There are two possibilities, according to President Evo Morales of Bolivia: “Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies. We choose Pachamama, or death.”
He was opening the first ever World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights. “The principal cause of climate change is capitalism,” he told the conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia. “It seeks the highest profit possible, promoting endless growth on a finite planet.”
Conference participants took part in 17 working groups from 19th to 22nd April, roughly mirroring the UN process. Groups discussed topics such as the structural causes of climate change, mitigation financing or technology transfer.
The final declaration produced by the working groups was ambitious – demanding rich countries reduce their emissions by 50% between 2012 and 2017, reducing CO2 in the atmosphere to 300 parts per million (it is currently at approximately 391ppm) to keep warming below 1°C compared to pre-industrial levels (currently approximately 0.8°C). Other proposals include unconditional financing for poor countries, equivalent to 6% of rich countries’ GDP.
These ideas may seem both politically and scientifically impossible. However, dismissing them completely would miss the point of the conference. It is part of a significant climate change movement building in the developing world. The language of rights and justice could also reinvigorate the faltering UN process.
Many UN climate policies have granted so many concessions to powerful polluters and nations that they often reward environmental destruction. For example, various mechanisms have allowed companies to earn carbon credits for cutting down ancient forests and replacing them with monoculture plantations, while other policies may encourage companies to emit more so they can gain credits for subsequently reducing these emissions.
The Cochabamba conference was, in fact, a direct response to the collapsed UN negotiations in Copenhagen last December. Writer Naomi Klein said that if developed countries fulfilled their promises in Copenhagen, “this would lead to 4-5°C increase in global temperatures.”
“Countries were negotiating away their own survival,” she added. “There has to be an alternative, and I think it’s wonderful that the government of Evo Morales stepped into that disaster, saying come to Cochabamba – this is not about politics, it’s not about what is politically feasible, it’s about necessity. In Copenhagen our governments gave up.”
The UN was held in such low esteem at the Cochabamba conference that their representative Alicia Barcena was booed and jeered when she attempted to speak at the opening event. “We have come, respectfully, to listen to the people – if you don’t want us here, we can go,” she said. “But I think dialogue between states and peoples is important.”
One reason for this frosty welcome could be the Copenhagen Accord, which several nations wrote in secret during last year’s summit. The Accord aims to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012 with non-legally binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which would be a backward step according to many governments from developing countries.
They also believe that Kyoto’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” should be maintained to keep the focus on developed country responsibility.
Conflict over the document continues, however. The US recently withheld US$2.5m climate change mitigation funds from Ecuador for failing to sign the document.
“Ecuador will not accept this type of blackmail,” Ecuadorian culture minister Maria Fernández Espinosa said. “In fact, the president of Ecuador has said, in complete seriousness, that we offer the United States US$2.5m in aid if the US signs the Kyoto Protocol.”
Cochabamba was a perfect setting for developing countries and peoples’ movements to regroup and rebel against governments of richer countries. Indeed, Bolivia has a history of harbouring anti-authoritarian figures such as Ché Guevara and Butch Cassidy.
This April also marks the tenth anniversary of Cochabamba’s Water Wars, which started when a private conglomerate bought the city’s water supply system. One man told me it started as a protest against 3-400% price rises, “but soon turned into total war”. Protesters paralysed the country by blocking all the main roads, and after violent clashes and several deaths, the privatization process was reversed. Local senator Evo Morales built on this success and eventually became the first indigenous president of Bolivia in 2005.
So Morales is a hero for many indigenous movements across Latin America. This April they turned up in thousands from Chile, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil and further afield. Organisers claim that more than 30,000 people took part in the conference from 142 different countries, with 57 official delegations from national governments.
The conference took place in several football stadiums and a university campus on the outskirts of Cochabamba. Far more participants enrolled than were expected, so many of the events had to move to larger buildings.
Development vs Destruction
Despite Bolivian politicians’ rhetoric of Mother Earth’s rights, Bolivia is still a capitalist nation with fossil fuel extraction policies. An 18th working group called Mesa 18 was set up in a restaurant outside the conference to highlight the repressive reality of large mining projects and vast hydroelectric dams in Bolivia.
“Thousands of people have come to Bolivia because they think there is a new model beginning here,” Mesa 18 participant Pablo Regalski said. “We wanted to show the problems in changing between the new model, and the old model-the capitalist, extractivist model. Of course mining fossil fuels is part of the transition to a new model, but we need to discuss it.”
There was a heavy police presence around Mesa 18, perhaps due to the group’s solidarity with the ongoing protest at San Cristobal mine near Potosí. Peasants took control of parts of the mine before the climate summit demanding compensation for the environmental damage and control over the resources. The silver, lead and zinc mine is owned by Sumitomo Corporation from Japan.
Ecuador was proposing a solution to fossil fuel conflicts. Fernandez Espinosa said that her country was willing to leave 20% of oil reserves under the ground in exchange for 50% of their value from richer countries. “This is equivalent to the total emissions of France for a year,” she said.
These particular oil reserves lie under a national park and the lands of indigenous peoples. But how ambitious is this proposal? Many countries would surely be happy to leave untouched politically contentious oil reserves in exchange for 50% of their value.
Nonetheless, new ideas from Cochabamba could provide new ways of thinking about the climate. Javier Sarrate, Bolivian ambassador to Ecuador, said: “This conference may make people see the environment as an active subject, negotiations so far have treated the environment merely as an object, to be bought, sold or used. Our ancient peoples see it very differently.”
Other justice-oriented ideas such as ‘Climate debt’ could “change the dynamic and the discourse of climate change politics to one more focussed on justice”, according to Matthew Stilwell from the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development.
Climate debt is owed by richer countries to poorer ones for the economic growth they have attained through using fossil fuels, he said. Such debts could be recognised using a form of ‘climate tribunal’, according to Alberto Arroyo of the Hemespheric Social Alliance, to enforce the commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol and in other legislation.
The conference closed with a speech from Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. He blamed “imperialist capitalism” for climate change, and argued that only solution is socialism: “I see socialism exploding like a volcano all over Latin America, with Bolivia at its epicentre,” he said, arguing that “this is the only conference where people are talking about the real, structural causes of climate change.”
While Chávez’s tirade against capitalism may be a useful perspective, it could be more difficult for him to talk about the problem of fossil fuels, while Venezuela is one of the biggest exporters of oil in world.
Indeed, a complex, global issue such as climate change will never be solved with one single conception of the problem. Instead, a solution which works for everyone will require a combination of viewpoints – Western climate science, criticism of capitalism and spiritual ideas of Pachamama’s rights.
This is the importance of the Cochabamba summit. It attempts to bring a new political viewpoint to the table, uniting marginal voices of activists, poor countries and peoples’ movements.