The World Social Forum (WSF) has for many years been a regular fixture at Porto Alegre, a sizeable but otherwise undistinguished city towards the very south of Brazil. What was unique about this version of the event is the concentration on a single area of social concern. That this was Palestine indicates the centrality that this issue now has on the world’s social and political agenda.
The number of participants seems to have numbered between one and two thousand. (The dearth of centrally-provided information may have been a consequence of the self-organising nature of the event.) Palestinians were there in force, either from Palestine itself or from the world-wide Palestinian diaspora. The other striking feature about the participants was the strong presence of young women, from all round the world, committed and even fierce activists. The movement evidently has an energetic and purposeful future.
The whole event received tremendous boosts from the UN vote to give Palestine recognition as a nation, and Stevie Wonder’s cancellation of his performance at an event in support of the IDF, both announced during the WSF.
There were as far as we could count just 9 participants from the United Kingdom. This seemed not out of line with the contingents from other European countries. North Americans, perhaps especially Canadians, were far more numerous. Brazilians out-numbered everyone else.
I was there as the sole representative of BRICUP, with the main purpose of taking part in the two sessions that had been scheduled on academic boycott. These had been instigated and planned together with a loose electronic consortium of representatives from PACBI, USACBI and (Canadian) Faculty for Palestine. (Sadly none of the other constituent members of the European federation EPACBI was able to be there. And the intending member of India’s InACBI was prevented by the length of his entry visa process.) The chance to meet and work harmoniously with these international colleagues was both a pleasure, and groundwork for future collaborations.
Our two sessions were very well attended – between 35 and 45 in the two cases, way above the average for non-plenary sessions at WSF. The first of our meetings laid out the political basis for and accumulated experience with academic boycott, while the second was for strategising about strengthening the campaign. Discussion was lively, and the dozen or so copies of the BRICUP pamphlet I had been able to fit into my bag were snapped up.
It was generally believed that the reason for holding this WSF in Brazil was to strengthen pro-Palestinian activism in Latin America. That was true in spades for the academic boycott. None of the organisers of our sessions was aware of previous academic boycott activity there, and certainly there has been no national organisation promoting boycott in any Latin American county. Our hope therefore was that we would make useful contacts at WSF and especially at our advertised sessions with sympathetic pro-Palestinian academics. That hope however was to be unfulfilled. The saving grace though was the energetic and vocal band of students from the Palestine Front at a Brazilian university who attended our second session. Contact was established, and hopefully will be maintained and developed. We can hope that the students will show their elders the way.