WORLD SOCIAL FORUM – a conspiracy in our favour

The World Social Forum (WSF) held in the black city of Salvador was a success! This was the conclusion reached by the components of the Brazilian Collective and International Council members in their assessment, made just after the end of the multiple activities and the profusion of convergence and pathways, displayed somewhat anarchically, as in a great market of the Now of the Future, in the middle of the festive parade of the closure of the 13th edition of the World Social Forum.

Much is owed to the determination of the Bahia Collective of the WSF which, alongside its consistent presence in the construction of regional forums and international seminars and in collaboration with certain leaders and weighty organizations within the International Council, was able to achieve legitimacy and overcome scepticism and, something that was also in its favour, was able, from the beginning, to rely on the support of a great public university, which lent its cultural and territorial ballast.

Out of this initial alliance and the pride of a historical centre that is the largest black city outside Africa, in the heart of the Northeast – one of the poorest parts of the country – the seed of the forum was born, a venture which expected to, and did, rely on the strength of the Orixá deities and on all the saints, and on the political knowledge of how to enchant and traverse in diversity at times of resistance.

In its declaration of intent, the Bahia Collective maintained that “The world is confronting a unprecedented crisis of multiple dimensions, an economic, environmental, political and social crisis, amongst others.  Climate change threatens the integrity of ecosystems and the survival of populations. The growing financialization of the economy has led to an increase in inequalities at an unprecedented level.  In most countries, the policies of austerity and of structural adjustment have been imposed on populations and the main victims are the most vulnerable”. The situation of the coup in Brazil and the threats that hang over the whole of Latin America, as well as the context of wars and false solutions to combating terror which provoke multitudes of refugees, were also remembered as elements requiring the urgent counter-hegemonic response which a forum may be able to deliver.

“To resist is to create, to resist is to transform!”

One of the most important differences in the WSF sphere, is that the first editions held in Porto Alegre were led by white, European or Latin American men, almost all intellectuals from the left who denounced the capitalist and neo-liberal system and argued at the time for the need for other leaders from social movements.  In 2016, this desire was realized through the intense participation of women leaders, the self-denominated “feminine spring”, from several Latin American and international movements representing black people and Brazilian young people.  This new movement brought with it all the diversity of the urban and ecological struggles, of the struggle against femicide, against the extermination of black youth, and in defence of social rights around the world.  And this was the political, cultural and economic mixture that laid down the conditions for a forum in Bahia, in the midst of uncertainties and meagre resources.  Unfortunately, old contentions in the international sphere discouraged leaders from certain important strands of the social movements, which would have laid greater emphasis on and advocacy for the joining of forces, given the neoliberal offensive in the world and Brazil.  Nevertheless, the World Social Forum, preceded by preparatory meetings, seminars and events, took place between 13 and 17 March; it was an unequal success and, no less important, the NGOs were able to assert some domination, diluted by the spontaneity of the movements.

Some numbers provide evidence of the facts, happenings and performances, whose creativity and explosion of sounds, words and colours, happily went off the organizers’ script.  At the same time, there was a sense of agony in the air, the question of understanding how much the World Social Forum was in dialogue with the city.  In the end, despite press conferences, the institutionalized media gave little importance and did not broadcast the forum in the way it would, for example, the sponsored activities of the great carnival of Bahia.  Perhaps it was expecting too much, while activists and volunteers chased after them, with pamphlets and performances held in strategic locations. Through the initiative of local groups, a decorated Cultural Themed Train drove to the Subúrbio district, stopping at stations to call on the population to occupy the forum arena.

The Facilitating Group’s (FG) balance sheet speaks for itself: 80,000 people and 6,000 organizations circulated the 70 territories in which the forum was set up, with the epicentre at the Ondina Campus of the Federal University of Brazil (Universidade Federal da Bahia: UFBA) and participation from 120 countries from the 5 continents, predominantly, of course, from Brazil, and more than 6,000 foreigners, 3,800 Latin Americans, 1,000 Africans, 600 Europeans, 450 North Americans and a more modest number from Asia and Oceania.  Another highlight was the Bahia State University (Universidade do Estado da Bahia: UNEB) whose events attracted more than 2,000 people with an emphasis on the activities of people from the African-origin religions and other manifestations of negritude.

The grand opening of the forum took place on the afternoon of 13th March, preceded by a great session at UFBA, where homage was paid to science and culture, giving diplomas to the scientist deans Zilton and Sonia Andrade and to the sacred art of Master Didi. At least 60 thousand people trod the classic path of resistance between Campo Grande and Castro Alves Square – a profusion of colours and rhythms, discourse and song.  In the end, the city came to a halt and found out that something different was happening here, something spontaneous and grassroots.

The strength of the women’s and feminist movements spread through the territories, with particular emphasis on their World Assembly in Terreiro de Jesus Square, in the historical centre of Salvador, a stage of confrontations and presence, with more than 8,000 participants, predominantly women, scattered amongst coloured tents, where they signed a non-negotiable list of commandments for the struggle and for rights.

The forum registered 2,100 enrolled activities, including workshops, large meetings of convergence and cultural manifestations in classrooms, auditoriums and different tents with their symbolic names – Human Rights, Common Home, Chico Mendes, Sister Dorothy, Luis Melodia, Perseu Abramo, Marcus Vinicius, Aurélio Garci, New Paradigms, Agroecological Convergence.  The whole Ondina territory was seething with manifestations, performances, fanfares, small and large conferences and tribunals, in the midst of intense trade in handicrafts, particularly from traditional populations, poster publications and works of art – the solidarity economy of products and the food square.  The audience highlights were in the first place women and the black population, young people, the hip hop movement, the LGBTqi movement, artists, traditional populations with many fishermen and women.  In other territories, the highlight was the World Youth Encampment at the Exhibition Centre with 2,000 participants and the Indigenous People’s Encampment in the green areas of the Legislative Assembly, with more than 20 nations represented – especially from Bahia, but also from Amazônia, Colombia and North America.

Gusts in the wind

There was high energy in the World Social Forum on the first day of the actual beginning of activities with evidence that the organization was working, this despite the fright experienced the day before when many of the classrooms and auditoriums suffered an unexpected power cut.  The FG, in particular its core group, redoubled its efforts to overcome this obstacle, reorganizing the arenas to the despair of those who were promoting their activities, avid for information to disseminate through ‘mosquitoes’ and virtual banners via WhatsApp, practically to the tempo of the local instrument the berimbau.  But on the evening of that day, gunshots using private bullets from the Federal Police cut down the life of Marielle Franco, the PSOL councillor and black activist from the Maré favela in Rio, and her driver Anderson Gomes, who was providing this service as he waited to start a new job at the beginning of April as a mechanic for an airline.  Marielle had planned to travel the next day to advocate at the Social Forum.  On that hot day, mourning took over the life of the forum.

Among the activities that CESE helped to coordinate were the Ecumenical Panel for an audience of 500 people, planned to take place at the Bahia Social Institute: Churches in resistance to the scenario of coups in Latin America – a critical reading to “inspire faith and keep the flame alight”.  Among the panel members was the Baptist Pastor Henrique Vieira from the Evangelical Front for the Rule of Law, a young pastor who has stood out on social networks for his charismatic and prophetic communications in the defence of a new church at the service of the poor.  Barely had he arrived at the airport that night than he received the news of the killing of Marielle, who was his very close friend.  Weeping, he informed CESE that he was returning to Rio.

That morning there was a march around the Ondina campus and demonstrations which multiplied across Brazil and the world.  It was an absurd affront, on a par with the daily deaths of the less well-known populations and leaders in deepest Brazil.  This time they hit an easy, fragile, target, in a large urban centre, a young black leader, a human rights activist who, among other functions, was accompanying the cases of police deaths and supporting their families.  A message, certainly, from the militias to the military intervention, to the leaders of Maré, to the human rights defenders, to the movements in the favelas, to the democratic parties, to the full parliamentarians and to those who fight against impunity and for the rule of law.  A bullet to an activist full of vitality and energy.  In a full auditorium at the Bahia Social Institute the Ecumenical Panel held a very moving act of enormous compulsion and fraternity with her projected image, beautiful, energetic in her elegant leather jacket – The struggle goes on, my friend! For you, for us.  Marielle is present!

CESE at the forum

As well as the large event of the Ecumenical Panel, CESE led or contributed to interreligious celebrations at the opening of the World Forum on Theology and Liberation, marked the beginning of activities to celebrate its 45th anniversary during the WSF and ran 6 round table dialogues and 2 seminars addressing multiple themes about the relevance of ecumenical missions, the challenge of a new Human Rights agenda, covering emergency issues such as water, mining and food security; the issues of democracy, the struggle for rights x inequalities; socio-environmental justice in the face of mining, water and traditional peoples, the human and environmental costs; institutional violence, femicides, the extermination of black youth and mass incarceration; the empowerment of black women and women from the grassroots sector in the Northeast.  Finally, it promoted the launch of two publications – one about these women and the other the relaunch of its historic Human Rights Booklet, updated in format and content, marking 45 years since CESE was established and 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Furthermore, CESE represented the Brazilian Collective at the signing of the Cooperation Agreement between the WSF and UFBA and was responsible for monitoring and for the operational, physical and political diligence required to ensure it was properly realized.  The team and collaborators threw themselves wholeheartedly into the dense and concrete utopia that was the World Social Forum

The unpopular government will pass, just as the forum passed through us, leaving seeds of hope.

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