It was a challenging spectacle that took place in Belem, the ninth version of the World Social Forum, bringing global solidarity to the Amazon. What really resulted from this initiative? That is the question that remains. One of the few things that remain after its departure.
Among capitals in Brasil, Belem has one of the lowest percentages of green space per capita, although it is located at the entrance to the Amazon, which contains one-third the world's tropical rainforests. The most extensive green areas remaining in the city are the campuses of two federal universities, the UFRA and the UFPA, which hosted, for a week, the ninth edition of the World Social Forum, which ended on February 1st, 2009. These woods are surrounded by two of the most populous and dangerous districts in the city, Guama and Terra Firme, which contain 10% of the 1.4 million people living in Belem, and some 15% of its crime.
Guama grew by receiving migrants from the interior, who were thrown off of their native lands by the arrival of the new colonizers. These colonizers brought with them cow farms, timber mills, agricultural plantations and mining operations that are responsible for the largest destruction of forests in the history of humanity (the equivalent of expanding Sao Paulo to three times its size in only four decades). Terra Firme became overrun with miserable motels that were installed to receive desperate laborers who were forced off of their land and then urbanized by being herded up by the same coyotes who manage the manpower used to destroy the land where the natives used to live.
In meetings held in Terra Firme to prepare for the Forum a group was formed to ensure the participation of local people. But the idea of local participation evaporated because of the non-participation of NGOs and organizers who were in charge of the event. Furthermore, participation became an impossibility because of the 30 reais (15 dollars) entrance fee to the Forum that nobody could afford.
The Forum discussed none of the problems afflicting the enormous and chaotic outskirts of Belem, where one will find what is considered to be the largest flatland favela in the country, Paar, teeming with 140,000 inhabitants. In addition, Belem is the second most violent city in Brazil, after Recife, in proportion to its population. Ironically, during the week of the Forum, it was the very problems of these neighboring districts that inspired disdainful diatribes, on the internet, from the Sunday social columnist who writes for O Liberal, the paper that is owned by and represents the interests of the moneyed elite in the State of Para.
The international themed conference held in Belem, to emphasize the “Amazon question” and to provoke ideas and arguments about what to do about the current environmental situation, did not dare to cross the police barrier that isolated the dangerous districts, within whose limits are embarrassing black spots on the city's image. Uselessly these neighborhoods looked on as the mob of foreigners held their unusual events.
Locals from these neighborhoods did not participate in the hundreds of scheduled events, nor enjoy meaningful interactions with the foreign festival goers, but merely sold knick-knacks to them to make an extra buck. They had good reason to do this: out of all of the state capitals in Brazil, Belem has the largest informal economy and one of the largest unemployment rates in the country. A huge part of its citizenry make a living by doing odd jobs or work without relation to any kind of stable employment. From this there is an ever-expanding segment of the population that crosses over from the informal economy into the criminal world, with only the slightest possibility of returning.
During the days leading up to the opening of the World Social Forum, local people crossed over the security barriers, that isolated the campus, any way they could, carrying tables, chairs, pots, spoons and food to offer the public because of the inadequate supply of food services for an event of this size in Belem. Later, after an increase in security at the barriers and the entrances (to participate in the debates once inside the campus was free, but access to the entrances was super-controlled) local people began to rob, for the most part, the two thousand volunteers passing between the campuses of the Federal University of Para and the Federal University of Rural Amazonia.
First they stole the volunteers' credentials, and then altered them so that they could pass through security and bring in with them their food, pastries and desserts. People also stole official t-shirts in order to pass through security (some of the volunteers actually had to sell their own official t-shirts in order to get money for the bus so they could get to and from the Forum). In this way, the marginalized people of this Amazonian metropolis tried to take advantage of the huge event of the year, which, according to organizers, welcomed 130,000 people. But because of thousands of extra t-shirts, many in unopened boxes, people began to wonder who really knew how many people were actually inside the event.
Thanks to a marriage of necessity between the need for food and the more than three thousand people camping out on the campus and thousands of others passing between the campuses during the day, there was a link between the bubble of solidarity and the hope for a better world, but there had to be physical manifestation of these utopias, those excluded from globalization in flesh and bone. Guama and Terra Firme were two of the most serious worries afflicting the government and the organizers, the hidden subject in the demand for independence by the World Social Forum (like a contra-faction against the summit of the ultra-rich in Davos).
The Federal government, the PT (Workers Party), dispatched 300 National Guard troops, and sent 50 million reais (out of a 160 million reais budget) for security alone. The State government, also ruled by the PT, put in a concentration of 7,000 military and civil police in the city of Belem. They set up barriers around the neighboring districts to protect the attendees of the Forum from the more than 200 daily incidents of crime in the area (60% of these are robberies, more than 2/3 of which are violent). Thousands of residents were stopped and searched by police patrols, neighborhood bars were forced to close at 10pm because of the marshal law that was imposed on the area. Daily routines were changed, but not for long.
Thanks to these measures, no violence disrupted the atmosphere of the Forum during its week-long stay in Belem. Isolated in this manner, the participants could develop, without interruption, their ideas and proposals for the construction of a better world and a sustainable Amazon. The uncomfortable reality, that was here before, will now return now that the gurus, prophets, disciples and people of goodwill have returned to their homes around the world. Carrying back home with them the same ideas and images that they brought to Belem.
Without a doubt, the World Social Forum brought to Belem people of great intellectual capacity, with strong credentials, willing to apply their talents to build a better future for the planet at large, and in particular, for the Amazon. Few, however, came to hear what the region itself had to say. Many had dedicated their time to studying the Amazon, remaining on constant alert to what is happening through their electronic devices, connected to satellites, accessing data banks, analyzing information, developing complex arguments and coming to conclusions about what is happening in the overexploited Amazonian soil. It seems, nevertheless, that this digital world is so fascinating that its users have no need to go out into the real world and see it for themselves. But the real life characters in this history are aware of their struggles and difficulties without the subtle sophistication of this new electronic idealism.
The Forum came and went like a travelling band passing by the young girl's window that Chico Buarque de Holanda had in his hit song four decades ago. In one his movingly expressive verses he observed: “My suffering people/ said good-bye to the pain/ just to see the band passing / singing songs about love.” The love is gone, the suffering remains. That's what life is, it invades and contaminates the virtual world, throwing out its virtue, that's the way it should be.
Translated from Portuguese by James Denison and Cassia Leal