Thousands of people are gathering in Brazil for the World Social Forum to address exploitative globalisation, while organizers say the economic crisis illustrates that its message, "another world is possible", is more essential and more possible than ever. "At this forum it is clear that it is really possible to have another world, and not just possible, but urgent and necessary," said Brazilian Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of the forum, which first took place in 2001 in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil.
More than 100 000 people from 150 countries are attending the 2009 gathering that meets in Belem in northeast Brazil from 27 January to 1 February, organizers said. The noted it is quite different to the World Economic Forum of political leaders and captains of global business in Davos, Switzerland, taking place at the same time.
A clutch of South American presidents - Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from Brazil, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay - were also reported to be attending the gathering.
The forum opened on 27 January with a march by participants through the city, which lies close to the mouth of the Amazon River.
Belem was chosen as the location of this year's social forum to symbolise the importance of climate and environmental issues, as well as the rights of minority cultures.
Environmentalists have warned for years about the continued deforestation of the Amazonian region, noted for its biological diversity, and where many of its inhabitants are indigenous peoples. Since the announcement that Belem would host the forum, however, the world has faced an economic crisis, the proportions of which have not been seen for decades.
Whitaker recalled how the first social forum took place in 2001 as a counter to the World Economic Forum, which normally takes place in the mountain resort of Davos. "When, in 2001, we expected 2000 people, and 20 000 people came, it showed there was a need for such a forum," he said.
That meeting took place at the height of confidence among economic and political leaders that the market would be able to solve all the world's problems, asserted Whitaker, a Roman Catholic influenced by liberation theology, Whitaker spent 15 years outside Brazil while the country was ruled by a military dictatorship four decades ago.
Reports from the 2009 Davos meeting taking place in Switzerland at the same time as the social forum in Brazil, indicate a sense of failure among business leaders about the global economic crisis, he noted.
"In Chinese, the word for crisis means a risk and an opportunity," said Whitaker, who was addressing a World Forum on Theology and Liberation held in Belem in advance of the WSF. "The ones in Davos are facing the risk of seeing their system go down the drain. We in Belem have a moment of opportunity."
Previous meetings of the World Social Forum took place in 2001, 2002, 2003 (Porto Alegre, Brazil), 2004 (Mumbai, India), 2005 (Porto Alegre), 2006 (Caracas, Venezuela; Bamako, Mali; Karachi, Pakistan); 2007 (Nairobi, Kenya) and no 2008 (when there was no central forum, but a "Global Call for Action").
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]