It looks a little like one of those press conferences announcing
a merger between corporate giants: a couple of middle-aged guys
shaking hands and smiling into a bank of cameras. Just like on CNN,
they assure the world their new affiliation will make them stronger,
better equipped to meet the challenges of the global economy.
Only something is askew. More facial hair for one thing: The man
on the left has a scruffy beard and the one on the right has a rather
distinctive handlebar moustache. And come to think of it, their
alliance is not a merger of corporate interests--designed to send
stock prices soaring and workers wondering about their "redundancy."
In fact, the men say, this merger will be good for workers and lousy
for stock prices.
Another clue we're not watching CNN: Someone passes a message to
the man on the
right. It seems the police are threatening him with arrest. That definitely
doesn't happen during your average corporate-merger announcement--no
matter how flagrantly the consolidation violates antitrust laws.
José Bové rips
up Monsanto soybeans in Brazil.
The man on the left is Joao Pedro Stedile, co-founder of Brazil's
Movement. The man on the right is José Bové, the
French cheese farmer who came to world attention after he "strategically
dismantled" a McDonald's restaurant to protest a U.S. attack on
France's ban on hormone-treated beef. And this isn't Wall Street;
it's the World Social
Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
To read the papers, these men should not be sharing a platform,
let alone embracing for the cameras. Third World farmers are supposed
to be at war with their European counterparts over unequal subsidies.
But here in Porto Alegre, they have joined forces in a battle much
broader than any intergovernmental trade skirmish. The small farmers
both men represent are attempting to fight the consolidation of
agriculture into the hands of a few multinationals, through genetic
engineering of crops, patenting of seeds and industrial-scale, export-led
agricultural policies. They say that their enemy is not farmers
in other countries, but a system of trade that is facilitating this
concentration, and taking the power to regulate food production
away from national governments.
"Today the battle is not in one country but in every country,"
Bové tells a crowd of several thousand. They break into chants
of "Ole, Ole, Bové, Bové, Bové" and, in a matter
of hours, hundreds are wearing badges declaring, "Somos Todos
José Bové" ("We are all José Bové").
This type of cross-border alliance--a globalization of movements--is
the real story of the World Social Forum, which ended January 30
and attracted more than 10,000 delegates. After 13 months of international
protests against global trade institutions, the forum was a chance
to share ideas about social and economic alternatives. It is a new
kind of intellectual free trade: a Tobin tax swapped for a "participatory
budget"; national referenda on all trade agreements in exchange
for local lending alternatives to the International Monetary Fund;
farming co-operative models traded for community policing.
But there is one idea with more currency than any other, expressed
from podiums and on flyers handed out in hallways, "Less talk, more
action." It's as if talk itself has been devalued by overproduction--and
little wonder. At the same time in Davos, Switzerland, the richest
CEOs in the world sound remarkably like their critics: We need to
make globalization work for everyone, they say, to close the income
gap, end global warming.
Oddly, at the Brazil forum, designed to help talk our way into
a new future, it seems as if talking has become part of the problem.
How many times can the same story of inequality be told, the same
outrage expressed, before that expression becomes a paralyzing,
rather than catalyzing, force?
Which brings us back to the two men shaking hands. The reason the
police are after José Bové (and why he is being treated
like a cheese-making Che Guevera) is that he took a break from all
the talk. While in Brazil, Bové travelled with local landless
activists to a nearby Monsanto test site, where three hectares of
genetically modified soybeans were destroyed. Unlike in Europe,
where similar direct-action has occurred, the protest did not end
there. The Landless Peasants Movement has occupied the land and
members are planting their own crops, pledging to turn the farm
into a model of sustainable agriculture.
Why didn't they just talk about their problems? In Brazil, 1 percent
of the population owns 45 percent of the land. In the past six years
alone, 85,000 families have joined the ranks of the landless.
At the first World Social Forum, the most talked-about alternative
turns out to be an alternative to talking: acting. It may just be
the most powerful alternative of all.
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo. A version
of this article originally appeared in the Toronto Globe and
Now read Saskia Sassen's "How
to Confront Globalization: Challenge the Elites"