By Stuart Grudgings
BELEM, Brazil, Feb 1 (Reuters) - The world’s biggest gathering of leftist activists ended on Sunday, after six days of discussions and protests that participants said showed there was an alternative to a crumbling global capitalist system.
The World Social Forum brought about 100,000 activists to the Brazilian Amazon city of Belem ranging from communists railing against U.S. "imperialism" to environmentalists and more moderate socialists.
Timed to coincide with the Davos meeting of business leaders in Switzerland, this year’s Forum attracted a record number of government leaders keen to burnish their leftist credentials in the wake of the global financial crisis.
"People see capitalism as not being able to maintain itself and there’s a hope that it can’t too," said Shannon Bell, a politics professor at Toronto’s York University who attended meetings on "eco-socialism" at the Forum.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government spent about $50 million on the Forum and brought a dozen cabinet ministers. Four other leftist Latin American presidents also visited and received a heroes’ welcome.
Rather than making binding decisions, the Forum’s main role is as a huge networking and discussion opportunity for activists. The global crisis was a common theme, with many saying it showed that free-market capitalism was on its last legs.
"The financial side of the world was never the part that really moved the world. The world is moved by people," said Luis Fabiano Celestrino, a 35-year-old self-described "idealist" with the Revolution of the Spoon vegetarian group.
"The World Social Forum shows what people are thinking about the most basic problems — just hearing proposals for solving them makes this worthwhile."
The Forum is nothing if not diverse. A short distance from where Roman Catholic bishops discussed human rights on Saturday, a young man dressed as a shaman was staggering around, apparently under the influence of alcohol or drugs. People lined the paths at one of the university campuses where the Forum was held holding "I need a hug" signs.
Natanael Karaja, a 26-year-old from Brazil’s Karaja Indian tribe wearing a striking headdress and body paint, was drinking Coca-Cola and being interviewed by MTV.
"This forum was very important because it is a place where every citizen is respected," he said. "In Brazil, politicians, businessmen and farmers have not respected the rights of Indians guaranteed in the constitution of 1988."
But Mzonke Poni, a 30-year-old activist from South Africa, worried that governments and non-government groups were hijacking a forum that was supposed to be based on grass-roots dialogue.
"I’m not sure how effective this will be for grass-roots activists in terms of direct influence," Poni said of an event on Thursday at which four presidents including Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez gave lengthy speeches.
Others worried about creeping capitalist influence. Bottled water was being sold at double the normal price and private catering company were charging steep prices for food.
"It’s an embarrassment," said Vera Lucia Lopes, a teacher from Sao Paulo. "The same natives who are speaking and fighting for rights are leaving the table and selling inferior products at an abusive price."
(Editing by Sandra Maler)