January 29, 2009 by Jason Brown
January 27, 2009
Today we arrived at the World Social Forum. After a quick flight from São Paulo I arrived in Belém flying over the Guamá River. It was beautiful to see the Amazon after a lifetime of imagining it, reading about it, and seeing it burn in national geographic articles. After all this time the quilt of images and impressions came together into a clear image.
A fellow student and I arrived at the airport and met a friend of a friend who had agreed to let us crash at their apartment for the duration of the forum. The city was sweltering, and I felt a pang of nostalgia from the aesthetic Latin American cities: block style houses, winding narrow streets and hand painted signage.
About 100,000 people participated in the opening ceremony and march. They poured down the mango-lined central avenue of Belém in droves doing battle with crossing traffic as taxis and motorists squeezed through the apparently detour-less march route. The street was filled from side walk to side walk with people: young, old, anarchists, nuns, hippies, clowns, puppets, communists, street-wide banners, fluttering flags, drums, and indigenous people in traditional dress and paint jogging in unison with bows, arrow and spears.
The Left in Brazil is represented by a pretty wide range of neo-Maoist, communist, socialist, and social democratic parties. In 2002 a coalition of left parties helped to elect The Workers’ Party candidate Luis Inácio Lula da Silva to the astonishment of everyone including the United States. Lula grew up in a slum shining shoes, and later became a labor organizer. The win marked a victory against the puppet neo-liberal governments that had dominated Latin American until fairly recently.
The theme of this year’s World Social Forum is Pan-Amazonia, and the forum will boast over 2 thousand indigenous people mostly from the Amazon basin, but also including representatives from the Andes and Central American Maya peoples. After joining the march for the last mile or so, the masses dispersed into a large plaza near the center of town. There was a stage erected and a slew of presenters gave rousing speeches, sang traditional Indian songs, and performed dances. The indigenous speakers touched on various themes: land rights, compensation for stolen natural resources, access health care, and the importance of the forests and their continued protection.
It was interesting to see such a diversity of people at the march. There were men and women of all ages and nationalities. There were also Christian groups and nuns marching. Earlier in the day I had seen a Mormon mission president, his wife and the A.P.’s at the airport waiting for a new batch of missionaries. I was saddened by the fact that I didn’t see them at the march. The idea is silly I’m sure, but why not? Why didn’t the entire mission show up? How is it that Catholics and Protestants can believe in the same God as us and reach such different conclusions regarding theological priorities? I guess that the people I saw were minorities in their traditions as well. The night ended with a dinner on the river in the cool tropical air with a lightning storm in the distance. It was completely surreal.
January 28, 2009
Today was officially titled Pan-Amazon Day. The gathering has attracted over 100,000 people, with over 2 thousand indigenous people participating. On our first day of attendance we took the city bus to the Federal University of Para (UFPA) where the day’s events were to take place. We started out sort of exploring the campus which had been totally taken over by the conference. There were art exhibits, tents designated for Brazilian workers rights organizations, tourist kitsch, tropical fruit stands, food stalls, and three stages with all day cultural and political presentations. The three stages were divided between cultural identity, regional integration, the criminalization of social movements, climate change, deforestation and a few other presentations. We got there a little late, but just in time to hear the English translation of an indigenous tribes manifesto. What was most striking about most of the indigenous presentations I heard today and yesterday was their frequent mention of environmental protection. Many political economy theorists assume that environmental protection is the luxury of an industrial economy. Countries can only afford to protect the environment when they are rich enough to do so. But the indigenous people that were represented at the World Social Forum by economic measures are the poorest people in the hemisphere; yet because they depend on their environments for their sustenance and their cosmologies are for the most part biocentric, protecting the environment is not a luxury but an ethical and practical necessity. After a few presentations and a couple of awestruck moments on the shore of the Guamá River, a tributary of the Amazon, we headed to the first session. We made it just in time to awkwardly introduce ourselves in Portuguese at an agroforestry and permaculture presentation. It was pretty tough to understand the rapid fluent Portuguese spoken by 90% of the attendants, but I got most of the overarching issues…I think. The facilitator of the session was careful to keep the meeting as egalitarian as possible, sitting on the floor, and asking for input for the agenda. This style had its disadvantages when ten people would start to argue about the finer points of a definition, but overall the session was a good introduction to Brazilian agroforestry and permaculture activism and I made some good contacts.
The second session that we wanted to attend was on the WWF’s conservation work with indigenous people. It was cancelled, and I began to believe the rumors I had been told about the WSF. Luckily we made it to anther session on a similar topic. The room was sweltering but not packed to capacity like most of the other session rooms. I even managed to snag a chair after an older man left. The session featured representatives from Conservation International, a few Brazilian anthropologists, and representatives from the Kayapó Indian tribe, who live on the Xingú River, southwest of Belém. For those of you not familiar with the Kayapó, let me just say that to me they are like anthropological celebrities. I have read all sorts of wonderful stuff on them, especiallya their sophisticated agroforestry systems that include ants as pest control. I love the documentary about them which shows how they are dealing with pressure from Brazilian miners on the reserve lands. The film also features the Kayapó using video cameras and televisions to record and preserve their dances. True to the Kayapó spirit, one man, with full head dress and body paint, whipped out his cell phone and cordially left the room to chat. The other, gave a power point presentation on the participatory mapping that the tribe has done to manage fisheries, hunting grounds, and monitor invasions on their lands. Conservation International has been working with the tribe in order to facilitate biodiversity conservation on tribal lands by providing them with tools they need to monitor and manage biodiversity. One slide showed a striking image of the extend to which surrounding lands have been deforested, with a massive green splotch representing the 11 million hectare Kayapó reserve. The presentation also took advantage of the time to brain storm on an Indigenous Reserves Conservation Network.
Overall it was a good day; we skipped the third and final session out of exhaustion and fatigue. We also wanted to make sure we caught the right bus back to the place we are staying before it got dark. Although it was a little frustrating that everything was so spread out and overlapping, it was a inspiring to see people discussing important issues, making declarations, organizing future events, and sharing resources. It truly was a forum for the exchange of ideas.