event for not having delivered on his promises of a leftist agenda, while Chávez who used the meeting to declare himself a socialist was greeted as a rising star. This year the evening meeting turned into a huge pep rally for Lula’s ruling Workers Party (PT), with the party faithful shouting down dissidents who showed up to denounce Lula’s failure to break from capitalism.

Much of the rhetoric that the presidents used at both events echoed that of the dominant discourse at the forum. Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, began his talk with a challenge to neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. He contrasted capitalism with socialism, and appealed to what has become a common Indigenous call to "vivir bien, no mejor"; to live well, not better. "We are in times of change," Correa concluded. "An alternative model already exists, and it is the socialism of the twenty-first century."

Bolivian president  Evo Morales arrived at the forum on the heels of a recently approved progressive constitution. He observed that Ecuador and Bolivia were in a competition for the record for removing the largest number of neoliberal presidents. "As subcomandante Marcos has said," Morales said, "we need to lead by obeying. The government that we are making is a government that obeys the Bolivian people in order to guarantee a revolution in structural changes."

Fernando Lugo of Paraguay is the most recent South American president to join the continent’s swing to the left. He pointed to the importance of social movements as a creative force to make a more equal society. He talked of the need to "break down old walls." Lugo stated that "another world is not only possible, but is being realized."

Hugo Chávez of Venezuela is the president most closely associated with the social forum process. He also appealed to the themes and rhetoric commonly associated with the forum. To the slogan "another world is possible," Chávez added "a new world is necessary." Furthermore, he blamed capitalism for the current economic and environmental crisis, and argued that socialism was the only path to liberation.

The meeting with social movements ended with Aleida Guevara joining the four presidents on stage singing a tribute to her famous father Che Guevara.

An innovation at the 2009 forum was "Belem Expanded," a series of decentralized activities from around the world linked to groups present in Belem through text and audio chats, video conferences, and telephone conversations. Belem Expanded became a way to include people in the forum who could not travel to the Amazon to participate in person.

Complementing these activities were also cultural activities, including films, poetry, lectures,  performing arts, and exhibitions. Every day closed off with a series of concerts featuring a wide range of artistic talents.

The Belem forum also witnessed the return of the youth camp, with 15,000 people present in the camp with its own series of events. For many of those in the camp, the forum seems to have become more of a cultural event, a Brazilian-style Woodstock, rather than a political event for which it had become known.

Parallel to the youth camp was also a smaller children’s camp focusing on issues of adolescence.

The forum concluded on February 1 with a day of alliances. In the morning, organizations met according to their thematic interests to strengthen networks and solidify proposals for campaigns or other actions that would extend beyond the week of the forum. In the afternoon, these groups came together in an Assembly of Assemblies to present the results of the convergences, campaigns, and proposals that emerged during the forum.

Although the Belem gathering was one of the largest forums, it was perhaps also one of the least international. The forum has always taken on the flavor of the local setting, but the 2009 gathering became an overwhelmingly Brazil event with Portuguese becoming the dominant language. Most of the non-Brazilian participants came from South America, with only a splattering of representatives from Asia and Africa.

Discussions are currently underway for future meetings of the forum. One plan is to have a Global Day of Action at the end of January 2010 (as happened in January 2008), with an accompanying focus on thematic forums, including one led by Indigenous peoples on the crisis of civilization. In 2011, the forum plans to return to Africa.

Contact Marc Becker at Marc(at)