PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Even before the fifth World Social Forum officially opened here, Jan. 26, the city was teeming with peace and justice activists, trade unionists, community organizers, and youth and students from five continents.
Forum registration lines reflected a rainbow of colors and ages. Young people were a very strong presence, and one could hear a half-dozen languages being spoken at any given time. Staff and volunteers processed registrations swiftly, a good thing in view of the projections of over 100,000 participants.
The forum takes place as profound changes sweep Latin America, particularly in Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. Venezuela’s “Bolivarian revolution,” led by President Hugo Chavez, is only the most dramatic example of the continent’s resistance to foreign exploitation and neoliberal economic policies like the U.S.-inspired “Free Trade Area of the Americas.”
It takes place in the aftermath of the catastrophic South Asia tsunami, which caused the death of over 150,000 people and left millions homeless and destitute. Forum organizers have announced a special campaign here for the “total, immediate and unconditional abolition of the debt” of the 11 Asian and African countries affected by the tsunami. The campaign is spearheaded by groups like the South Jubilee Network and the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt.
And the forum takes place shortly after the inauguration of President George W. Bush, whose policies of pre-emptive war, illegal occupation of Iraq, torture, and unbridled military spending have been giving rise to worldwide demonstrations for peace and justice, including a projected international Day of Action for peace on March 19. United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of U.S.-based groups, is among those at the forum calling for coordinated world action to rein in the warlike actions of the Bush administration.
The World Social Forum was founded in 2001, when 20,000 participants from 117 countries came together in an almost spontaneous expression of resistance to capitalist globalization. It has gotten bigger each year. After three consecutive years in Porto Alegre, last year’s forum was held in Mumbai, India, where about 111,000 participants from 123 nations took part. This year’s forum runs from Jan. 26-31.
The forum calls itself “an open meeting place where groups and movements of civil society opposed to neoliberalism and a world dominated by any form of imperialism … come together to pursue their thinking, debate ideas democratically, formulate proposals … and network for common action.”
This year it is organized around 11 basic “thematic terrains”: defending the planet and its peoples from transnational plunder, creating a people’s art, building a media free of corporate control, defending diversity, protecting human rights, safeguarding the sovereignty of national economies, evolving a global ethics, combating neoliberal domination, promoting peace, resisting the appropriation of knowledge for profit, and building a new, democratic order.
Participants are choosing from over 2,000 activities, including panel discussions, rallies, cultural extravaganzas, debates, special “theme tents” (on indigenous people, people of African descent, the Palestinian people, Cuba and Venezuela, ecumenical cooperation), and hundreds of exhibits.
The forum’s governing body, the International Council, includes representatives from the world labor movement, including the AFL-CIO, and a wide array of human rights, peace, environmental, youth, and women’s groups.
As in previous years, a large number of participants, numbering in the thousands, are expected from the United States. They include trade unionists, peace and justice activists, environmentalists, academics and elected officials. Brazil is expected to have the largest delegation.
The forum traditionally takes place at the same time as the World Economic Forum in the luxury resort town of Davos, Switzerland, where the world’s financial and business elite chart economic plans and issue pronouncements on world problems. In contrast to that world of exploitation and oppression, the World Social Forum has inspired its followers with the slogan, “Another world is possible.”
This year’s forum includes a number of innovations. In part as a response to criticisms that attendance at previous gatherings was skewed toward a better-educated elite (except in Mumbai, which had greater participation from working people and the poor), the main venue of the activities has been shifted from Porto Alegre’s Catholic University to the “World Social Territory,” a large swath of land along the Guaiba River.
Also, this time the program was developed in closer cooperation with grassroots organizers, rather than relying on the forum’s established leadership. In addition, the 11 “thematic terrains” were explicitly aimed at enhancing the prospects for concerted world action, rather than just talk.
It’s clear that the world’s peoples are not remaining idle in the face of the many global problems facing them. The World Social Forum reflects the growing concern and resistance to the global domination of the planet by multinational corporations, and will perhaps offer new suggestions for the best way forward.