Place in the sun for
everyone - except George Bush, Coke and Windows
World Social Forum unites 80,000 against globalisation
by Randeep Ramesh in Mumbai
Saturday January 17, 2004
On the edge of a large field in a sprawling northern suburb of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, the French sheep farmer and mascot of the anti-globalisation movement, José Bové, is holding forth among a group of farm workers from South America. Mr Bové, pipe clenched firmly between his teeth, is selling his message that "le capitalisme" is not the only way.
Agreeing with him are 80,000 people from 130 countries at the World Social Forum, who want to prove that they are not just noisy anarchists but can offer alternatives to create a fairer planet. At the forum, held for the first time in Asia, are professors from Tunisia, a Pakistani hard rock band, nuns from Ireland and a woman wearing a sign reading "Australians for Peace".
Everybody is sure of what they are against - capitalism, imperialism and George Bush. Posters proclaim that "Asia Pacific women say no to war", and there are talks on "US hegemony and the Arab street".
Nobody can say what precisely they are all for. This does not seem to worry the main speakers, who include the Nobel peace laureate and Iranian women's rights activist Shirin Ebadi, the Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy and the American economist and Nobel economics prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz. There are 1,200 events centred on the slogan "Another world is possible".
"Maybe the WSF does not have weapons of mass destruction or power from money. But we get our strength from the people," says Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian intellectual at the forum's opening session.
The organisers of the WSF practise what they preach. Multinational brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi are banned and the conference's computers run on Linux, a free operating system that is an alternative to Microsoft Windows. The organisers also chose not to accept money for the £1m event from the US-based Ford Foundation, but took donations from Oxfam.
The WSF claims to be the glue binding the global anti-war coalition, which it hopes to strengthen with a series of worldwide protests this year.
But not everybody agrees that the social forum is the best way to smash imperialism. Despite this year's forum being just one day old, already there is a battle between left and extreme left for the moral high ground.
The "real" struggle against globalisation and the US-led occupation of Iraq, say a small group of anti-capitalists, can be found in a small ground opposite the forum. There, starting today, is a rival conference, titled Mumbai Resistance 2004, organised by far-left groups who claim that the social forum has been "co-opted by capitalism".
"The WSF people simply shout slogans when out of power and then implement pro-globalisation policies when in power," says GN Saibaba, organiser of the rival event. Mr Saibaba claims that the WSF has been turned into a "talking" shop that has blunted its aims. "The WSF are not serious about changing the world. They do not accept the need for armed struggle and we do."
The WSF denies these charges, saying that the two conferences represent different shades of the same opinion. "We are not divided over the main issues", Gautham Mody, a WSF spokesman, says. "The Mumbai Resistance have just decided to go their own way."
The first three annual meetings of the WSF were held in Brazil, which many saw as a perfect place to illustrate the adverse impact of economic liberalisation. But when the last meeting only attracted 200 delegates from Asia, home to nearly half the world's poor, the decision was made to shift the venue to India. Despite the country's rapid economic growth, 400 million Indians still live below the poverty line. The change of location has also altered the agenda of the forum. In the firing line in the next few days will be the issue of caste: a system which imprisons tens of millions of people and any discussion of which would embarrass the Hindu nationalist government.
"I come from Kenya and there are a lot of similarities between my
country and India," said 33-year-old Akim Chiagi. "When I listen to
the radio I hear the same kind of political problems, and in Africa there is a
comparable level of poverty. We are united in the problems we face."
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