That Other Forum

PORTO ALEGRE, BRAZIL -- What do Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Sharon Stone have in common? All spent the last week of January hanging out in Davos, the exclusive Swiss resort town that for the last three decades has been home to the World Economic Forum, where the world's elite business, financial, and political leaders meet to chart the course of the world.

For everybody else, there was the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, a small river city in southern Brazil. Here, more than 150,000 people from 135 countries spent six days attending some 2,500 lectures, workshops, and cultural events. This was the anti-globalization movement trying to globalize itself.

It was messy. Activists from poor countries and rich, feminist and native-rights groups, environmental organizations and unions -- all trying to find common ground. When the World Social Forum began in 2001, stopping free trade and the power of multinational corporations was at the top of the agenda. These days, the activists, trade unionists, intellectuals, indigenous groups, and multitudes of others gathered in Porto Alegre are struggling to determine not only what they are against but also what they are for.

That wasn't always easy, given the event's structure and attendance. During the six-day event, eager world-changers had wandered along several kilometers of riverbank searching for meetings spread throughout hundreds of tents, only to find that a conference on child trafficking had been replaced by one on African women's issues, or had been moved to a makeshift space outdoors. Attendees were Dutch syndicalists, African feminists, Brazilian miners, American environmentalists, French intellectuals, and Indian untouchables. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva spoke on the first day of the conference, endorsing a global campaign to end poverty. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ended the conference with his typical populist flourish, after visiting the Brazilian poor trying to lay claim to unused land. The forum also attracted a handful of Nobel laureates and more than 100 indigenous tribes from throughout the world. Nobel Prize–winning Portuguese novelist José Saramago told a cheering crowd that the International Monetary Fund should be a democratically accountable institution.

By the meetings' end, what the forum's platform would be was far from clear. The agenda, released one day before the conference, came in two 134-page volumes, plus 12 pages of corrections. The subject of the panels covered everything from water privatization in Uruguay to India's underclass of 200 million Dalits to the effect of supermarkets on southern Italian farmers to combating overdevelopment in the tourist sector.

If any message did come through, it was -- perhaps ironically -- the need to globalize workers' efforts to counteract the globalizing of industries. European labor unions in particular were clear on the need to organize across national borders. In one possibly portentous meeting of a larger movement to come, labor representatives from Holland, India, and Brazil met to strategize about common employers, which included some of Europe's biggest companies like Unilever, Thyssen, and Phillips. “We have to globalize to compete against multinationals,” said Patrick van Klink, a worker and union organizer at the Unilever margarine factory in Rotterdam. Over the last five years, his union has forged links with Unilever workers in India and Brazil, sometimes providing them with strategic advice, publicity, and funding to help them organize. “The possibilities for us as a worker's movement are better than ever before -- it is easier to travel, communicate, and meet face to face,” van Klink said.

“We think in this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country,” said Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. The German unions sent several delegations to Porto Alegre in an attempt to bridge the gap between workers in wealthy and poor countries, said Eich. “For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact.” Eich's delegation was sent, among other things, to promote higher safety standards for Brazilian miners who work in a bauxite mine owned by the German-based, Norwegian-owned aluminum company Hydro. “Why is a Brazilian lung not as protected as a German one?” asked Eich.

Still, it wasn't always easy for representatives from richer and poorer countries to see priorities the same way. Other than activists from longtime anti-globalization nongovernmental organizations, relatively few Americans showed up in Porto Alegre. Canadian political scientist Elizabeth Smythe, who has attended numerous social forums, attributes the absence of people from the United States to a culture that “deliberately tries to depoliticize inequality.” Glenn Switkes, the Latin American representative of the Berkeley, California–based International Rivers Network, did come, and spent his time trying to convince Brazilian bauxite miners that a proposed expansion of energy-intensive refineries would threaten both their communities and their environment. But for the Brazilian workers, jobs and job safety were at the top of the agenda. Brazilian union leaders told Switkes that if he wanted to mobilize the local people, he would have to go directly to the villages. “Meetings like this are great, but this is a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grass roots.” Switkes said. “It's a problem for lots of international organizations.”

The Brahmins in Davos say they are listening, though it was clear that that gathering was torn between its business goals and its attempts at compassion. A few weeks before the conference, the World Economic Forum's coordinators announced two surveys saying that the global financial community cares about hunger, extreme poverty, and the environment. At the same time, more than a fourth of the financial and political leaders questioned said they backed the Bush administration's war on terrorism, while only 5 percent thought women's inequality, human-rights abuses, and disease were top priorities. There's market logic to that -- after all, the inequalities of the poor are relatively stable conditions; terrorism, on the other hand, disrupts markets, and there is nothing that businesspeople hate more than unpredictability. This year's panels at Davos seemed like Ebenezer Scrooge after a yoga retreat. They included “Mobilizing a disenchanted workforce” and “Why rich countries can't buy happiness.”

The advocates in Porto Alegre saw the Davos talk as all rhetoric, and many were actively hostile to the gathering across the globe. On the first day of the World Social Forum, representatives from India, Indonesia, and other countries affected by the tsunamis asked that their nations be granted total debt relief. But when asked if they had anybody at Davos lobbying for their proposal -- which has been espoused in a modest form by British Chancellor Gordon Brown -- Filipina activist Lidy Napcii said no. “If the players in Davos really care about what the people think, it is their burden and their challenge to come to Porto Alegre,” she said. The road from Switzerland to Brazil, however, may be a long one.

Samuel Loewenberg is a reporter based in Madrid, Spain. He has written for The New York Times and The Economist, among other publications.