From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 7, Dated Feb 21, 2009

ENGAGED CIRCLE world social forum

Carnival Of Alternatives

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The World Social Forum 2009 was a chaotic melting pot of ideas for a better world, writes JOHN SAMUEL

[Pic] Imagine Crowds throng at the WSF in colourful fusion (above) as activists demonstrate a hunt to promote vegetarianism (below) Photo: AP

MUSIC WAS in the air. People were dancing on the street, drenched in an afternoon shower, with causes and convictions. In the late afternoon of January 27, more than 1,00,000 people, from 120 countries, filled the streets of Belem, Brazil, with dance, drums and dreams — a bright rainbow of peoples of the world. Their slogans reverberated across the horizons. They sang and danced for a greener earth, for justice, human rights and for a better world. By the evening, Belem looked like the worldoverflowing the central square — in a carnival of protest and poetry — seeking alternatives for a better world. That is how the ninth edition of the World Social Forum (WSF), from January 27 to February 1, began in Belem, the capital city of the Amazonian state of Para in Brazil.

The WSF began in 2001, and emerged as a platform for discussions, an open space to find alternatives to form a just and humane world free of poverty and injustice. This WSF acquired a special significance in the context of the ongoing economic crisis. Though the WSF began as a counter discourse to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it has now emerged as a part of the broader social and political process in many parts of the world.

The contrast between the WEF in Davos and the WSF in Belem was too evident to ignore. By 2009, after dreams of Davos proved to be the beginning of a nightmare, the WSF signified that "Another world is indeed possible". The highlight of this year's WSF was the public summit of the Presidents of five Amazonian countries — Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay and Ecuador. As Candido Browsky, a founding member of the WSF, who moderated the Presidential discussions, said, "For many years, we said the dreams of growth-obsessed, unbridled financial capitalism would bring a nightmare of misery to the people of the world. We proved to be right and they proved to be wrong. In 2001, there was no President Lula — he was a participant in the WSF— and there was no President Obama. In 2009, we can say Another World is Possible". It appears that there is an emerging consensus in Latin America about the need for a new social politics and policy framework focusing on socio-economic, environmental justice and pluralism.

'In 2001, there was no President Lula and no President Obama. In 2009, we say Another World is Possible' - C GRZYBROWSKI, Founder, WSF

'The banking system should serve people, not live off them. We have to socialise capitalist surplus for social need' - DAVID HARVEY, Urban Theorist

'We need authentic democratisation of people. Not imported democracy from USA, driven by corporations' - WAHU CARA, Activist Nairobi

Every WSF has its unique flavour — in terms of opportunities, options and challenges. The most evident aspect of the WSF was the presence of thousands of indigenous people and communities from the Amazon region. The formal forum began on January 28 with the Pan-Amazon? solidarity day to discuss, exchange and explore issues of environmental, social and economic justice, which affect the most marginalised communities and people in the Amazon region. Environmental Justice was one of the key highlights of the forum. Leonard Buff, the famous liberation-eco theologian, poetically and philosophically talked about the high fever of Mother Earth and the need for nurturing and caring for the earth.

The anger against the bombing of Gaza and the exhibition for the Palestinian cause received much support at the Federal Urban University (UFPRA) of Para campus, one of the key venues of the forum. The 50th year Exhibition and celebration of the Cuban Revolution drew attention.

Professor David Harvey, the urban theorist, spoke about a new people's movement for the Right to City. In the Urban Reform Forum, attended by more than 1,000 people from 100 countries, Harvey concluded his presentation on the present Economic Crisis and its impact on the poor, "We have to ask the question what is more important, the value of the banks or the value of humanity. The banking system should serve the people, not live off the people. The only way in which we are really going to be able to exert the right to the city is by taking command of the capitalist surplus absorption problem. We have to socialise the capital surplus and use it to meet social needs"

South-South? Solidarity among the activists, academics and artists of Africa, Asia and Latin America proved to be an outcome of the social forum process globally. Wahu Cara, the fiery activist from Nairobi, summed up the spirit, "We need authentic democratization of people — across gender, race and continents. We do not need imported and packaged democracy from the USA — a democracy driven by big money and big corporations".

One can find poets, painters, artists, advocacy activists, academics, anarchists and diverse spectrum of thinkers, doers and dreamers at the WSF. Here, on the streets of the venue, Che Guevara, Gandhi, Mandela, Paulo Frier, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X smile at you from the colourful t-shirts on sale. With hundreds of seminars, discussions, debates, stalls and around 150,000 people, the WSF can look like an anarchic fare or Mela of confusion and causes.

THE WSF is many things to many people. For some it is about digital democracy, free software and mobilisation. For others, it is all about indigenous people. WSF is less about final solutions and resolutions. It is more about explorations, shared journeys and a collective search for alternatives. The WSF signifies the pluralism, diversity and dispersion of the world in terms of language, ideas and actions.

One of the main criticisms against the WSF is its seeming anarchy and its willingness to provide space to all kinds of cause junkies. Tens of thousands of young people camped for the WSF in colourful tents at the Rural University Campus. The eco-porn group and the nudist groups made their presence by marching in the evening selling their cause. Then there was the Hare Krishna group promoting vegetarianism and the bhakti cult. There were many actors and organisations that may not be committed to WSF charter. While such diversity makes the WSF interesting and colourful, it can also distract attention from the serious business of searching for a viable political and policy alternatives for a better world.

The increasingly chaotic nature of events and participation may demand the WSF to be more focused and organised in terms issues, ideas and participation. The WSF may have to be reinvented to meet new challenges of an emerging world and world order.

John Samuel is a member of the International Council of the WSF

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 7, Dated Feb 21, 2009