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WSF in Belem

Indigenizing the global at the World Social Forum

Friday 13 March 2009, by Janet Conway

The 2009 World Social Forum (WSF) took place January 27 to February 1 in the equatorial city of Belém do Pará. It was the fifth time the world event took place in Brazil, but the first time outside the southern city of Porto Alegre, the home place of the World Social Forum.

As with the earlier events, Belém attracted hordes of participants — 130,000 of them from 142 countries but well over 90 per cent of whom were Brazilian, many of them from Pará and neighbouring states in the Brazilian North.

WSF still disappointingly parochial

The local newspaper reported participation by 1900 indigenous persons from 120 ethnic groups and 1400 Afro-descendents. Although these numbers represent breakthroughs by the WSF’s historical standards in Brazil, the Forum remained an overwhelmingly light-skinned, young, urban, Brazilian and Portuguese-speaking space — in these respects, disappointingly parochial.

Paradoxically, it was this Forum’s novel and clear-eyed focus on the host locality that also was the occasion for its most significant political advances. While the global financial meltdown has displaced all other discussions among the cosmopolitan left within and beyond the WSF, a wide diversity of issues and debates marked the Forum. Climate change, resource extraction and the plight of indigenous peoples were particularly prominent. As always, there was no one place to stand from which to see it all. My focus in this Forum was the question of indigenous participation.

Gateway to the Amazon

Belém is a city of 1.4 million inhabitants and is best known as the gateway to the Amazon. It is located at the confluence of three major rivers as they meet the Atlantic Ocean. In late January, temperatures regularly climb to 45 degrees Celsius with 98 per cent humidity and torrential rains daily.

The Forum was held on two university campuses, contiguous, but vastly different in their built environments. The Federal Rural University of the Amazon (UFRA) is a sprawling site, with huge green spaces of varying kinds of vegetation and a few small scattered buildings. Fenced areas of dense brush warned of poisonous plants and animals and discouraged wandering off the beaten path. The ribbon of blacktop that wound through the site became, for the days of the Forum, a river of humanity with currents diverging and converging toward one or another of the 2600 events. At UFRA, the 45-minute walk from end to end in blistering heat or tropical downpour could be eased by perching on the back of one of the numerous bicycles that careened through the crowd with whistles shrieking.

Indigenous peoples, forest peoples, afro-descendents and stateless peoples, the international human rights movement and the pan-Amazonian region were among those housed in thematic tents with their own roster of activities, running alongside the more than 2000 self-organized activities. The UFRA also hosted the Intercontinental Youth Camp, a sea of pup tents and clothelines, 15,000 young bodies hanging out, playing music, selling T-shirts and jewelry and reveling in a time outside of time and shared hope in another possible world. The youth culture in Belém prominently included injunctions to vegetarianism, sexual pleasure and experimentation and marijuana use, none of which had been such visible elements of the Camp’s politic in the past.

The Federal Public University of Para (UFPA) offered quite a different scene, with a much more urban feel. Dense clusters of buildings were laid out along roads open to traffic. For reasons known only to the organizers, there appeared to be a division of political labour between the two sites. With most of ‘the movements’ occupying the tents and green spaces of UFRA and the talking heads assigned to the classrooms of UFPA, each site had its distinct political culture.

Given the difficulty and time involved in moving across the two sites, there was too little opportunity to partake in both, resulting in de facto segregation of different political actors, problematics and modalities. Interestingly, among the few movement spaces assigned to UFPA was ‘the world of work’ tent where trade unionists from around the world congregated in close and convenient proximity to those debating the global financial melt-down.

Focus on the Amazonian bio-region

One of the significant features of the Belém event was its unabashed focus on the host locality as one of global importance. In the lead-up, this WSF was billed as a pan-Amazonian event, recognizing the global environmental significance of the river and the rain forest and the transnational political character of a bio-region that traverses the frontiers of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname.

This World Social Forum event built on a pan-Amazonian process that had seen four social forums organized in the region between 2002 and 2005. The first day of programming was dedicated to the Amazon and its peoples and the threats represented by climate change, mega-projects and extractive industries. This explicit and intentional political attention to a particular place on the planet was a novel development for the World Social Forum, especially in its Brazilian enactments which have regularly been more cosmopolitan in their aspirations and internationalist in the discourses and practices of the organizers.

Perhaps because of these orientations, the World Social Forum in Brazil has been historically weak on environmental questions. The Belém event offered some important correctives to this in its focused attention to ’place’ and the global significance of place-based struggles. Expressions of this ranged from the spectacular to the mundane, the precious to the problematic: Amazon Watch, a Northern-based international environmental NGO, orchestrated an aerial photo of a thousand Amazonian indigenous people spelling out ’Save the Amazon’ with their bodies; a "fuck for the forest" campaign in the Youth Camp; drum-beating, flag-waving vegetarians invading the food courts; the Brazilian Minister of Justice arriving with a police escort and hovering helicopters to hear Amazonian indigenous leaders’ protests about land invasions by settlers and multi-nationals despite constitutional protections. Whatever one’s reactions to any one of these occurrences, and they were heated and varied among participants, that hundreds of less spectacular events wove a novel politics of environmental justice through the WSF programme in Belém was indisputable.

The choice of Belém as a site helped propel the appearance of these discourses among entities that had not before attended much to questions of climate change, resource extraction or indigenous peoples. It also provoked a new prominence within the Social Forum of international environmental NGOs like Amigos de la Tierra and Amazon Watch, indigenous peoples in general and indigenous groups of the Brazilian Amazon in particular, and indigenous-environmental coalitions like Allianza Amazonica. It is interesting to note in the lead-up to the event, the official rationales for the choice of Belém by Forum organizers made no mention of indigenous peoples beyond vague references to the bio- and cultural diversity of the region. By the time of the Forum however, local indigenous groups had assumed a highly visible, although not unambiguous role in the constitution of the Forum.

Indigenous peoples at the Brazil WSF: A history of marginalization

Historically, indigenous peoples and their perspectives have been exceedingly marginal at the World Social Forums in Brazil. Demographically, they are fewer than 350,000 in Brazil, about .1 per cent of the national population. In the early years in Porto Alegre, they were most visible selling crafts or performing in cultural spectacles, a role that has been decried as merely ’folkloric’ by indigenous and non-indigenous participants alike.

The Indian organizers of the WSF in Mumbai in 2004 were far more intentional and successful in politically incorporating mass movements of tribal peoples. Discourses of indigenous land rights and critiques of development emerged powerfully in the Mumbai event but were not sustained in Porto AIegre the following year.

In the Americas, hemispheric social forums in Quito, Ecuador in 2004 and Guatemala City in 2008 were deeply informed by the presence and political perspectives of indigenous movements of the host countries. In the WSF in Brazil however, despite a serious effort to organize an indigenous peoples’ space at the 2005 event in Porto Alegre, indigenous perspectives have been barely audible. This, however, is changing, assisted both by the choice of Belém as a site and developments within the indigenous movements themselves.

Continental indigenous movement emerging

Fueled by events over the last decade in Ecuador and Bolivia in which indigenous peoples have been central protagonists, there is a continental indigenous movement in formation, with strong leadership emanating from the Andean region.

The Co-ordinación Andina, in partnership with Amazonian and Guatemalan entities, assumed major responsibility for orchestrating the historically-unprecedented indigenous presence in Belém. The indigenous peoples’ tent was the site of vibrant and diverse discussions, prominent among them a series of events on "civilizational crises."

What was extraordinary in the context of the Forum, and perhaps more generally, was the assertiveness with which indigenous leaders articulated alternatives central to imagining other possible worlds: concepts of plurinationality and buen vivir (living well - not better), indigenous knowledge of climate change and sustainable interaction with natural environments, radical perspectives on post-development and direct action in defense of their lands and their survival as peoples against developmentalist governments, land-hungry settlers and rapacious corporations.

Differences and tensions were apparent between indigenous entities from different regions who are differently positioned in their own countries and internationally. This was especially evident between the Brazilian Amazonians and those from outside the region, from countries with sizable indigenous populations, with longer histories of collaboration with one another, and resulting cross-fertilization of discourses and perspectives.

The most advanced dialogues appear to be underway among indigenous women, who listened carefully and respectfully to those from contexts different from their own and support each others’ voices, especially with respect to men in their communities. Indigenous women are preparing for the first continental encounter of indigenous women which will take place in Puno, Peru in late May in advance of the fourth Cumbre of indigenous peoples and nationalities of Abya Yala (the Americas). The Cumbre process has enabled this intellectual and political efflorescence of indigenous peoples and indigenous entities are using the Social Forum process in the Americas to advance the consolidation and expand the international reach of their movement.

A watershed event

For the Amazonian indigenous peoples of Brazil and their relationships both to non-indigenous movements and to the Social Forum process in Brazil, the Belém event seemed a watershed event in the sheer numerical strength and visibility of the former. They numbered well over 1000, mostly men and highly visible in their distinctiveness with painted bodies, feathered headdresses and hand-crafted weapons. In the indigenous peoples’ tent, they often entered as groups, singing and dancing and were subsequently identified according to what Brazilian state they hailed from. In one extraordinary moment, a highly respected older man was invited to come to the dias. He was recognized by the moderator as a leader of national stature. He was sent off from his place in the bleachers by his community who stood and chanted, and he was escorted — danced — to the stage by two warriors linked into him.

Another powerful moment occurred in the opening march through downtown Belem. The march, like the Forum, was overwhelmingly peopled by young, light-skinned Brazilians of the host region. From where I was for most of the event, surveying the first two-thirds of the massive parade, there was no indigenous presence of any kind. Following a large, raucous and diverse indigenous peoples’ assembly at UFRA that same morning, their absence was startling. Had they decided not to participate in the march? Was it conceivable that they were at the end of the march — which in Canada would have been an insult?

Suddenly, there appeared, singing and dancing, a group of perhaps 30 Amazonian indigenous youths, moving as a bloc up through the stream of demonstrators, stopping periodically to chant and bop before surging ahead. And in their wake came a line of indigenous leaders stretched the width of the march, armed locked and moving fast, opening a path through the crowd through sheer force of their collective presence and momentum. What was this about? Was this a political statement? Was this a normal mode of being in a mass demo that I had never before seen? Was it a way of moving to the front of a march where, in Brazil, as in many places, the front lines are colonized by political parties of the left with their flags, banners and chants? Its ambiguity intensified when, upon arriving at the march’s destination, it became apparent that these same indigenous leaders were the central actors in the opening ceremonies.

The opening ceremonies were noteworthy in their remarkable departure from past practice. Unlike the highly professionalized and thoroughly internationalized extravaganzas of music, song, dance and political speeches in Porto Alegre, Mumbai or Nairobi, the opening in Belém was 100 per cent indigenous — vastly different in tone, mode and personnel. Although the Andeans made an appearance, it was an event almost exclusively expressive of indigenous groups from the Brazilian Amazon. Indigenous delegations were identified and invited to move through the crowd to the stage, which they did often by linking arms and snaking fluidly as groups through the throngs of people. Group after group enacted greetings to the crowd through their communal songs, dances, poetry and occasionally in a speech. What to make of this — in terms of indigenous positionality in the Belém event, in Brazilian movement politics, or in the World Social Forum process more generally, remains an open question.

Like any World Social Forum, the event in Belém eludes definitive analysis. It continues to provoke awe, critique, comparison and bafflement. No one account can do justice to the vast array and richness of the processes underway in any one iteration of the Social Forum, much less in terms of its mutations and accumulations across time and space.

The fourth day of the Forum was ‘alliances day,’ an innovation of the 2007 event in Nairobi and expressed in Belém through sectoral assemblies, all of which produced declarations. The indigenous peoples gathered at the WSF in Belem issued a call for a global day of action on October 12, the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, in defense of Mother Earth and against the commodification of life, and for a thematic social forum in 2010 on the crisis of civilization-notably including but not limited to the financial meltdown. They are not standing still and neither is the World Social Forum.

Janet Conway is Canada Research Chair in Social Justice at Brock University and in writing a book on the World Social Forum. You are welcome to send comments on this article to jconway[at]brocku[dot]ca.

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