01 FEBRUARY 2005 - As I made my way through the vast encampment of marquees, tents and official kiosks that stretched for two kilometers along the eastern coast of southern Brazil and mingled with the 150,000 people, I was filled with encouragement and hope. Porto Alegre, south of Sao Paulo, may seem an unlikely place to hold the World Social Forum yet this mammoth event organized by ordinary people is committed to changing the social injustice that causes poverty, hunger and oppression. It is an event that is blinding evidence that right is powerfully contesting wrong.
For all who feel frustrated, hopeless and even despair that change is not possible in a world overwhelmed by the military and economic interventions of the most powerful states, they have just to visit the Forum to realize how many organizations, representing millions of people, are working for change all over the world.
At the center of the tent city, the youth encampment had 35,000 young people. They came to listen and learn from each other and share their experiences. Many are university students working in developing countries trying to make a positive difference by working with the poor. There were hundreds of cultural events that brought them together despite different languages and cultural differences. People from 135 countries were present at the Forum. Others came looking for meaning and purpose to life. They were wise enough to realize that the modern consumer society offered little more than useless fashion and junk food. It offered no values to live by or for.
For many enlightened young people there is no self-worth in being a consumer exploited by wealthy merchants as dumb customers falling for every advertising gimmick. They were here looking for opportunities to volunteer in organizations that are really making a difference to change the systems and structures that enrich the few and impoverish the many.
Some people can mistakenly think all young people are beer guzzling street boys. They only have to visit the youth camp at the World Social Forum and think again.
After speaking at several events in the hot and humid tents about Fair Trade and the work of PREDA, I was approached by two young men, a Brazilian and French. They expressed their interest and willingness to volunteer and work with the PREDA projects to help young people less fortunate than them as many have done before and still are.
There were no less than 2,800 seminars, workshops, symposia and discussion groups during the five-day event. More than 3,600 proposals for social development and political change were submitted, all will be eventually published. The participation was greater than during the past five Forums. The biggest number of participants came from Brazil followed by the United States and then European and African countries. The huge number of American participants shows the extent of the social development movement in America. With half of the population there opposing their government's polices, it is not surprising they want to tell the world.
The Forum opened and closed with massive street marches. I hurried from the airport jaded after the long flight from the Philippines and met with the sponsoring group. We joined the thousands who thronged the streets with hundreds of huge flags and banners of all colors, placards and posters advocating one course of action or condemning another. Sound blasting trucks traveled with the marchers through the city. They have flat roofs with a safety railing that held the speakers and media people. The speakers emotionally called for justice, solidarity and resistance to oppression and social injustice and were answered with a thundering response from the crowd. It was exhilarating and the power of their feelings made one's hair stand on end. It banished all the jet lag and exhaustion. Just being there was to realize that the World Social Forum is more than the sum of its parts.
It is an event that gives a very strong impression to the world that that there is an active idealistic and organized body of committed people in the world who have a different world view to that of the political and economic power brokers. The forum is a huge body of people that can be described as the voice of 'Civil Society' and it is united in having a preferential option to help the victims of injustice and work for a world where people and their rights are the priority of all human endeavors.
This people's movement working for global justice is a powerful inspiration and hope for the millions of people who feel oppressed by the seemingly insurmountable concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few powerful people. It tells them they are not alone, they have a voice, are being heard and help is at hand.