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Building Utopia? The Fifth World Social Forum

31st August, 2005 - Posted by Zarah Patriana - No Comments

By Patrick Brantlinger

Brazil is home to “the world’s largest street party,” Carnaval, and home also to 4.5 million landless peasants. On Copacabana and Ipanema, Rio’s spectacular beaches, Cariocas—the city’s residents–mingle with well-to-do tourists in the sun, sand, and surf; but Rio also contains enormous favelas or slums. The disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest Brazilians is extreme, although the current government of President “Lula” da Silva is struggling mightily to overcome poverty. Elected in 2002, Lula, a member of the Workers’ Party (PT), has had to compromise in a number of directions. But he has nevertheless been able to introduce some new policies such as his “Zero Hunger” project. And he is supportive of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), which since 1984 has succeeded in settling over 300,000 previously landless families on their own small farms. This process has not been peaceful; landowners’ hired gunmen have sometimes assassinated MST leaders and massacred peasants. Lula’s victory in 2002 derived partly from the PT’s earlier successes at the local and regional levels. When the PT came to power in Porto Alegre, a southern city of 1.3 million and a hub of MST organizing, one of its innovations was “participatory budgeting.” This entails having the citizens form committees which every four years make and vote on proposals for funding, using from 5% to 12% of the city’s budget. The policy has resulted in new schools, clinics, workers’ cooperatives, and recycling facilities, among other improvements. This experiment in grassroots democracy is now spreading to other Brazilian cities and states.

It was, in part, the interest generated both by the MST and by participatory budgeting that made Porto Alegre a logical site for the first World Social Forum (WSF), which in 2001 drew some 10,000 activists representing dozens of organizations from around the world. The second and third WSFs were also held in Porto Alegre; then in 2004, the fourth WSF met in Mumbai, India. Through its first four years, the WSF grew enormously. When the fifth WSF was held again in Porto Alegre in late January 2005, the participants numbered over 150,000, representing 135 countries from every continent except Antarctica . Ellen and I came as members of Global Exchange and of the Progressive Faculty Coalition of IU. The size of the opening march on Jan. 26 was estimated at 200,000. Some 35,000 participants stayed in the Youth Camp; its small, colorful tents formed a bright contrast to the dozens of large white tents, pitched along a three-mile stretch of the Guiaba River, in which hundreds of sessions and over two-thousand talks were delivered. Some of the major speeches had to be given in nearby arenas; two of these were by heads of state—Lula and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela—who both drew enormous crowds. And there were many other leaders and dignitaries from around the world, including several Nobel Prize winners.

Created to provide a counterweight to the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF is now the main annual event expressing the ideas and growing energy of what are often called “the new social movements,” but what the mainstream media persist in calling “the anti-globalization movement.” This misnomer implies that its supporters are opposed to globalization of any sort, although the WSF is obviously an expression of a growing, highly networked and cosmopolitan internationalism. If “globalization” is taken to mean only the policies of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the giant corporations, then indeed the WSF and its participants are opposed to it, because we see it as economic exploitation that benefits the wealthiest countries (the North) at the expense of the poorest countries (the South), and only the wealthy elites within all countries. For those not yet aware of this, I recommend Globalization and Its Discontents by Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winning economist and former senior Vice-President of the World Bank. “While I was at the World Bank,” Stiglitz begins, “I saw firthand the devastating effects that [corporate] globalization can have on developing countries, and especially the poor within those countries.” Stiglitz was one of the speakers at the fourth WSF in Mumbai. Even more disturbing are the revelations in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, who spoke at this year’s WSF.

Major themes at every WSF have included the reduction or outright cancellation of the enormous and growing debts supposedly owed by the poor countries to the WB, the IMF, and the wealthy countries. Organizations such as British-based Jubilee 500, whose main goal is debt cancellation, are among the dozens of NGOs participating in the WSFs. To many, including UN Secretary Kofi Annan, who advocates debt cancellation for the African countries, getting out from under the financial mountains they are buried beneath is the necessary first step for the poor countries to at long last start on the path of real economic development and stability.

A second WSF theme is protection of the global “commons.” That term refers to all of the natural resources that have until recently been regarded as belonging to the public rather than to private individuals or corporations. In the past, despite colonization and the creation of large, privately owned plantations and estates, every village and locality had its “commons,” its parcel of land where everyone had a right to plant their gardens or graze their sheep. Today, all countries and cities still have versions of such commons: forests, parks, gardens, beaches, plazas that belong to the public. But, as the controversy over drilling for oil in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge indicates, the pressure is on to privatize what remains of these public lands.

Water is another resource that corporations like Bechtel and Coca Cola are greedily trying to bottle up (or privatize) and then resell to the world. A number of the sessions at this year’s WSF focused on protecting water as a commons, not a commodity. These sessions featured speeches by such activists as Canadian Maude Barlow, author of Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water. And there were also sessions dealing with “food sovereignty,” or the right of communities and regions to grow and market the food they need for themselves, without being coerced by so-called “free-trade” demands of the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF to grow cash crops for export while allowing giant agribusinesses such as Monsanto and Cargill to “dump” surplus crops in their markets, thus undermining the livelihoods of millions of small farmers. Related to the question of food sovereignty is the issue of corporations patenting and monopolizing seeds and other organic products, many of which have been developed and collectively owned—shared, that is–by peasant and indigenous communities for centuries. As well, there is growing concern throughout the world over corporations’ developing and forcing genetically modified organisms onto the market, with or without the knowledge of consumers about their possible environmental and health effects. We attended sessions that dealt with women’s rights and protections (sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom); with ending racial, class, and gender discrimination (sponsored by the World Dignity Forum); and with ending the occupation of Iraq (sponsored by a large number of anti-war groups). Organized by our own Progressive Faculty Coalition, the session in which I participated engaged professors and students from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina in dialogue about how to make our academic work more effective in the struggle for global justice. I should add that, as U.S. citizens, we encountered no animosity at the WSF or elsewhere in Brazil; but the anger toward the Bush regime, both because of its invasion of Iraq and because of its support of corporate globalization at all costs, was everywhere apparent.

That the fifth World Social Forum was a great success was evident during its closing ceremonies. As at earlier WSFs, on a huge wall participants posted hundreds of proposals for creating “a better world.” And, though it ran somewhat counter to the democratic ethos of the WSF as a space and place for the entirely free exchange of ideas about creating “a better world,” nineteen organizers produced a “manifesto” of proposals. These are in effect a summary of the main themes from all five WSFs: peace and nonviolence; justice and dignity for all; an end to world poverty; protection of both global and local commons; “fair trade” instead of misnamed “free trade”; and as much open, democratic participation as possible. In the spirit of its democratic cosmopolitanism, next year the WSF will meet in four regional sites, and the year after that somewhere in Africa, perhaps Capetown. Is the entire endeavor utopian? Of course it is! And if ever the world needed to think in utopian terms, it is surely now, as we confront continued war and violence in the Middle East; genocide in the Sudan and elsewhere; growing instead of shrinking world poverty and hunger; global warming and the rapid privatization of the global commons. On a planet where, since 2000 or 2001 and 9-11 or 2004 (take your pick), sources of hope seem to be disappearing as rapidly as species, the World Social Forum is one of the most hopeful signs on the political horizon.

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