PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil—Social justice is a lot of work. Especially when its 90 degrees and humid. The World Social Forum meetings are spread out along the Guiaba River, at 11 different sites, each one consisting of a couple of dozen tents. The sessions last three hours, and there are about 20 sessions per three-hour block. So, every three hours I have to choose among 220 mini-conferences that are spread out along several kilometers and take place in plastic tents and empty port warehouses. Did I mention it’s hot and humid?
This morning I decided to spend my time in the tent devoted to discussions of bauxite mining. Bauxite is the main ingredient in aluminum, of which the United States is the world’s biggest consumer. It is also dangerous to mine and polluting to the environment, a point that was driven home by a recent industrial accident in a bauxite refinery that led to a toxic spill in the Amazon region of Brazil.
What is going on today, in this small tent filled with about 30 people, is unusual. Three groups that at first glance have conflicting interests—Brazilian miners, German industrial unions, and American environmentalists—are attempting to form a coalition. It is easy to see why these groups’ interests would nominally be opposed. The Germans would be concerned that the lower-wage Brazilians will take their jobs, and both would resist the American environmentalists, who want to put limits on their industry.
These differences do exist, but for now, at least, these disparate organizations see themselves as having a higher purpose, and it involves working together.
“We think in this age of globalization we can no longer work only in one country,” said Dieter Eich, a representative of the Confederation of German Trade Unions. “It is not acceptable for German companies that manufacture in the developing world to use different standards than they do at home. Why is a Brazilian lung not as protected as a German one?” His union, the German equivalent of the AFL-CIO, is funding 20 education projects and pro-labor publicity campaigns in Brazil.
Free-trade advocates would dismiss Eich’s concerns as mere rhetoric designed to protect the German market. After all, if you raise the health and environmental standards of poor countries to those of Europe, then corporations will not be as tempted to export jobs overseas.
Manuel Paiva, the president of the workers union in the Barcarena region of Brazil where the toxic spill happened, was not interested in an ideological debate. “We want to be sure that the work we do will not harm us,” he told the audience. “We want to discuss how to have a mining industry that is not degrading to our homes and our land.”
According to union leaders, the most pressing issue is a plan by the aluminum companies—which are dominated by the Brazilian mining firm CVRD; Hydro, a Norwegian-owned company that is centered in Germany; and the U.S. aluminum-manufacturing giant Alcoa—to dramatically ramp up production. That expansion means building dams to power the energy-intensive refineries.
Dams have long been a concern of the environmental community because of the ecological devastation and community displacement they cause, but the anti-dam agenda was not an easy sell for Glenn Switkes, the Sao Paulo-based representative of the International Rivers Network, a U.S. environmental organization. While Switkes was pushing for limits on the mining operations, jobs and health concerns were at the top of the Brazilian workers’ agenda. After listening to his presentation on the dangers of dams, the union leaders said he should speak directly to the villages, where they said the mining companies had already made many attractive promises.
“Meetings like this are great, but this is a speck in terms of what we need to do to reach the grass roots. It’s a problem for lots of international organizations,” said Switkes, whose job is made easier by the fact that he speaks fluent Portuguese.
For the activists, union members, intellectuals, and other grass-roots groups, Porto Alegre is a chance to form their own version of a multinational corporation or international agency. While companies have been operating across borders and disciplines for decades, such cooperation between nongovernmental organizations is a relatively new phenomenon, said Rick Rowden, the Washington, D.C., representatives of Action Aid, a European-African aid and advocacy agency with operations in 40 countries.
“In the 1990s, a lot of cross-linking began to occur. People who had been working on various issues for decades began to see how their issues were interrelated,” said Rowden, citing as an example the broad-spectrum movements that rose up against the International Monetary Fund because its policies affected labor, education, health, and environment.
Eich, the German trade unionist, said that the alliances being formed at the forum can have powerful and lasting impacts. “For the Brazilian unions dealing with a German company, they are limited in how much pressure they can apply. But if the German unions also apply the pressure, it can have a lot of impact.”