Activists gather for World Social Forum


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BELEM, Brazil (AP) — Some 100,000 activists of all stripes converged on this steamy Amazon city Tuesday, opening the ninth World Social Forum with a rambunctious march to the beat of samba drums.

An afternoon jungle downpour could not drown the spirits of those who came from all corners of the globe to participate: Socialists, environmentalists, anarchists, Indians, communists and even a fellow dressed as a pirate.

The massive meeting — coming amid the worst global economic crisis in decades — was being held for the first time in the Amazon region, an especially poignant fact for attendees.

"During a financial crisis, the environment is the first thing to be pushed off the agenda of most governments," said Andrew Riplinger, 22, of Chicago. "I think having the social forum here in Belem, surrounded by the rain forest — it's keeping environmentalism on the table."

The streets of Belem were overflowed — by both water and the activists, who came wearing homemade shirts extolling every social cause under the sun. Massive banners were unfurled, trumpets blared a chaotic chorus as Indians from across the Amazon performed traditional dances, barefoot, bodies ornately painted and heads adorned with the feathers of exotic birds.

"I'm here to fight for land, health and education," said one parading Indian, an older man who gave his name only as Miguel.

Attendees see this year's forum as more vital than ever, with participants saying the world's economic crisis gave legitimacy to their demands for alternative development models.

The celebration in the Amazon was geographically half a world away — and ideologically on another planet — from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where a dour mood and a decidedly slimmer list of global luminaries prevailed. The social was forum first held in 2001 in southern Brazil as a direct response to that economic meeting in Europe.

Standing on the deck of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, docked in Belem, the environmental group's top Amazon campaigner Paulo Adairo said this year's social forum was being held in the perfect locale.

"The destruction of the Amazon is being propelled by the globalization of the Brazilian economy — cattle and soy for export," he said. "Socio-economic problems and the environment are interconnected. That is why it is very important to have the forum here, so we can highlight both issues."