Bolivia offers people’s alternative to imperialist-led climate change efforts

By Jennifer Waller, NYC FIST

After the disappointment of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, the movement to find a solution to the global climate crisis is longing for a breath of fresh air. Most see the resultant Copenhagen Accord as imperfect at best, and detrimental at worst, as it does not mandate emissions reductions. After the world watched the governments of rich countries, led by President Barack Obama, co-opt the conference and drive into the ground any hope of a binding agreement on the climate crisis, many agree that the solution must be found by the people of the world, rather than by a small group of rich leaders. The government of Bolivia took the first steps to get this conversation underway by hosting a different kind of climate summit this spring: the ‘World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,’ that took place in Cochabamba this April 19-22.

Bolivians waving flags during the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Photo by Jennifer Waller

Every country in the world was invited to the conference, and the event was presented as an open discussion. This is a contrast to the summit in Copenhagen, which excluded most scientists, communities, faith leaders, and NGO’s from the conference altogether, and conducted the real negotiations behind closed doors with only a few token leaders of developing countries. Largely as a result of the outrage expressed by Bolivia and other nations, the United Nations ended up not even endorsing or adopting the Copenhagen Accord, but merely “noting” it.

Because of the courage of Bolivia and other nations in Copenhagen, the issue of global climate change has not just been swept under the rug. Obama and others have lauded the Copenhagen Accord as a good first step, but to many, even that is an overstatement.

“Climate change can not be addressed by half measures,” stated Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the UN. “We can’t make compromises with nature…Copenhagen marked a backwards step, undoing the work built on since the climate talks in Kyoto. That is why, against strong pressure from industrialised countries, we and other developing nations refused to sign the Copenhagen accord and why we are hosting an international meeting on climate change next month. In the words of the Tuvalu negotiator, we were not prepared to ‘betray our people for 30 pieces of silver’.”

The Accord that Bolivia refused to endorse is, more than anything else, a document that makes it even easier for rich nations to exploit the land and people of poorer ones. Most rich nations have polluted their way to the top, and the Copenhagen Accord encourages them to pollute their way to the bitter end. It completely erases and undermines the important mandates of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol (which the US weakened during bargaining, but then refused to sign), which instituted the first and only legally binding agreement for countries to set goals to lower their green house gas emissions lower than levels reached in 1990. Thanks to Copenhagen, these pledges are now voluntary and not legally binding.

On the Copenhagen accord Pablo Solon said, “This dangerous approach to climate negotiations is like building a dam where everyone contributes as many bricks as they want regardless of whether it stops the river. The Copenhagen accord opens the dam and condemns millions.”

Unfortunately, the countries that were edged out of the discussion are the very countries that are being hit first and hardest by the catastrophic effects of global climate change, which will eventually hit the entire world. The sad irony of the climate crisis is that while rich countries do the majority of damage to the environment, poor countries—which have had little to no impact in causing the crisis—are suffering the effects. Because of this reality, the government of Bolivia has called for “climate reparations,” and other countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua have endorsed the demand. Bolivia itself is no stranger to catastrophe as a result of climate change—in the last few years, over 50,000 Bolivians have been displaced due to severe flooding and storms.

Bolivian President Evo Morales does not hesitate to blame the swell of disasters on increased CO2 emissions from the world’s biggest polluters. Specifically, he has demanded that developed countries donate a minimum one percent of their annual GDP to a UN fund for poorer countries.  The logic behind this plan is hard to ignore: as developed polluter countries become richer and richer, the UN has found that the number of victims of weather disasters in developing countries has more than tripled between 1980 and 2004, and is now at 257 million a year. According to projections by the National Academy of Sciences, developed countries’ green house gas emissions will cost developing countries more than $2.3 trillion in damages during the next century. According to World Bank calculations, the 43 poorest nations, or “low-income economies,” had a combined GDP of  $568.8 billion in 2008—just 24.7% of that projected cost in damages.

The conference in Bolivia was an opportunity to discuss the failures of Copenhagen, but more importantly, was a successful step in finding a united way forward. Working groups at the conference drafted a “Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth,” worked on the organization of a people’s world referendum on climate change, and discussed the proposal of a Climate Justice Tribunal. Other working groups focused on climate migrants, climate debt, the dangers of the carbon market, and agriculture and food sovereignty. The conference consisted of workshops and events organized by participants, as well as working groups and mass gatherings.

The goal of the conference in Cochabamba (which has a rich history of people’s movements, such as the 1999-2000 water war against Bechtel) was to “shift power back to the people.” One can almost guarantee at this point, by looking at the available evidence, that a responsible solution to climate change will not be achieved if the problem is left up to the governments of rich countries. The reason for this is relatively simple: if these governments did what truly needs to be done to lessen the effects of climate change, they would have to find new ways to get rich that do not exploit natural resources. The developed world’s dependence on dirty energy has become an addiction and, like all addictions, it will sacrifice anything to get its fix. The people of the world must not let the shortsighted leaders of rich countries destroy the entire natural world while risking the lives of the majority of the world’s population.

At an event in New York City before the conference, Pablo Salon described the challenge that lies before us: “Climate change reminds us that we are all part of one planet. Climate change is not just about the weather—it is a discussion about ways of living. We must learn to share, and build a new society based on this.”

Salon went on to say that greenhouse gas emissions are not the cause of the global crisis, that they are a symptom. Many people realize that this is a systemic issue that is deeply imbedded in what Solon calls “a system of consumption, production, and profit.” The conference called for an analysis of the structural causes of the environmental crisis, acknowledging that without recognizing these causes, this cycle of destruction will go unbridled until it is far too late.

On the opening day of the conference Evo Morales addressed a crowd of 15,000 (roughly half the number of the total participants in the conference.) “We have two paths: either Pachamama or death. We have two paths: either capitalism dies or Mother Earth dies. Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives. Of course, brothers and sisters, we are here for life, for humanity and for the rights of Mother Earth. Long live the rights of Mother Earth! Death to capitalism!”

The conference hosted delegates from 142 countries and official delegations from 47 countries including those from Paraguay, Panama, Mexico, Georgia, Uruguay, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Brazil, Russia, the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Spain, Sweden, India, Mali, Nigeria, Mozambique, South Africa, Qatar and South Korea. There was a focus on representatives from developing countries, specifically from Latin America and Africa, as these are the countries that are in great peril due to climate change, but whose voices were silenced at Copenhagen.

At the closing festivities on April 22st, there were reports from the working groups, as well as speeches from government figures. The foreign minister of Ecuador addressed Obama’s policy since the Copenhagen talks. The US has financially punished the countries that chose not to sign onto the accord, cutting $3 million from Bolivia and $2.5 million from Ecuador. The Ecuadorian minister said that he would give the US $2.5 million if they would sign onto the Kyoto protocol. He also urged nations to include the rights of Mother Earth in their constitutions. In Ecuador communities can fight for the rights of nature in a court of law.

The Vice President of Cuba spoke on the destructive essence of capitalism, citing the $12 trillion bank bailout at a time where the earth and its communities are in dire need of help—the available money instead goes into the pockets of a greedy few. Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, gave a fiery anti-capitalist speech and called for the next step in the world people’s climate movement to be a strong presence at the COP 16 in Cancun this November.

The conference as a whole was a message of solidarity among “world people.” From Bolivian farmers to NGO representatives, from US revolutionaries to African intellectuals, the Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was a space for all the people of the world who are determined to find a real people’s solution to the climate crisis to come together and share ideas. As Evo Morales has argued, Copenhagen perhaps was not a failure, but a victory for the people, as it caused such widespread outrage that it caused the people’s climate movement to stride forward stronger than ever before.


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