From Beijing to Porto Alegre

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Linda Ray

LINDA RAY, A San Francisco activist and member of Solidarity, attended both the 1995 NGO Conference on Women in Beijing, China and the recent World Social Forum (WSF) as a Global Exchange delegate.  She was interviewed by Against the Current about these two events.

Against the Current: How would you compare the experiences of the Beijing Conference and the WSF?

Linda Ray: In 1995, the UN conference on Women took place in Beijing.  I attended the parallel NGO forum (meeting of non- governmental organizations) that was moved out of Beijing by the Chinese government to Huairou, a town outside the capital, right before the forum was due to start.

The UN and NGO forums were seen as complementary events both dealing with women’s issues.  Thirty thousand participants, mostly women, attended the 1995 NGO forum from hundreds of countries; most of the participants were women.

The World Social Forum in Porto Alegre was called as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, which is a yearly meeting of mostly government and corporate suits that pay big bucks to be there.  The city government of Porto Alegre and state government of Rio Grande Do Sul, along with other groups, sponsored the WSF and, in contrast to the Beijing government, had no problem with thousands of people marching through downtown.

In China the government only allowed demonstrations and rallies out in Huairou on the forum grounds.  The Chinese government did not want any women demonstrating in downtown Beijing.  The Chinese government also carefully chose which Chinese women would attend the forum, and even though the conference was in China the main language of the sessions was English.

At the WSF the main language spoken was Portuguese since so many local people attended, especially young people, but the main sessions were translated among Portuguese, Spanish, French and English.  The largest delegation was from Brazil.  There were 10,000 people at the youth camp, who held many of their own events, that was nearer downtown Porto Alegre than the main forum site.

A huge change has occurred in the world between 1995 and today.  In six and a half years the world situation is more desperate, with the so-called war on terrorism, increased violence between nations, etc.; but at the same time there is also an increase in international resistance to the neoliberal agenda.

The women’s conference, working on the assumption that the system could be reformed, put forth a very good action plan for women’s rights.  The WSF was held as an alternative to corporate globalization, which is the very system that blocks the implementation of the majority of the women’s demands coming out of the UN conference and NGO forum.

The official U.S. trade union movement did not attend the Women’s conference, whereas Linda Chavez-Thompson of the AFL-CIO, representatives of the UFW, UE and many other trade union officials attended the WSF. There were also many trade union groups from other countries, and the Brazilian trade union federation CUT co-sponsored the WSF.

Changing Focus

At the WSF the largest women’s focus group was organized against fundamentalism in all the major religions and the threat it poses to women’s rights.

I felt the atmosphere in Huairou was more open and friendly; women led most of the workshops and the issues included trafficking of women and children, economic inequality, education for girls and how wars have a devastating effect on women and children.  The activists there were from the grassroots and did not just deal with women’s issues but also with children’s rights and all communities affected by injustice.

At the Huairou women’s forum I sought out trade unionists.  The women from the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Colombia and India were very impressive since they were struggling with corporate globalization then and discussing the negative effects of the IMF and World Bank-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and the degradation of working conditions they caused.

I wrote an article for my union paper and focused on the global movement for democracy, which was what these women then called resistance to neoliberalism.

By the time the WSF was held there is much more of a sense that most governments have capitulated, either willingly or under coercion, to corporate globalization, and of the need to build a massive international movement of resistance and also to think through what a different (and more just) world would look like.

ATC: Can you say something about the fact that the PT runs the city?

L.R.: Having a Workers Party government in power for twelve years has been very good for the majority of people in Porto Alegre.  There have been many advances in the social wage including increased access and spending on education and health.

One innovation that was of interest to me was the Participatory Budget (PB) process, where citizens discuss priorities for a portion of the city’s spending every year.

Last year 50,000 people out of a population of 1.3 million were involved, although a smaller elected budget council met to actually formulate the proposals into a budget.  Some folks criticize the PB since the World Bank has touted it, but I doubt the WB has the same kind of bottom up democratic process in mind.

The PT isn’t perfect and some folks have felt they have become bureaucratized as they have gained power.  Some groups like Consulta Popular mainly want to work at the grassroots.  They have done popular education and then held a plebiscite on whether Brazil should refuse to pay its external debt.

Six percent of the potential voters participated in the plebiscite and they plan another vote on ALCA (Free Trade Area of the Americas, known here as FTAA).

ATC: What was the most dynamic social movement you personally witnessed?

L.R.: The MST (Landless Workers Movement) has gained land titles for 300,000 families in Brazil.  They are mostly people who were forced from the land. Whereas in Brazil in 1960, 70% of the population lived in the countryside, by 2002, 75% live in urban areas.

Many are forced to live in favelas (slums) that surround most large Brazilian cities.  In Rio de Janeiro approximately half of the population live in some 500 different favelas.

The MST start by moving onto unoccupied land and camping there until they can set up more permanent settlements as they obtain title to the land. I visited an encampment outside of Rio where about 100 families have been living in tarp tents and started gardens, but until it is clear they will be able to stay they haven’t been able to build more permanent structures or larger scale farming.

I also visited one of the first MST settlements outside of Porto Alegre.  It is a stable, comfortable cooperative since they have had twenty years to work there.  I have a special place in my heart for these people, they are the salt of the earth.

Like the United Farm Workers and Immokalee Workers in the United States, the MST has allies in other social movements including many students, but they face repression and violence from the big landlords’ hired thugs as well as from the police and military.

In one infamous massacre in April of 1996, nineteen MST members were murdered.  The aftermath was photographed by Sebastiao Salgado, the wonderful Brazilian photo journalist.  The landlords have also been trying to change Brazil’s land reform laws to make it even more difficult for the MST to get title to land.

ATC: Why were so many folks attracted to the WSF (both years it had many more participants than the organizers anticipated)?

L.R.: Any movement needs the analyzing and reflecting part that is also completely tied into action.  I went to Seattle in 1999 to demonstrate against the WTO. It was a great experience and a victory for the global justice movement, but there needed to be the other side to the movement.

I think people were attracted to the WSF and the process of getting together to reflect on where we have been and what to do next. It was wild since there were so many people, different languages, and in some sense it was a grand festival of the people but at the same time a very serious learning event and exchange of ideas and strategy.

People also need hope and I for one want to have something I’m fighting for rather than just defensive battles.  WSF is part of that search for what is possible and to make it real and concrete in the world.

When I saw the rainbow of people at the forum I knew that we all face enormous challenges, and there is no guarantee that we will prevail, but there is no other place I want to be but with an ever growing movement of people who are willing to think through and fight for the more just world that is possible.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)