Building a Climate Justice Movement


In the Bolivian village of Tiquipaya, just outside of Cochabamba, 15,000 people from 125 countries gathered for the People’s World Conference on Climate Change, which Bolivian President Evo Morales organized after the failed Copenhagen climate talks. Under a beaming sun, indigenous groups dedicated the conference to Pachamama (Mother Earth in the native Quechua), dancing, singing and playing traditional instruments like charangos and zampoñas, as rainbow-checkered flags of the Andean indigenous peoples waved.

From the podium, President Morales clarified the reason for gathering: “Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives.” Morales criticized capitalism: "The main cause of climate change is capitalism. As people who inhabit Mother Earth, we have the right to say that the cause is capitalism, to protest limitless growth. Capitalism is the source of the problem. More than 800 million people live on less than $2 a day. Until we change the capitalist system, our measures to address climate change are limited.”

The conference brought indigenous groups and climate justice action networks together with government delegates and several heads of state from 70 countries. There were 17 working groups and panels, which drafted in a final declaration that the Bolivian government has pledged to present to the UNFCCC’s COP 16 talks in Cancun at the end of the year.

Working groups were to hash out concerns on topics such as agriculture and food sovereignty, financing and technology transfer, the dangers of the carbon market, the impact of climate change on indigenous people and how it produces climate refugees, among others.

Expressing frustration with the non-democratic manner in which the Copenhagen Accord was drawn up, Morales underscored that it was a backroom deal between five countries -- the U.S., China, India, South Africa and Brazil.

Criticism of the UN was evident at the opening ceremony: when Alicia Barcena, representative of UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon, attempted to give her speech, she was booed.

Morales underscored that the Copenhagen Accord ran counter to and disrespected the UNFCCC process, which stipulates transparency in protocol drafting and consensus in decision-making. It ignored the progress of the UN’s two working groups -- AWG-KP and AWG-LCA -- responsible for drafting an agreement extending the Kyoto Protocol.

Numerous countries from groupings such as the G77 (130 nations), the Alliance of Small Island States (42 countries) and the Least Developed Countries (49 nations) echoed his criticism at the recent preparatory UNFCCC meeting in Bonn, Germany.

Bolivia’s lead climate negotiator Angelica Navarro described what happened in Copenhagen: “That is not democracy. That is not the UN. For months, we were discussing our proposals with other countries. They did not listen. What we want in Bolivia is a true and participatory democracy, a grassroots democracy. If the governments do not come up with a plan for climate change, the people have to lead with a plan."

The conference sought to establish a balance of power by bringing together governmental representatives and climate justice groups from around the world.

Navarro echoed Morales’ criticism of free market solutions to global warming, saying, “You cannot create a climate market to solve climate change. You have to address the structural causes. These causes are not only to be measured in terms of greenhouse gases. They are trade, finances and economy.”

As an alternative, Morales has called for a “communitarian socialism” that would equally distribute resources and re-establish harmony between humans and nature. He outlined his plan to achieve this balance:

  1. Reparations from rich countries to poor and low-lying nations, to assist them with adaptations to climate change;
  2. The creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal, modeled on the UN’s International Court of Justice;
  3. The development and transfer of technology by developed nations to developing countries; and
  4. A Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, modeled on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Additionally, Morales called for borders to be opened to climate refugees.

In many ways, the conference was a success.

Some working groups reached agreements, which, if taken to the COP 16 and recognized, could be pivotal in shifting climate change policy. The forest working group starkly rejected the UN program REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD is a shell game, using market mechanisms to offset carbon emissions, which allows for speculation and for companies to get around actual carbon reductions.

“REDD is branded as a friendly forest conservation program, yet it is backed by big polluters and climate profiteers. We cannot solve this crisis without addressing the root cause: a fossil fuel economy that disregards the rights of Mother Earth,” said Alberto Saldamando, legal counsel for the International Indian Treaty Council.

Tom Goldtooth, director of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), added that “REDD is a predatory program that pretends to save forests and the climate, while backhandedly selling out forests out from under our indigenous people."

Others reached decisions outside of the working groups. Climate Justice Action (CJA) and Via Campesina left the action strategy working group the first day. To some extent, as CJA organizer Tadzio Mueller explained, “Networking is better done outside of working groups.” CJA met with various organizations -- such as, Jubilee South and Via Campesina -- outside of the PWCCC working group structure, in order to plan a series of actions for October 2010.

Even if the concluding statements developed by the working groups are not recognized by the UN, the conference gave climate justice movements the opportunity to meet, discuss and hash out differences, and reach consensus on pivotal issues related to climate change, preserving and building momentum in organizing, be it locally, regionally or internationally, be it around specific issues outside of the UN process or in preparation for the COP 16.

Yet there is also dissent. Despite Morales’ recent work on climate change -- calling for April 22 to be recognized as Earth Day by the UN, and creating this forum -- within Bolivia, various groups argue that there is a discrepancy between the president's rhetoric for Mother Earth and his policy of mineral extraction, where revenues from natural gas help to keep the poorest country in South America flush.

An 18th unofficial working group (Mesa 18) argued that its criticisms had been excluded from the conference, emphasizing the contradiction in Morales’ stance and environmental degradation brought about by mining, oil and gas extraction.

Conamaq, one of the groups within Mesa 18, called attention to environmental degradation of mining practices at San Cristobal. On the border between Bolivia and Chile, activists blocked roads and railway lines. Although the mine is owned by a Japanese company, Sumitomo Corporation, protests this week have sought to call attention to the Bolivian government’s responsibility in attending to environmental pollution. The silver and lead mines are wasting and contaminating local waters supplies.

In nearby salt flats, Sumitomo is also vying for the right to extract lithium, a key ingredient in the batteries used in cell phones, laptops and electric cars. Bolivia contains the largest lithium reserves in the world, which will become increasingly valuable as transportation shifts away from fossil fuels and to alternative energy sources.

The conference closed on Thursday, April 22, in conjunction with Earth Day. In the morning, various heads of state and government delegates met with representatives of organizations and civil society. In the afternoon, leaders met in the coliseum to present the conference’s declaration.

It was consistently underscored at the conference that it is not enough to address only the symptoms of climate change, such as greenhouse gas emissions; one must go to the source of the problem -- the economic system that commodifies every aspect of our lives. In this way, the climate justice movement has taken up not one, but two, enormous concerns: how to address ecological catastrophe and how to develop a new global economic model.

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