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WSF: Is Another World Possible? | The Nation

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WSF: Is Another World Possible?

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Belém, Brazil

About the Author

Brendan Smith
Brendan Smith is an journalist, oysterman and labor activist. He is co-founder of Global Labor Strategies, a consulting...
Tim Costello
Tim Costello is, with Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, co-author of the new book Globalization From Below: The Power...

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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 Davos, Switzerland, the WSF brings social movement organizations and activists from around the world together around the idea that "another world is possible." If Davos represents a failed globalization from above, the WSF represents an emerging globalization from below. It's a massive affair--this year more than 100,000 people gathered here for the five-day event. Part political convention, part carnival, part countercultural happening, the WSF serves as the center of gravity for the global justice movement that emerged in the late 1990s to contest corporate globalization.

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."

Why Belém?

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 Guajara Bay in the Amazon estuary, Belém is no stranger to environmental conflicts or to impact of globalization. Originally built as an outpost of the Portuguese empire, it served for centuries as a gateway to Amazonia and shipping point for the region's natural resources. Today it is a port of call for container ships picking up aluminum, iron ore, lumber and other riches of the rainforest.

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 Brazil and Latin America--but there were still healthy contingents from every continent. While most of the 5,808 participating organizations were from Latin America, about 1,600 were drawn from the rest of the world, including 491 from Europe, 489 from Africa, 334 from Asia and 155 from North America. In addition to the rank-and-file participants, the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay also made appearances.

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.

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