RIO DE JANEIRO - Environmental matters rank high on the agenda of the World Social Forum, which from Jan 25 to 30 will make Porto Alegre, in southern Brazil, the international capital for those who seek to build alternative strategies for global development.
Delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements, politicians and trade unionists are to take part in the meeting, known as the ''anti-Davos'' because it is the counterweight to the options proposed by the World Economic Forum, which annually draws corporate executives, financiers and government leaders to a conference in Davos, Switzerland.
The World Social Forum, meanwhile, involves leaders and groups with links to the political left and centre-left, who are attempting to build a broad, worldwide organization to take on what they consider the ''exclusive globalisation'' process imposed by the big capitalists who meet in Davos and to prove that ''another world is possible,'' the theory adopted as a the meeting's slogan.
Workers double-up efforts to install the site for the First World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, January 24, 2001. Representatives from nearly 900 international non-governmental organizations are gathered in Southern Brazil to discuss social issues as an "alternative" summit to the Global Forum being held in Davos, Switzerland. REUTERS/Jamil Bittar
In open opposition to Davos, the conference in Brazil is an endeavour to define orientations and joint actions ''in the fight against neo-liberalism,'' Miguel Rossetto, vice-governor of Rio Grande do Sul and organizer of the forum on behalf of the state an municipal governments, told IPS.
The variety of interests, areas of activity, cultures and doctrines of the participants does not bode for immediate, concrete results from the ''anti-Davos,'' say observers, though the world can follow the meeting's progress at http://www.forumsocialmundial.org.br/.
This is just a ''first meeting, with full plurality and a variety of urgent matters,'' which will launch a process and make progress in organization, Rossetto told IPS. The idea is to repeat the meeting on an annual basis, coinciding with the annual January meeting of the Davos forum.
With origins dating back to the early 1970s, the Switzerland- based World Economic Forum unites the top 1,000 multinational corporations of the planet and defines itself as an independent, non-profit foundation that favors globalization, economic growth and social progress.
In Porto Alegre it will be possible to achieve consensus on environmental issues as a starting point for joint action, commented Jean-Pierre Leroy, of the Federation of Social Assistance and Educational Institutions, a Brazilian NGO.
Access to wealth and sustainability is one of the four thematic pillars of the panels in which internationally known personalities and political leaders will take part, a presence that will give the World Social Forum some weight with the communications media.
Porto Alegre will see the arrival of such luminaries as eco- feminist writer Vandana Shiva, of India, US linguist Noam Chomsky, Danielle Mitterrand, president of the France Liberté association, and the independence leader of East Timor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos Horta.
In addition to the scheduled panel discussions, the event also involves hundreds of workshops and small group discussions.
Genetically modified products, patents for seeds and other living organisms, the environmental impacts of globalisation, the case of the Amazon, the ecological requirements of trade, water demands worldwide and renewable energy are just some of the issues that will be covered.
Porto Alegre was chosen to host the anti-Davos forum because it is a city that has been governed for the last 12 years by the leftist Party of Workers, which has introduced such innovative measures as the participatory budget, in which citizen assemblies decide on public expenditures.
Governor Olivio Dutra of Brazil's Rio Grande do Sul, talks about the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, January 24, 2001. REUTERS/Jamil Bittar
In addition, it is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, a state led since 1999 by Olivio Dutra, who inaugurated a transparent, grassroots governing model when he served as mayor, from 1989 to 1992 The nearly 600 NGO representatives who met last June in Geneva decided to hold the forum in Porto Alegre also because of its environmentalist tradition and the peasant roots of Rio Grande do Sul.
The 'gauchos,' as the state's residents are known, are pioneers in the ''social ecology and humanist struggle'' of Brazil, stressed agronomist Sebastiao Pinheiro, professor at the local Federal University and outspoken critic of the widespread use of agro-chemicals.
Rio Grande do Sul is also preparing to become a ''territory free of genetically modified organisms.'' But that is a decision ''of the unionists, farmers and housewives, and not of the elite,'' because the local population has recognized the risks of such products for years, Pinheiro affirmed.
The 'gaucho' government has called for a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified seeds until they are proved to be risk-free for the environment and for human health, Rossetto pointed out.
Rio Grande do Sul is also the birthplace of the Movimento dos Sem Terra (MST, landless rural workers' movement), which in 15 years grew to cover all of Brazil and is known for its high-impact actions, such as massive demonstrations and the takeover of unproductive farms and of governmental buildings in order to drive agrarian reform.
At the Porto Alegre forum, the MST plans to propose a global campaign that would ensure seeds are considered the heritage of humanity, limiting their patenting and the threat that a handful of transnational corporations monopolize seeds through bio- prospecting projects.
The movement initiated a national campaign against transgenic seeds, highlighting their risks for human health and the environment as well as the damage they could inflict on food security.
Several transnationals genetically sterilize the plants, forcing the farmer to ''buy new seeds every year at the price the company decides,'' affirmed Joao Pedro Stedile, MST leader.
Rio Grande do Sul's ''ecological farmers'' will take three claims to the forum, announced their spokesman, Pinheiro.
The first refers to discrimination against farmers in developing countries by pressures from the chemical industry.
While the European Union adopted strict rules in 1991 for the application of farm chemicals, in Brazil some highly toxic pesticides were categorized as merely ''moderately dangerous.'' Transnationals export lower-quality products to the developing South. As a result, 95 percent of agro-chemical poisonings occur in these ''peripheral countries,'' affirmed Pinheiro.
The farmers will also make demands against the environmental certification of agricultural products, a service that requires technology and as a result is almost always provided by companies from wealthy nations.
This certification process adds costs that cut into the South's competitive ability on the world market and completely disregards the ethics of the individual farmer and the relation of trust with the consumer built over the years, a dynamic that by-passes intermediaries, Pinheiro said.
The third MST denunciation alludes to genetically modified organisms, charging that these products enslave farmers to the power of the corporate seed owners.
Leroy and his NGO, in association with groups from Chile and Uruguay, plan to hold a workshop in Porto Alegre about sustainability and democracy in the Southern Cone of South America.
The organizers intent to expand the bases of Mercosur (Southern Common Market) and other integration projects in order to overcome the limiting frameworks of the market and of international trade.
It is essential, for example, to prevent ''an energy strategy that is based on industrial consumption,'' which puts the people's and the environment's needs in second place, Leroy stated.
Integration based on complementarity and specialised production sacrifices the small family farmer, taking jobs and alternatives away from the population. Another consequence could be the loss of biodiversity and greater energy consumption because of transport over greater distances, warned the environmentalist.
The debate about new routes for development has already reached a certain consensus in surpassing the ''dichotomy between the environment and society,'' at least in countries like Brazil, where the ecological question is part of development plans, not an end in itself, Leroy pointed out.
In parallel to the panels and workshops, Porto Alegre will also host a forum of governors, which is expected to attract 1,000 local-level authorities, a parliamentary forum, with approximately 500 participants, and the First Inter-Continental Youth Camp.
Also planned is a global camp of indigenous peoples, where participants will discuss traditional knowledge and their own ethnic and cultural survival.
Copyright 2001 IPS