I attended the alternative Climate Conference in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba as part of an eight-person Quebec activist delegation. I came back convinced that we witnessed a turning point in the global Climate Justice movement.
Up to now it has been very difficult to link environmental demands to social justice issues. The mainstream ecological movement, spurred by many NGOs, has generally avoided linking these issues under the spurious notion that a “realistic” approach of working with governments and the UN would yield significant results.
But as the spectacular failure of the UN-sponsored Copenhagen Conference of last December has clearly demonstrated, nearly 20 years of government summit-hopping and no less than 15 international conferences have yielded absolutely nothing in terms of binding international agreements. The Kyoto Accord lies in tatters and greenhouse gas emissions are rising dangerously, threatening the world with major ecological catastrophes by the end of this century.
Thousands of Rank-and-file Activists
Into this void stepped Evo Morales, the Indigenous left-wing president of Bolivia, who called an international forum of social movements entitled “The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.”
The result was nothing short of spectacular. The organizers hoped for 15,000 participants, but some 35,151 people, including 9,252 from outside Bolivia, actually showed up at the four-day event.
Even more remarkable than the startling turnout was the social composition of the participants. Thousands of rank-and-file activists from Bolivia and Latin America’s social movements — community activists, poor peasants, indigenous people — lent the proceedings a militant, combative stance that was reflected in the 17 working groups and the final declaration of the conference. “The Peoples Agreement,” as the document is formally known, clearly pinpoints the capitalist model of development and imperialism as the structural causes of the climate crisis:
The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system. . . . Capitalism requires a powerful military industry for its processes of accumulation and imposition of control over territories and natural resources, suppressing the resistance of the peoples. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet. Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.
Far from limiting itself to ringing declarations devoid of practical content, the Cochabamba conference put forward elements of a short-term plan of action that can be summed up as follows:
- At the upcoming Conference on Climate Change to be held in Mexico at the end of 2010, opponents should reject the illegitimate Copenhagen Accord and strive to amend the Kyoto Protocol by setting ambitious binding targets for reducing developed countries’ greenhouse gas emissions (50% of the 1990 level to be achieved by 2020).
- Forge a “Global People’s Movement” that can coordinate joint worldwide actions such as a campaign for a global referendum or popular consultation on Climate Change.
- Oppose false market solutions, such as carbon trading and the so-called offset mechanisms that mask the failure of industrialized countries to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Demand the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal that will have the legal capacity to judge and penalize states and industries that pollute and provoke climate change.
System Change, Not Climate Change
An interesting insight into the meaning given by the Bolivian leadership to the notion of “Mother Earth” (Pachamama) was provided by Alvaro Garcia Linera, the Vice President of Bolivia.
During a widely attended panel discussion examining the structural causes of climate change, this former guerilla leader and Marxist sociologist, generally seen as the theoretician of the new regime, stated:
[T]he concept of Mother Earth is not just a slogan. It means a new way of producing, a new way of relating with nature and with one another. This relationship is one of equality and not domination, a relationship of dialogue, of giving and receiving. It is not merely a philosophy or folklore. It is a new ethics, a new way of developing technologies and modes of production.
Recalling Rosa Luxemburg’s famous slogan, “socialism or barbarism,” Linera added that today we could say, “Mother Earth or barbarism.”
At the colorful six-hour-long closing ceremony cum popular fiesta held in Cochabamba’s soccer stadium, all the speakers underscored the demand for “system change, not climate change,” which ran like a red thread through the forum’s proceedings.
In a fiery address to the assembled crowd Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called for massive dissemination of the outcomes of Cochabamba as a tool for popular education and mobilization in the fight against climate change. Recalling an article that Albert Einstein wrote stating that the future of mankind could only be secured through socialism, Chavez added “If the hegemony of capitalism continues on this planet, human life will one day come to an end.”
In his closing speech Morales urged social movements to take the lead in bringing about popular revolutions to safeguard the earth and ensure human rights. “Capitalism is the number one enemy of mankind. It merchandises everything, it seeks continual expansion. The system needs to be changed.”
The conference was not devoid of contradictions, confusion or controversy,1 but it was nonetheless an uplifting and enthusing event. Until Cochabamba, ecosocialism was mostly an intellectual current among left-wing activists. It now has a historical opportunity to bloom into a worldwide social movement.
As the old sixties slogan goes, “Seize the time, seize the hour!”
1 Mesa 18, a workshop led by Bolivian grassroots activists was denied participation in the conference. These activists, engaged in a two-week blockade of a Japanese-owned mine in the San Cristobal region, are critical of what they deem to be the government’s lax attitude towards mining multinationals. The workshop, held at the gate of the official conference, garnered substantial press coverage and sympathy from many conference goers. For good English-language coverage of Mesa 18, see: “Mesa 18: Dissident Groups Host Alternative Meeting Outside World Peoples’ Climate Summit” (DemocracyNow!, 22 April 2010); and “Ex-Leader of Bolivia Peasant Workers near San Cristóbal Mine Says Company Lied About Water Pollution, Demands Pay for Vast Water Usage” (DemocracyNow!, 22 April 2010).
Roger Rashi is a social and political activist living in Montreal. He is a founding member of Québec solidaire, and a member of Québec solidaire’s Working Commission on the Environment. He will speak on “Écosocialisme ou écocapitalisme” at a public meeting in Montreal on May 11: the meeting will also include a report back from Cochabamba.