To live...

Evo Morales is calling an international summit on climate change which promises to be a world away from Copenhagen. *Vanessa Baird* finds reason to be hopeful.

‘Fiasco’ was the short but perfectly fitting word for last year’s Copenhagen Climate Summit. (‘A complete, ignominious failure’ is the longer dictionary definition.) No targets, no binding agreements, no attempt to tackle the root causes of global warming.

NI Special Feature: Peoples

But even during the dismal days of the summit there were a few glimmers of hope. There were the protesters on the streets of the Danish capital, for a start. And there were the positions taken by some Majority World countries. Chief amongst these was the delegation from Bolivia.

New Internationalist’s Jess Worth recalls: ‘A high point for me was when Pablo Solón, the Bolivian ambassador to the UN and chief climate change negotiator, came out at 3 am and talked to protesters on the streets. I found I could agree one hundred per cent with everything he said. That’s very rare.’

Bolivia’s position on climate change has not come out of the blue. It has its roots in Andean thought

It’s not surprising that Bolivia’s indigenous president Evo Morales has seized the initiative and called a new global summit – The People’s World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth’s Rights – to take place 19-22 April in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.

World leaders have proved themselves incapable of taking the action needed on climate change. It now rests with the world’s people and their civil society organizations to seize the reins.

What is in debate here is whether we are to live or die. Are we here to save lives or are we here to kill? The difference is very clear, as is the issue of temperatures. I don’t have a technical knowledge of these issues, but I am advised that an increase of two degrees based on current agreements would eliminate islands in the world, eliminate the snow of the Andes and elsewhere. This is very serious. People won’t accept this and will judge it.

‘Another key issue is the irrational industrialization by powerful rich nations. They suggest reducing real emissions by 50 per cent by 2050, but people who fight for saving lives talk of 90 per cent and 100 per cent. This is a profound difference. ‘I suggest if there are no agreements at these presidential levels, why not submit ourselves to the people? This is the most democratic [way].’

*Eva Morales has taken a lead in tackling rich world inertia.*

The Bolivian initiative has several strands to it. In addition to the April conference there is a proposal for a global referendum on climate change; the adoption and promotion of ‘earth rights’ and their transition into law; and the establishment of an international Climate Justice Tribunal.

At Copenhagen the major economies wanted to limit global temperature rise by two degrees Celsius. They did not manage to agree to even this un-ambitious target. But for Majority World countries – which are generally the most severely affected by climate change – the two degree target is too high. It allows for the devastation of some island nations and many vulnerable developing-world environments. For that reason a target of one degree Celsius is among the proposals being presented at Cochabamba.

The Bolivian initiative has been welcomed by activists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and concerned organizations (including this magazine) and individuals worldwide (see

The current aims of the People’s World Conference are to:

  1. Analyze the structural and systemic causes that drive climate change and to propose radical measures to ensure the well-being of all humanity in harmony with nature.
  2. Discuss and agree on the project of a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights.
  3. Agree on proposals for new commitments to the Kyoto Protocol and projects for a COP (Conference of Party) Decision under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change that will guide future actions related to a range of issues including: climate debt; climate change migration; emission reductions; adaptation; technology transfer; finance; forests; indigenous peoples; shared vision.
  4. Work on the organization of the People’s World Referendum on Climate Change.
  5. Analyze and develop an action plan to advance the establishment of a Climate Justice Tribunal.
  6. Define strategies for action; mobilize to defend life from climate change and to defend the rights of Mother Earth.

Mother Earth’s Rights and Vivir Bien

Bolivia’s position on climate change has not come out of the blue. It has its roots in Andean thought and belief with its key concepts of Sumaq kawsay or Vivir bien (living well) and respect for Pachamama (Mother Earth).

These principles could provide the basis for an alternative development path that is not driven solely by ideas of growth, profit and capitalist accumulation. Pablo Solón explains: ‘We use terms like “living well” to describe a way of life that seeks not to live “better” and at the cost of others and nature, but in harmony with all.’1

This seems so far removed from the way that most of the world operates as to suggest dreamy idealism. But in recent years indigenous people and social movements in Latin America have managed to get such perspectives enshrined in the new constitutions of both Bolivia and Ecuador. The concepts are also gaining traction around the world with non-indigenous people who are concerned with environmental and social justice.

Even at the level of the United Nations, indigenous Andean concepts have found a surprising degree of acceptance. In December 2009 the UN General Assembly approved a resolution proposed by Evo Morales (and backed by the nine Latin American countries) to develop a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth.

The resolution calls on all countries to share their experiences and perspectives on how to create ‘harmony with nature’. The consequences could be quite profound, especially in the legal arena. Currently activities that cause environmental damage – including climate change – are legal. Most environmental laws do little more than regulate the rate at which environmental destruction may take place.

But with the acceptance of Earth Rights, legal systems could take account of, say, the rights of mountains, rivers, forests and animals.

‘A rights-based approach,’ says Pablo Solón, ‘could evaluate whether the rights of humans to clear tropical forests for beef ranching should trump the right of species in those forests to continue to exist. Instead of devising ever more complex schemes to authorize environmental damage and to trade in the right to pollute, we would focus on how best to maintain the quality of the relationship between ourselves and Earth.’

It’s worth remembering that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was first proclaimed, it had no legal binding. Now, 61 years later, the declaration is incorporated in the laws of many countries and is the basis for the International Criminal Court.

‘Facing a crisis far worse than any world war,’ comments Solón, ‘might it not be time for humanity to launch a new declaration, one that defends our planet and its biodiversity from ever-continuing extinction?’

Reaping climate chaos: Bolivia produces less than 0.1% of the world’s CO2 but is suffering low crop yields and disrupted seasons as a result of global warming.

Photo by Sean Sprague / Still Pictures

Climate Justice Tribunal

An international climate justice tribunal has already been set up, thanks to a decision of the Fourth Summit of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of Abya Yala, Bolivia. The court had its first preliminary hearing on 13-14 October 2009 in Cochabamba. 

It’s not a tribunal in a legal sense, having no formal legal authority, but seeks rather to create an ethical, moral force that will pressure governments to assume their responsibilities within the framework of equality and climate justice.

Inspiration came from other ethical courts such as the Russell Tribunal of 1967, which judged and condemned war crimes committed by the US in Vietnam.

Several cases came up at the tribunal’s preliminary hearing. They included a case brought by the rural community of Khapi outside La Paz, who depend on glacial melt from Mount Illimani for irrigation. The glaciers are disappearing fast due to global warming, and the villagers are accusing the high CO2-producing industrial nations of violating their human rights.

Meanwhile, the environmental group Acción  Ecológica in Ecuador has brought a case against a Dutch carbon offsets organization, Forest Absorbing Carbon Emissions (FACE), which has tree plantations in Ecuador.

Exploited sugar workers in the Cauca Valley, Colombia, have brought a case against their own Government, which is subsidizing sugar-based ethanol biofuel production and undermining the sugar workers’ jobs. The cutters are already among Colombia’s most exploited workers.

And children from the Peruvian city of Cerro de Pasco – one of the 10 most polluted in the world – are accusing Volcan SA mining company of producing polluting gases and particles which have caused high levels of lead in their blood.

Of possible embarrassment to the Bolivian Government is the case brought against three bodies involved in the officially backed Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA). The accused are the Inter-American Bank for Development, the Andean Development Corporation, and the Financial Fund for the Development of Cuenca de Plata. Also named are the National Development Bank of Brazil, the European Union, and Banco Santander. The case is brought by the La Paz-based Bridge Between Cultures Foundation. Critics say the IIRSA project will destroy the Amazonian rainforest, release huge quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere and irreparably damage ecosystems on which indigenous people depend.

Bolivia’s environmental record 

Since taking office in early 2006, Evo Morales’ Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party has set in motion a profound social revolution in Bolivia, a country previously plagued by poverty, inequality and dictatorship.

The MAS Government – which has its roots in a range of civil society groups including trade unions and indigenous organizations – has taken control of the country’s gas and oil resources and set about distributing profits in the form of social welfare programmes. Moreover, in 2009 Bolivia experienced the highest rate of economic growth in the Western hemisphere.

After a lengthy and inclusive process a new Constitution was written. From being a country ruled by white and mestizo élites for their own benefit, Bolivia became a pluri-national state, with a good degree of women’s and indigenous participation at the highest levels – and with an indigenous President at its head. Elections at the end of 2009, returned Evo Morales with a healthy and increased majority. This leader is in an unusually strong position to talk about grassroots democracy.

But Bolivia’s record on environmental issues is more complex.

At a rhetorical level, Bolivia has become a champion of the global environment. No other president can make the call for global climate justice more eloquently or with such Majority World credibility as Evo Morales. The country he leads produces less than 0.1 per cent of global CO2 emissions and yet is suffering extreme consequences of climate change. In the past few years it has experienced sharp increases in flooding, drought, forest fires and plagues of pests causing crop failures. Rising temperatures have caused severe glacial melt (376 glaciers lost almost half their surface between 1975 and 2006) which is causing acute water shortage. Chaotic and extreme weather has made farming unpredictable, destabilized growing seasons and reduced crop yields of staples such as potatoes and quinoa. Flooding – the worst in 25 years – cost 40 lives, displaced 340,000 in the lowlands and cost the country $400 million in 2007.2

But the country is also creating plenty of its own environmental damage. Bolivia has inherited a development model based on extractive and ecologically harmful industries (mining, oil and gas, logging, soy production). Despite its relatively low population density, almost a quarter of the national territory (60 million acres) is environmentally degraded, with a further 17 million under threat, according to Lidema, Bolivia’s leading coalition of environmental groups.3

Bolivian environmentalist Apolonia Rodriguez from Lidema comments: ‘We are the tenth most biodiverse country in the world, but we are being devastated by uncontrolled forestry, mining, hydrocarbon extraction and ever-expanding soy cultivation.’ Like many in the environmental movement, she criticizes the perspective that ‘prioritizes economic growth over everything else’ – in spite of ideological statements to the contrary.3

The Government has gone ahead with several big, profitable but polluting projects. It approved the giant Mutún iron ore mine east of Santa Cruz near the border with Brazil. It reactivated the Balas big dam project – promoted by the World Bank – which would flood a protected area rich in biodiversity. And it has not drawn back from the controversial Initiative for the Regional Integration of South America (IIRSA) signed by the previous rightwing Government and 11 other South American nations. Involving 500 transport, communications and energy projects, it will bring roads, dams and development to the heart of South America. This will inevitably have a heavy impact on local ecosystems and the indigenous people who depend on them, as well as on CO2 emissions. Ironically, it is one of the cases before the Climate Justice Tribunal (see above).

There are some more positive government initiatives. Local communities in ecologically ravaged areas such as Potosí are being encouraged to plant trees to tackle soil erosion. Micro-hydro schemes are being developed as alternatives to large-scale projects, especially in the lowlands. And local communities are beginning to use new environmental laws against the Government where necessary.

Nor is all Bolivia’s natural mineral wealth doomed to do damage. Vast lithium deposits could turn out to be a boon for the global environment. The metal – the lightest in the world – is used in batteries for electric as opposed to fossil fuel-burning vehicles.

The Referendum

Evo Morales is proposing a global popular referendum that would tackle the root causes of climate change. Below are some of the questions he is proposing, but the final text will emerge from The People’s World Conference in Cochabamba in April.

1) Do you agree with re-establishing harmony with nature while recognizing the rights of Mother Earth?           

2) Do you agree with changing this model of over-consumption and waste that the capitalist system represents?     

3) Do you agree that developed countries reduce and re-absorb their domestic greenhouse gas emissions so that the temperature does not rise more than 1 degree Celsius?

4) Do you agree with transferring all that is spent in wars to protecting the planet and allocate a budget for climate change that is bigger than what is used for defence?             

5) Do you agree with a Climate Justice Tribunal to judge those who destroy Mother Earth?                                   

Lust for life

Environmentalist Marco Octavio Ribera from Lidema welcomes the People’s World Conference. ‘It will give developing countries a chance to reaffirm the position they took at Copenhagen and to analyze what happened there. We hope it will awaken the conscience of the world in relation to climate change.’

But he is also hoping that it will lead to greater coherence in his own country between what the Government says and what it does:

‘The discourse coming from Evo Morales and some sections of government is very innovative in defending the environment. But there are other sectors, such as those controlling mining, fossil fuels and economic development which contradict this position.’ 

He adds: ‘I’m not against all mining or all fossil fuel extraction. But they should not dominate the economy so entirely. There are other possibilities that could be developed. Eco-tourism and organic agriculture, for example. Bolivia is also in an ideal position to develop wind and solar energy.’

The lead that Bolivia is taking on climate change has massive potential. Unlike Copenhagen, the participants are unlikely to shy away from who and what is causing climate chaos. Nor will they be ideologically padlocked to the notion that only the market can provide solutions. 

The conference will provide a space for sharing ideas and practical strategies that can put flesh on the bones of concepts such as vivir bien or earth rights.

If April’s gathering in Cochabamba can harness the frustration, energy and concern that followed Copenhagen then it might be the turning point many are yearning for.

‘To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing,’ wrote Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams.

The pluri-national, indigenous-led state of Bolivia is a place where hope has proved its possibility. I can’t think of a more propitious location for trying to save the planet.

ACTION: You can sign on to support the Bolivian initiative at

  1. Pablo Solón and Cormac Cullinan, ‘We Must Support a Universal Declaration of Rights of Mother Earth’, Huffington Post, 29 December 2009.
  2. Bolivia Information Forum
  3. Linda Farthing, ‘Bolivia’s Dilemma: Development Confronts the Legacy of Extraction’, NACLA, Vol 042, Issue 5, October 2009