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System Change, Not Climate Change

May 2010

Last month, I traveled to Cochabamba, Bolivia for a number of reasons. The main one was to attend the World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Many of Grassroots Internationals partners from Latin America, Asia and Africa were also there some of whom we supported to attend and it was a great opportunity for me to meet with them and with many of our allies in one central location. They were all at the conference because for them the climate crisis is immediate in its impact and not some theoretical scenario for the future.

  In that context, the urgency for a just solution is just as immediate. Henry Saragih, the general coordinator of Grassroots partner, La Via Campesina, reiterated to me what he said in his speech in Copenhagen last December at the UN climate conference (COP15): We, as social movements, have to bring our own agenda to the table, because we are the first climate victims and climate refugees and therefore climate justice is in our hands.   Yet another reason for my going was that it was the 10th anniversary of la Guerra del Agua (the Water Wars) that launched a massive movement against the privatization of water in Cochabamba. A grassroots movement for water rights forced the cancelation of the deal with Bechtel Corp., eventually providing the momentum that led to the election of Bolivias first indigenous president. It was no small coincidence that the conference was convened in Cochabamba by that very president, Evo Morales Ayma, in response to the abject failure of rich countries like the United States and members of the European Union as well as powerful developing nations like China, India, Brazil and South Africa to arrive at a meaningful and just resolution of the climate crisis in Copenhagen last December.   The Red VIDA, a Latin America-wide network of organizations working for sustainable solutions to the commodification and privatization of water and for water as a human right, along with its allies from around the world also met in Cochabamba, right before the conference, to commemorate the anniversary and strategize for the future. Grassroots Internationals board member Anil Naidoo also attended this meeting, where participants worked to highlight the linkages between water and climate.   As President Morales said to the United Nations later in May, where he presented the Peoples Agreement, I convened this Conference because in Copenhagen the voice of the peoples of the world was not listened to or attended to, nor were established procedures respected by all States. More than 30,000 people came to Cochabamba, convening in 17 different official work groups as well as hundreds of self-organized workshops over the 4-5 days of the conference. They debated and addressed various issues related to the climate crisis, from agriculture/food sovereignty, forests, carbon markets and climate debt to the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of Mother Earth, climate adaptation and financing.   And unlike in Copenhagen, peoples voices were certainly heard; and if they felt omitted from the schedule, they organized to make sure their issues received attention. For example, when a number of indigenous peoples organizations from Bolivia and their allies felt that their concerns around Bolivias stated position on climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples and the Earth a cornerstone of the conference didnt match up to the governments own policies on extractive industries (especially oil and natural gas), they sought to have their concerns addressed within the structure of the working groups. When that wasnt allowed, they organized outside the forum space, while still actively engaging with the thousands who came to the conference. The dissidents were working to hold their government accountable, something we in the progressive movement in the United States would do well to learn from.   Overall, the conference and the final agreement reflected that accountability. For example, the working group on forests heard spirited debate between votaries of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), including from within the government and those opposed to it. REDD is essentially a market-based solution that fits within the larger scheme of carbon markets and offsets being pushed by the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, and many countries around the world; and especially corporations who are its largest beneficiaries.   Opponents question REDD on numerous grounds, from the fundamentally flawed nature of the model that allows polluters to keep polluting to the dangers of indigenous people and other forest-dwelling and dependent communities losing control of their resources and livelihoods.   Bolivias official position thus far had been to engage with REDD. In fact, the government has undertaken one of the worlds first pilot projects funded by the World Bank. A 2009 report by Greenpeace International, shows how this project, touted as the poster child for REDD, is actually a scam.   The end result of the forest working groups deliberations in Cochabamba was a strong indictment of and statement against REDD, carbon markets and offsets. This was adopted as part of the official agreement, which was then taken by the Bolivian government to the United Nations and is now being championed by it in various world forums including the upcoming climate conference in Canc (COP16) this November.   As Grassroots International friend Jeff Conant, who was blogging from Cochabamba notes, With a few tactical victories, such as the condemnation of REDD in the final declaration and a general sense that this was an important forum for southern and indigenous voices to speak out, the forum has been a success. Whether or not the word gets out in the centers of power in the north that another blow has been dealt to the systems of power at work there, we shall see.   In the global South they are not holding their breath, and certainly not planning on losing any steam from Bolivia. Alberto Beto Gomez Flores, from Grassroots partner UNORCA told me they were hitting the ground running from Cochabamba to prepare for Canc. He referenced the rumors flying around the conference that many governments had decided to bypass Canc altogether and press their positions during negotiations slated to happen in 2011 in South Africa (COP 17, the next summit after Canc).   He said the social movements and civil society organizations are not letting up their pressure. We plan to create many Cancs all over Mexico and the world simultaneously. Our intent is that those organizations and people that can travel to Mexico are not the only ones who can participate but that people everywhere can make their voices heard. UNORCA and its allies are planning to do major outreach on the issues in nearby Mexican states like Yucatan, Vera Cruz, Tabasco, and Campeche, as well as Quintana Roo where Canc is; and to ensure a huge civil society presence during the summit to bring pressure on governments to act for a just climate solution.   In his blog, Jason Negron-Gonzalez of our ally Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project noted: We are leaving Cochabamba, en route to Canc by way of our communities. We have our work cut out for us, but I believe that we are up to the task. In the next seven months we can build a stronger, more grounded climate movement than this country has ever seen. We can win support, and put the army of cynics that President Obama described during his campaign (and whose ranks he should leave as soon as possible) on their heels.   We can strike a blow for our allies in the South and derail the Copenhagen Accord Jason observed. And we can begin the hard task of transforming this country, to meet the needs of the people and Mother Earth. We dont lack talent or desire, so lets not lack confidence or imagination. As Eduardo Galeano wrote in his letter at the opening of the conference, May we be able to do everything that is possible, and the impossible too.

Photo above by Sunyoung Yang of the Bus Riders Union

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