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Bolivia: Reflections on the World People's Conference on Climate Change

[See also ``Bolivia: Australian participants report on World People's Conference on Climate Change''. For full coverage of the Cochabamba conference, click HERE.]

By Ben Courtice, Socialist Alliance via Blind Carbon Copy

This is just a first reflection on the monumental World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth which just finished in Cochabamba. I will post more on particular aspects of the summit soon.

The event was huge, with at least 20,000 (I’ve heard over 30,000) attending at the university Univalle in Tiquipaya, a municipality on the northwest edge of Cochabamba. There was a huge attendance from Bolivians, who are very much engaged in the political process of their country, and generally very supportive of their charismatic President Evo Morales. Delegations came, many in their traditional costume (which they still wear every day), from Indigenous tribal people in the Amazon, from the Aymara and Quechua peoples of the Andes, from a plethora of unions, peasant and Indigenous associations and NGOs, from all of what is called the “plurinational state of Bolivia”.

There were also big delegations from pretty much all the countries of Latin America. There was a fair scattering of North Americans, a few from Central America, and a pretty sparse representation from the rest of the world. Europe, Asia and Africa were under-represented partly because any flights going through Europe were cancelled after the volcanic eruption in Iceland. It was a clearly left gathering: the conservative NGO and aid milieu were keeping a low profile if they were there.

The summit had 17 working groups to write a document each for adoption by the summit. Topics of these ranged from the somewhat esoteric “shared vision” to concrete discussions such as on forests, and on a world referendum on climate action proposed by the Bolivian government.

In many ways the summit was driven by the radical agenda of the Latin American socialist governments – Bolivia of course, and Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador. The discourse from the Bolivians, in particular, was largely based on an Indigenous philosophy of vivir bien – living well – in harmony with Pachamama – mother earth.

At the same time, as we saw most inspiringly at Copenhagen, there was much laying of blame at the foot of the rich countries, who bear most of the historical responsibility for climate change, and for letting the poor countries suffer the worst impacts. Bolivia is facing water shortages as its glaciers melt. Neighbouring Peru has suffered catastrophic mudslides due to heavy rains. Yet these poor countries, historically, have only contributed a miniscule share of the world’s carbon emissions.

The cynics and rightwingers will no doubt say that the conference was a mish-mash of anti-imperialist demagoguery mixed with earth-mother mysticism, finishing up with a token tree planting ceremony. The prominent role played by the Bolivian government they will probably interpret as a shameless exercise in self-promotion.

Misses the point

But this misses the point almost completely. The Bolivian government deserves credit for Evo’s role at Copenhagen. Tree planting lends itself to tokenism, but reforestation is also vital. In Evo’s speech at the opening ceremony, he referred to Pachamama as what the scientists also call “planet earth”. The idea of “living well” means disconnecting progress from pure economic growth. We all know that money can’t buy you love, and rampant consumerism hasn’t actually made the first world masses happier.

In terms of anti-imperialism, the climate debt of the industrialised nations is undeniable. The government newspaper Cambio (Change) carried a special feature on the summit on the day before, in which they referred to the USA, Australia and China as three of the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitters. In various ways each is true, although China’s per capita and historic emissions are far lower. USA and Australia certainly deserve to be on the list: even though China’s current overall emissions are equivalent to the USA’s, they would be dwarfed by the USA’s historic emissions total.

Is it fair for Bolivia to point the finger at Australia et al., when Bolivia (and Venezuela) depend on fossil fuel exports for their own income too? Unlike Australia, these countries are very poor and would probably not survive if they ended their fossil fuel exports right now. If Australia did so, the main pain would be felt by the shareholders of various mining multinationals. Australia is a rich country with enough capital to diversify and replace these industries. Bolivia hasn't even got reliably potable water on tap. This discussion of climate debt really opens up the whole question of the imperialist de-development of the Third World. It is a question that will have to be discussed more in the First World, where the main concerns of the climate movement revolve around our own domestic emissions.

Mesa 18

This international contradiction of development was in evidence even within the conference. There was a controversial mesa 18, an "18th working group". It comprised people from social movements concerned about the impacts of mining and petrol/gas extraction on their environment. The summit organisers only let them have the working group after much pressure: this issue is a prickly one here. The government would like to protect nature, but Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. They need the income and industry. It is not a simple issue to resolve.

For this reason, Friends of the Earth’s international chair, Nnimmo Bassey, was received with a little nervousness when he ended an important speech 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 them. Yet it was also thought-provoking and timely.

The only way that the conference seemed deficient was in discussion of zero-carbon development and renewable energy. Apart from a couple of stalls in the main market at the summit, I heard little official discussion of this. While it may be seen as an expensive, First World option, I hope that the progressive and socialist governments of the Third World can investigate how zero-carbon development may be possible. I hope this can assist in the process of endogenous, self-reliant national development, free of the chains of dependency in the world market.

One Australian colleague from Beyond Zero Emissions spoke to a person who works with the Bolivian energy ministry, who simply said that this area was very new to them all. She was, however, very interested in the BZE plan for a Zero Carbon Australia. 

I think that this conference has been a great success; I haven’t yet read the accounts of the 18 working groups (my spanish isn’t good enough, I’m waiting for the translation). But it was an inspiration and a learning experience.

A last note: There is a rumour going around that Evo Morales made some kooky remark about eating chicken turning men gay. This is an invented rumour. His actual remarks were regarding the problems of oestrogen hormones being used in industrial poultry production, which do pose a serious problem for health, and do promote breast growth in men. Oestrogen pollution is a real problem; the linking of this problem with “sexual deviancy” appears to be only in the minds of the crazed Miami anti-communists who started the rumour.

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