Another world is possible

Ando Isamu, SJ(Jesuit Social Center in Tokyo)
Social and Pastoral Bulletin issue: No. 124 / February 23rd, 2005

Porto Alegre City

Porto Alegre is a coastal city in the South of Brazil with 1,300,000 inhabitants. There, during the last week of January more than 155,000 people from 135 countries gathered ahead of the famous Rio carnival to celebrate World Social Forum 5. Since the beginning of the 21st century, it has been customary to organize such social fora at the same time that industrial countries meet in Davos (Switzerland) to formulate common policies and programs for the world economy. Back in 2000, the entrepreneur Oded Grajew was in Paris at the time of the economic forum of Davos and angry at the ways the summit was taken place phoned his Brazilian friend Francisco (Chico) Whitaker of the Justice and Peace Committee (Brazil), to find ways to counterpart the summits of industrial countries at Davos. This is said to have been the beginning of the World Social Forum. The process has taken momentum at various levels, so much that, for instance, the strong international opposition to the United States war against Iraq started at the Social Forum.

In contrast to the strong economic orientation of the industrial countries summits, the World Social Forum embraces a world diversity of expressions that meet the universal wishes for tolerance and dialogue, justice, peace and equality. It is not politically manipulated, in spite of the high brass of clashing interests of extremist politically minded groups participating. The World Social Forum is, in general, critical of neo-liberalist theories and of globalization and opposes the official policies of WTO and world financial institutions, because they take side with industrial countries against the needs of the majority world poor. The recourse to solve delicate problems is not by violent means, but by freely expressing one’s ideas and opinions in an atmosphere of dialogue and mutual understanding. In a world where industrial countries seem to see everywhere phantoms of terrorism it is good to notice that there was not a single “terrorist act” during the whole week that 155,000 people met in Porto Alegre. The presence of the police had a low profile.

Chico Witaker

Statistics
By 25th November 2004, the final date for registration, 2,560 events, including seminars, workshops and presentations, had been registered by more than 4000 organizations from 112 countries. About 75,000 people had signed up for these events, but looking into the final figures, 155 thousand people participated – 35 thousand alone were in the Youth camp. 2,800 Brazilian volunteers were at hand to help during the event. Millions of people connected to the Forum through the Internet.

The organizers claimed that they had registered 100 musical shows, 41 public and popular theatre representations, 85 art shows, and more than 150 film and video presentations. The venue of the Forum was enormous, occupying 150,000 square meters, about 15 ha, the equivalent of 18 soccer stadiums. The cost of setting up the entire complex by Porto Alegre city was about 1.3 million US$.

[Past World Social Fora in numbers]
WSF 2001: 20 thousand participants from 117 countries
WSF 2002: 50 thousand participants from 123 countries
WSF 2003: 100 thousand participants from 123 countries
WSF 2004: 111,000 participants from 117 countries

Jesuit Presence
The Social Sector of the Conference of Latin American Provincials (CPAL) took up the task of organising the Jesuit presence at the Forum “with the aim of making the voice and the witness of poor and marginalized peoples heard, especially those from Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.” The Provincial of Brazil invited Jesuit participants and their collaborators to stay at a spirituality centre (CECREI) of the Province, very near to Porto Alegre, with the hope that the concentration of Jesuit delegates in one place will provide a possibility for sharing and exchange and for identifying the implications of this exchange in their apostolic missions.More than 150 Jesuits and collaborators, the majority of them from Brazil, and other Latin American countries participated.

The Indian and Sri Lankan delegation (almost 30) was the largest outside that of Brazil and Paraguay, testifying the great momentum that the former WSF 2004 had among the host nations.

Catholic Collaboration: Meeting with Caritas International
In line with the aggregation and networking effort promoted by the Forum, and upon the initiative of Caritas International, during the preparatory phase of the Forum a series of meetings were held with Caritas and other catholic organisations and congregations with the purpose of sharing information and views, and identifying possibilities for coordination and joint action. The Jesuit Coordinating team thus promoted the participation of the Jesuit delegation along the main lines of interest proposed by Caritas International (Peace and reconciliation, Empowerment and Advocacy, and Trafficking of Human Beings).

On January 26, Caritas International, in coordination with other Catholic groups, organized an inaugural Mass at the Church of Our Lady of Pompei. The Mass was presided over by the Bishop President of Caritas Brazil and an Indian sister working at Caritas-India delivered the homily. In a hall nearby, the partners of Caritas, CIDSE (Cooperation Internationale pour le Developpment et la Solidarite) and other organizations made a short presentation of the goals, highlighting the reasons for participating in the Forum.

Inauguration of the Forum: The Peace March
The Forum started with a peace march through the main streets of Porto Alegre. By 3:00 in the afternoon one could see a sea of flags and banners, of people chanting and dancing. There was a general air of pleasantness. We walked into the mass of moving people not knowing whether the march was moving or whether it had stopped.

Many banners proclaimed: ” With Bush and Lula (President of Brazil) another world is not possible”. Clearly, people are tired of pacts, adjustments and shady deals. The theme that has caught their imagination is that “another world is possible”. Those who marched shared this conviction or this dream, through a variety of organizations, projects and activities, each declaring its cause: sustainability, the defense of children’s rights, the fight against intolerance or any form of discrimination, the search for another economy linked with new forms of solidarity, the defense of the forests and water and a profound respect for difference.

The white flags of Caritas International said: “Globalize Solidarity”. And in the middle of a clear Latin American atmosphere calling for solidarity action with rural and indigenous people, with those without land, with workers or slum dwellers, banners brought from India by the South Asia Peoples Initiative (SAPI) drew the attention of thousands. Seeing the name ‘Asia’ many came and took photographs. There is something special in carrying a flag or a banner; it is a way of communicating your interest or your cause, a way of raising your voice in a sea of voices. Groups of even opposite views marched together, side by side, displaying their objectives. Strange companions in a peace march, but such is the world in which we live.

The Sri Lankan group had organized itself also behind, marching with dignity and attracting a lot of respect, and seeing them, people remembered the tsunami victims. The white apparel of Caritas International that came almost at the end contrasted with the bright red shirts of all the international socialists, the communists and the members of the workers party (PT) of Brazil.

The march passed by a 6-story high official building that had been occupied by about 200 people from the slums, 2 days before. The day after arrival, when Shimokawa and myself went there to join some groups of foreign supporters, a dozen police were at the entrance of the building already precinct. Several people from the windows greeted the peace march with their small red flags. A banner written in several languages called for housing facilities for those without homes. The group organizing the ‘invasion’ was MNLM, or the National Movement fighting for Housing Rights of Brazil. The Forum provided them the basis to negotiate with government officials for a satisfactory solution to the issue.

Against this immense, noisy, and colorful marching multitude it seemed as if two insurmountable walls obstructed the way: neo-liberalism and globalization. The Por-do-sol, the venue, was already filled by the time half the marchers arrived. More than 60,000 people gathered awaiting the inauguration of the Forum. A big stage had been prepared with a large TV monitor at its side. By 9:30 in the evening, when everybody had reached the Por-do-sol ground, we were expecting long inauguration speeches only to discover happily that the ceremony would be simple: a small child declared the Forum opened. Without formal speeches a night concert began.

Official Registration and Program
The participation at the Forum had to follow an official registration done under the umbrella of organizations registered and recognized ahead of the forum. No matter the quantities of computers at the Secretariat and the hundreds of helping volunteers we had to wait patiently to clear out our participation. People had to make long lines under the strong heat to pay the fees and to obtain the programs of the more than 2,000 workshops running throughout the whole week. Certainly the first day posed a serious situation. After getting hold of the thick programs we were left to ourselves. People stopped everywhere to check for issues of interest that appeared in the programs. We had to identify the places of the workshops – there were hundreds of big tents – test the leaders, the language and the scheduled time. Often the leaders were not there, the schedules and tents had been changed and nobody was on hand to give details. The long distances to walk on foot under a heat that sometimes reached 40 degrees and the difficulties to find the spaces or tents where one could find the workshops of his/her interest played against a full participation in many programs of interest. It was like searching for a different world. Nevertheless the amazing charm of the Brazilian people and their help made for the lack of organization.

What was really the Forum about? The detailed written explanation in the official program of hundreds of workshops with 11 interesting thematic fields that include the main dimensions of modern society could provide an answer, but this was out of the reach of the ordinary participant.
There was a clear atmosphere of anti-neoliberalism and against the globalization industrial countries try to implement, against war and oppression. Indigenous people, those deprived of their lands or without roof were present there, Dalits from India and Palestinians presented freely their views, looking for sympathizers as well as trade unionists from Latin American countries. But, the common denominator for the majority of those present in Porto Alegre was, “a different world is possible” and I would dare to say that we experienced it, during the days of the Forum.

Presence of the Youth: The Youth Camp
A big camping space was located in the middle of the venue, a sprawling area full of multicolored tents that offered free housing for about 35 thousand young people. Open showers and ecological plastic sanitation cabins dot the scene.

Walking through one of the main thoroughfares that criss-crosses the main camping area here, one was struck by the line of vendors, also mostly young, sitting on both sides of the road, with trinkets, beads, feathers, masks, various kinds of amulets, all for sale, and all supposedly coming from the forests of Latin America. Some of the young looked hardened by years of living on the margins of society; others seemed to be ‘freshers’ from comfortable backgrounds having a try at being ‘radical’; yet others were simply enjoying free boarding in a very crowded city. The framed face of Che Guevara was everywhere to be seen in the tents reserved for meetings and reflections, as well as old sepia-tinted photographs of the famous bombings of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), the famous Peruvian terrorist group. One sensed openness among the young, an unspoken affirmation of willingness to be different, of wanting to occupy a secluded and, in a sense, excluded space.

Listening to People: Personal interviews
One day I decided to meet people and hear their opinions. I interviewed 26 persons, at random, and found out that most of them felt very happy to express their views and experiences. About 12 of them were in the 20s and 30s, the rest were between 40 and 50 year old. 12 of them were Catholic and 11 declared themselves without any religion. About 10 were female, and the majority had come as delegates.

The sharing of experiences and a common hope of a different world that was possible attracted many participants. Coming to the Forum one could get new ideas and information, networks could be established, people can listen and learn from others, exchanges become possible. There was joy and dynamic openness. Many of the debates were interesting, fruitful and meaningful. One could experience new winds and trends around the world. Activists found many opportunities to spread their movement and to strengthen their networks, educators were searching for new trends, valid information and knowledge and bring them back to their students. The marginated and indigenous people were happy to let others listen to their experiences and pleas. Most people were looking for formulas to work together and cooperate to make a better, more human world, where people could express freely their suffering. Building spaces for dialogue had been positive and encouraging. Many issues were similar and people felt the need to respect and defend others. Anti-globalization and anti-neoliberalist practices were common, and most appealed against violence and war, in favor of a more human life.

Of course, some were dissatisfied with the organization and the difficulties to get to the right workshops, the lack of efficiency and the impossibility to implement such a wide action program.
Nevertheless, people recognized they had personally changed by attending the forum. It was an experiential historical event, where one lived day by day a different world and most of us decided to look for ways to continue challenging ourselves to try to implement some of the lessons learnt.

Closing ceremony
The World Social Forum 5 started as a world diversity expression, polyphony of voices that meet the universal wishes for tolerance, justice, peace and equality. And it closed according to these same wishes. This Forum was completely self-organized. All the activities were developed by the participant organizations. In the 11 Thematic Terrains, there were panels that accepted proposals, 352 in all that were the result of discussions and the assemblies.

We celebrated the communitarian life and the common responsibility in an open, public, collective and democratic territory. The Forum territory was a laboratory for changing life. It was a place where the initiatives converged. It was also the meeting of the Forum community and the Porto Alegre community, the city whose symbol is the sun set over the Guaiba river which has no owner, it wasn’t built, it belongs to everybody and to nobody in the same way. It was this sun set that, every day, passed through a territory in movement, geography of a transforming world.

There, in the territory of the Forum we brought into real life many transforming practices. The bio-construction proved that a house could be built from the nature rational order, the solidarity economy fair when it comes to prices and ethical when it comes to consumption, it was there. Challenging practices, such as the use of free software, making full use of the LINUX system, in opposition to Microsoft empire, translators volunteers network and new ways of communication shared, were joined day by day. This demands learning, persistent work. But for those who want to change things, there is only one way, and it is to try.

What comes nexr? Program for the future
The International Council decided at a meeting on 25th January that the World Social Forum 2006 will be realized in a phased-out manner in different parts of the world. With this, the WSF ensures its commitment to its Letter of Principles, seeking a permanent, continuous process of searching and building new alternatives, which are not limited to the events proposed. The final decisions about the WSF 2006 will be taken at the meeting of the International Council next April. The International Council has reiterated that the WSF 2007 will be held in Africa. The responsibility for its organization will be with the African organizations, but the International Council will help with the process of building the WSF in Africa.

Evaluating the Forum
During the closing ceremony, 352 thematic proposals received so far were placed before a huge panel. Talking to newspersons before the ceremony, Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of the Forum, acknowledged that the two themes more frequented by the participants were the one on human rights and the one on social struggles. Asked about the ongoing discussion between debate and action as objectives of the Forum, Chico again emphasized the fact that the Forum’s mission “is not to decide which actions to take on or which plans to undertake”. These functions are well performed by the organizations coming to the Forum. As an example, Chico mentioned that the campaign being organized against the traffic in arms is carried out by Peace and Justice organizations and not by the Forum. The great job the Forum has done is to prepare these 11 thematic axes that were the result of much articulation and coordination among various groups.

He emphasized three positive aspects of the Forum: its growing capacity to manage itself (the International Committee has not organized a single activity this year); its understanding that the process is more important than the content; and the shift in perception about the WSF, from being seen predominantly as a group of anti-globalizers to being thought of as a group of alter-globalizers. He also acknowledged that they have not succeeded in convincing the media that the ‘big shots” (Lula and Chavez, President of Venezuela) are not the most important persons of the Forum.

This energetic movement continues. And this Forum helped many actions that leave the Forum stronger and more organized, with agendas for the whole year. The dialogue and the meetings improve perspectives, open new horizons. Let’s go ahead. We have to do, to walk, to transform and to live. The other possible world depends on us!

SOURCES: For further information, please, refer to the Jesuit HEADLINES e-mail services
http://www.sjweb.info/sjs/
and to the official WEB of the WSF
http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/
 
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