BARCELONA - The multinational companies backing what they call the Universal Forum of Cultures here would like everyone to believe this really is about culture.
There are after all about 1,500 performances and cultural shows including 400 concerts and 45 conferences that will take place at the Forum until September.
The bluish mirror-glass triangular block where it will all happen is ”a new creative space for reflection and experimentation in relation to the main cultural and social conflicts humanity is facing,” organisers say.
All fake, say critics.
The forum organised by the Barcelona city council, the regional government of Catalonia and the Spanish government, under the patronage of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has set itself up around three themes: peace, cultural diversity and sustainable development.
It is a well-heeled path to those themes. The forum is being held amidst a 3.6 billion dollar project, including 2.1 billion dollars spent on infrastructure, not on reflection or experimentation.
The 50-hectare site has been developed towards the north of the city on the banks of the polluted Besos river. The site is a picture of the old and the new.
The blue triangle has come up around trendy skyscrapers, new concrete buildings, green lawns and arty sculptures. To another side are the five chimneys of an old power plant long idle.
The glass block is just the main building of the forum. There is an enormous space around, a kind of theme park full of colours, open spaces, and the ”bar” where visitors can buy the products of the multinationals sponsoring the forum.
The site used to be a poor neighbourhood called Poble Nou. It has now been renamed a futuristic '22@', the ”city of knowledge and new technologies.”
Entry to the cultural experience on offer costs 25 dollars (21 Euros). Visitors carry electronic tags through X-ray machines to enter.
”If this were Disneyland it would be nice,” says an activist who introduces himself by his nickname Sebas. ”But they call it a forum, and this is wrong. They have stolen concepts and language from the social movements, appropriating the name of the Porto Alegre (World) Social Forum.”
But the Barcelona forum is far from being a grassroots event open to everyone. Attendance at conferences is priced at anything from 35 dollars to some, to 535 dollars for the World Meteorological Conference. That is after the admission fee.
The event is organised by local and national governments, but sponsored by multinational giants such as Randstad, the Dutch staff contracting group, Hines, the U.S. real estate developer, Indra, the Spanish weapons manufacturing company, General Electric, Coca Cola and Nestle.
”For us the forum is nothing but an operation to rebuild that part of the city,” Sebas said. ”It is a mask to hide this transformation. They invented the idea to get the population involved in the project of gentrification. It was not possible to organise another Olympic Games.”
Large areas were renovated for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Now Pobleu Nou is undergoing a similar transformation, without the Games.
Despite the efforts of the local municipality to generate enthusiasm, the project has drawn much criticism. Posters attacking the forum pepper the city, trying to sit over the official promotional advertisements.
Several intellectuals invited to the forum including Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein have refused to attend. The prestigious School of Culture of Peace at the University of Barcelona declined participation.
Several non-governmental organisations that had planned to join withdrew on the grounds that the forum talks peace when its sponsors are making money from the war in Iraq. The La Caixa bank that is funding the forum is involved in reconstruction projects in Iraq.
Some of the strongest criticism of the project came from the Spanish Anthropological Association. The forum is a ”grandiose empty spectacle serving only the interests of its promoters,” it said.
The association denounced what it called the masquerade of cultural diversity and use of the word 'culture' to suggest something fixed where the Chinese must act Chinese and Africans must act as Africans in a ”zoo of differences”.
The Barcelona Neighbourhood Association accused the forum of ignoring the social concerns of its citizens. Land renovation meant that original residents had to move out. The rent for a 90 square metre flat now is about 2,000 dollars a month, four times more per square metre than before.
Many groups have joined the Assemblea de resistencia del Forum. Its website Fotut2004 is a parody of the official website. A booklet presents the ”other face” of the forum.
”The organisers invited us to the forum but we do not want to be involved,” says Sebas. ”This would give them the legitimacy we do not want to give them. We are not against peace and sustainability but against the hypocrisy of the powerful.”
Several activists say the forum is no picture of sustainability. A solar plant built by the seaside serves more as an umbrella from the scorching sun. It will provide some renewable energy, but the Besos thermal plant will be expanded to power the new neighbourhood.
The river is as polluted as it was before the supposed renewal. Endesa, a supporting company in the project is the fourth biggest carbon dioxide polluter in Europe.
The forum has all it takes to be ”a circus in which human diversity will be exhibited as a grand and wonderful show of light and colour,” says anthropologist Manuel Delgado.
© 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service