PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Anyone attending the fifth World Social Forum here couldn’t miss it. Situated right in the middle of the “World Social Territory,” a vast swath of land alongside Guaiba Lake that was home to this year’s events, was the sprawling Youth Encampment.
The scene on Jan. 26 was stunning. Engulfing a semi-wooded area of a beautiful park and extending far beyond it, small tents were crowded up against each other for as far as the eye could see. Music was emanating from almost every direction. There were banners and signs, many of them handmade, about ending war, discrimination and exploitation.
The tents were red, yellow, green, khaki, and many other hues, partially shielded from the sun’s harsh rays by black netting suspended above them. And they were home to 35,000 youth and students from 39 countries. That’s right — 35,000.
Manuel Somoza, 26, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, was staying at the camp with two of his friends, Hillary Witte and Michael Seliga, both from the United States.
Somoza, a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry in environmental studies, said, “I’m here to participate in a workshop on conservation. The particular angle that we’re looking at is how the current environmental policies of the North are affecting the indigenous communities of the South, and seeing whether academics can help bridge the gap.”
Witte, 20, from Los Angeles, is a student at the University of Washington in Seattle. She said, “I wanted to come here because it is important to be part of something like this. I particularly wanted to learn more about women’s movements around the world.”
Her friend Michael, 23, also from Los Angeles, recently graduated from college. He simply said, “This is a great open space for dialogue, with lots of information about things going on all over.”
Some came to the forum and the encampment almost by chance. Hernan Doño, 27, of Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a musician. He said, “I was traveling with my parents on vacation and I heard about the forum and decided to participate.”
Doño said music has “the power to transmit information in a unique way, and even to heal,” adding that his first CD focused on environmental themes, such as stopping global warming.
Of the 35,000 campers, the vast majority — about 25,000 — were from Brazil. Trailing far behind were campers from Argentina and Canada, with about 700 and 600 respectively.
For many Brazilian youth, the forum was a window to their country at large and to the world.
Vanderlei Silva, 20, is from Brasilia, the nation’s capital. He was walking into the camp with three of his friends and co-workers when he stopped to talk.
“We work at a young adult education program in Brasilia,” Silva said. “We have come to the forum because we are presenting a project concerned about educational issues in rural areas. Education is key to so many other things. If you have education, it can help solve problems like peace and war.”
While he and his friends were very upbeat about the encampment (“It gives us a chance to have contact with people from all over the world,” Silva said), they added in unison: “It’s good, except there could be more showers!”
Ana Paula, a 24-year-old university student from Brazil, was first and foremost concerned about developing political strategy. “The forum is a place for people to get together who think it’s important to fight the capitalist system and find another way to organize their economic life. It’s also a place to develop ways of more effectively fighting to combat this system.”
Fernanda Alves, 20, from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, studies filmmaking at Fluminense
Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. “Education makes people who they are, and we should work for a better world,” she said. “I fully agree with the forum’s slogan, ‘A better world is possible.’ It’s also important to not just listen to ideas, but to find solutions to problems. We need to talk less and do more.”