Bolivia: Australian participants report on World People's Conference on Climate Change

April 23, 2010 -- Several representatives from Australia's climate justice movement attended the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Bolivia, April 19-22, 2010. They included activists from Beyond Zero Emissions, Rising Tide, Socialist Alliance, Climate Emergency Action Network of South Australia and inner city climate action groups Yarra Climate Action Now (Melbourne) and Climate Action Newtown (Sydney). Below Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal collects some of their accounts.

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Day 1, April 19, 2010

By Pablo and Taegen, Beyond Zero Emissions

Today the conference began. Unfortunately it was marked by a registration process that seemed to have been designed by the love child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. Let’s just say that by around 5pm we finally had our entry passes and programs to add to our frazzled nerves and tested patience, but had missed most of the day’s proceedings.

Rewinding to a more innocent time at the beginning of the day, the bus ride to the Universidad del Valle allowed us to see Cochabamba in daylight for the first time. Cochabamba is a significant city in the recent history of Bolivia. Ten years ago this month, it was the scene of the Water Wars, a mass uprising against the privatization of the water supply, which resulted in the water being put back into public hands and the strengthening of anti-capitalist sentiment across the whole country.

Cochabamba is also the location of the headquarters of the Union of Coca Growers. It is via the leadership of this union that Evo Morales, the current socialist president of Bolivia came to prominence, and he first entered parliament as a representative of Cochabamba.

We will be seeing President Morales tomorrow back in his old stomping ground when he officially opens the conference.

In between standing in queues, we met briefly with the other Australians at the conference (although not the mysterious Australian government representative, who remains elusive). Groups represented include Beyond Zero Emissions, Rising Tide, Socialist Alliance, Climate Emergency Action Network of South Australia and inner city climate action groups Yarra Climate Action Now and Climate Action Newtown. Most of us are hoping to use the conference as a learning and networking experience, and to bring these experiences back to strengthen the climate movement in Australia.

All in all a fairly uneventful day, but we promise tomorrow will be full of fiery latino speeches and high rhetoric.

Day 2, April 20, 2010

By Ben Courtice, Socialist Alliance via Blind Carbon Copy

The opening ceremony of the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was held with much fanfare, a military parade and band, many Indigenous peoples and a huge international delegation -- mostly South American. Here are some pictures to give a little flavour.

The multicoloured flag of the plurinational state of Bolivia is everywhere, as seen in the first picture.
 The military parade is something we don't usually get at our rallies in Australia.

The Indigenous people with the feather head dress come from out in the Amazon region.

The "Christ: first revolutionary" banner was the first thing that greeted me at the conference venue. Another thing you wouldn't see in Australia!

The politics of the event are strongly anti-capitalist, anti-consumerism and pro-indigenous. While it's radical in Australia to say "business-as-usual economics can't fix the problem", here most are calling for an end to capitalism. Can't say I disagree!

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By Pablo and Taegen, Beyond Zero Emissions

“We are gathered here because the so-called developed countries didn’t meet their obligation of establishing substantial commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen. If those countries had respected the Kyoto Protocol and had agreed to substantially reduce the emissions inside their borders, this conference would not be necessary.” – Evo Morales, April 20, 2010

The Cochabamba summit was officially inaugurated today with impressive colour and movement. The outdoor stadium was packed with approximately 20,000 people and probably as many indigenous Andean rainbow flags, video cameras, dancers, soldiers, you name it. The sun beat down as we sat through several hours of ceremony and speeches. Pablo managed to take a break from sitting in the sun when he was roped into translating between two indigenous Mohawk Indians from North America and a Bolivian Aymara. They exchanged warm words of solidarity and grains of corn.

After an official and inclusive indigenous welcome ceremony, we heard from representatives from the "5 continents" attending the conference (we’re not sure how they classify continents). These included: an indigenous woman from Alaska, an African, an Indian, a Spanish member of the European parliament, and a leader from the Brazilian branch of Via Campesina. A representative from the UN spoke and got heckled a bit. Oceania missed out.

The speeches all echoed one another. We heard several times that Evo Morales is an inspiration for giving a voice and a platform for developing countries, indigenous peoples and social movements on the issue of climate change. We heard that Copenhagen failed and that developing countries are not going to "dance to the beat" of the rich world. The only interruptions to the cheers of support were the decidedly lukewarm/mixed response to the UN address and the usual argy bargy between patriots from different Latin American countries about flag waving etiquette.

And then there was Evo himself. In his hour-long address this popular, proudly indigenous president of Bolivia made it clear that 2 degrees Celsius warming of the earth is completely unacceptable and gave us his perspective on the climate crisis, presenting what is essentially the crux of this conference. It is a perspective that is unashamedly and explicitly anti-capitalist. It places climate change firmly within the ideological story that says that the capitalist model (which to us Westerners is better known as "just the way things are") does not value the environment, does not value people and never will.

In this part of the world this story is well understood and popular. Similarly widely grasped is the idea that indigenous values and lifestyles offer a legitimate and superior alternative. Evo presented numerous examples: ceramic plates and cups are far superior to disposable plastic ones, quinoa is better than rice, the beautifully designed and hand-made ponchos of the Andes could never be substituted for $2 el-cheapo versions, Andean potatoes are better than Dutch ones and chicha (the local alcoholic drink made from maize) is far better for you than Coca Cola. The list went on and the speech became theatrical as the props were brought out to demonstrate his points.

The conference represents a major push for "Mother Earth rights", which Evo presented as the alternative to capitalism and as the application of indigenous thought to human development. This concept is one of the most interesting and radical that we´ve come across at the conference and we explore it further below.

Mother Earth rights

In late 2008, the Ecuadorian people via a referendum approved a new constitution that had been written by an elected assembly. This constitution is the first to include rights for the natural ecosystems of Ecuador.

The new constitution gives nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution”. It places the responsibility on the government to take “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles".

While it is still unclear how this clause will be implemented and whether it will have an effect on the current destructive extractive (and greenhouse gas intensive) model of development being followed by Ecuador (with some exceptions including the Yasuni ITT initiative), it is still a fascinating advance in environmental law. It also represents the growing influence of indigenous views in Ecuador. The indigenous people see themselves as a part of nature (Pachamama), and have fought throughout the history of colonisation and capitalist development against the commodification and exploitation of essential resources. This new constitution is a major victory for them.

In Bolivia since the election of the Morales government in 2004, indigenous ideology and culture have also been in ascendancy. Bolivia is pushing hard within the UN for the development of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth to sit alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So far this proposal has the backing of nine countries and it is expected that this conference will give this concept a boost. The Bolivian Ambassador to the UN explains this concept further here.

In Bolivia the shift towards giving "Mother Earth" rights is embodied in the concept they call "living well". This is a form of development that emphasises quality of life and harmony with nature rather than GDP growth or accumulation of wealth. We hope to find out more about this concept and be able to give you some concrete examples as the conference goes on.

These developments, stemming from the cultures of indigenous Americans, are starting a fundamental paradigm shift that puts humans inside nature, rather than outside it.

Is this paradigm shift necessary to reach a safe climate future? It´s not an easy question to answer.

What we do know is that we are finding it hard to reconcile the kind of rhetoric we are hearing so strongly here with what is happening in Australia. This is something that we are grappling with.

Day 3, April 21, 2010

By Pablo and Taegen, Beyond Zero Emissions

We realised that we have so far neglected to paint a picture of what exactly are the activities underway at this conference and for this, dear readers, we apologise and rectify forthwith.

First of all, there are the 17 working groups that we mentioned in our first post, each preparing statements and recommendations which will eventually find their way to the UN climate summit in Mexico at the end of this year. These working groups reported back to several plenary sessions today and we have listed some of the main outcomes below.

Apart from the working groups there are countless self-organised workshops, put on by organisations on a range of different topics (including, funnily enough, Australian coal).  At the same time, there has been a range of panel discussions. These panel discussions cover the big picture issues, such as the structural causes of climate change or the concept of climate debt, and feature conference celebrities such as Naomi Klein, Dr. James Hansen and Bill McKibben, as well as a range of Latin American government ministers and international climate negotiators.

Of course there are also the stalls, both official and unofficial, with the government-run stalls giving away posters and flyers attracting long queues and indignant accusations when they run out of free stuff (the crappiness of the free stuff bearing no relation to the level of indignation).

The Bolivian media has also given plenty of attention to the unofficial 18th working group, which the Morales government tried to suppress. This working group, focused on local Bolivian climate and environment issues and run by Cochabamba grassroots environment groups, has been critical of the Morales government, accusing it of not living up to its environmentalist rhetoric in its domestic policies (sound familiar?). 

So back to Day 3. This morning we managed to accost a bureaucrat from the Bolivian Environment Ministry and talk to her about the Beyond Zero Emissions' approach and specifically the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 project. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to have much awareness of the backcasting and full transition to zero emissions concept here. In fact, so far, we’re the only ones we´ve heard talking about it. The coca-chewing bureaucrat was very excited about the idea, and promised to pass on our work to the appropriate people.

After a lunch of vegetarian empanadas (and that’s Australian standard vegetarian not South American, standard which sometimes includes chicken or fish) came the moment we had all been waiting for: the Aussies got to run their own workshop! We almost had to cancel it because the room it was supposed to be in had been taken over by the working group on forests, and they were in heated debate furiously trying to finish their work, but luckily they were done about10  minutes before we were due to start.

The workshop was about the climate movement in Australia, with a focus on coal export campaigning and direct action. Steve from Rising Tide in Newcastle presented some facts and figures on Australian coal and then went through a series of photos showing actions in Australia over the last few years.

We emphasised the significant impact of Australian coal exports on global greenhouse gas emissions and the importance of working together as sellers and buyers of coal to break the coal addiction. While the presentation may have seemed a little abstract to an audience consisting mainly of Bolivians with a smattering of other Latinos, Europeans and South Africans, an interesting dialogue was generated afterwards in the question and answer session, and continued after the workshop had finished.

Key outcomes of the 17 summit working groups

As mentioned above, 17 themed working groups have been meeting and working continuously since the conference began three days ago. Anyone was free to participate -- if they could get into the room! These groups today presented their conclusions and recommendations at three concurrent plenary sessions.

The ideas generated, some of which are listed below, will be formally passed on to government officials (from Bolivia and other delegations) tomorrow morning at a special "Government-Peoples Dialogue" session. The story goes that several people have been nominated to then integrate and prepare a final document which will constitute the official outcomes of the summit and be taken to UN climate change negotiations.

Some of the main statements or outcomes of the working group process include:

  • An International Climate Justice Tribunal should be formed with headquarters in Bolivia. The tribunal would have the capacity to warn, judge and sanction states, businesses and people who pollute and cause climate change by action or failure to act.
  • Preparation of text for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, outlining obligations of humans to preserve and take care of natural systems, which will be presented for adoption by the UN in Mexico in December this year.
  • The United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol and the commitments of developing countries under Kyoto limit global emissions sufficiently so as to return atmospheric carbon dioxide to less than 300 parts per million.
  • A global referendum on April 22, 2011 to determine agreement with issues including the need to change the capitalist system and redirect current military budgets towards defence of the Earth. In countries where referendums cannot be carried out officially there should be a popular vote or consultation. 
  • Capitalism, and its model of endless growth, is incompatible with life on a finite planet. We need to choose a path that establishes harmony with nature. (There was agreement about the need to change the capitalist model of production, but not that socialism would be an appropriate alternative.) The notion that economic growth should contribute to wellbeing was put forward as a shared vision.

There was lots more said, of course – with some speaking in higher-pitched voices than others. We will post a more complete summary if it is available before the end of the summit.

[If you have any comments or questions please write to us at We can´t guarantee we´ll reply, but we´ll do our best. Beyond Zero Emissions is an Australian group that aims “to facilitate the implementation of the social changes and technologies that will reduce the impacts of climate change and give our society and global ecosystems a chance of surviving into the future.”]

Final day, April 22, 2010

By Pablo and Taegen, Beyond Zero Emissions

The People’s Agreement

The conference wound up today on the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day. It ended with an epic closing ceremony at the Cochabamba Stadium which lasted around five hours (we were smart enough to show up only for the last two) and featured music and speeches, including one from the show-stealing president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.

Most importantly, the final document to have come out of the summit, the People’s Agreement (not yet available in English – link will be provided ASAP) was presented and accepted. This document represents the work of thousands of people and the synthesis of the conclusions from the 17 working groups we discussed yesterday. The Bolivian government is now trying to put this agreement on the agenda at the UN Cancun conference in December to allow governments to see and discuss the position of global social movements on the climate crisis.

Some of the points from this document that we left out in yesterday’s summary of the 17 working groups are:

  • A call for emissions cuts of Annex 1 (developed) countries of 50% by 2020 on 1990 levels, without the use of any offsets or international carbon markets.

  • A recognition of climate refugees and a call for developed countries to take responsibility for them and grant them refugee status in their countries under a special climate refugee category.

  • A call for a fund made up of 6% of developed countries’ gross domestic product (GDP) to unconditionally pay back the climate debt to countries already facing severe climate impacts.

  • A rejection of free trade agreements which have put the rights of profit-seeking corporations above the rights of people and nature.

  • A call for an end to the logging of forests and the urgent re-vegetation of lands. A rejection of the definition within the UN Climate Change Convention of tree plantations as forests and a rejection of the REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation) scheme, which rich countries are using to avoid emissions reductions at home and is causing the further theft of indigenous people’s lands.

$2.5 million incentive for the USA?

Shows of defiance against the United States and el imperialismo yanqui, are a dime a dozen in South America and there were many to be found at this conference. The most memorable was an announcement by Ecuador's foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, at the government/social movements dialogue held this morning (a meeting between representatives of government and grassroots organisations). He explained that the USA had withdrawn $2.5 million of aid funding, because Ecuador refused to sign the pathetic Copenhagen Accord (which was negotiated by the USA, China, India, South Africa and Brazil in the last hours of the Copenhagen talks). In reply, Ecuador has offered the Obama administration $2.5 million if the USA ratifies the Kyoto Protocol.

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Six critical differences between climate change discourse and debate at the Cochabamba conference and in Australia

As Aussies attending this conference perhaps the most critical question, and something we have been conscious of throughout the whole event is: How does any of this relate to what is happening in the climate movement/debate in Australia?

We have come up with six critical differences between what we have heard and seen of the climate change debate here in Bolivia throughout the course of this conference and what we know of the situation in Australia:

1. Structural causes

In Australia, there is no serious debate about the structural causes of climate change. Analysis of systemic reasons for our high levels of pollution is decidedly absent or marginal and there is an unspoken (and unproven) implication that we can deal with climate change simply by putting a price on carbon and going on consuming, growing, exporting fossil fuels and so on. Anyone who bothers to look at the big picture quickly understands that something does not add up, but the majority of people just avert their eyes.

At this conference we have heard over and over that the capitalist system and mentality is to blame for climate change and is incompatible with averting climate catastrophe. From Evo´s grandstanding at official plenaries, to the conclusions of the working groups, to the most informal of conversations with participants from different South American delegations, we have heard the mantra – we must choose capitalism or our Earth. Without launching into an assessment of the accuracy of this analysis here, we cannot help but notice how much this discourse jars with what is being discussed in Australia. For many Australians, capitalism is not necessarily a system they are conscious of participating in – it is synonymous with "just the way things are". It is not a system widely scrutinised or questioned, let alone vehemently opposed and presented as the ultimate culprit, which was the case at the People’s Conference.

2. A moral leg to stand on

We, in Australia, are part of the rich, industrialised world. As the world’s highest per capita emitter, we have a very different perspective from the host country, Bolivia, and many of the other countries most strongly represented here. In Australia, when explaining the impacts of climate change at a global level, there is inevitably some statement about how it is those who live in the poorest nations that are most screwed and (depending on the audience) a cloud of guilt and abstract sympathy inevitably descends. In contrast, the mood at this conference has been very much one of "we are the victims here and others are to blame".

3. Agency

Going beyond the point about who’s got the moral upper hand, there is also the related question of who’s got any power to actually affect climate change and the climate negotiations. When you consider where this conference fits into the grand scheme of things – multilateral climate negotiations, the UN process and who inevitably called the shots in Copenhagen, you have to ask what options Bolivia has to influence their own climate future.

In Australia, we are much larger emitters and are among the biggest coal exporters in the world. What we do and say matters a lot more in a geopolitical and climate sense than what Bolivia does.

4. Respect for Indigenous values

In Australia, Indigenous people have had a limited role in the climate change debate. The People’s Conference has been marked by the presence of indigenous peoples from around the world and none more strongly represented than Indigenous peoples from all over Bolivia, young and old alike. You could not turn your head here at this conference without seeing a colourful mish-mash of traditional costumes. Here, the idea of revaluing Indigenous knowledge and models for living in harmony with nature is not an abstract concept – it is central to finding an alternative to the capitalist model and considered by them to be part of the solution to climate change.  

5. Ideology of the climate movement 

In Australia our movement is ideologically broad and, while it does arguably lean to the left, there are representatives from most points on the ideological spectrum taking action on climate change. This may be a product of our lack of analysis of the structural causes of climate change, mentioned in point 1, or it may be because the science clearly shows that the climate crisis poses a threat to all people: rich, poor, right-wing or left-wing. It may be a combination of both.

In Bolivia, it seems that the right is missing from the climate movement. From the rhetoric at the summit, climate change has been incorporated into the series of threats to human life that the South American left attributes to capitalism. There were no defenders of market-based mechanisms or sustainable capitalism at the conference. This may be because the right is very small compared to Australia, or it may be that the right here just isn’t thinking about the climate crisis at all.

6. No deniers

During our five weeks of travel in South America before the conference and during, we did not see one single media report or have a conversation with anyone who took a denialist position on climate change. This contrasts to the attention given to deniers in the Australian media. Climate change denial seems to be totally non-existent in South America where acceptance of the overwhelming scientific evidence is widespread.

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I did but see her passing by …

At an after party, attended by mainly gringo activists, held at the office of the Democracy Centre, we were very excited to see the activist, author and all-round hero Naomi Klein (No Logo, The Shock Doctrine) walk in. Unfortunately we were too gutless to go talk to her.

And a quick thanks ...

Finally we want to say a big thankyou! to our hosts here in Cochabamba, Manuel and Erin, and also to the Bolivian people for getting behind this conference in a big way. While from an organisational point of view it left a little to be desired, the interest shown by the detailed media coverage and the massive turnout was very encouraging.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 04/23/2010 - 19:35


Australian climate activists reportback on global climate conference.

Taegen Edwards, Pablo Brait and Ben Courtice are attending the
World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Bolivia. They will provide their insights and experiences of this unique global gathering of the climate movement and developing country governments.

6.30 pm Thursday May 13
Climate Action Centre
Lvl 5, New Building, Victorian Trades Hall
Cnr. Victoria & Lygon Streets, Carlton South

talk climate is a monthly forum and discussion on current and critical problems of climate change, hosted by the Victorian Climate Action Centre. Wine and refreshments by donation.

info@... or 9639 3660