WSF Youth Camp

Against the Current, No. 116, May/June 2005

Sheila McClear

FIRST, A PICTURE of the World Social Forum’s Youth Camp in Porto Alegre, Brazil: Imagine an unending sea of tents and tarps, hammocks hanging from the trees-all of it baking under the sun. Dirt paths divide the camp and are lined by a colorful array of vendors hawking soap, food (“Refri, agua!” was the constant chant), marijuana plants, and jewelry.

Primitive showers, located outside underneath the trees, are constantly populated with dozens of people showering at once — like Gauguin’s paintings of bathing women. Flea-bitten dogs and children in diapers, belonging to the street vendors, run free, dodging groups of teenagers with mohawks begging for money.

The Youth Camp wasn’t so much an encampment as it was a crazy, anarchic, beautiful global village. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there were 35,000 people staying in the Youth Camp — twice the number of people in the town where I grew up.

It seemed like some of them never left the camp, and it’s easy to see why not: we were our own self-contained little universe, complete with a “government” — a participatory committee, which met daily to discuss camp-related issues — street vendors selling everything that one needed, and even a small “factory,” where volunteers silkscreened the Youth Camp’s logo onto bags and cups, as well as distributing WSF and Youth Camp literature.

The vast majority of the people at the Youth Camp were Brazilian and South American, with a large number of Canadians — mainly Montrealers — as well. There was a large contingent of kids from Bahia, the northeastern section of Brazil and the center of Afro-Brazilian culture.

I met fewer than half a dozen Americans there; they seemed largely absent from the Youth Camp. Coming from a background woefully insufficient in foreign language, the experience was a language and cultural crash course.

The main idea behind having a Youth Camp at the World Social Forum was not only to create a cheap, alternative place for youth to stay during the Forum, but a “social laboratory for new ways of living.” The camp started as a process of transforming the alternatives discussed in the WSF — “Another World is Possible” — into practice. A sense of participation and responsibility for the Camp was key.

For example, the food we purchased from the vendors each day was from local farmers, contracted to bring in their food every day by tractor. The camp had also instituted a way of recycling our waste while stimulating critical reflection on consumption: participants were responsible for separating waste bins for organic, recyclable, and non-recyclable waste.

According to the Camp’s mission statement, “The idea is to seek solutions in various interconnected fields like the occupation of spaces, sanitary questions, waste management, food… reduction of environmental impact, circulation of information, public security and living together. These are first steps towards the constitution of a practical laboratory that permanently challenges its participants to take part in the day-to-day questions of social and political life of this space and to take responsibility in sustaining and constructing this experience.”

Partying and Problems

The camp was not without its problems, of course. Theft was rampant, and there were even reports of rapes. Two years before, there had been an outbreak of dengue — an illness that roughly translates as “breakbone fever.”

As always, the party atmosphere was both a blessing and a curse: overzealous men with a few too many drinks in them would grab women and not let go, and it was up to fellow bystanders as to whether or not someone would jump in to help. The noise made it next to impossible to sleep at night, and the heat made it impossible to sleep during the day. Most people went without.

Not everyone in the camp was there to attend the social forum — in fact, in 2003 the Youth Camp officially became its own separate space. Besides WSF attendees, the Camp also attracted any and all kids from the area who simply wanted to party, and party they did.

At night, there were many festivities to join in on, whether it was watching capoeira groups play, dancing with the baterias (marching bands) roaming the streets, or going to concerts — anything from popular Brazilian rock bands to groups playing traditional music to an all-women Argentinian hip-hop group.

It was so overwhelming that I often preferred to sit with a friend and watch it all go by. One night, I caught the eye of a street vendor who must have been thinking the same thing. “Vida loca!” he shouted with a grin, over the noise of the chanting, the drumming, the singing and the music. Crazy life, indeed.

ATC 116, May-June 2005