Over the past two months, things have been pretty rough for us non-profits.  Many organizations have faced reduced funding, pay cuts, and a scaling down of programs.  But as I look around, when I take a moment to step out of the non-profit bubble of D.C., I still see good energy, unstoppable energy, coalescing and gaining momentum for global justice.


João Martins, CARE Brasil

One example is the World Social Forum.  Last week, I attended a report back at the Center for International Environmental Law on the happenings of the 2009 World Social Forum, held earlier this year in Belém, Pará, Brazil.

Having come across the World Social Forum while conducting an independent study on social movement theory in college, I wanted to find a way to bring the World Social Forum to you—the AIDemocracy network.  Unable to attend the Forum myself, a member of a partner organization agreed to do some photographing and reporting for us here on the blog.  Unfortunately for us (and for her), things didn’t exactly go according to plan, and her frustration at the rampant disorganization she encountered in Belém precluded her desire to talk further about the Forum.

But you see, the World Social Forum is not your average conference, and definitely not like the well-funded World Conferences of the UN.  You kind of have to know what you’re in for.

First held in 2001, in opposition to the closed-door discussions of the World Economic Forum taking place in Davos, Switzerland, the founding movements of the World Social Forum gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil (home of the participative municipal budget) to propose alternatives to the neoliberal, free market globalization that they saw as infringing upon their communities.  From its inception, the WSF has defined itself as

“an opened space – plural, diverse, non-governmental and non-partisan – that stimulates the decentralized debate, reflection, proposals building, experiences exchange and alliances among movements and organizations engaged in concrete actions towards a more solidary, democratic and fair world.”

Its slogan, “Another World is Possible,” has been described by author Thomas Ponniah as “our generations way of stating ‘I have a dream’.”

However, despite the Forum’s idealism, coordinating logistics for hundreds of simultaneous self-organized workshops, seminars, panels, and performances for several hundred thousand people, spanning multiple cultures and languages, and over a five-day period is no easy undertaking.  The disorganization is inevitable.  But there is no other convergence like it, neither in size nor content.  Some even say that the dedication of Forum-goers over the past eight years, undeterred by its inherent disorganization, is a testament of the resiliency of its message.

So what is the message?  Responding to today’s economic, climate, and cultural crisis, this year’s assemblies developed several public declarations, including one on climate justice, which called for a globalization of peoples’ everyday strategies for protecting the environment, wellbeing, local energy, food, water, and trade systems as real solutions to climate chaos.  Facing continued savanization of the Amazon, violence, and contamination of resources due to logging, cattle ranching, agro-industry and oil drilling (for two great films on this issue look up the rubber tappers movement and a film called Trinkets and Beads about indigenous territory in Ecuador), an entire day of the Forum’s agenda was dedicated to Pan-Amazonian issues and the struggles of indigenous actors living within its forests.  Over 1,000 members of indigenous groups gathered in the early morning before the opening ceremony, creating a human banner that read “SOS Amazon.”

According to the report back I attended, the predominant dialogue among indigenous representation at the Forum was not about mitigation and adaptation, as many D.C.-based NGOs may have you think, but about access to territorial and resource rights, such as land, water, and food sovereignty.  There was a widespread rejection of market-based solutions to climate change, such as the cap and trade policies proposed by Washington, based on the critique that these policies encourage a mere outsourcing of pollution.  Alternative proposals included a carbon tax, which could tax polluters into finding more ecologically friendly alternatives, and the possibility of shifting U.S. government subsidies from fossil fuels to renewable energies.  While it sounds like Obama has a move on the latter, we still lack the political will for the former.

Other concerns included IIRSA, a regional South American infrastructure project designed to facilitate market integration and (here comes the critique) resource extraction, as well as misguided programs that rewarded governments and not indigenous people for the protection and stewardship of forests.

Through critics have often assailed the World Social Forum for its ambiguous identity and absence of a concrete platform for action, this year’s Forum conveyed a key message: our current model of civilization in crisis because it has severed itself from Life, without which we can never aspire to sustainability or peaceful ways of living and interacting.

I also recently had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Vandana Shiva speak at a local poets café.  In her words, we’ve falling to pursuing either “dying” or “killing” economies—the “dying” being banks, and the “killing” being industrial agribusiness, which is instigating an every increasing number of suicides among Indian farmers.  We need to recreate “living economies,” in which life stems not from profit, but from sovereign and local systems that are connected to the wellbeing of the Earth and its human population.

Returning now to my opening point about energy.  Yes!  This is an exciting moment, we all feel it.  Even Beyoncé, after her performance at the Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, described President Obama’s inauguration as the most important event of her life: “He makes me want to be smarter, he makes me want to be more involved.”  But we must more than swoon over this moment.  We must make it a deep and broad-based revolution in the American way of life and in the way we understand our relationship and responsibility to others.  The World Social Forum represents one of the spaces where this is happening, and I encourage you all to read, be inspired, rally your communities, and never settle for less than your ideals for the common good.