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Peasants cool the planet!

Photo by Amigos da Terra Bresil under a CC Licence

Today thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Cancun in Mexico as part of the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice, partly co-ordinated by La Via Campesina (the International Peasant Movement), to protest what they perceive as a lack of respect for human rights at the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Under the banner ‘Peasants Cool The Planet’, they will demand that more attention be given to matters of social justice – such as the transfer of $30 billion in aid from developed nations to developing ones, a pledge that was made last year that rich countries now appear to be ready to drop. La Via Campesina, the Indigenous Environmental Network and other NGOs from around the world are also extremely concerned about the emphasis at the talks being given to measures such as REDD (Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which they contend only undermines human rights by transferring ownership and control of forests away from the people who depend on them.

Photo by Amigos da Terra Bresil under a CC Licence

The turnout at the demonstration today will no doubt be dwarfed by the 100,000 people who marched this time last year in Copenhagen – largely because the UN conference last year drew far more attention in the run-up to December. Many described COP15 in 2009 as our ‘last chance’ to seal a binding and effective international accord to prevent dramatic climate change. Hopes were high.

But after last year’s unambiguous failure, this year’s conference has utterly failed to rouse the same level of enthusiasm. Press coverage is scant in comparison. Few politicians, journalists or activists believe much will come out of COP16 but more hot air, late nights, and meaningless pieces of paper.

Yet again, little more but sound and fury – both from politicians proclaiming that progress is afoot, as well as angry activists, understandably frustrated by the inability of all United Nations Climate Change Conferences to halt the global rise in carbon by even the tiniest degree. Two decades of jet-fuelled meetings have achieved nothing but a steady rise in global greenhouse gas levels, and steady shrink in forests (and other carbon sinks), and a seemingly inexorable march towards dramatic climate change.

Thousands of demonstrators and NGOs have converged on the city, yet their impact on the conference is likely to be even less marked than last year, due to the cosy confinement of the delegates inside the complexes of the Mexican beach town, a cotton-woolled resort that has long secluded wealthy tourists away from Mexico’s slums. The barricades around Copenhagen’s Bella Centre pale in comparison.

Nonetheless, activists and NGOs from around the world are still making the trip to Mexico to make what stamp they can. One of those is the Polaris Institute, based in Ottawa, Canada, who last week made their way towards the beach resort town from the small community of Cerro San Pedro, 500 kilometres north of Mexico City. Travelling southwards in a collection of caravans, they are meeting with a dozen communities that have been affected by massive industrial projects, such as those near Cerro San Pedro which have been coping with impacts created by huge mines operated by Canadian company New Gold.

‘We want to highlight the social and environmental destruction that is created by these huge projects,’ says Richard Girard, Research Coordinator from the Polaris Institute. ‘In Canada a few small populations are impacted by the tar sands, but our same companies impact millions of people in Mexico, and their voices are not heard.’

The Canadian government as well is a target for impacted communities – Canada was named last week by the Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres as one of three countries (together with Russia and Japan) trying to kill the Kyoto Protocol, the only international accord on climate change to date with any bite. This comes as little surprise – Canada was again named the Colossal Fossil last year in Copenhagen for obstructing progress at the talks, in large part due to massive expansions in the Canadian tar sands.

‘Though the local populations in Mexico and around the world see their local battle as a regional struggle of their own, on a larger scale the degradation and pollution that comes about from these projects is part of the whole process that is causing climate change,’ Girard says. ‘A lot of the NGOs who come to talk about climate change are only thinking about polar bears and trees – they are not familiar with how people’s lives are impacted. This is something that is, unfortunately, often missing from the broader environmental movement.’

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