Bolivia's People's Summit on Climate Change: Day One
Imagine you live in a slow and sleepy village where the cow population rivals that of people and suddenly some ten thousand people from all parts of the planet descend upon it – bearing slogans. Welcome to Tiquipaya on the opening day of the People's Summit on Climate Change.
My personal day began by riding my bike to the conference site (the local university, Univalle) to make an 8 am appearance on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. You can see the interview here. If you watch it you will know why people always tell me that I have a face made for radio. The rest of the day is a blur of chatting with journalists, sitting in on workshops, and trying to get a handle on what is going on here.
Welcome to the opening day of our Blog coverage of the summit. The Democracy Team is on the task and here is the plan. I'll be covering the question, "Where's the Strategy?" Jessica Camille Aguirre will be following the ideas and conversations among indigenous groups and social movements at the summit. Elizabeth Cooper is tracking an issue vital to low-income people and nations: How does combating climate change compete with the desire for economic and social development?
Please pass this along to others interested in the Tiquipaya Summit, and keep reading.
In Search of the Strategy: Still Looking
We don't have time to waste. When we talk climate change we are talking about a crisis in which human behavior needs to change very much, very fast – and the only way change that fast happens is by changing public policies. So my beat at the Tiquipaya climate summit is about looking for the strategies to make that policy change happen. What are the objectives? Who does the climate movement need to move to achieve them? How are they going to do that? What are the arguments, alliances and actions that will make that happen?
I have a bias. I believe that if you don't have a strategy you are just screwing around in the dark, and the planet doesn't have time for us to go screwing around in the dark.
The climate summit here this week is based on the start of a strategy – to move past a formula where social movements meet outside the doors of government summits and try to influence what goes on inside. This is a meeting of the people and groups that were outside at Copenhagen. Pablo Solon, Bolivia's Ambassador to the UN and a major force behind this week's climate summit, was on Democracy Now just after me and he explained the strategy behind the summit this way:
"What is the point? To organize. We need to organize a worldwide coalition of social movements, of networks, of NGOs, in order to—all of them, with different perspectives maybe in Asia, Africa, Europe or here in Latin America, but all with a common purpose, how we are going to save the future of humankind and of our Mother Earth by trying to have enough force in order to press developed governments to have a really commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions."
That makes sense, a lot of sense. Climate change is not going to be combated without public policies designed to do that and governments are not going to enact those polices without a heavy push from their peoples. So, what are we pushing them to do and how are we pushing them to do it.
I spent some time today listening to people talk about two ideas on that front, both promising on the surface.
One is the idea of "climate debt." This is basically a way to frame a fundamental moral fact, that the wealthy nations of the globe have already used up all of the atmosphere we can afford to with carbon emissions. It is like a speaker at a workshop using up all the airtime before anyone else can get a word in. Among those I spoke to today who are keen on this idea is Naomi Klein, whose thinking on serious subjects I respect a good deal.
The climate debt idea has two big implications (among others). One is that developing countries can't follow the path of industrialization that their rich predecessors have without making the climate crisis even worse. The other is that wealthy nations, in addition to reducing their own emissions, have a moral responsibility to finance what it will take for poorer countries to adapt to climate change and to industrialize in ways that won't deepen the problem.
But arguing a moral responsibility is one thing and being able to make it a legal responsibility is another. Is there any treaty or institution in the world that can force the U.S., for example, into making such payments? No. Is there any chance whatsoever that the U.S. would voluntarily subject itself to what would be an international tort system for climate damage? Well, look how happily U.S. lawmakers subjected the country to the world criminal court. Not quite.
So, if forcing rich countries to pay a climate debt is a dead end, what is the plan to move "climate debt" from a catchy idea to a real proposal with a chance of delivering some results? At a workshop today on that topic, there was an abundance of declarations about why climate debt is important, but few ideas of how to make it real. So we keep waiting for signs of a strategy.
A Global Referendum
Another idea popular here is a proposal to work toward a global voter referendum on climate change. Advocates argue, with reason, that the people of the earth are truly in the same sinking boat with regard to climate change and that we ought to, as a global people, have a vote on how to deal with it. But, as a student of the referendum process (in California I wrote a popular book on ballot measure politics, The Initiative Cookbook), I am stunned by the lack of serious thought that has been put in on two essential points.
The first is about what question to ask. The referendum is not planned as a binding law on government, the way an initiative is in California, for example. It is designed to be a collective public expression that can help pressure governments to act. So with such a referendum you need to think about what question will push governments in precise ways and to be damned sure you will win. Losing a referendum election doesn’t advance your cause. Quite the opposite.
At a meeting today on the referendum idea, a packed room debated a proposal to put a set of questions on the ballot, including:
-- Are you in favor of restoring harmony with Mother Earth?
-- Are you in favor of changing the model of super consumerism?
-- Shall we rededicate the funds now dedicated to War to defense of the environment?
I left in the middle of a discussion over whether an additional question should be added about the abolition of capitalism.
These questions may speak to people's ideological desires but they do not speak to specific actions that governments should take; they do not likely to win broad public support; and they are not serious questions for a global referendum.
The second point is about the mechanisms of arranging a public vote. Not all countries have such mechanisms and in many that do the time and cost of trying to secure such a vote is enormous. In California alone, for example, getting a measure on the ballot is a million dollar proposition. Does the climate justice movement really have the resources of time and energy to do this worldwide, and is this really the best use of the limited resources it has.
There is an alternative that makes far more sense if organizations want to go this route, citizen-organized referendums or "consultas". Mexican activists pioneered this technique a decade ago, setting up tables across the country and asking the people (in a single weekend) a basic question: For example, are you in favor of the government's economic reforms? The organizers of the Cochabamba Water Revolt also used this tactic in 2000. A citizen referendum that asked people if they favored breaking the government's contract with Bechtel drew more than 60,000 people, 10% of the city's population, in three days. As Oscar Olivera told me later, "The consulta made our movement much more participatory."
But these basic strategic questions seemed to little place in the discussions I saw here today. I was not the only person there who observed this. Tomorrow I'll begin my "search for strategy" once more.
Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements Take the International Stage
Jessica Camille Aguirre
In the main plaza of Tiquipaya tonight there was a Bolivian traditional dance group performing. As taxis streamed by hauling people back to Cochabamba after a long day of registration and conference events, a disparate crowd gathered around the stage. Bolivian teenagers bemusedly drinking beer (conference-induced drinking ban notwithstanding), intent looking young activists, exhausted organizers and journalists gathered around, reposing in plastic lawn chairs.
One of the most dynamic parts of this People’s Summit is the convergence of indigenous movements, primarily Bolivian and South American, with the multitude of social movements from around the globe. Indigenous representatives, dressed in brightly crafted and intricately adorned ensembles, are an impressive presence at the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Right of Mother Earth.
The conference program, containing a thick plethora of events, places a noticeable emphasis on events featuring alternative relationships to Mother Earth via the cosmovision Andina (Andean understanding of the cosmos).
Conversations that have happening among Bolivian social movements for months are now being thrust into international spotlight, and into a global context. CONAMAQ, the Bolivian national indigenous organization, is a ubiquitous presence at these presentations, underlining the necessity to live in harmony with nature and rejecting what they see as the commodification of natural resources. Speakers emphasize the need re-enforce communities. Fernando, a speaker with CONAMAQ, said that the relationship with the earth is predicated on good relationships with loved ones. His grandmother, he said, planted the seed of understanding in his heart with her smile.
But the challenge to many of these messages is making them resonate with activists from around the world who face different realities. The concept of vivir bien – living in harmony with nature and in reciprocity with community – is difficult to imagine in the context of contemporary urban environments. The social contract, Italian activist Giuseppe de Marzo pointed out, is broken when societies become too large. Adapting vivir bien to a Western city requires, he said, moving away from the concept of constant economic growth. Changing the entrenched culture of richer nations may be difficult, but many here see it as fundamental to the success of the climate change movement.
Though adapting the message of vivir bien will have its challenges, Bolivian indigenous organizations also found resonance today in indigenous representatives arrived from all corners of the globe. Moira Millan, an Argentine activist of the Mapuche peoples, echoed the concept of vivir bien as she described how her peoples see the natural world as a physical manifestation of their ancestors. But she called for a revolution of thinking among the indigenous peoples of the world: the movement, she said, must globalize as well.
This will be the challenge of the days to come: linking the wisdom of indigenous peoples to the realities of nature-starved urban contexts, and creating strategies for building a movement that maintains the distinctness of traditions while obtaining global significance.
Local Knowledge and Local Technologies
In the working group “Development and Technology Transfer,” the day’s discussions opened with a conflict that was emblematic of the North-South tension in this week’s People’s Summit.
A member of the Summit planning team, a Spanish-speaker in a suit and tie, brought the group together to elect its president. He introduced as a candidate Victor Menotti, the executive director of the International Forum on Globalization, based in San Francisco. Victor has been a well-known figure in globalization issues for more than a decade, and also a competent Spanish speaker. Despite a room full of South Americans, no other candidate was nominated.
Then one participant, Ramiro Palizza Ledezma, a historian from La Paz, spoke up. “We are a group that is in the majority Spanish-speaking, and what’s more, we have many skilled participants from this continent present. We have academics, organizers, and miners, and our indigenous compañeros, who are experts in their knowledge of indigenous practices and technologies, present,” he reminded the group.
He suggested that perhaps someone from this group itself should lead, and his comment opened up a small flood of calls of agreement. In the end, the group settled in a three-way leadership that included Victor, an English-speaking woman, and the addition of a leader from the national indigenous organization CONAMAQ named Miguel from the nation of Chicha. Miguel started off the discussion with a discourse in Quechua that was only slightly muffled by the coca that filled his cheeks.
This issue of valuing the knowledge and abilities of indigenous peoples and those from the South was an undercurrent to the rest of the afternoon as it is to the Summit as a whole.
One part of combating climate change is about making effective use of technologies, such as solar energy. Here, the discussion is not only about how wealthy countries can share that technology with less wealthy ones, but about how to do that in a way that takes into account local realities.
“For example, we should not put solar panels to use in La Paz, where the whole landscape is up-and-down and the area does not get consistent sunlight,” said Roberto, the young man who moderated the sub-group discussion. Another participant explained that countries like Bolivia are buying technologies that are inappropriate for their needs because another country or a transnational sells them to them.
Some of the other ideas suggested at the meeting included scholarships for international study that also bring those students—and what they learn—back to their home countries, and sharing best practices between Latin American countries.
“Development” is the other word that comes up over and over in this conversation. In the meeting today, that word meant liberating Southern countries from dependence on Northern countries for the technologies that can improve their lives and fight climate change. Ramiro, the paceño historian, shared his fears for what development can mean. He told me that in a country like Bolivia, development can also mean new forms of competition between people that run against the nature of the culture.
Another participant declared passionately that to even have this conversation, we needed a new word for development that did not carry with it the implication of inflicting such damage to the mother earth. The very last comment of the workshop was made by an indigenous woman—one of the only women I heard speak over the course of the discussion—as most of the crowd was already shuffling out of the room. “We have cultivated knowledge that has allowed us to live in harmony with the earth, and our grandparents have the obligation to pass this information along to our children before it is lost,” she said.
For she and others at the meeting, the wisdom of elders is also a technology with important value.
What Else We're Reading
Some links to other good reports on the climate summit and Water War Anniversary:
People’s Conference on Climate Justice Begins in Bolivia; New Yorkers Can Participate Online (Renée Feltz, Indypendent)
Water Wars: How One City’s Fight Against a Multinational Ignited a Movement Battling Water Privatization (Tina Gerhardt, Alternet)
Bolivia: Meet Faith Gemmill from Arctic Village (Brenda Norrell, Censored News) (Part of a series introducing conference participants)