Summit different: report from Cochabamba

Ben Powless

If we calculated the emissions from all the political capital burnt trying to convince the world of the Copenhagen climate summit’s importance, we wouldn’t be surprised to find the result was only more global warming. The monumental failure of last December’s negotiations, however, sparked further resolve in many people’s minds. Bolivian President Evo Morales was quick to pick up on a growing sentiment that the solutions weren’t going to come from the increasingly exclusive UN process.

Ever since Morales announced the initiative at the end of Copenhagen, the ‘Peoples’ Climate Conference’ quickly became the anti-UN summit. This April over 35,000 people, predominantly representing indigenous peoples and other voices of the Global South, made the trek to Cochabamba in Bolivia. Over 140 countries were represented.

The university transformed itself into a global symbol of climate justice and resistance to the neoliberal climate project. Instead of focusing on how countries can pay their way out of their ecological responsibilities, participants developed resolutions about re-establishing harmony with nature, protecting forests, and tackling the root causes of climate change.

What made the summit stand out, however, was its ambition and composition. The very specific initiatives to emerge from the 17 working groups – many counting on hundreds of people to draft the final documents – are unlike any others from past global climate conferences. This is mainly because indigenous peoples of Bolivia and South America formed the majority in a number of discussions; the exact opposite of most formal negotiations.

The proposed Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth attempts to classify a new type of rights for the non-human world, in a comprehensive and completely new way. The call for a Climate Justice Tribunal carries forward the idea of punishing countries that are not in compliance with environmental commitments. Demands for climate debt restitution went much further than anything previously envisaged under the UN system, while a global referendum is planned to seek consensus from peoples around the world on appropriate climate actions. Emerging from indigenous peoples, there was a call to ‘live well’, a rejection of opportunistic and unrestrained economic growth, and a return to simpler ways of life.

Another key result was the condemnation of the UN process known as REDD, which seeks to compensate countries for reducing deforestation through the carbon market. Indigenous peoples and other communities see this as a direct threat to their traditional cultures, and a way for states to displace them and steal their forests and resources.

The overarching aim of the conference was to respond to the crisis of the capitalist system, its exploitative extraction and production processes, and its exclusionary social and economic principles. In the indigenous peoples’ group, after a lengthy and heated debate, we took note of how destructive socialist, communist, or other ‘-ist’ systems can also be, when not centred on respect for Mother Earth and her peoples. Instead, we made a specific call to recover and renew indigenous knowledge and traditions as a direct response to Western civilization.

A number of logistical and other challenges, however, kept the conference from living up to its full potential. With only four months to organize it, there was never enough time or resources. Numbers went from an expected five thousand participants, to ten, fifteen, over twenty thousand. The four days of the conference – including two half-days devoted to the opening and closing extravaganzas – allowed only a short time to come quickly to consensus on key documents. In a scene ironically reminiscent of Copenhagen, participants waited outside for hours the first day to get accreditation. In the working group on indigenous peoples, we were without speakers, translation equipment, or a big enough room for our 200 participants for 2 days.

With a bit more time, resources, and representative participation, the event and outcomes could have been much more powerful. This type of gathering must be repeated, the long-term vision for climate justice translated into local contexts and strategies by social movements in many countries.

As movements from the North, we in particular must make more space for voices from the South to lead these initiatives. The media was particularly mum about covering this conference, so it falls upon all of us to educate ourselves and the rest of our societies about what happened in Cochabamba, and the range of small and large actions needed to bring our lives into harmony with Mother Earth.

As the recent BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico illustrates, this civilization really is headed for crisis. We are all interconnected, but now is the time for our movements and peoples to come together. In North America alone, there are two key mobilizing opportunities coming up within days of each other in June – in the G8/G20 resistance in Toronto and the US Social Forum in Detroit. As only six months remain to COP16 in Cancún, Mexico, we need to do all the mobilizing we can.

Ben Powless is Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario. He is currently studying in Ottawa, and has been heavily involved in indigenous and climate activism for several years at a local, national and international level.

We had mixed feelings when we heard that Evo Morales had called a ‘Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth’. As European anti-authoritarians, we were suspicious of another state-led initiative, yet after the predictable failure of COP15 we were intrigued to see how social movements could influence the outcomes, especially in Bolivia.

On arrival we heard from many that the outcome had been ‘cooked’ by government officials. The pre-conference documents from the 17 working groups were certainly disappointing and did not go far enough. At the same time an 18th working group, autonomous from the conference, created controversy by exposing the contradictions between the rhetoric of Mother Earth Rights and Bolivia’s vigorously expanding extractive industries.

However, after three days of intense work in overcrowded rooms, some major changes in the working documents were achieved. The final declaration of the conference was powerful and ambitious. It rejected REDD, genetic modification and market-based solutions, and firmly identified capitalism as the structural cause of climate change. The nine-page ‘People’s Accord’ responded to the positions of participating movements and reflected the diversity of struggles. The alliance of Latin American and Caribbean ALBA nations (which includes Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela) has since formally submitted the document to the UN, giving it international resonance and surely livening up December’s COP16 in Cancún.

Perhaps the most important outcome was not the conference itself but the connections made, shared understandings developed and plans for concrete action that emerged. In the sessions we ran, around migration and climate change, a rich mix of perspectives coalesced around a call for an end to repressive migration policies. While we focused on global migration management and the militarization of borders, others from the region highlighted internal displacement through failing crops and lack of access to water. A shared understanding emerged that borders exist to divide us and that transnational solidarity and freedom of movement for all is essential in the face of climate change.

As participants in the Climate Justice Action (CJA) network, we also helped co-ordinate a workshop that brought together more than 100 people from across the Americas, Europe and Australasia. We explored the commonality in our struggles and looked for ways to work together towards a day of direct action for climate justice on 12 October. Responding to an existing call-out from the Global Minga – a South American ‘movement of movements’ – the 12th is significant in reclaiming the formerly imposed ‘Columbus Day’ as a day for Mother Earth.

It is hard to say what will happen next. Our month in Bolivia taught us that relationships between the state and social movements are riddled with tensions. While some say there is now no difference between the two, others are disillusioned with Morales’ policies and accuse his party of stifling dissent. How this conference relates to ALBA’s attempt to get global support for its socialist project and how climate justice movements globally will respond to this People’s Accord are just some of the big questions that remain.

Yasmine Brien, Alice Cutler and Bertie Russell are European activists involved in the Camp for Climate Action and Climate Justice Action.

Voices from Cochabamba

*Evo Morales – President of Bolivia*

‘As a child I used to walk around with my poncho, woven by my mother, while herding my llamas and sheep. I wore this poncho and not the synthetic raincoat. Water doesn’t pass through. It may not be made of nylon but it protected me from the rain, the heat and the cold. Unlike the poncho of the West – the poncho of capitalism – which is waterproof, but when you throw it away, it pollutes. This is why, brothers and sisters, I am convinced that it is important to recover the values of the indigenous peasant movement to help defend Mother Earth.’

*Beverly Keene – Jubilee South*

‘Most communities find that the judicial systems in their countries or at an international level are not addressing their problems. This is why we are creating the concept of a Peoples’ Tribunal, to open an opportunity for communities affected by climate change and ecological injustice to be able to speak out, name the problem, identify who is responsible, and to be clear about the types of sanctions we want to take place.’

*David Toro (Colombia) – South American Cycle Expedition*

‘This is a continent that is economically poor but rich in solidarity, in brotherhood.

There exists a background, a history, a tradition of the use of the bicycle in Cochabamba but unfortunately it has been invaded by the car. The car is a weapon of mass destruction. It is a monster that is not only contaminating the environment, but degrading cities.’

*Ramon Deglans (Puerto Rico) – University of Puerto Rico*

‘We’re working on a declaration to protect Mother Earth from the violent Western view of the world, which diminishes and depletes her. We want Mother Earth to be respected. We are saying that she is a living being, she has her own life, we are her children, we must be respectful and we must take care of her. This is a big shift.’

Gathered by Ian Fitzpatrick.

For more information on 12 October, visit

Minority report

When did you first become concerned about nuclear power and health?
The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was the main impetus for me to study radiation biology.

How have your political views affected your career?
My political beliefs have existed throughout my career, I guess. I’ve always tried to dig out critical scientific evidence and to use that knowledge to assist NGOs, local authorities, or people adversely affected by radiation. So I’ve been on the list of the ‘politically problematic’ for a while, I suppose. While working on temporary contracts in the civil service, I have been denied permanent positions on many occasions. This was particularly galling when I was clearly more qualified than the persons appointed – I used to receive phone calls from them asking for advice. Within the civil service, you are of course required to button your lip. I think they saw me as having the capacity to leak secrets, although I didn’t do so. So I was kept from access to critical information and given routine jobs. Being an independent consultant is more interesting because it allows you much more freedom of expression.

Have you experienced difficulties publishing your research findings?
I’ve often had critical articles turned down. I now tend to write on subject matters suggested by journal editors. With one or two notable exceptions, many research journals play very safe and publish more and more about less and less, in incredible detail. But publishing in these journals is essential to any scientist’s career. Without published work on your CV, there is neither kudos nor research funding.

What checks and balances exist on the scientific research used to reassure or warn the public, and therefore make science policy? For example, how are government scientific advisory committees appointed?
There isn’t much written about this. Every year millions of pounds of research contracts are awarded to many scientists but the public are uninvolved and unaware of where this public money is going. Research priorities are decided by government committees that most people are unaware of. I know little about them – only that they exist. The public has no influence on who is appointed to these committees. The government basically handpicks those scientists who have views similar to the government’s views. It’s a somewhat murky world of whom you know, who gets warned against and who gets recommended for funding.

How do pro-nuclear policies affect energy policy?
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) spends around £300 million a year in keeping British Energy (the company running most of Britain’s nuclear power stations) afloat. Research and development grants are a huge subsidy to particular industries at the expense of others. If the DTI had invested in renewable energy half of what they have in nuclear research over the past 20 years then we could easily have achieved 20 per cent of our electricity needs from renewable sources.

Do you think there is pressure to suppress scientific evidence?
Yes, but the pressure often tends to be against certain people rather than against particular bits of scientific evidence. When I was a PhD researcher I was once heavily pressured by my university department to apologize to BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels Ltd) for a brief comment I’d made in a scientific journal. The problem was that the university department received a large amount of research funding from BNFL which had complained to the University. The pressure was considerable and I finally had to agree to write a letter. The Dean was suitably embarrassed when a week later I was awarded a prestigious fellowship to study at Princeton University in the United States!

In your opinion does the government acknowledge the risks of low-level radiation?
The problem is that the government is generally pro-nuclear, which inevitably means that research findings on greater radiation risks are soft-pedaled or ignored. Many institutions or individuals with real power (for example the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ministry of Defence, various Government Departments, and the Chief Government Scientist) are strongly pro-nuclear, so they are keen to ensure that scientific advice is available which reassures the public that radiation is safe. Even where scientific findings critical about radiation do manage to get published (as in the recent CERRIE Report on the effects of internal radiation)1 the Government shelves them and ignores any uncomfortable implications. The military, nuclear and medical establishments are among the most powerful in Britain, and the question of radiation risks is a vital matter for all three. So it’s important for the government to make sure that radiation risks are ‘handled’ properly – in other words, minimized. This makes it important for critical scientists to make available scientific evidence indicating the contrary.

Alice Cutler is a British freelance journalist and popular-education consultant.
Dr Ian Fairlie is an independent scientific consultant for the World Health Organization, the European Parliament and a number of Government agencies. He currently serves as the Secretariat for the independent Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters (CERRIE).

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