A Short Note from Cochabamba

Last week the World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth drew to a raucous conclusion in the Cochabamba football stadium as more than 35,000 people from 140+ countries cheered the adoption of their own strategic plan to address climate change around the world. Bolivia's Cochabamba gathering was neither Social Forum nor an inter-governmental meeting but a marvelous mix of the two - bringing together official government delegations from 42 countries with social movements and civil society organizations from 100 more. Most of the 35,000 participants made to Cochabamba -- despite the shutdown of most of the airline routes that would have connected European, African and Asian delegations to the Andean city in the heart of the Altiplana.

The final 10-page summary of the Conference’s deliberations read out in the stadium could hardly be described as great prose and will still need some editing before it can be submitted as negotiating text to the UNFCCC. But there is no doubt that it was the consensus of three days of intense negotiations that brought together indigenous peoples, peasant organizations, trade unions, teachers, engineers, environmentalists and a vast array of civil society organizations and interested individuals and smaller delegations of governments. People sat on the floor and crammed in the doorways of the 17 different working groups in a rarely seen democratic and international exchange on what needed to be done about climate change. Many UN agencies, including a representative of the Secretary-General, also attended.

The conclusion of this historic meeting and full final report will be directly input into the faltering United Nations climate change negotiations, providing a voice for those who felt silenced in Copenhagen. In a closing dialogue session for governments and civil society representatives, President Evo Morales and his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez were enthusiastically joined by Ecuador’s Foreign Minister and Cuba’s Vice-President in calling for the report to be taken directly into the climate change negotiations. The four people representing the 17 working groups denounced the Copenhagen Accord as inadequate and illegitimate, condemned false solutions like carbon trade, REDD, geoengineering, called for the recognition of ancestral knowledge, loosening of patent regimes, sustainable agriculture, protection of human rights. There were calls for an environmental court of justice, a Charter on the Rights of Mother Earth, a world-wide referendum on climate change. Stony-faced junior representatives from the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, France, UK (and many others) remained silent at this precedent-setting dialogue of governments and civil society that the Bolivian government had organized at a nearby hotel.

The Bolivian government announced its plan to hold the Peoples Summit in Cochabamba last December following the Copenhagen debacle and the failure of governments to achieve any kind of meaningful consensus or plan of action. It is hard to believe that a mere four months later such an impressive and diverse gathering could take place. The decision to hold the meeting in Cochabamba undoubtedly complicated but is organizational problems -- but it was a wonderful decision. Ten years ago the citizens of Cochabamba took to the streets and peasants blockaded roads to prevent the privatization of Cochabamba's water supply. The long battle and final victory brought international recognition to the global issue of water privatization and contributed to strengthening the social movements that, arguably, began with the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and led to the creation of the World Social Forum in 2001.

If the Cochabamba declaration lacks poetry, it doesn't lack either rhetoric or substance. In comparison to the US-imposed "Copenhagen Accord”, the Cochabamba document is elegant, erudite and explicit and has a real plan of action. Greenhouse gases, for example, must be cut back to no more than 300 parts per million and the industrialized countries climate debt must be paid in full. Carbon trading was flatly rejected the assembly refused to accept Trojan horse technologies that -- while pretending to address climate change – do little more than the untested experiments that use the global South is to portray guinea pigs. The full text provides more details and examples of both what should not be done and what could be done.

The summary report rejects "false solutions" to climate change such as nuclear power, agrofuels, transgenic crops and GM tree plantations and geoengineering. Although most of the 35,000 delegates came to Cochabamba with little or no understanding of geoengineering, the launch of the H.O.M.E campaign -- "Hands off Mother Earth – Our Home is not a Laboratory" (see www.handsoffmotherearth.org) in the midst of the conference attracted a lot of interest in the many side events and debates that took place in addtion to being discussed by several of the working groups. The campaign’s message was considerably aided and abetted by the presence of a handful of scientists and companies advocating geoengineering who traveled to Cochabamba from Europe to host seminars. Their presence and participation solidified opposition to the idea of any techno-fix that would massively modify planetary systems on land, on oceans, or in the stratosphere.

Although participation in the conference was impassioned and debates intense, the hurriedly convened international meeting did have its problems. The government of Bolivia had only expected 10 to 13,000 delegates -- not 35,000. Cochabamba and the nearby town of Tiquipaya where the hub of activities were organized were bursting at the seams and there was considerable confusion around the time and place of side events and working groups. Many organizations were also concerned that government delegations -- including the Bolivian delegation -- would try to manipulate the outcomes. The Bolivian government itself came under fire for preventing an alliance of national CSO's from incorporating their "working group 18" into the formal proceedings. In the end, working group 18 met just outside the gates of the University conference to discuss government plans to encourage the mining of silver and lithium and other industrial development related to fossil fuels. While Bolivia's external image is pristine, it has many "friendly critters" among environmentalists and other progressive movements inside the country. Despite differences, working group 18 carried out openly and attracted large audiences who crossed back and forth between formal and informal negotiations. All of this took place in an atmosphere of peace without any excessive security presence. The Bolivian army was there – but as often inside the workshops as at the gates of the conference checking ID badges!

There were also mixed feelings about a government proposal to create a new "Global Alliance" of governments and society to work together on climate change. At a banquet Wednesday night, a Brazilian guest proposed that the Cochabamba Summit be reconvened every two years. Although there is genuine support for a global forum that can bring together government and civil society on equal footing to discuss critical issues, social movements are firm that the nature and structure of these meetings were requires careful consideration and can't be assumed automatically. Cochabamba was a remarkably successful first experience with a format that could have turned disastrous -- but lessons need to be learned and studied before next steps are taken.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Cochabamba Summit succeeded in bringing together progressive government negotiators and activist social movements are now committed to dialogue and cooperation during the coming months that will eventually lead to the Cancun UNFCCC Summit at the end of November. Society has become more militant and coherent and more governments are getting the message that the Copenhagen debacle must not be repeated.

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