Evo Morales is calling an international summit on climate change which
promises to be a world away from Copenhagen.
**Vanessa Baird finds
reason to be hopeful. *
‘Fiasco’ was the short but perfectly fitting word for last year’s
Copenhagen Climate Summit. (‘A complete, ignominious failure’ is the
longer dictionary definition.) No targets, no binding agreements, no
attempt to tackle the root causes of global warming.
But even during the dismal days of the summit there were a few glimmers
of hope. There were the protesters on the streets of the Danish capital,
for a start. And there were the positions taken by some Majority World
countries. Chief amongst these was the delegation from Bolivia.
New Internationalist’s Jess Worth recalls: ‘A high point for me was when
Pablo Solón, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN and chief climate change
negotiator, came out at 3 am and talked to protesters on the streets. I
found I could agree one hundred per cent with everything he said. That’s
Bolivia’s position on climate change has not come out of the blue. It
has its roots in Andean thought
It’s not surprising that Bolivia’s indigenous president Evo Morales has
seized the initiative and called a new global summit – The People’s
World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights – to take
place 19-22 April in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.
World leaders have proved themselves incapable of taking the action
needed on climate change. It now rests with the world’s people and their
civil society organizations to seize the reins.
What is in debate here is whether we are to live or die. Are we here
to save lives or are we here to kill? The difference is very clear,
as is the issue of temperatures. I don’t have a technical knowledge
of these issues, but I am advised that an increase of two degrees
based on current agreements would eliminate islands in the world,
eliminate the snow of the Andes and elsewhere. This is very serious.
People won’t accept this and will judge it.
‘Another key issue is the irrational industrialization by powerful
rich nations. They suggest reducing real emissions by 50 per cent by
2050, but people who fight for saving lives talk of 90 per cent and
100 per cent. This is a profound difference. ‘I suggest if there are
no agreements at these presidential levels, why not submit ourselves
to the people? This is the most democratic [way].’
*Eva Morales has taken a lead in tackling rich world inertia.*
The Bolivian initiative has several strands to it. In addition to the
April conference there is a proposal for a global referendum on climate
change; the adoption and promotion of ‘earth rights’ and their
transition into law; and the establishment of an international Climate
At Copenhagen the major economies wanted to limit global temperature
rise by two degrees Celsius. They did not manage to agree to even this
un-ambitious target. But for Majority World countries – which are
generally the most severely affected by climate change – the two degree
target is too high. It allows for the devastation of some island nations
and many vulnerable developing-world environments. For that reason a
target of one degree Celsius is among the proposals being presented at
The Bolivian initiative has been welcomed by activists, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) and concerned organizations (including this
magazine) and individuals worldwide (see http://cmpcc.org
The current aims of the People’s World Conference are to:
Analyze the structural and systemic causes that drive climate
change and to propose radical measures to ensure the well-being of
all humanity in harmony with nature.
Discuss and agree on the project of a Universal Declaration of
Mother Earth Rights.
Agree on proposals for new commitments to the Kyoto Protocol and
projects for a COP (Conference of Party) Decision under the United
Nations Framework for Climate Change that will guide future
actions related to a range of issues including: climate debt;
climate change migration; emission reductions; adaptation;
technology transfer; finance; forests; indigenous peoples; shared
Work on the organization of the People’s World Referendum on
Analyze and develop an action plan to advance the establishment of
a Climate Justice Tribunal.
Define strategies for action; mobilize to defend life from climate
change and to defend the rights of Mother Earth.
*Mother Earth’s Rights and Vivir Bien*
Bolivia’s position on climate change has not come out of the blue. It
has its roots in Andean thought and belief with its key concepts of
/Sumaq kawsay/ or /Vivir bien/ (living well) and respect for /Pachamama/
These principles could provide the basis for an alternative development
path that is not driven solely by ideas of growth, profit and capitalist
accumulation. Pablo Solón explains: ‘We use terms like “living well” to
describe a way of life that seeks not to live “better” and at the cost
of others and nature, but in harmony with all.’^1
This seems so far removed from the way that most of the world operates
as to suggest dreamy idealism. But in recent years indigenous people and
social movements in Latin America have managed to get such perspectives
enshrined in the new constitutions of both Bolivia and Ecuador. The
concepts are also gaining traction around the world with non-indigenous
people who are concerned with environmental and social justice.
Even at the level of the United Nations, indigenous Andean concepts have
found a surprising degree of acceptance. In December 2009 the UN General
Assembly approved a resolution proposed by Evo Morales (and backed by
the nine Latin American countries) to develop a Universal Declaration of
the Rights of Mother Earth.
The resolution calls on all countries to share their experiences and
perspectives on how to create ‘harmony with nature’. The consequences
could be quite profound, especially in the legal arena. Currently
activities that cause environmental damage – including climate change –
are legal. Most environmental laws do little more than regulate the rate
at which environmental destruction may take place.
But with the acceptance of Earth Rights, legal systems could take
account of, say, the rights of mountains, rivers, forests and animals.
‘A rights-based approach,’ says Pablo Solón, ‘could evaluate whether the
rights of humans to clear tropical forests for beef ranching should
trump the right of species in those forests to continue to exist.
Instead of devising ever more complex schemes to authorize environmental
damage and to trade in the right to pollute, we would focus on how best
to maintain the quality of the relationship between ourselves and Earth.’
It’s worth remembering that when the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights was first proclaimed, it had no legal binding. Now, 61 years
later, the declaration is incorporated in the laws of many countries and
is the basis for the International Criminal Court.
‘Facing a crisis far worse than any world war,’ comments Solón, ‘might
it not be time for humanity to launch a new declaration, one that
defends our planet and its biodiversity from ever-continuing extinction?’
*Climate Justice Tribunal*
An international climate justice tribunal has already been set up,
thanks to a decision of the Fourth Summit of Indigenous Peoples and
Nationalities of Abya Yala, Bolivia. The court had its first preliminary
hearing on 13-14 October 2009 in Cochabamba.
It’s not a tribunal in a legal sense, having no formal legal authority,
but seeks rather to create an ethical, moral force that will pressure
governments to assume their responsibilities within the framework of
equality and climate justice.
Inspiration came from other ethical courts such as the Russell Tribunal
of 1967, which judged and condemned war crimes committed by the US in
Several cases came up at the tribunal’s preliminary hearing. They
included a case brought by the rural community of Khapi outside La Paz,
who depend on glacial melt from Mount Illimani for irrigation. The
glaciers are disappearing fast due to global warming, and the villagers
are accusing the high CO2-producing industrial nations of violating
their human rights.
Meanwhile, the environmental group Acción Ecológica in Ecuador has
brought a case against a Dutch carbon offsets organization, Forest
Absorbing Carbon Emissions (FACE), which has tree plantations in Ecuador.
Exploited sugar workers in the Cauca Valley, Colombia, have brought a
case against their own Government, which is subsidizing sugar-based
ethanol biofuel production and undermining the sugar workers’ jobs. The
cutters are already among Colombia’s most exploited workers.
And children from the Peruvian city of Cerro de Pasco – one of the 10
most polluted in the world – are accusing Volcan SA mining company of
producing polluting gases and particles which have caused high levels of
lead in their blood.
Of possible embarrassment to the Bolivian Government is the case brought
against three bodies involved in the officially backed Initiative for
the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA). The accused are the
Inter-American Bank for Development, the Andean Development Corporation,
and the Financial Fund for the Development of Cuenca de Plata. Also
named are the National Development Bank of Brazil, the European Union,
and Banco Santander. The case is brought by the La Paz-based Bridge
Between Cultures Foundation. Critics say the IIRSA project will destroy
the Amazonian rainforest, release huge quantities of CO2 into the
atmosphere and irreparably damage ecosystems on which indigenous people
*Bolivia’s environmental record *
Since taking office in early 2006, Evo Morales’ Movement Towards
Socialism (MAS) party has set in motion a profound social revolution in
Bolivia, a country previously plagued by poverty, inequality and
The MAS Government – which has its roots in a range of civil society
groups including trade unions and indigenous organizations – has taken
control of the country’s gas and oil resources and set about
distributing profits in the form of social welfare programmes. Moreover,
in 2009 Bolivia experienced the highest rate of economic growth in the
After a lengthy and inclusive process a new Constitution was written.
From being a country ruled by white and mestizo élites for their own
benefit, Bolivia became a pluri-national state, with a good degree of
women’s and indigenous participation at the highest levels – and with an
indigenous President at its head. Elections at the end of 2009, returned
Evo Morales with a healthy and increased majority. This leader is in an
unusually strong position to talk about grassroots democracy.
But Bolivia’s record on environmental issues is more complex.
At a rhetorical level, Bolivia has become a champion of the global
environment. No other president can make the call for global climate
justice more eloquently or with such Majority World credibility as Evo
Morales. The country he leads produces less than 0.1 per cent of global
CO2 emissions and yet is suffering extreme consequences of climate
change. In the past few years it has experienced sharp increases in
flooding, drought, forest fires and plagues of pests causing crop
failures. Rising temperatures have caused severe glacial melt (376
glaciers lost almost half their surface between 1975 and 2006) which is
causing acute water shortage. Chaotic and extreme weather has made
farming unpredictable, destabilized growing seasons and reduced crop
yields of staples such as potatoes and quinoa. Flooding – the worst in
25 years – cost 40 lives, displaced 340,000 in the lowlands and cost the
country $400 million in 2007.^2
But the country is also creating plenty of its own environmental damage.
Bolivia has inherited a development model based on extractive and
ecologically harmful industries (mining, oil and gas, logging, soy
production). Despite its relatively low population density, almost a
quarter of the national territory (60 million acres) is environmentally
degraded, with a further 17 million under threat, according to Lidema,
Bolivia’s leading coalition of environmental groups.^3
Bolivian environmentalist Apolonia Rodriguez from Lidema comments: ‘We
are the tenth most biodiverse country in the world, but we are being
devastated by uncontrolled forestry, mining, hydrocarbon extraction and
ever-expanding soy cultivation.’ Like many in the environmental
movement, she criticizes the perspective that ‘prioritizes economic
growth over everything else’ – in spite of ideological statements to the
The Government has gone ahead with several big, profitable but polluting
projects. It approved the giant Mutún iron ore mine east of Santa Cruz
near the border with Brazil. It reactivated the Balas big dam project –
promoted by the World Bank – which would flood a protected area rich in
biodiversity. And it has not drawn back from the controversial
Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA) signed
by the previous rightwing Government and 11 other South American
nations. Involving 500 transport, communications and energy projects, it
will bring roads, dams and development to the heart of South America.
This will inevitably have a heavy impact on local ecosystems and the
indigenous people who depend on them, as well as on CO2 emissions.
Ironically, it is one of the cases before the Climate Justice Tribunal
There are some more positive government initiatives. Local communities
in ecologically ravaged areas such as Potosí are being encouraged to
plant trees to tackle soil erosion. Micro-hydro schemes are being
developed as alternatives to large-scale projects, especially in the
lowlands. And local communities are beginning to use new environmental
laws against the Government where necessary.
Nor is all Bolivia’s natural mineral wealth doomed to do damage. Vast
lithium deposits could turn out to be a boon for the global environment.
The metal – the lightest in the world – is used in batteries for
electric as opposed to fossil fuel-burning vehicles.
Evo Morales is proposing a global popular referendum that would
tackle the root causes of climate change. Below are some of the
questions he is proposing, but the final text will emerge from The
People’s World Conference in Cochabamba in April.
*1) *Do you agree with re-establishing harmony with nature while
recognizing the rights of Mother Earth?
*YES or NO*
*2) *Do you agree with changing this model of over-consumption and waste
that the capitalist system represents?
*YES or NO*
*3) *Do you agree that developed countries reduce and re-absorb their
domestic greenhouse gas emissions so that the temperature does not rise
more than 1 degree Celsius?
*YES or NO *
*4) *Do you agree with transferring all that is spent in wars to
protecting the planet and allocate a budget for climate change that is
bigger than what is used for defence?
*YES or NO *
*5)* Do you agree with a Climate Justice Tribunal to judge those who
destroy Mother Earth?
*YES or NO*
*Lust for life*
Environmentalist Marco Octavio Ribera from Lidema welcomes the People’s
World Conference. ‘It will give developing countries a chance to
reaffirm the position they took at Copenhagen and to analyze what
happened there. We hope it will awaken the conscience of the world in
relation to climate change.’
But he is also hoping that it will lead to greater coherence in his own
country between what the Government says and what it does:
‘The discourse coming from Evo Morales and some sections of government
is very innovative in defending the environment. But there are other
sectors, such as those controlling mining, fossil fuels and economic
development which contradict this position.’
He adds: ‘I’m not against all mining or all fossil fuel extraction. But
they should not dominate the economy so entirely. There are other
possibilities that could be developed. Eco-tourism and organic
agriculture, for example. Bolivia is also in an ideal position to
develop wind and solar energy.’
The lead that Bolivia is taking on climate change has massive potential.
Unlike Copenhagen, the participants are unlikely to shy away from who
and what is causing climate chaos. Nor will they be ideologically
padlocked to the notion that only the market can provide solutions.
The conference will provide a space for sharing ideas and practical
strategies that can put flesh on the bones of concepts such as /vivir
bien/ or earth rights.
If April’s gathering in Cochabamba can harness the frustration, energy
and concern that followed Copenhagen then it might be the turning point
many are yearning for.
‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair
convincing,’ wrote Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams.
The pluri-national, indigenous-led state of Bolivia is a place where
hope has proved its possibility. I can’t think of a more propitious
location for trying to save the planet.
*ACTION:* You can sign on to support the Bolivian initiative at
Pablo Solón and Cormac Cullinan, ‘We Must Support a Universal
Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth’, /Huffington Post/, 29
Bolivia Information Forum http://www.boliviainformationforum.org.uk
Linda Farthing, ‘Bolivia’s Dilemma: Development Confronts the
Legacy of Extraction’, /NACLA/, Vol 042, Issue 5, October 2009