People’s climate summit challenges Copenhagen, Cancun

April 30, 2010

“Capitalism is the number one enemy of humanity”, Bolivian President Evo Morales said in his closing speech to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held on April 19-22 in Cochabamba.

“It turns everything into merchandise, it seeks continual expansion. The system needs to be changed.”

More than 35,000 people attended the summit, organised by the Bolivian government in response to the challenge of climate change after rich nations refused to allow an agreement for serious action at the December United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen.

More than 9000 international guests from more than 140 countries attended, representing many social movements. There were official delegations from 47 governments around the world.

The summit featured 17 working groups, which prepared a comprehensive series of documents. These will be taken to the next UN-organised international climate summit at Cancun in November.

The key points of each document were also incorporated into the “Cochabamba Agreement” which was read out at the closing ceremony of the summit.

Unlike the Copenhagen summit, in which negotiations occurred behind closed doors while ordinary people protested outside, the Cochabamba summit was a place for those locked out at Copenhagen to discuss and plan their response.

There was a huge attendance from Bolivians, who are highly engaged in the process of social change led by Morales, who is Bolivia’s first-ever indigenous head of state.

Delegations came, many in brightly coloured traditional clothes, from across Bolivia, including: indigenous and tribal people in the Amazon, the Aymara and Quechua indigenous peoples of the Andes, a plethora of unions, peasant and indigenous associations, and many NGOs.

There were also big delegations from almost all Latin American nations. The scale and importance of the event was unprecedented for this small, often forgotten nation — South America’s poorest.

The summit was driven by the radical agenda of the Latin American anti-imperialist governments — such as Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. Socialist views were mixed with the indigenous philosophy of vivir bien (“living well”) in harmony with Pachamama (“Mother Earth”).

The idea of “living well” involves measuring progress by quality of life, not simply economic growth.

As seen at Copenhagen, Morales is not afraid to point the finger at the rich countries and the capitalist system they uphold. The rulers of the rich nations came under fire for bearing most responsibility for causing climate change, as well for leaving poor countries to suffer the worst impacts.

Bolivia is already feeling the impact of climate change. It is facing water shortages as its glaciers disappear. Neighbouring Peru has suffered catastrophic mudslides due to heavy rains.

Yet these impoverished countries have only contributed a tiny share of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

This climate debt of the industrialised nations is undeniable. The pro-government Bolivian newspaper Cambio carried a special feature on the summit on April 18, in which it named the US, China and Australia as among the worst greenhouse gas emitters.

Australia’s per capita emissions are close to the highest in the world. This figure does not even take into account it’s enormous coal and gas exports.

Is it fair for Bolivia to point the finger at Australia, when Bolivia (and Venezuela) also earns significant revenues from fossil fuel exports?

Unlike Australia, these countries are very poor and could not end their fossil fuel exports without extensive alternative development first (the struggle for which is a key part of the revolutionary process underway in both nations).

Bolivia does not even have safe, drinkable tap water yet.

If Australia ended coal and gas exports, the pain would be felt by a few mining multinationals. A rich country, Australia has the capital to rapidly diversify away from polluting industries — retraining displaced workers in the process.

This discussion of climate debt really opens debate on the source of Third World underdevelopment. It is a question that will have to be discussed more in the rich countries, where the main campaigns of the climate movement have focused almost exclusively on reducing our high domestic emissions.

This contradiction between social and ecological development, enforced on Third World nations by centuries of economic domination and pillaging by the West, raised its head at the summit.

There was a controversial 18th workshop (mesa 18) run by Bolivian social movements concerned about the impacts of mining and resource extraction on their environment. Summit organisers decided to not include their group in the list of official working groups.

This issue is a prickly one here. The government might like to protect nature, but they need development. It is not a simple issue to resolve — short of the rich nations, whose economies have been built on the exploitation of the Third World, paying back their debt.

For this reason, a speech by Friends of the Earth’s international chair, Nnimmo Bassey, was received with a little nervousness: he ended on the slogan, “Leave the coal in the hole, leave the crude oil in the soil, leave the tar sands in the land, where mother earth kept it.”

For some, this is a new discussion. And the speech proved thought-provoking.

But it is already taken up in Ecuador, where the government is seeking First World funding to “keep the oil in the soil” in the environmentally sensitive Yasuni region. Ecuador is seeking only half the market value of the oil in the area as compensation for not mining it.

The formal documents that will be taken to Cancun from the summit are only one aspect of its impact. The conference has begun an alliance of the Latin American left movements with the world’s climate justice movement.

Worldwide protest actions are planned for the Cancun summit. If Copenhagen showed one thing, it is that these international conferences are not going to agree to anything better than the domestic policies of the governments that dominate them. Participants came out inspired to take action in their own countries, poor or rich.

[Many more reports, speeches and documents from the Cochabamba summit can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, .

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