Archive for January, 2009

Day Three

31 January 2009

A bitsy day today. Overcast all day with rain later at night, which made for more comfortable walking weather. We spent the morning at UFPA. The Christian group organised by my brother was going to be doing something at 10am but this seemed to be taking a long time to come together so I went wandering. English-language sessions seemed extremely few and far between today; I eventually found the ‘Network Politics’ session at 12pm which appeared to be talking about use of the Internet as an organising tool but wanted to break into workgroups to get perspectives on it from the members, which wasn’t at all what I was looking for (a short, punchy presentation *saying* something I hadn’t already heard in eight years of activism). Since it seemed like the group leaders were more confused about the role of the Internet than I was, I left to look for more signs of life.

(Edit: After tracking down the web site, I still can make out nothing through the swarm of verbiage.)

Possibly I’m more cynical four years after Porto Alegré, or possibly Belém is smaller, but I’m finding interesting groups very thin on the ground this time around. (Specific examples from 2005 that are missing this year: the Interaction Council and their Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities; the World Wildlife Foundation; a Japanese anti-war group campaigning against repeal of Article 9, the ‘Japanese Peace Constitution’. )

The most interesting thing I’ve seen so far at the 2009 Forum is Economia Solidária, which as far as I understand is a network of cooperative businesses throughout Brazil. It’s interesting because unlike many of the other large displays (which often fall into the category of ‘government ministry or huge NGO bragging about their contribution to world peace’ or ‘loud aggressive Marxist group declaring eternal war on the capitalist system with no actual other platform’), Economia Solidária appears to be putting cooperative economics into practice, quietly, successfully, and with a human face.

It’s probably worth mentioning here that my political alignment may puzzle many who attend a forum such as the WSF. It certainly confuses me. I’m not at all a Marxist, except in so far that I agree with Marx that capitalism as a basis for building a society doesn’t really work. When I look at the historical results of Marxism, I see authoritarianism collapsing into dictatorship, and it baffles me why anyone still gives Lenin any credit; granted, Adam Smith seems pretty much discredited too, but since we now have two known bad alternatives, shouldn’t we be looking for a third? Yet what we so often get at venues like the WSF is lots of self-proclaimed ‘theorists’ who are simply repeating 19th century Marxist confusions. This is not going to work for the future; we don’t necessarily need perpetually ‘new’ ideas, as if political theory were a fashion show where ideas get ‘tired’ from overexposure; but we do need *true* ideas, and the history of both actually-existing capitalism and socialism show that both in their pure forms have failed; they both fail to describe reality accurately enough. And I’m not convinced that ‘centrist’ compromises work either. What we need is a new *principle*, not a compromise.

So what I am politically, I’m not sure; I’m not Left in the Marxist-Leninist sense, not Right in the Bush-neoliberal sense, but something else which hasn’t yet emerged. I get the closest sense of recognition of my idea of ‘political self-evident common sense’ from some aspects of the Green movement, such as E F Schumacher; I also strongly identify with the open source / libre software movement.

Both of these movements have a strong sense of *both* ‘individual responsibility’ *and* of ‘self-organisation’ – which when you think about it are really the same, but often seem to be constructed at odds with each other, with the Right picking ‘reponsibility’ and the Left picking ’empowerment’.

The old-school, nineteenth-century Left, which is sadly still far too much in evidence even at the Social Forum, tends to construct the world in terms of a grand apocalyptic war: the People vs the Power, the Masses versus the Classes. This is, putting it charitably, a mistake. The world is not a war, and turning a movement into a war-fighting machine distracts it from creating actual social change.

Instead of talking about (and demonstrating) what *we’ve* done to make the world a better place, and inspiring by example, leftist-war rhetoric takes every opportunity to strut and fluff its feathers and pretend to be big, bad and above all *dangerous*. Just look at the words used by the old-school Left and they reveal the war-based thought-forms: an obsession with ‘power’, ‘demands’, ‘militancy’, ‘victory’, ‘struggle’, ‘mobilisation’, ‘tactics’. This is so far wrong it’s coming out the other side and wrapping round again; it hurts me to even think about it.

The world is not a war. I can’t emphasise that strongly enough. Whenever we think it is, we destroy the soul of a movement. We start to think in terms of capturing and seizing power, rather than creating beauty and truth. We put one class of people up against another, and construct heroes and villains. We abandon creative work for destructive, short-term compromises. All of the world-destroying shortsightedness that the capitalist system incurs (because it constructs the world as a war between enterprises), we inherit and double if we try to use the same mistake on a larger scale in service of a ‘socialist revolution’. Look at the environmental crimes of the Soviet Union and you can see just how dangerous the war mentality is.

More insidiously, creating a revolutionary war means deconstructing democracy in the act of ‘struggling for’ it. Externally, wars are predicated on the existence of winners and losers, of the imposition of political control by coercion up to and including the point of literal torture and death; internally, they import this structure into a command-and-control system of absolute leaders and unquestioned authority. Both are evils and both are totally destructive of democracy.

Fighting a war in foreign lands for imperial conquest is stupid, but fighting a total, civil war (which is what a revolution is) for democracy is insane. Even the metaphor corrupts your brain.

Just don’t do it. Please. I see what you’re trying to do. I agree with many of your goals: a world at peace, where wealth is shared, where the environment is respected. But you won’t get there with raised fists, angry rhetoric, militant images, marches, drums, bandannas and guerilla-chic combat boots. You won’t get there by standing on a stage and ‘demanding your rights’ without a plan for how you, personally, are going to *provide* those rights to others. You have to start with responsibility first, because we can all do *something* creative, but if we present a list of ‘demands’ to a faceless other, we don’t even know if what we’re asking is possible (and some things aren’t), let alone how it’s going to be paid for, and how we’re going to measure whether it gets done or not.

Lots of politicians exploit this ‘demands’ posture by making promises in return. But promises are worth nothing unless the person promising is in a position to fulfil them. Many of the things we want in the world, no politician has the power to provide; *we* have to make them happen.

Which is why I like Economia Solidária: they do real, constructuve things; they do small, human-scale things; they present a model of a way of doing business which *might* potentially be able to be scaled up in the face of the world economic crisis. I say might because I’m aware that the history of cooperatives and communes shows that they are devilishly tricky things to make work on the large scale and the long term; even though theory shows they ‘ought’ to be great little hotbeds of democracy, but in actual fact they very often break apart for a number of reasons both social and economic. It’s those ‘oughts’ versus ‘actuals’ that we really, really, need to study and test and debug before we start talking large, state-sized systems; and networks of cooperatives seem like they are good ways of giving us that desperately needed practical experience in building alternate economies, if it’s not already too late.

AND FOR GOODNESS SAKES quit it with the military imagery. It’s wrong, it’s stupid, and it teaches you to think stupid.

Which is why tomorrow I’ll be trying to get to the only English-language Economia Solidária meeting I can find, by a Canadian cooperative hub.


Later in the afternoon, we took the free bus to UFRA campus, where we bought a book of Amazonian herbal recipes, planted trees to reverse global warming, ate acaí (a purple mush made from local berries; a faint leafy taste a little like cabbage; with sugar it’s oddly like pudding) and discovered the Red Cross and photography exhibits hidden deep in the campus.

(And we discovered the best comida á kilo place in all Belém, the Filet and Filhos Restaurant under Hotel Ipé, in São Braz, around from the Almirante supermercado. Filet mignon steaks! And cheap. A huge plate for less than a McDonalds burger.)


Day Two

30 January 2009

That worked better.

We stuck to UFPA campus this time, and investigated the salãos basicos where the individual workshops were scheduled to be held. This turned out to be a good move because 1) they were indoors, therefore protected from the rain, 2) they were closer together, so less walking, 3) the walkways between the classrooms were in the shade, and 4) they were interactive groups.

Paul was looking for the FALE evangelical social justice network, but since it had changed time and location without warning, ended up leading a spontaneous self-forming group, which is the Forum concept working at its best. I joined a workshop run by the American Friends Service Committee which turned out to discuss US-Mexico immigration policy, countering military recruiting, a group developing anti-war films in Armenia, and a journalism student from Rio concerned about favela violence. (If you’re reading this blog – hi. I didn’t get your name but hopefully you have my brother’s URL.)

I found the organisational fair, but many of the booths this year were labelled but empty. Strange. A definite dearth of English-speaking international groups.

The five Latin American presidents are flying in tonight but we’re not going to brave the crowds to go see. We’re watching TV news coverage at the moment.

More photos.

Cupom Fiscal

29 January 2009

One of the smaller little strangenesses of Brazilian life, which can still bite me at times, is the nation’s obsession with the cupom fiscal (sales receipt).

The trick is, you see, often when you buy something – particularly food – you don’t just go up and buy it, hand over the money and receive the goods. That would be too easy and would ruin all the fun. What you do is you indicate your intention to buy, select the purchase, hand your money to the person at the till, who will ring up your purchase and give you the all-important cupom fiscal.

Then you take your slip of paper, go to a different desk, and hand it it to a completely different person who actually makes up your order.

It’s an efficient enough system, I guess, and possibly more sanitary since it means you have one set of clerks handling money and another handling food preparation.

But it’s still confusing as heck if you’re used to a sales receipt being just a receipt, which in New Zealand would get an automatic ‘shove it in my pocket to immediately forget’ reaction.

It doesn’t always work like this either, which is why it gets confusing. Supermarkets don’t use cupoms fiscal (which makes sense since you’re already holding the goods). McDonalds doesn’t, but Bob’s does. It seems to be either high-value goods, or food, or low-rent places, or tradition, or a mixture of all those.

Day One

29 January 2009

We’ve survived the first actual day at the Forum.

First impressions are that it’s much more chaotic and less well organised than Porto Alegré 2005, though it’s possible we missed some things. The Forum is split between two university campuses, UFPA and UFRA, with UFPA being a more dense, built-up site and UPRA a huge sprawling tract of land that seems to take an hour to walk across. Combine that with 30-degree heat, the afternoon paper-eating rain (though The Big Rain seemed to play truant today and we only got a few minor showers around 2pm), lots of shouting people with a stage and a loudspeaker, apparently far fewer international and English-speaking exhibitors, and 100,000 visitors, and it’s a recipe for exhaustion.

Of the two, UFPA now seems more liveable. Looking at the map it seems like there may be some collections of small organisations that we missed; I hope so because otherwise the collection of groups we’ve encountered so far seems very disappointing. Several banks, governmental agencies, political parties (of the loud red-flag-waving type… come to think of it, I thought one of the Forum ground rules was ‘no political parties or armed struggle groups’, but that one always seems to have ignored), a Cuba tent, lots of Amazonian indigenous groups, and a couple of others (the Sister Dorothy movement seems somewhat interesting) – but so far, nothing like the vast international spectrum of causes and activists present in 2005. I can only hope they’re hiding somewhere.

Rain on the Parade

28 January 2009

Well, that was the most thoroughly rained-on parade I’ve ever seen.

The march started around 3pm, on cue, and the daily afternoon rain arrived also on cue about half an hour later. Very spectacular. Lots of forumistas clutching their bags and running. A sudden flowering of umbrellas from the forewarned ones who knew what they were marching into. Lots more just going with the flow, literally.

I think my trousers have dried out by now. We were ready with the umbrellas, but I’ve never been out in the rain proper here before, and it came sideways at times.

The gutters here are specially wide, and they need to be – the amount of water that falls between 3pm and 5pm is amazing.

When we got to the McDonalds we made a tactical excursion to bring the Revolution to a chicken salad and sandwich. The security guards looked pretty edgy, but none of the crowd (maybe around 100,000, which is the number of registered attendees the Forum emails are claiming) got as far as breaking any windows. The Federal shock troops were there too, but just doing crowd control.

(One of the somewhat surreal sights you get used to here is that every supermarket has store guards armed with handguns. And they usually keep their hand on the grip. Just to let you know they care. At the Formosa, our favourite supermarket right now because it has a lanchonete that does breakfast and dinner, an armoured truck was picking up the money as we left; the truck guard had a drawn shotgun and looked pretty nervous. Your everyday friendly local supermercado. Just another day in Brazil.)

For reference, a McDonalds or Bob’s meal costs about R$17, which is fairly pricey compared to, say, a comida á kilo plate or some salgados (savouries) from a lanchonete, so you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat at a chain all the time. My brother had a nightmarish experience with the Bob’s restroom, but the McDonalds seemed fairly well-run.

At 6pm the march had got to within a block of our Formule 1 hotel, so we split. Tomorrow the scheduled events start, but they seem to be mostly scheduled for the 3pm-6pm time slot.

Doing *anything* during the rain (especially anything involving paper and most especially the flimsy newsprint on which our programmacão is printed) seems like it will be a mistake. Time to carefully pick the sessions we attend, I think, and prioritise the morning ones.

First thing will be to try to stake out the UFPA and UFRA campuses and work out what will happen where. That will be tomorrow morning’s adventure.

(Also tomorrow morning my spare pants should come back from the lavanderia, which will be cause for rejoicing.)

Belém Zoo

28 January 2009

The city and the hotel are filling up with Forum attendees, distinctive with their canvas bags and nametags. We visited the zoo (photostream) this morning and found a lot of other people with the same idea.

2pm Tuesday. We’re going for another try at the Assembly of God museum and then it’ll be time for the WSF opening march. Photo time!

City of Bars

27 January 2009

It turns out that we arrived a couple of days early for the Forum; though registration started yesterday (and the queues were huge), the opening ceremonies aren’t til tomorrow (Tuesday); even then, it looks like the full schedule of morning seminars doesn’t start until Thursday, with Wednesday being ‘Pan-Amazonia Day’ focusing on South and Central America and apparently dominated by performance art.

At least that’s what the programme says, and if 2005 is any guide, the programme can be wildly different from reality.

In the meantime we get to adjust a bit, and walk around the downtown area trying to work out what makes this city tick.

Restaurants – or any kind of eating place above footpath vendors – seem hard to locate. So far the best we’ve found is a deli-type thing in a supermarket, which has both comida á kilo and rolls and cakes. Y.Yamada, which is the most upmarket supermarket, has a single, expensive, comida á kilo establishment, and no food court like the one in Rio or Porto Alegre.

Almost every shop and house has the ubiquitous bars locking out the whole frontage. Last night it was very obvious. Some of the few shopfronts that didn’t were 24-hour funeral parlours with shiny plate-glass windows (and watchful attendants). Avenida Governador Jose Malcher was particularly surreal: first English schools, then funeral parlours, then Evangelical churches packed with earnest, suited people. Then a Bob’s Burger, a Brazilian Burger King type franchise.

Although the city looks wealthy from some angles, the bars make me think this is a place where people live in perpetual fear of the street – of invasion from it, or falling back down into it.

A big stage has been erected in the Praça de Operaria, next to the rodoviário (bus terminal). I think this is where the Forum opening march will end.


26 January 2009

We wake up late, around 10am. It’s been good to get the sleep. We’re just in time to get the hotel cafe a manha (morning coffee – breakfast) again.

The next thing to do is World Social Forum registration, which opens at noon, so after checking the local Internet news for a while we head off for the UFRA (Universidade Federal Rural da Amazônia) campus for registration. Google Maps tells us it’s only 4 km so we walk.

Avenida Cipriano Santes changes from rundown commercial to favela-quality residential as we go east. A concrete drainage channel down the middle of the street is full of brownish water and occasional clumps of plastic bags and bottles. The rain is falling again, but with the overhead power lines in the typical low sprawl it’s a little nerve-racking to raise an umbrella.

The houses are a mixture of wooden shacks and brick or concrete buildings, looking only one room wide. The brick ones usually have barred and locked gates across the whole frontage. Children watch us curiously as we pass; it’s obvious we’re strangers here.

An Assembléia de Deus (Assembly of God) church, finished in blue and white tile, is securely barred and locked, at noon on a Sunday. Presumably the weekly service is in the evening.

I count five feral cats I’ve seen since I arrived – usually there are only dogs. Perhaps in Belém cats don’t end up as free barbeque for favela dwellers.

At the end of the Avenida cars are jammed up as the end of a queue of pedestrians begins.

After an hour in the queue we get through the University gates. The rain drifts in and out, never really slackening. We are in sight of the gymnasium when a Forum worker, hearing us speak English, summons us through the queue to one of the Inglésa booths, and we’re finally processed. We each get a canvas bag with a newspaper-sized programme of activities.

The rain has stopped and the sun is coming out as we walk back up the Avenida. A group of children have taken over a police tent and are playing table tennis. We play a few rounds each; then their ball breaks. Paul gives them a R$2 coin to buy new balls. It seems like a good investment.


25 January 2009

The Amazon is full of exotic fruits, and Belém was founded by the Portuguese as a trading port reaping this rich harvest. (We pass tastefully over the total slaughter, enslavement and genocide of the native tribes as a result of this noble project.)

One of these fruits is a white berry called cupuaçu. We had cupuaçu ice creams at the Estacaõ das Docas (Docks Station), an upscale tourist mall that refurbished the old docks.

Cupuaçau tastes a bit like passionfruit, sharp and tangy with a hint of acetone and echoes of peat moss in the background.

Downtown Belém

25 January 2009

4:30pm on Saturday.

After breakfast, we walked downtown and found a very good supermarket just a couple blocks away, so we’re now set for bottled drinking water. The laundry just across from the hotel wants to charge around R$10 per article of clothing washed which is a bit insane – maybe they’ve jacked their prices up for the Forum. Washing in the sink and hanging in the shower seems more practical.

We made our way to the waterfront, dodging the occasional light falls of rain. The hotel elevator shows a constant 29 degrees C (our rooms are at a nice chilly 20) but it might vary a bit outside – dunno but I’d say the early thirties would be right.

The real daily rain fell just before 3pm and lasted maybe 20 minutes. It’s always like that here, apparently.

Next step is to hunt down food places. Tomorrow will be Forum registration.

Lots of new pictures in the photostream. It’s so fast to upload here!