In late January, two Wall Street Occupiers took a trip to Porto Alegre, Brazil, to meet with members of dissident movements from all over the world. The thematic Social Forum, serving as an anti-Davos economic forum, was set up to tackle the “capitalist crisis, social and environmental justice.” Nelini Stamp and Amin Husain met with, among others, Chilean student demonstrators, Tunisian revolutionaries and “indignant citizens” from Greece and Spain.
“All roads lead to Rio,” Stamp tells me, was the credo among participants. This refers to the “Rio +20” conference that will convene in late June “to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), in Rio de Janeiro” and “secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development,” in the “green economy.”
At the thematic Social Forum, global youth and democratic movements mobilized not for the UN conference, but for the “People's summit of Rio +20” event, which is set to happen several days earlier. Stamp says that the prevalent attitude among the Porto Alegre attendees was the one articulated by Esther Vivas. “All indications,” she wrote, “are that the Rio +20 Earth Summit will to serve to clear the way for multinationals to justify their practice of appropriation of natural resources.” The People's summit will present an alternative program to “green capitalism.”
“We found that ecology was an issue that could unite us all,” Stamp says, but not in the way official state bodies were prepared to endorse. For her, the ecological battle is the same as the battle against neoliberal globalization. “We need to globally challenge the G8, the G20, the UN, NATO, the World Bank, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] – and we have to organize to figure out strategies.” She adds, “It is easy to understand globalization at a basic level, but it is difficult to understand in its particulars,” contending that the global capitalist economy's grip on governments everywhere renders politicians impotent to reduce carbon emissions, deforestation, and other harmful industrial practices.
Husain agrees that 2011's social movements and uprisings were all local protests against the same global forces, telling me, “I was in the West Bank in July and we watched the international arena and what was happening. We saw self-immolation in Tunisia and there was something in the air from that – an act of desperation, but also a wake-up call. In Egypt, we saw an affirmation of people power in a productive way, reclaiming of public space signaling to the world that the problem was with democracy. It's not about better politicians, there's something more fundamental going on. The movement is very strong in Greece, the bedrock of democracy. We're still watching.”
In Porto Alegre, Stamp noticed a split between the institutional affiliations that come with the World Social Forum process and the social movement on the ground. “The NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and labor and government-run projects [staples of the World Social Forum] were all in the Legislative Assembly building, but the social movement folks basically didn't attend. Instead, they were at the youth camp in an occupied building, Utopia E Luta.” Far from the tent cities that “occupied” conjures in American heads, “They have a theater there, sewing machines and sewing classes and a hydroponics set-up on the roof.”
In addition to challenging globalization, she counsels, “we also have to challenge the Social Forum process.” Utopia E Luta and its international counterparts, she says, have to become the dominant politics of the anti-globalization left. “NGOs need to stop dropping people in a certain neighborhood and having them canvass for two months. That's why we're not building movements. We're too busy building campaigns. We have to have many more forums and interactive spaces.” The problem is that NGOs are where a lot of the money is and as Stamp laments, “It costs a lot of money to fly people in.”
Flight costs weren't the only obstacle. When the formal forum procedure was in order, conference-goers had a translators and earphones arrangement, a luxury not available at Utopia E Luta. “It's hard to do collective work, when we all don't speak the same language. Everyone translated for each other in mutual languages. I know Spanish, so I helped translate the Spanish indignados into English, which the Greek indignados understood.”
Nevertheless, events like this, says Husain, are valuable. “We left,” he says, “thinking that we need to see more of each other. There is something to be built upon this network of connections. It's beyond ultra globalization and connectivity. We're all fighting the same battle in different spaces.” Husain sees the “federalism” at play when different American Occupy camps adopt differentiating procedures and policies (which best fit their local circumstances) on a global scale, as each country's People's movement operates differently too. Next month, Husain will be going to Egypt for ten days to expand international social movement interconnectivity.
“The question now,” according to Husain, becomes, “that cross-fertilization, that sharing – what does it mean? What does it look like? The World Social Forum could be a good vehicle.”
Stamp is asking the same question. “What does movement connection look like? Is it training? Is it that there's a big Skype call that we can try to do internationally? In Nice in November, we had a global assembly.” Ultimately, she shares Husain's answer, concluding, “The World Social Forum process can be much stronger with the social movements having a strong hand. The NGO stuff, the union stuff, is necessary, but it has to stop being old people talking down to the movement.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff skipped Davos to address the Porto Alegre Social Forum. She called neoliberalism “a failed recipe” for development in the Global South, pointing to neoliberal efforts in Brazil's resultant “stagnation, loss of democratic space and sovereignty, deepening poverty, unemployment and social exclusion.” She called for “a development model that articulates growth and job creation, battles poverty and decreases inequalities,” and promotes the “sustainable use and preservation of natural resources.”