Thousands more will converge in Aotearoa of New Zealand for the Oceanic version at the end of November. In January next year, the World event will be staged in the Indian city of Mumbai

The idea of the Social Forum has mushroomed and now takes in a staggering number of offshoots across the world - thematic, regional, citywide and continent-wide.

Brazilian wonder

But all roads lead back to Brazil where the inaugural world event was held in 2001. Last week, the country held its first national social forum in Belo Horizonte (Beautiful Horizon in English) with the slogan “Another World is Possible, Another Brazil is Necessary”.

"The Brazilian Social Forum is also a world forum, because it is characterized not by the geographical origin of those who are present, but what they are seeing, saying and defending," organiser Moacir Gaodtti, of the Instituto Paulo Friere said.

Belo Horizonte hosted Brazil's first
national social forum

But the flavour is distinctly Brazilian, from indigenous tribes in colourful headdresses to workshops on cultural resistance and surviving in the countries infamous sprawling slums.

"Hip hop is a rescue, it’s a rescue," comes the rap from the daylong Cultural Hip-Hop Reference Space at the Museum of Living Diversity, where Spin Force and Squeleton Break were showing the crowds how to move.

It makes a refreshing change for a movement that all-too-often seems overwhelmingly young, middle class and white. Yet Luiz, a local standing at the bus stop outside the conference’s Minerinho stadium, still advised not to go to that part of town.

"There is a high chance that you will be robbed," he said. Prejudices are hard to break.

Talking shop

By definition the social forum is not a political body, it decides nothing, speaks for no one and organises no action. Another world may be possible, but it stands accused of being just a talking shop.

The landless peasants' movement, the Movimento Sem Terra, have no such qualms. On the second day of the Forum, they simply entered en masse into the local supermarket and demanded that genetically modified foods should be removed from the shelves.

The forum attracted large crowds

"People are buying these products without knowing which are genetically modified," Wilian Santos of the National Network of Popular Lawyers said.

They even called the military police themselves - as under state law the sale of GM foods  is illegal – and then left in a single file.

Participation

About 20,000 people attended hundreds of workshops and discussions, divided into three themes – imperialism, the Brazil we want, and social movements. Yet, due to its sheer scale, it is impossible to find any definitive conclusion to the process.

The first World Social Forum took place in Porto Alegre, where the state was the first in the country to be run by what is now the governmental Worker’s Party, the PT.

It became a model UN city with an experimental system of ‘participatory budgets’ where civil society sits at the table with politicians to decide where money should be spent.

The Forum was born on the wave of anti-corporate globalisation protests of the late 1990s, as a civil society response to the grassroots and revolutionary groups who had created the international days of protest, which first came to world attention in Seattle, US, in November 1999.

Yet, it is far from perfect and is characterised almost by design, chaos and disorganisation.

Chaotic stage

Outside the vast Minerinho stadium, where major cultural figures like the theologian Leonardo Boff hold fort, there is a teeming market of leftist stalls, pamphleteers and t-shirt sellers.

The makers of the ubiquitous plastic “another world is possible” bags clearly have not had a chat with the environmentalists, who themselves are confounded by the large presence of the state oil company, Petrobras.

The forum is the stage where
everyone has an opinion

One local entrepreneur is selling cachaca, Brazilian sugar cane rum, in tiny bottles with the image of Che Guevara and labelled with social forum stickers. Each one costs the same as a litre bottle – a huge mark-up. When asked where the money goes, the stallholder laughs and says, “It goes into the bosses' pocket”.

At the World event in Porto Alegre in January, the market for "another world is possible" t-shirts, bags, badges, bandanas and hats thrived and was estimated at $55 million in cash, goods and services brought in to the region during the Forum.

The anarchist network of Belo Horizonte subverted the Brazilian Social Forum’s website with accusations of social prostitution.

"When they take an ethical position in their tactics we come back vehemently with our proposals of self-organisation day by day. They shout that we should humanise [the globalisation process], we shout they should abolish it," they say.

Melting pot

But the World Social Forum maintains that it is not an organisation, not a united front platform, but "… an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and inter-linking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a society centred on the human person".

For her part, Julia Quieroz, 20, from Belo Horizonte itself, said she thought it was “fantastic” that the first Forum had arrived in her home city.

“The people come from all over the country and the atmosphere is really good. Now I want to go to India next year," said Quieroz, a social sciences student. There’s just one problem: "I can’t afford a flight," she says.