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Cy Gonick reporting live from the World Social Forum: Day 3

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My adventure on this third day of the World Social Forum was not a caved in roof and crashing ceiling fan (see my report from Day two).

No, it was entirely made up of screwed up logistics. Well, not entirely screwed up, but almost. The day began at 6:30 in the morning with wake up, shower and breakfast. The bus ride to the university campus where the Forum is held usually takes 20 minutes. But this morning it took nearly two hours.

First, got on the wrong bus, the bus going to a second campus about five miles from where I needed to go. The bus stalled several times along the way because of road repair and just too much traffic. I hopped off the bus after about an hour thinking I could just jump onto the right bus, but the bus stop was a 40 minute walk away and the second bus ride took another 15 minutes.

So I missed the 8:30 session I had planned on attending and looked vainly for a second choice, but could not find the room. This campus wanders and wanders and most of the events are in joined huts that are badly marked. And the volunteers, though plentiful in numbers and very friendly as often as not sent me off in the wrong direction. Me not knowing a word of Portugese and most of them, not knowing any English, didn’t help matters.

Anyway, back on the trail, I finally found the 12:00 session I was looking for. And it was very good. My friend Dimitri Roussopoulos put me onto it by e-mail. Dimitri is determined that Canada put on its own Social Forum and sent me to a session sponsored by an organization centred in India, CACIM that promotes the idea of the World Social Forum and is devoted to analyzing its successes and failures.

This session, sub-titled “The Significance of the WSF of the Participation of the Indigenous Peoples of the World” examined the WSF’s special effort to include indigenous peoples in the planning as well as the content of the Forum.

It was explained to us by J’ai Sen who chaired the session, that the first few years of the Forum were planned as “white settler” events with virtually no provision for first peoples. That began to change as the WSF shifted from Brazil to Nairobi and Mumbai. But it was only at this 2009 WSF in Belem that a real effort was to be made to not only have a strong indigenous presence at the Forum but their involvement in its planning. Presentations were made by indigenous representatives from Columbia, India, Peru (Hugo Blanco) and Canada (Ben Powers). The meeting was conducted in classic participatory style with statements invited from the audience being responded to by the main speakers.

Hugo Blanco, the remarkably vigorous revolutionary peasant leader, now in his mid 80s, is the leader of the Campesino Confederation of Peru. He added a strong anti-capitalist flavour to the session and his perspective seemed to be fully supported by the other speakers.

The most insightful presentation was provided by the Canadian, Ben Powers of the Indigenous Environmental Movement. Ben also acted as translator for Blanco and other speakers. More than a thousand indigenous peoples, mainly from within Brazil, made their way to Belem, a two week journey for many of them.

But from their arrival, they complained that most of their time was spent paraded around and in front of TV cameras rather than being engaged directly in the WSF process and exercising a leadership role. So, except for drumming, dance, chanting and ceremonial performances, many have not had an opportunity to share their experiences living in the Amazon, a main focus of this WSF.

One of the problems is that a lot of them speak no Portugese, surprisingly, and translation capacity has been a shortcoming throughout the Forum. The consensus of this panel was that the WSF, however well intended, has not yet found a way to fully engage indigenous peoples in leadership roles. J’ai Sen summarized the conclusions of the panel:

  1. The issue is no longer one of bringing indigenous peoples into the WSF. It is that the WSF needs to join the 500 years of colonial resistance of indigenous peoples.

  2. The centrality of land and nature for indigenous peoples as opposed to capitalism which thinks of land and nature solely in terms of how to exploit them for profit.

  3. The nation state and its arbitrary borders is a creature of European settlers with little relevance to the historic experience of indigenous peoples for whom regional territories are a better fit. As in Canada, indigenous peoples are distinct nations and need to be recognized as such within state structures.

  4. If indigenous peoples are invited only as decoration at WSF events, this is just one more example of western imperialism.

So, that was powerful. I headed out to find my next session, the Durban Group, which in my view, represents among the best analyses of climate change. A half hour later, I finally found the room where it was scheduled to happen. Alas, it was empty. No Durban Group. Apparently, it never made it to Belem.

But I had a back-up. A session on sexual diversity. Found that room too after another half hour of false directions. It was a small group, surprisingly, and intensely in discussion in Portugese ­ no translation. So I didn’t stay long, just long enough to catch the drift ­decriminalization of prostitution, and a lament that Queer was very much in the margins at the WSF.

Oh yeah, and I enjoyed the great agit prop posters on display. Now to make it back to my little harbour hotel. Surprise, surprise. Made it in 20 minutes. That went well. Maybe I’m learning!!!

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