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Arturo Palma Torres

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After the shock of Mumbai!

Yes really! The World Social Forum of Mumbai was a real shock for me. For those familiar with India and the Asian world, my reactions won’t come as a surprise. But for me, who had never been really interested in this part of the world, my ten days at the WSF helped me to better understand the challenges confronting us if we wish to help build a better world.

The first shock was the cultural differences. Nothing I wasn’t expecting, of course! But it’s one thing to know about a culture and another to experience it personally. I don’t believe that I exaggerate if I say that the Western people present at the WSF (I include the Latin American people here) quickly felt somewhat lost and pretty much out of their depth. Firstly, because of the massive presence of the poor and the excluded of India and their organizations. Out of 100,000 people, 80% were Indians. Thousands of women, children, farmers, indigenous people and dalits (those we call the "untouchables") immediately brought other forms of expression and other content to this forum.

Secondly, because of the diversity of cultures present: those 80,000 Indian men and women don’t all have the same culture. It is important to be aware that in India there are at least 16 official national languages. And that the cultural differences, based on religious beliefs amongst others, are extremely important. From one region to another, people don’t necessarily know or understand each other. Language not serving as a good means of communication, the Indians (and the Asians in general) expressed themselves by other means: demonstrations in the alleyways of the former industrial site, dances, songs, performances and, especially, theatrical pieces.

Thus, thousands of outdoor demonstrations were taking place permanently. Which meant that venues intended for discussions and debates appeared empty. It is partly true that some seminars and workshops didn’t attract many people. Especially those organized by Western people! But there was also the effect of perspective: in venues designed to welcome 5,000 or 10,000 people, the presence of 500 or 1,000 participants made them appear pretty empty! While making my way (or fighting to make my way, I should say!) around the different meeting venues — seminars, workshops and stands — I could see that people’s participation and interest were real, going beyond the communication difficulties.

Nevertheless, the question of cross-culturality, the capacity to understand and respect each other beyond individual cultures, but without renouncing the universal values all of us believe in, remains essential when speaking about building "another world" together.

The second "Mumbai effect", for me in any case, was the physical awareness of the multitude. In India, and in Asia, we tend only to speak of thousands and millions of people. I cannot say that I know the city of Mumbai, but I can tell you that I felt the weight of its 15 million inhabitants!

Awareness of the density of the population, construction and traffic is a sensation you cannot escape. Especially when it goes with misery, pollution and violence. Once the physical impact has been overcome, awareness of the multitude obliges you to ask yourself some basic but essential questions. I became brutally aware that I was in a country of a billion inhabitants, of which 45% live on less than one dollar per day. That on the same continent, China has 1.3 billions inhabitants. That half of the world’s population is less than 25 years old and that in 2050, India and China alone will account for nearly 2/3 of this population. In recent years they have also become leaders in economic growth (8-10%) and, of course, in environmental destruction.

Then, all of a sudden, you become aware that a significant part of humankind’s destiny is going to be played out in this region of the planet. In these conditions, who is at the centre and who at the periphery, no longer of development, but simply of history? The answer is difficult to accept for someone like me, a Westerner through and through. And yet we are going to have to start incorporating this demographic data into our thinking on "other possible worlds" and into our alternative practices.

The third shock to the system: the difference in priorities. It was obvious just reading the programme. New subjects or those neglected during previous WSF events appeared in force: the question of the land, the various levels of exclusion generated by the caste system and the patriarchal model, the rights of indigenous people, religious communitarianism, child slavery, and so on. These issues were introduced and developed by Indian organizations because these are central problems for millions of people in India. I would say that, beyond the slogans and the political discourse against neoliberal globalization, these are the themes that were of most interest to the participants, including Westerners.

However, it is neither globalization nor capitalism that are at the origin of most of these problems. They have certainly come to exacerbate them but, in my opinion, these are socio-cultural questions that have long been rooted in society rather than socio-economic issues. Thus the analyses that tend to blame everything on a given production and consumption system lose a little of their relevance by trying to explain everything through this one aspect. Because reality is much more complex.

I am not saying that it is not necessary to ensure that our production and consumption habits respect human beings and nature. I continue to believe that, in this sense, our efforts to develop fair trade are absolutely essential. However, it seems to me that we need to widen and enrich our thinking and our commitment to building a better world beyond the injustices generated by any one economic system.

As you can see, each new WSF is a whole new event. This most recent WSF once again taught me a lot. This is one of the major roles of the forums. To confront other realities, other actors, while expanding your own awareness and thinking. At present the forums are places for spiritual recharging, far more than a platform for proposals or building alternatives.

Actually, seeing the material and cultural differences of the different worlds that compose our planet, I am increasingly convinced than one cannot oppose the existing world, that thinks of itself as single, monolithic and eternal, another individual world. In my opinion, it should be about building "all the worlds and all the possible alternatives". What is important is to ensure that this heterogeneous whole adheres to the values of justice, respect and rights that are ours.

Arturo Palma Torres
February 2004


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