In the Cochabamba football stadium on April 22, diverse indigenous peoples paraded around the track, thousands of local peasants sat in the stands, and thousands more activists from around the globe waved flags and chanted on the field.
A common sentiment flowed through the crowd: something historic had occurred over the previous three days during the April 19-22 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth organised by the Bolivian government in Cochabamba.
Bolivian President Evo Morales, who, before being elected less than five years ago, would have been in the stands with his coca-growing comrades, was in the forefront of the event as Bolivia’s first indigenous president and initiator of the people’s summit.
Addressing the stadium’s crowd, Morales summed up the mood by saying the summit “has given hope to the world”.
Armed with a program and plan of action developed at the summit, Morales said the next battle for what was declared the “Global People’s Movement for Mother Earth” is to go out and convince others of our fight — to “ensure the governments of the world respect the voice of the social movements”.
Developed countries have failed to come up with even a minimal plan to combat the climate crisis. But, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez told the crowd, the success of the people’s summit provides “fury and force” with which to “go to Cancun”, where the next United Nations climate summit will take place in November, and “continue the battle of Copenhagen”.
Chavez, Morales and Cuban vice-president Esteban Lazo pledged to those in the stadium that, together with the rest of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) and allied countries, they would take the people’s summit’s resolutions to Cancun. The same three had led the charge inside Copenhagen to scuttle the developed countries’ plans to impose their “Copenhagen accord”.
“We are not going to allow the imposition of a document that does not include the voices of the people”, said Chavez to wild cheers of approval.
It felt as though the summit had launched what Etelvina Masioni, a leader of the Brazilian landless peasant movement (MST), had said was necessary at the summit’s opening rally: a real alliance between ALBA governments and the people’s movements of the world in defence of life and Mother Earth.
Two days before, we had gathered at the main stadium in Tiquipaya, a small town about 14 kilometres from Cochabamba city, which hosted the 35,000-strong event. This far exceeded organisers’ expectations of about 10,000 participants and cemented Morales’ well-deserved role as a world leader in the environmental struggle.
Bolivian indigenous elders kicked off proceedings with a traditional opening ceremony, while the military later sang the national anthem in the stands. In between, thousands of indigenous people in traditional dress, miners with hardhats, young radicals, peasants with the green handkerchief of Via Campesina tied around their necks, famous personalities, dreadlocked hippies and esteemed scientists mingled.
“Planet or death, we shall win” was the slogan coined by Morales. He said: “Humanity is faced with the dilemma of continuing down the path of capitalism and death or beginning the path towards harmony with nature and respect for life in order to save humanity.”
Condemnations of capitalism were greeted with cheers. The UN representative was booed when she tried to explain that the UN was interested in listening to the people.
For the next two days, the people’s movements took centre stage. Global environmental activists, unionists, indigenous and peasant organisations —the largest bloc at the summit — debated a program and strategy of action to combat the climate crisis.
The summit may have felt like a Woodstock, or a World Social Forum (WSF) — a regular anti-globalisation gathering that rose and declined over the past decade — but here capitalism was the clear enemy.
Conservative NGOs were nowhere to be seen.
Discussion was focused on the causes of the climate crisis. Unlike at a WSF, everyone agreed on the need to come to some common agreements on policy and action.
More than 160 self-organised workshops were held during the summit, covering issues as diverse as “What is ecosocialism?” to “The bicycle: instrument of resistance to the capitalist development model and symbol of freedom”.
However, the key focus was the 17 working groups covering issues such as “structural causes of climate change”, “rights of Mother Earth”, “climate debt”, “dangers of carbon markets” and “strategies for action”.
From here emerged 17 resolutions and the key points of the final People’s Agreement.
Unlike at Copenhagen, the decisions were the result of a transparent and democratic discussion involving two-and-a-half months of online debate between more than 5000 participants. That was then thrashed out over two days and nights to reach consensus.
The message of the summit was clear in the People’s Agreement. “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”
A new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings first requires equality between humans. This means developed countries, those most responsible for the crisis, have to be made to carry their share of the burden.
Atmospheric space needs to be “decolonised”, with developed countries reducing their emissions by at least 50% of 1990 levels.
Working group 12 noted that together with the transfer of new technologies, rich countries should pay their climate debt — by redirecting the 6% of GDP that rich countries spend on war towards the Third World — so poorer nations could begin the path of limited, sustainable development.
Working group 15 said the recent financial crisis has demonstrated the destructive nature of the market — a reason why it would be irresponsible to leave the environment in its hands.
To restore the broken equilibrium between humanity and nature, group 3 proposed a draft Universal Declaration on Mother Earth Rights to be presented to the UN for adoption.
To coordinate this campaign, working group 16 proposed the creation of the Global People’s Movement for Mother Earth to bring together existing networks, campaigns and organisations. As well as mobilising for Cancun, a world referendum will be organised for April 22 next year, Mother Earth Day, to let the people decide how to respond to the climate crisis.
In the meeting between government leaders and social movements, Morales said an intercontinental commission of government and social movement organisations would present these conclusions to the UN in the next few days.
The decision of the people should be binding on governments, and those who refuse to comply should be taken to the International Justice Tribunal and tried for the crime of “climate genocide”, Morales said.
He added: “If the governments don’t listen, the people will generate their own revolutions.”
Almost no one questioned capitalism as the main enemy, but debates emerged over how to confront this consumerist and predatory system, and what alternative model should be fought for.
Posing the question that many were asking — “how do we confront this catastrophe?” — Bolivian vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera said “local resistances are necessary”, but the movement had to pose as one of its central tasks the seizure of power.
“Those of us who love nature, who want to defend the planet and its natural resources”, not only have to resist, organise and mobilise. He said any revolutionary “is obliged” to struggle for power.
“State power in the hands of the social movements can contribute to defending humanity, to defending life, to defending nature.”
Moreover, the struggle cannot be victorious solely at the local level, Garcia Linera said. Such struggles “will only be successful” with the struggle at the global level.
“The planet requires a planetary struggle.”
For Chavez, Latin America is the “epicentre” of this planetary battle to save humanity.
Capitalism won the battle of ideas in the 20th century, but Chavez said socialism is once again being reborn in Latin America.
And today, Chavez pointed out, it is capitalism that is in crisis. “The climate crisis is much more than a climate crisis, it is a systemic crisis. It is the total crisis of the system, the capitalist model.”
The only solution to save humanity is socialism, Chavez said. “Out of this great crisis, capitalism must be buried and a new world born.”