Nigerian activist: People’s climate summit ‘a turning point’

May 14, 2010
Bolivian participants at the Cochabamba climate summit.

“There are two ways forward: Either save capitalism, or save Mother Earth”, Bolivian President Evo Morales said, stressing that this was the choice facing governments at a May 7 press conference in New York. There, he discussed the outcomes of the 35,000-strong World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

On April 26, a delegation made up of Bolivian government representatives and environmental activists from four continents officially handed over the summit’s proposals in the discussion leading up to the next round of UN-backed climate talks, which are to be held in November in Cancun, Mexico.

The proposals from the people’s summit — held in Cochabamba, Bolivia over April 19-22 — included a 50% reduction of emissions by developed countries, the payment of climate debt to developing countries, a proposed Universal Declaration on Mother Earth Rights, and a call to replace the destructive and consumerist capitalist system at the root of the climate crisis.

Morales said: “If Cancun is the same as Copenhagen”, and the voice of the people that emerged out of the people’s summit is ignored, “then unfortunately the United Nations will lose its authority among people in the world”.

Nigerian environmental activist and chair of Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) Nnimmo Bassey was a member of the delegation. He said the people’s summit had been “a turning point”.

In a UN press statement Bassey said the outcomes of this summit had become organising tools to build a grassroots movement aimed at forcing governments to listen to the people that elected them.

Speaking in Cochabamba, Bassey noted that his organisation, the largest international federation of autonomous environmental collectives with a presence in 77 countries, actively supported Morales’ call for a people’s summit on climate change “because we believe in the climate vision of the government and peoples of Bolivia”.

“We believe that it is time for peoples and governments to sit together, draw up programs of action and act together” said Bassey, whose organisation’s work is summed up in three key words: “mobilise, resist, transform”.

Bassey condemned the fact that the voice of the people had been excluded in many of the official governmental meetings. As an example, he said FOEI and many other organisations were locked out of the official negotiations in Copenhagen on some of the days.

He said: “We believe that this is clearly not the way to go, because if the peoples’ voices are not heard, then how can we come up with the right responses [to the climate crisis]?”

Here in Cochabamba, we have “a people-driven process: there is no corporate lobby present like in Copenhagen.

“That is why we are here as part of the people’s movements for climate justice … [This summit is] critical to the future of the planet because we are having discussions among people who are in the front line of being victims of climate change.”

Bassey said his organisation rejected the supposed “agreement” that came out of Copenhagen, “because if it is allowed to stand, poor and vulnerable nations will be exposed to grave danger”.

“For example, the political commitment expressed by countries that accept the accord that came out of Copenhagen means that we can expect a temperature rise of more than 4°C. What this will mean for Africa, for other continents, is a temperature rise of more than 6°C. This would lead to the collapse of agriculture, water supplies and a massive increase in climate migration.”

For this reason, the climate justice movement needs a program for action that includes food sovereignty, energy sovereignty and a rejection of agro-fuels, which are “causing mass starvation by taking farmland that used to be used for food for people and using them for crops for machines.”

Bassey also said FOEI opposed market-based solutions, saying these were just a scheme for countries and companies to “claim credits and get paid to release more carbon emissions into the atmosphere”.

“This is a false solution; the real solution is to stop emissions.”

While these and many more demands for climate justice were enshrined in the peoples’ agreement that came out of Cochabamba. But one issue that did not was the thorny issue of fossil fuel extraction. This is in a in a context where the economies of many underdeveloped countries, such as Bolivia, rely on such extraction to survive.

“Oil should be left in the soil, coal should be left in the hole, and tar sands should be kept underground” declared Bassey during his speech as part of the opening ceremony of the summit.

Bassey said those who say “if we don’t extract oil, someone else will”, are ignoring the fact that the benefits of such extraction never go to local communities.

Transnationals always ensure “investment is always directed to benefit the global North, and not for needs of the people”.

“In our fight against global warming and destructive extraction, we don’t accept that anyone at all is better than somebody else.”

He referred to the example of the struggle of his people in Ogoniland, where leading environmental activist Ken Saro Wiwa was killed in 1995 for protesting against Shell.

“In Ogoniland, they declared that Shell could not operate there anymore, and until now they don’t accept any alternative oil corporation to come and operate. So it is possible to refuse one corporation and refuse others because the difference between Shell or Chevron or Mobil or whoever, is no more different that the difference between Coca Cola and Pepsi.”

Understanding it was impossible to immediately halt such activities and a transition was necessary, he said it was also necessary to understand that “the extraction of fossil fuels is extremely degrading to the environment and is a large contributor to global warming: the more you extract oil, the more you increase the carbon stored in the atmosphere.”

“People think that fossil fuels are a cheap form of energy, but this is only because no one is paying the true cost of oil: no one is paying for the pollution, no one is paying for the people who have been displaced, who are dying as a result of its extraction. If the true cost of oil was to be calculated nobody would touch oil.”

He said in Nigeria, they were campaigning to keep fossil fuels in the ground and “this is a campaign that comes from one corner of the world and is going to spread around because it is the real solution to climate change.”

[Federico Fuentes is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance who took part in the Cochabamba cllimate summit. He is currently working in the Green Left Weekly bureau in Caracas, reporting on the radical processes of social change underway in Latin America. He also edits Bolivia Rising and is the co-author, with Marta Harnecker, is the author of MAS-IPSP de Bolivia: Instrumento político que surge de los movimientos sociales, on the Bolivia’s social movements snf the Morales government.]

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