The recently concluded World Social Forum is a good gauge for assessing the state of the world’s alternative social, economic and political movements. Organized in 2001 as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of global and corporate elites held in
The question on the minds of many was how to respond to what some call the "crisis of crises"–the economic, climate, political and cultural catastrophes that have engulfed the planet–and whether social movements can provide a unifying alternative vision for a better world. Economist Walden Bello of Focus on the Global South summed it up: "There is a sense of urgency and seriousness combining both pragmatism and principle. There is much less rhetoric. Things are taking place very fast outstripping what many predicted. There is a clear collapse of neo-liberalism. We have been triumphant over Davos…. Now we need alternatives and must get down to the hard work of creating them."
Even before the economic crisis broke, Belém was chosen as this year’s site to highlight environmental threats. Located sixty miles from the Atlantic on
According to climate change activist Oscar Reyes of Carbon Watch, the selection Belém was appropriate: "The deforestation issue is connected into the global negotiations and essential to dealing with climate change. The threat to the Amazon–an area that contains half the remaining rainforest in the world–is not primarily from small-scale deforestation, it’s pulp mills, mining, cattle, soy, and agrifuels. You can make sense of that in Belém where these are real and live issues."
Hard economic times and the remoteness of the location skewed the turnout this year–the vast majority of the participants were from
The WSF also chose to highlight the Amazon’s indigenous people. Their attendance was not a folkloric touch: in marches and other events, indigenous participants demanded that their concerns be addressed and that their struggle for cultural survival be part of the global justice movement. From their perspective, the "other world" the WSF envisions must include space for those who have made a different pact with modernity.
This forum carried on its tradition of logistical chaos. The 2,310 "self-organized seminars" and other events were spread out over two university campuses along the banks of the river about a mile and a half apart and a few miles from the center of the city. Some participants complained of spending more time ferrying back and forth between campuses in taxis, buses and on a flotilla of old riverboats than they did in meetings.
The global economic meltdown made the Belém forum different from previous ones. The WSF and the global justice movement were formed in the expansive phase of globalization; now they must adapt to global economic contraction and impending environmental disaster. This year’s participants know that they were right about the failure of corporate-led globalization, but they also know that just saying no is no longer adequate. The prospects of a global wave of beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations and destructive trade policies in response to the crisis and the revival of virulent nationalism loomed over the discussions. Many wondered if what was once dubbed the "anti-globalization movement" could produce a global response based on global solidarity.
Impacts of the Global Crisis
There was general agreement that the economic meltdown is spilling over national borders, but it is unfolding at a different pace and in varied ways across the world.
Gautam Mody ,of
There is also widespread worry in
A recurrent theme in many of the discussions was that elites could use the crisis to reinvent capitalism in new and insidious ways. And many from developing countries raised concerns that the emerging crises piled onto to the longstanding crises of global poverty, migration and access to basic human needs like healthcare and clean water could have a devastating impact.
Networks of Networks
The World Social Forum has played an essential role in the "post-Seattle" world (a reference to the 1999 confrontation between anti-globalization activists and the World Trade Association) by serving as a center of gravity for a movement comprised of a diverse array of organizations, each with its own issues, agendas, programs and constituencies and with a global geographic spread. The WSF has been an incubator for the creation of many successful advocacy networks focused on specific issues related to labor, trade, finance, migration, the environment, human rights, poverty and alternative economic organizations. But there has been limited interaction among these networks. The networks remained "trapped in their own silos," in the words of one forum speaker.
That changed this year. A major push for "cross-network convergence"–creating networks of networks–dominated much of the discussion, and could mark a new stage in the global justice movement’s development. French activist Ameile Cannone, of the Seattle to Brussels Network, described it this way: "The context is different; we face a global crisis, people have decided to put that at the center of their activities. It’s a real opportunity to work across networks, a great first step to start working on climate, labor and development issues I don’t think it would have been possible before and for us this is really a good step."
There is a great deal of work to be done. For instance, the discussion in Belém among labor organizations demonstrated that they have still not found ways to integrate action on climate change–something that will change the way their members live and work–into their daily strategies and practices. Indeed, the climate issue rarely came up in debates about labor’s future, but when pressed most acknowledged it as a critical trade union issue.
It was also clear that environmental activists need to develop a better understanding of the effects of climate change mitigation on employment if they are to build lasting alliances with unions. Only a few trade unionists attended the climate change network meetings and only a few climate change activists attended the labor gatherings. But those exchanges are likely to increase as a result of actions taken in Belém
Amid the usual anti-capitalist boilerplate, the closing statement of the Bel& eacute;m Forum, says: "The challenge for the social movements is to achieve a convergence of global mobilization. It is also to strengthen our ability to act by supporting the convergence of all movements striving to withstand oppression and exploitation."
Two upcoming events will test this new commitment to "convergence:" the G-20 Economic Summit, to be held in London at the end of March, and the climate treaty talks, to be held Copenhagen in December. There is a general sense that these events offer a crucial opportunity for popular movements to mobilize and make their voices heard.
As for the future of the World Social Forum, it remains a flawed but essential institution of global civil society. Critics believe it has become too big and unruly–a carnival rather than a political gathering. It is not a setting for serious policy debates. And there has always been tension between those who would push the forum to be more of a social actor and those that want the forum to remain an "open space" for building relationships and sharing ideas. On her way home, Haeyoung Yoon, of the New York-based CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities as well as the Grassroots Global Justice Network, reflected on this tension: "The Social Forum has to be different. It should be an open space, but a partisan open space." Finding that balance in a time of crisis will be difficult.