Postcard From…Belem

Seens from the Street at the 9th World Social ForumMore than 100,000 people gathered on the edge of the Amazon rainforest for the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil in late January. Youth from local universities mixed with seasoned activists from around the globe. Sheltered from the beating sun and drenching rains by huge white tents, they talked in pairs and in the hundreds, to old friends and new allies. The conversations amounted to nothing less than a full-scale re-imagining of the world order — one rising out of the ashes of today’s economic, ecological, and cultural crises.

Critics have assailed the World Social Forum for clinging to its ambiguous identity as a “process” for sharing alternatives to the status quo that lacks a concrete platform for action. But this year’s tone of urgency — from climate change to the multiple threats to indigenous lands and cultures — and the sense of possibility created by the financial meltdown and accompanying global economic crisis have generated the collective will to coordinate more closely.

Indeed, civil society statements presented at the Forum’s closing assembly illustrated how local and global proposals can complement one another. The climate justice assembly declaration called for the globalization of peoples’ everyday strategies to protect their environment and wellbeing, and for seeing local energy, food, water, and trade systems as real solutions to climate chaos. Meanwhile, in response to the economic crisis, activists and representatives from labor and economic justice organizations called for a “democratized” United Nations to steer financial reform and establish global mechanisms to regulate capital.

The common message emerging from Belém was clear. People represented at the World Social Forum — students, indigenous peoples, women, workers, farmers, artists, fisherfolk — are tired of paying for the calculated mistakes of rich countries, and elites everywhere. The ecological debt owed to the South by the North must be repaid, speculative finance and the commodification of human needs must be reined in, and control of natural and financial resources must be returned to the hands of the people. With these principles guiding the way, the creation of another world is possible.

Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies.