Voices from a new world

Solana Larsen
29 January 2003

There is a constant buzz of smiling people in Porto Alegre. This year, the World Social Forum has attracted around 100,000 people from 126 nations, all intent on the complex task of making the world a better place.

Social movements in countries as different as Togo, Fiji, Nepal and even the Vatican are all represented. About 19,500 delegates are Brazilian. Add that to the thousands of spectators that have come to take part by the bus-full from Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and the boisterous delegations from all of Latin America, and you have a predominantly non-English speaking crowd. The United States and Britain are practically invisible.

The purpose is to approach, in a constructive way, alternatives to what people here call neoliberal globalisation. Trade unionists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, feminists, economists and many others have gathered here in an attempt to strengthen civil society across the globe, and to help to make change possible. For a backgrounder see openDemocracy’s debate between leading activists Susan George and Ezequiel Adamovsky.

Forum buses freight participants between venues and meetings as they clutch more than 100 A3 pages of a complex programme. The bulk of the meetings are organised by ‘autonomous’ organisations. Nearly 300 seminars are going on at any one time. And these are only peripheral to the bigger events planned by the organising body of the forum, which attract audiences as large as 15,000, filling the city’s stadium to the rim.

The scale of everything makes for an overwhelming amount of chaos. Room numbers change, people migrate between meetings, and many events are lost or cancelled.

But even as the days progress, and 30,000 spend yet another night on the hard ground of the nearby camping site, positivity rules. Most have come to soak in the optimism and experiences of others working in fields similar to them. And this goes on at all hours, between and during meetings, in the bus between venues, and especially at the daily music performances after sunset.

But the politics of the forum are less than simple. Participants here disagree on a range of issues – not just on how to make life better on earth – but what role the forum could or should play in that. While most are happy to see the process of the Forum, others dream of a body that could actually represent the world’s social movements.

Next year, it is planned that the World Social Forum will be held in India. Organisers hope this will ensure greater participation and representation by people and groups from across Asia.

Another world may indeed be possible, but there is still a long way to go.

Emanuelle Umbuoaja

Emanuelle Umbuoaja, Nigeria

I am a trade unionist and I work for the Nigerian Liberal Congress. This is my first time at the World Social Forum. I am hoping we can link up with other positive, progressive-minded people to help make a new world, to ensure that another world is possible.

We are hoping to meet with CUT (Brazilian Central Union of Labourers) and other liberal unions from across the globe, and to work together to resist the actions of the World Bank, the IMF, privatisation and other oppressive economic policies. I have met several people in the trade union movement, and its clear that our problems around the world are the same.

In Nigeria, the liberal unions have been trying to get our party registered. We are hoping to have our own ‘Lula’ in Nigeria one day.

Bojja Thakaram

Bojja Thakaram, India

I belong to the Dalits (or ‘untouchables’) community in India, which has been oppressed and suppressed for centuries. Right from the beginning of my career as a student, I’ve worked for the establishment of the human rights for these people, and I fight for their due place in civil society. Basically, I am an advocate practising in the high court of my state.

Eighty per cent of the people I represent are landless. There is lots of available, cultivatable government land, which could be distributed: waste land, temple lands. But because of privatisation, land distribution policies have stopped.

So I want to see what landless struggles are being waged in other countries, particularly in Brazil. What are their options now? And what are their strategies and dreams for getting out of their situation? I have come to observe and learn things. That’s why I’ve come to this place. To get inspired and to take it back to my country.


Perkuajol (meaning Stone), Brazil

I work for an organisation representing the three indigenous groups of Southern Brazil. We’ve been working for 15 years against discrimination and deception. We’re struggling for the survival of our cultures, and we’re hoping for a new and better world.

This is my third time at a World Social Forum. Here we work with people from other countries who understand our suffering as Indians. It is a moment for dialogue. Here in Brazil, the Indians suffer great discrimination, with little space in the media and television. But at the Forum there are lots of people dedicated to the indigenous cause.

The most important thing for us to achieve here is to be treated as humans, to be able to contribute more to the political process. I feel this forum is the basis for changing the entire world.

Alicia Segura

Alicia Segura, Chile

I am representative of the Communist Party in Chile. Attending the meeting here is one of the most important things we’ve doing. The World Social Forum is wonderful. It’s the first time I’ve been here. It’s fantastic that we’re uniting, finally, once and for all – to get rid of the imperialism that’s flattening us all.

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