Reflections on Porto Alegre (3/01)

It is a hot and sticky day when we arrive at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. This is the first annual counter-conference to the World Economic Forum taking place in Davos, Switzerland. In Davos, the elite of the world gather to plot a war against the poor. In Porto Alegre, social justice activists from around the world are meeting to plot a war against poverty. The slogan of the World Social Forum is ‘another world is possible.’ While we in Brazil share ideas freely, peaceful protestors in Switzerland are not allowed anywhere near the armed camp of Davos.  Which of these two visions represents the world you want?

At the opening ceremony we are mesmerized by the primal beat of drums as participants are asked to rise as the name of their country is called. I listen in awe, with a growing sense of connectedness, as over 100 countries are named.

A black woman from Brazil closes the ceremony with a soliloquy, a piece written by Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano. She speaks of the future, of the world that is possible, when a black woman is president of Brazil, another is president of the USA, and an indigenous woman is president of Peru. She dreams of a world where ‘economists will not confuse the standard of living with the level of consumption, nor the quality of life with the quantity of things’. It is a fitting opening to the creative discussions and visions for the future that will follow in the days to come.

We are ushered in buses downtown where we join thousands (20,000 in all) in a march ‘against neoliberalism and for justice.’ Brazilians know how to protest in style: the march ends at an open air amphitheater where live bands play all night long for each night of the Forum. Imagine the warm breeze on your skin, people laughing, dancing, singing. From Samba to Brazilian rock, the place shakes. Imagine your heart fill with hope when you hear everyone around you sing along to "viva, viva, viva la sociedade alternativa."

The next four days are packed: 4 simultaneous panels with keynote speakers in the morning and workshops (400 in total) in the afternoon. One day I sit back for a moment and contemplate the barrage of ideas, dreams, debates and plans for action that are taking place all around me. There is no need for consensus; it is a moment in time for reflection, to learn from one another. The views represented are as diverse as alternatives to neoliberalism must be. We refuse to be bullied into coming up with the answer. The ‘one size fits all’ aspect of economic globalization is one of its greatest faults. An alternative vision must inherently be multifaceted.

Each evening a different ‘testimony’ is given. The first night Eduardo Galeano spoke. Although the Brazilian organizers did a stellar job overall, in this case the room was not big enough to fit all his adoring fans. For those of you who do not know his beautiful work, his ‘historical poetry’ as I would call it, it is well worth checking out. People screamed to be let in: ‘Galeano, Galeano’. In the end, he let them sit on the stage.

Another highlight of the testimonies was the leader of the Workers Party, Lula da Silva. He nearly won the federal elections in 1989, and is running for the 4th time next year. The Workers Party has had better luck at the municipal level. They have been in power in Porto Alegre for 12 years and they are making inroads in other cities. The Workers Party also controls the state of Rio Grande do Sul. These two governments are beacons of democracy and progressivity; we could all learn from their experiences with a participatory budget.

We Canadians have a lot to learn about the power of the chant: as Lula walked in all the Brazilians began to sing: "ole, ole, ole, ola, Lula, Lula". He spoke of his childhood and his youth as a worker. He explained how he gained his political consciousness over time. Bit by bit, he began to see how things really are, and how they need to be changed. It was a beautiful testimony. Not only did he have the audience in the palm of his hands with his obvious oratory skills, but more importantly, it was his ideas, his vision for the future that brought the crowd to their feet. His engaging and hopeful dialogue has not been heard in Canada since the days of Tommy.

On the last night of the Forum two of the most important players in the international fight for the rights of farmers gave their testimonies: Joao Pedro Stedile, head of the MST, the Landless Movement in Brazil; and Jose Bove, the French farmer who has become famous for destroying a McDonald’s and uprooting GMO plants.

Stedile opened his testimony by stating that only mass struggle can change the balance of power and achieve concrete victory. He explained that others thought that they should send letters to the government and shout for radical reforms – ‘as if the radicalness of the words would be enough.’ Instead, the MST chose to ‘cut down the fences of the large farms’ and take over the land. The MST has settled well over 200,000 families in 16 years. This is much needed in a country where an elite 1% own 45% of the land.

He explained that the MST has moved beyond the focus on land reform, to taking a critical stance on the very economic model that produces landlessness to begin with. He argued convincingly that ‘it’s not enough to be in favour of the poor, you have to be against the rich.’

Bove, who has been in trouble with the law, argued that the real criminals are those that say that the commodification of food will feed people. He asked why it is illegal to destroy a McDonald’s but not illegal for the WTO to force hormone treated beef on European consumers when they had passed a law banning it. He contended that some day an international tribunal should meet to rule against the people who are destroying agriculture across the globe.

These two men and the organizations they represent are forging unique ties of international solidarity. Three days before, the two of them joined over 1000 farmers in a take-over of a Monsanto test site. They ripped out the GMO plants, arguing that they were just doing what the government should have done because GMOs are illegal in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. They declared that the land should be used for sustainable agriculture.

As Bove was speaking, someone whispered in Stedile’s ear. Stedile announced that because of Bove’s involvement in the take-over of the Monsanto test site, the Federal Police were giving Bove 24 hours to leave the country.

The Brazilians broke out in unison: ‘Que fica! Que fica!’ – screaming that he should remain in Brazil, in defiance of the order. They began to sing: ‘ole, ole, ole, ole, Bove, Bove.’  He ended up being allowed to stay until the end of the Forum, but there is no doubt that this has only thrown gas on the fire of the French farmers’ movement.

Many people I spoke with agreed that some of the most important work of the Forum took place in the hallways, over lunch, over a drink. It was a chance to meet people from all over the world working on social justice and to compare notes. Most participants were, of course, from Brazil and other Latin American countries.  As a Canadian, it was a delight to have this unique opportunity to hear about their struggles, their strategies and their victories. It was heartening to listen to them reflect the same feelings, thoughts and analysis that social movements in Canada engage in. However, they have been in the battle against neoliberalism longer than we have, and we have much to learn from them.

One of the many enchanting mottos of the forum was ‘globalizemos la luta’ – globalize the struggle. We, people from across the globe, left Porto Alegre feeling less isolated in our struggles and more connected to the global movement for justice. We left feeling that much more certain that another world is possible.

Jessie Smith works with Real Alternatives Information Network (RAIN)in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Reach her at (604) 254-4409,, or via