Chef Boy Ari walks the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, at last. One week ago, he and his flock of UM agriculture students were basking in a warm sea of eco-agricultural bliss, learning the ways of agroforestry and polyculture in a tropical Shangri-La.
Then, a few days in Salvador da Bahia, the unofficial African capital of the Western hemisphere. Between mouthfuls of acaraje (more on that later) and muqueque de peixe (more on that later too), we drank caipirinhas (much more on that, later) and listened to the thunderstorm beats of samba-reggae pounding in the streets. We were preparing for a long trip to southern Brazil.
Some people complain about the long Brazilian bus rides. But not CBA. The seats are lush, and they recline like easy chairs. There are cheesy Hollywood movies, dubbed in Portuguese, to watch. And every few hours the bus stops at another comida da quilo, at which point CBA exclaims “gracious a deus!”
Comida da quilo translates roughly to big-ass buffet, at the end of which your plate is weighed and you’re charged by the kilo. The salad bar is usually pretty extensive, with various pickled items (including figs!), as well as mixed options, such as bean salad or tomato vinaigrette, as well as watercress, lettuce, onions, shredded carrots, and whatnot.
The hot items include fried cassava root, fried bananas, fried fish and fried steak. Non-fried items include pasta, grilled and stewed meat, and rice and beans—but CBA learned early on not to waste his precious quilos on empty calories like rice. There are usually one or two mayonnaise options, as well as hot salsa, to put on top. Desert includes doughnuts, cakes, puddings, and custards...oh yes.
Back on the bus: Food coma…comida da quilo…food coma…etc. The excitement grew as we neared Porto Alegre and realized that nearly everyone on the bus was going for the same reason we were: The third annual World Social Forum.
The World Social Forum was conceived as a response to the World Economic Forum, held every year in Davos, Switzerland. That meeting is where the keepers of the world’s capital meet to discuss the future of global capitalism, according to the “money rules the world” paradigm.
Under the slogan “Another world is possible,” over 100,000 folks from 151 countries converged at Porto Alegre to share stories, make connections, and discuss ways to make it happen, with presentations, demonstrations, debates, speeches, workshops, and lots of pamphlets.
I especially dug the abundance of street food stalls advertising “organica.” Food, of course, is a central hub of many issues at the World Social Forum, relevant to land use and reform, hunger, water rights, a host of environmental concerns, fair labor, and much more.
Consider the water situation. Many public water systems are so polluted that the bottled water industry has become a $3 trillion business. Lately, multinational corporations have begun buying water rights from cash-strapped municipalities. As children of the arid west, we should all know the importance of this scarce resource. As victims of energy deregulation, we know where privatization can lead. Indeed, in some communities in India, families must now spend 20 percent of their incomes on water. What’s next on the meter, air? In the Bolivian town of Cochabamba, villagers protested the corporate privatization of their water supply. After a 17-year-old protester was killed, Cochabamba finally backed out of the contract. Now the town is being sued for damages, with the help of the World Bank. Nonetheless, the villagers won their water back.
That’s the story of the World Social Forum: horror stories of corporate attempts to take over the world, mirrored by stories of solidarity, peace, and hope.
This couldn’t be happening at a more appropriate place. The day we arrived in Brazil, the new president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was sworn in. “Lula” is extremely popular with the young, the optimistic, and the poor—aka, most of Brazil.
So when Lula spoke at the World Social Forum, he didn’t exactly face his toughest crowd. Lula reiterated his Zero Fome (zero hunger) campaign—truly ambitious in a country with 45 million hungry people. But Lula comes from a poor family himself, and went hungry often, so folks believe he isn’t just paying lip service. He proclaimed the World Social Forum to be the most important event in contemporary history, and announced that he was going to the World Economic Forum in Davos, to make sure the people there paid attention to the issues being discussed in Porto Alegre. The crowd burst into song.
At this point, CBA decided it was time for another round of his new favorite drink: batida de coco. It’s made from coconut milk, sweetened condensed milk, and cachaça (a local libation made from sugar). Gracious a deus!