*To live…

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

very rare.’

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

Justice Tribunal.

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

Climate Change.


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/

(Mother Earth).

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

Western hemisphere.

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

(see above).

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.

The Referendum

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

December 2009.


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



~ by Cory Morningstar on March 25, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: