Cochabamba Chronicles: The World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth

Held April 20–22, 2010 in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Local Indigenous participants at the People's Climate Summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia
Local Indigenous participants at the People's Climate Summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia

From Copenhagen to Cochabamba
The COP 15 climate summit last December in Copenhagen, Denmark and the People's Conference about to begin here in Cochabamba, Bolivia couldn't be more different – both in context and aim.

The 15th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ('UNFCCC COP 15', in the alphabet soup of international treaty negotiations), was an exclusive event held in the bitter, dark cold of Copenhagen, dominated by the empty promises of northern countries to reduce emissions, and the advance of reckless, rights-less, and scientifically questionable 'solutions' to the climate problem. And then there was the bitter, dark, Todd Stern, the US climate negotiator who, as reported by The New York Times, arrived after a red eye, showered, and then freshly crushed any idea of climate justice in his first press conference.

Stern rejected the demands of the global south who least contribute to the climate problem but bear most of its burden, saying the US would not bow to 'reparations'. "We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now," Mr. Stern said sternly, "but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that."

Writer and activist Naomi Klein called it a 'festival of impunity', and Indigenous leaders around the world questioned why those that got us into this mess – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank, among others – with structural adjustment packages aimed at increasing fossil fuel production and 'development' ideas that have increased deforestation, are now in the position of handing out the prescription for the sickness they've caused. All at a handsome price, of course.

With the collapse of the Copenhagen talks and the embarrassing Copenhagen Accord1, Bolivian President Evo Morales made a call for a People's Summit, where those whose lands are most affected, bear the least responsibility for climate change, and who have no voice nor vote in the UNFCCC process (let alone the processes of colonization and pillage that has happened to their lands and people for centuries), would finally have a seat at the table, and an active role in producing a mandate to the Conference of Parties, and the world, that seeks, "To define strategies for action and mobilization to defend life from Climate Change and to defend the Rights of Mother Earth."

The line for accreditation was several blocks long in the dusty hamlet of Tiquipaya outside Cochabamba. I waited a good three and a half hours. But I've been encouraged by the sights and stories of people, mostly Indigenous, who had traveled several days by bus to come. Like the woman in line in front of me, in a classic Bolivian bowler hat and braids, who traveled all the way from across the street.

"I couldn't not be a part of this history," she told me. "I've never seen so many people here before. And this changing climate is worrisome. I don't mind waiting. And anyway, I can go home for lunch."

The official opening of the Conference is today, Tuesday, April 20th, with President Morales set to give the inaugural speech. But working groups have already been working away in packed classrooms at the Universidad de Valle. Local papers are reporting some 20,000 people were already in Cochabamba yesterday. Some, however, were held up. Four buses filled with Ecuadorian Indigenous leaders and representatives (who left Quito on Thursday) were hassled and detained on the Peru-Bolivian border by the notorious anti-Indigenous Peruvian police force. But after several calls to the Bolivian immigration police force on the border and negotiations with the Peruvians, the issue was resolved, buses freed, and allowed to make their way toward Cochabamba.

The site of Morales' speech to open the Conference has been switched from the 5,000-capacity Coliseum to the much larger Tiquipaya Stadium to accommodate the flood of participants. Expectations are high that a strong mandate can be produced here, which will serve to advance a holistic and just climate treaty, as well as hold the Conference of Parties to account. But most participants I have spoken with since arriving are happy to simply, finally, have a seat at the table.

Chickens, Coca-Cola, and the Great REDD Debate

The People's Conference officially got underway Tuesday April 20, as thousands of participants crowded into the dusty Tiquipaya Coliseum under a blazing sun. Indigenous delegations from some 125 nations filled the stadium, waving flags and wipalas to traditional Bolivian music as Evo Morales, Bolivia's first Indigenous president, took the stage. In welcoming the estimated 29,000 participants to the People's Conference, he gave a stark yet realistic picture of the challenge the world is faced with. "The planet or death," he chanted. "We have to choose – either Pachamama or capitalism. One of them has to die for the other to survive. Capitalism has to die for Pachamama to live...We will be victorious!"

He also raised some eyebrows when he made a strange comment that many took to be anti-gay that genetically modified chickens injected with female hormones could affect male sexuality. He called Coca Cola "poison and sewage water." And there was also a mini tirade about Tupperware. Sure, it was a little off message. It was definitely a gift to the anti-Evo crowd, who took from La Paz and the wealthy enclaves of Santa Cruz, took to the airwaves and talked of nothing else for the next three days, as if history wasn't being made some 300 miles away.

The frustration of much of the world with the UNFCCC's failure to make progress on the climate crisis, as well as its exclusive nature, became apparent as a UN representative took the stage to address the crowd. She didn't get too far before the hisses and shouts began to drown her out. While it might have been a strategic move to help bolster the event's credibility by having a UN presence, the fact that she had to repeat, "But you invited me here!" was probably not a good sign.

The flood of people streamed out of the stadium and made their way to the Universidad de Valle, where the 18 different working groups picked up where the left off Monday. Perhaps the most controversial of the groups was the 'Mesa Rebelde' or 'Rebel Group', #18. This group emerged as a challenge to some of Evo's environmental policies throughout Bolivia. Rumor has it dialogue between Evo and Bolivian Indigenous peoples on local issues fell apart, as the government attempted to keep out any unsightly domestic disputes from spilling into the international spotlight. But a deal was struck which allowed the Mesa Rebelde (whose sessions were held off site and whose description and conclusions are absent from the event's official website) and took up controversial national issues like the expansion of oil extraction (though the industry has been nationalized, contamination and local impact has not improved), mining, and water access and management.

Most of the working groups were crammed in small, steaming classrooms, overflowing with people. Several were forced to open up a second room to let participants watch via TV monitor. Most had people hanging out the windows and were 4 or 5 deep at the door.

While some working groups focused on advancing new, proactive ideas and protections such as working group #3 on the Rights of Mother Nature, where work was done to advance a proposal for a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Nature, other groups were more contentious, battling it out over controversial mitigation and adaptation instruments like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) which are coming down the pike as part of the UNFCCC process.

The working group sessions were continuous throughout the day, essentially forcing people to choose one and double down for the next two days. Only being one person, I jumped into working group 14 on forests, as this was ground zero for the REDD debate. Unlike Copenhagen and the official COP events, here everybody had voice and vote. The sessions functioned by consensus (though at times it seemed to default into majority vote) and featured profound debate over self-identity and definition of 'Pueblos'2, the definition of forests, threats to forests, the nature of the relationship between 'Pueblos' and the earth, REDD (opportunity or threat?), and carbon markets. There was no shortage of shouting, impassioned pleas, and walkouts, and the forest group sessions were forced to extend hours through lunch, into the evening, and start at the crack of dawn the following day.

Also an active voice in Group 14 was Marlon Santi, President of Ecuador's powerful national Indigenous confederation CONAIE. Santi had been in Copenhagen, and remarked on the contrast between the two events. "The big difference is participation. Here you've got local level communities for the first time, sharing our stories of how climate change is impacting our lives, our territories, and our culture as Indigenous peoples. And we have the opportunity to share our vision for real solutions."

I asked him about his major goals in coming to Cochabamba. "I'm here because we're creating a collective mandate to northern countries, and even to our own governments, based on concepts like Sumak Kawsay (buen vivir or good living) that can pave the way forward in dealing with the climate crisis. And we want to send a clear message that the North needs to take responsibility for its historic role in creating the contamination that's causing climate change, and commit to real, domestic reductions of CO2 emissions," stated Santi.

As night fell on the first official day, a warm dry breeze carried optimism throughout the University campus. Some thirty thousand people began the challenging trek of getting back to Cochabamba via buses, micros, taxis, and trufis. This might have been the most disorganized part of the entire event, but if this was it, then Evo pulled off a tremendous coup that was chided by the north and met with skepticism from many northern NGOs ('What will come out of it? Will it just be a laundry list of denouncements against the North? Any declaration won't be binding! It's not part of the UNFCCC process! It's going to be chaos!')

Apparently lost on many is that while yes, there were hopes that a strong statement would come out of the conference that might serve as a mandate from some of the world's most marginalized people for a greater voice in decision making, greater accountability from Annex 1 countries, and real, just solutions for everyone, but it's the process that's important. And information, resource, and strategy sharing, let alone an out and out debate on the most controversial issues among the grassroots, is long overdue.

For group 14, almost two full days of working had only gotten the group past a preamble, and perhaps the most contentious issue – REDD – had just begun to be debated. It was the ultimate cliffhanger that would have to wait until morning – would REDD be rejected, approved, or end up in some ambiguous language leaving the doors of interpretation wide open?

Tiquipaya Day 2

By 6:30am, there was already a line forming for credentials in downtown Tiquipaya. Breakfast on the go from one of the many street vendors that lined the road between town and the university was a giant piece of steamed corn; whose hearty, almost white kernels were the largest I've ever seen. Arriving by 7am to the forest-working group, it was already standing room only- a true testament that when given a seat at the table with voice and vote, people take it. With little time for the group to produce its statement for inclusion in the final declaration (to be compiled in the afternoon), the REDD debate began anew in earnest.

The groups gathered in Bolivia were by and large concerned and critical of REDD, as many who see it as more of an opportunity attended the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous People in New York which occurred at the same time. Adamant proponents of REDD were few and far between. Other than a day one attack by a representative of Bolivia's UN negotiating team on a participant who criticized REDD (Bolivia is home to one of the largest REDD pilot projects), most of the debate revolved around the subtlety of language. Similar to the UNFCCC negotiating process, or any type of legal or treaty agreement, syntax is everything – with interpretation changing dramatically with the simple addition (or subtraction) of a comma, or moving of a modifier. How strong a statement would be against REDD was the question, and whether the text would leave the door open via ambiguity or coded language to some REDD projects, or REDD by another name, etc.

Throughout the day there was an incredibly profound analysis and discussion of the fundamental problematic elements of REDD – that the definition of forests allows for the inclusion of plantations, the potential use of the carbon market as a financial mechanism that allows for the commercialization of nature, the fact that in most countries, issues of rights and land tenure are not guaranteed, among others.

There were voices in the working group who wanted a softer tone, and suggestions for text that seemed code for allowing REDD projects based on the principle of Indigenous autonomy (that the ultimate decision on REDD should be left to individual Indigenous groups or federations who have sovereignty over their lands and decision making). But there were also voices in response that argued that for Indigenous groups in the northern US and Canada who find themselves on the losing side of offset schemes–as polluting industries offset their contamination globally instead of making local improvements that would reduce socio-environmental impacts to their communities–REDD is merely a false solution.

Much of the tension revolved around process, facilitation, and attitude of some chairs of the working group – with advocates for strong language against REDD seeing their suggestions repeatedly lost in the shuffle and not incorporated, and those wanting softer language that kept the door open to REDD projects given much floor time and their proposals surviving in brackets after repeated calls to strike them. Several people walked out, feeling that their repeated suggestions were not incorporated, but by the end, a complete draft text was completed that in a plenary session later in the evening would be turned into the final working group statement on forests.

While it's great that everyone, anyone, has voice and vote here, I do wonder about distinctions of representation. For example, Marlon Santi, President of CONAIE, represents hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples and came to that post by a fierce elections process. It is the highest elected Indigenous post in all of Ecuador. As a gringo, I don't want to wade too deep into a debate about representation. The beauty of Cochabamba was inclusiveness, and the tragedy of Copenhagen was exclusiveness, among other things (though kudos to the UNFCCC for providing the illusion of participation). But, I do think it's an interesting issue, as here, it's one voice-one vote. So Santi's position is equal to that of say, the random socialist guy from Argentina with a loud voice and a bigger soapbox. Which I guess is the beauty of inclusiveness. And I assume through the consensus process people weigh the organizational affiliations and positions of who is offering opinions, though I'm not sure it helps produce the strongest mandate that will hold up outside of Cochabamba.

One debate that did not happen in the forest group, and it doesn't appear to have happened in 'Risks of the Carbon Market' group, was a conversation about the questionable science in equating fossil carbon with biotic carbon. As reported in the Ecologist, all carbon is not the same, and serious questions then arise when a market offset system pits them both as equals that, in theory, cancel each other out on a one-to-one basis. Much evidence suggests that they don't, at least not in the convenient way that the European Trading Scheme (ETS) and equations in the voluntary carbon market would have us think. So in efforts to bring down CO2 levels to 350 ppm, and keep the global temperature from rising above 1.5 C, if one ton of CO2 sequestered is not equal to one ton of fossil carbon emitted (the fossil carbon is said to take much longer to be absorbed and therefore should not be equated on a one to one basis), then is not a market based offset 'solution' just political convenience and an economic scam? Under this scenario, it seems like nothing more than carbon laundering that is betraying science, leaving the general public to play the role of the fossil fools.

Unfortunately, there were too many great post-working group events in the afternoon to get to all of them. A panel on IIRSA and governance in the Amazon Basin, a panel on the Belo Monti dam in Brazil, a presentation by the Ecuadorian government on the Yasuni-ITT initiative, and a panel on corporate campaign strategies led by the Democracy Center who helped lead Cochabamba's successful campaign against Bectel in the infamous water wars 10 years ago.

Evening and exhaustion finally set in (despite the bag of coca leaves I had been chewing on all day), Marlon Santi headed off to a dinner with Evo, and a traditional parade wound its way around the Tiquipaya square, dancing and playing late into the night. Then, it was back to Cochabamba for a beer (Evo declared Tiquipaya and the surrounding area under ley seca – dry–for the week) and bed.

Take it to the stage: Protests, Clausura, and what happened to Ecuador?

With the working group chairs incorporating the final statements into the cohesive final declaration to be read at the closing ceremony in the afternoon, the final day schedule of the Peoples' Conference was less structured and provided opportunity for groups to get their messages out in their own way.

Marlon Santi called in to Radio La Luna, an important Quito radio station to report on the advances of the conference so far, and express their opposition from afar to several domestic laws that violate Indigenous rights. And then, armed with four buses full of base community members, CONAIE decided it was time to publicly call the Ecuadorian government on its hypocrisy.

The administration of President Rafael Correa, while often being lumped into the Bolivarian 'Axis of Evil' (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and of course Cuba, which actually makes it an awkward square really) by the North, is appearing more and more distant from its ALBA allies on the climate issue. Ecuador is out of the closet on REDD, promoting it and angling for potential funds via its current controversial pilot program Socio-Bosque. For the government of Ecuador, this summit is an opportunity to promote its green image, specifically the Yasuni-ITT keep-the-oil-in-the-ground initiative, as well as its constitutional recognition of Mother Earth's Rights. But meanwhile, back on the farm, the Correa administration has used these as a shield to simultaneously push forward anti-environmental policies, such as a new mining law and water law that threaten Indigenous rights.

With chants of 'Correa mentiroso', CONAIE and ECUARUNARI delegates marched through the University, stopping for a few minutes in front of the government's booth promoting the Yasuni initiative. Arriving at the main stage, the delegates circled up, denouncing Correa's contradictory environmental positions. A lull in the entertainment on the stage prompted CONAIE leaders to commandeer it, at first shouting and then grabbing a microphone to make their case to the people:

"In this international event, a gathering of Pueblos, we're here because we're worried about Mother Earth-she's being abused...and the laws that are being passed in Ecuador are privatizing natural resources and our rights are being violated...We will fight in the streets so our rights are recognized and respected!" declared Santi.

After a media onslaught on Santi, it was time to get to the closing ceremony, held in Cochabamba's soccer stadium. In attendance were Evo, Chavez, Vice President of Cuba, Esteban Lazo Hernánde, among others. Correa was noticeably absent. Foreign Affairs Minister Ricardo Patino and Maria Fernanda Espinosa, Coordinating Minister of Natural and Cultural Patrimony, represented the government, as well as Congressman Fernando Bustamante, or cejón, as he is sometimes known, for his well endowed uni-brow.

In what was indeed a truly festive atmosphere, the leaders took the stage to flowers and lays, and chants from the crowd:

"Ole, ole....ole, ola....yo no soy Yankee, ni quiero ser... estoy con Chavez y con Evo y Fidel..."

Before the speeches, came the reading of the declaration, by Lina Cahuasqui, and Victor Menotti of the International Forum on Globalization (IFG). When heard in its entirety, it's a strong document, and provides a clear mandate to the COP.

And with that, the speeches began. Chavez, who wasn't 'going to talk for long', gave a 45 minute speech. Accolades were given to Evo for pulling off not only such a major logistical feat, but for provoking a world response to the exclusion of the world's people in the climate debate – people that bear the least responsibility for the problem, are most vulnerable to its impacts, who wisdom and intact forest territories are a critical component of any solution. Surprisingly, no one from Ecuador spoke, and in fact all representatives of the government had left the stage by time the speeches began. Given that Chavez delayed his return to Venezuela as the evening program ran long, Ecuador's absence raised some eyebrows in the crowd, and I imagine among the politicos present. One has to wonder whether the anti-REDD statement that all the leaders were embracing did not sit well with the pro-REDD Correa administration?

The event closed with some high-powered pan flute and charango (yes, the small mandolin like guitar made out of an armadillo) that turned the floor of the coliseum into a raucous party. It was an amazing spectacle, as many Indigenous groups who had traveled for days for their first chance at participating in the climate debate danced away the evening in traditional circles. Other, non-Indigenous folks (hippies et al.), were shaking it in some type of Andean-Appalachian-Celtic ho down movement of questionable origins.

Despite lingering questions about how the declaration will hold up and its potential to have influence within the UNFCCC, and some blatant contradictions between the discourse of the host and guest governments and realities back home, the event was historic. When Evo announced the idea of a People's Summit resulting from his frustration and disgust with the UNFCCC process in Copenhagen, not many people took him seriously. But, these three days in April have changed the panorama of the climate debate. Unwilling to only be observers to the COP decisions (or lack there of), those who are first hand observers to the changes in their lands and way of life finally had a chance to tell their stories, share their solution strategies, and demand that from now on, they will be excluded no more.

From Cochabamba to Cancun

Given the interesting timing, with the UN Permanent forum on Indigenous Peoples occurring at the same time in New York, it was hard for organizations to be in both places at the same time. I have to wonder whether some organizations absence from Cochabamba can be taken as a political statement, as rumor has it that there was resistance to the declaration when it was introduced in the Forum's second week. The weight of the Cochabamba declaration will to some extent depend upon its recognition by the Forum, by the Indigenous caucus, and ultimately, how it's presented and defended by the Bolivian and Venezuelan governments to the COP in the run up to Cancun.

The REDD reality for Bolivia is that it's home to Noel Kempff, one of the largest REDD pilot projects. Up until the Summit, the Bolivian government had been clear that they were in favor of REDD but opposed to it being financed by the carbon market. Given the strong anti-REDD statement here, what does that mean for Bolivia's national position? And will it indeed lead this emerging coalition of ALBA nations into Cancun with a coherent and credible REDD position? And will Ecuador join this coalition or continue with its own REDD pilot program Socio-Bosque?

For the dozens of Indigenous people in the Ecuador delegation (many of whom had never even been to Quito, let alone Bolivia), who left after midnight Thursday for their 4 day return trip home, the conference was a first taste of climate democracy that finally trickled down to where it matters most. Empowered with information and embolden by a seat at the table, the collective voice from Cochabamba has only just begun to make waves. Evo announced a Second People's Summit to be held in 2011, and on April 24, he sent the People's Summit declaration to the UN in its entirety. Now, the pressure is on the other COP members to act upon the mandate from some of the world's most marginalized.

– Kevin Koenig
Amazon Watch's Northern Amazon Program Coordinator

1 Bolivia and Ecuador chose not to sign the Accord, and were left out of Obama's recent climate change funding package.

2 Pueblos y Naciones Indígenas, pueblos y comunidades que viven en los bosques, pueblos afro, comunidades campesinas, originarios, ancestrales y tradicionales.

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