The Covid-19 pandemic managed to accomplish, in just a few weeks, what legislation, global climate agreements, direct action, lawsuits, and political organizing has struggled to achieve over decades – take an actual giant bite out of global carbon emissions. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reported that in April of this year global emissions plunged by 17%.
For 70 years, UNICEF has been on the front lines of the defense of children’s rights in every region of the world. The organization was founded in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, and its first projects involved providing food and clothing to child refugees. Since then, it’s battled child disease, famine, female genital mutilation, and child marriage. The United Nations agency for children knows what it is talking about and doesn’t mince its words.
My English friend Paul Kingsnorth was the subject of a long article two weeks ago in The New York Times magazine, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It ... and He Feels Fine.”
This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
In May at the headquarters of the United National Development Program in New York, I asked a dozen UNDP staff members to each define the term 'green economics.' From one end of the conference table to the other their answers were largely the same - green economics is about fusing environmental values into the marketplace so that economic growth does not have to come at the expense of environmental destruction.
Protests Erupt in the US and Bolivia Targeting 'Progressive' Presidents Who Are Failing to Protect the Environment
In many ways the two protests could not be more different. In Washington two weeks of daily protests by the well dressed and well educated, more than a hundred strong each day, stand before the White House. The participants sit together cross-legged for photos as they display their carefully printed banners. A hemisphere away in Bolivia, more than 1,500 indigenous peasants - men, women, and children - march along a dusty dirt road in the countryside, wearing cheap rubber sandals, faded skirts and tattered pants. They are headed on a weeks-long march to their nation's capital, La Paz.
Sometime in the next few weeks, behind closed doors at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., panelists in a secret trade court will decide if the people of South America's poorest country will have to pay $25 million to one of the world's most wealthy corporations.
The stakes in this case -- Bechtel Corporation vs. Bolivia -- are high, and not just for the poor families who may ultimately pay the bill. The principle of local control in an era of unchecked economic globalization is at risk.
The Bechtel vs. Bolivia case is round two of a fight over something basic: water. Two years ago Bechtel took over the public water system of Bolivia's third-largest city, Cochabamba, and within weeks raised rates by as much as 200 percent, far beyond what families there could afford. When the company refused to lower rates, the public revolted. Widespread protests eventually forced Bechtel to leave.
In November 2001, Bechtel filed a demand of $25 million against Bolivia, seeking to recover the money it says it invested, as well as a portion of the profits the corporation expected to make.
"We're not looking for a windfall from Bolivia. We're looking to recover our costs," explains Michael Curtin, the head of Bechtel's Bolivian water company.
But the company didn't invest anything close to $25 million in Bolivia in the few months it operated there. Furthermore, the $25 million prize Bechtel now seeks is equal to what the corporation earns in half a day. For the people of Bolivia, that sum is the annual cost for hiring 3,000 rural doctors, or 12,000 public school teachers, or hooking up 125,000 families who don't have access to the public water system.
More importantly, Bechtel vs. Bolivia could portend future global battles. Trade officials from 34 countries are currently working to draft a "Free Trade Act of the Americas" (FTAA), a new economic constitution which would rule from Alaska to Argentina. President Bush and other supporters hope to see the pact put in place by 2006. One of the FTAA's most controversial provisions is the establishment of a system of secret trade courts, in which multinational corporations can sue local, state and national governments -- behind closed doors -- to overturn laws or extract payment for actions that block their access to local markets.
The prototype for these secret courts is the very one where Bechtel has brought its case against Bolivia: the World Bank's International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID).
Under the FTAA, secret courts like these could force the repeal of environmental laws in California, health regulations in New Hampshire and worker protections in Venezuela -- all in the name of knocking down barriers to trade. For these reasons, the Bechtel vs. Bolivia case has become an international symbol and rallying point.
Last August more than 300 citizen groups from 41 different countries -- environmentalists, peasants, labor leaders, women's groups, indigenous leaders and others -- joined to file an International Citizens Petition with the World Bank, demanding that the doors of its secret trade court be opened to public scrutiny and participation.
"The actions of Bechtel in Bolivia left a city of more than 600,000 people in turmoil for four months," the groups wrote. A young boy died, hundreds were injured, and public access to water was threatened. The international group protested that the case was about more than the calm transfer of assets from one economic institution to another. "It is a matter of deep importance to far more than the two parties who now have formal access to the process," they wrote.
Under World Bank rules the process is so secret that Bank officials won't say when the tribunal in the case will meet, won't reveal who testifies before it or what they say, and won't let any members of the media or public in the room. Bechtel has already lied on the public record about its Bolivian water rate increases. It isn't likely to be any more honest behind closed doors.
The World Bank's role is also suspect. Though it represents itself as a neutral judge, World Bank officials directly appointed the president of the tribunal hearing the case. And it was the Bank that forced Cochabamba's water into Bechtel's hands to begin with. Two years prior to the water deal, Bank officials directly threatened to withhold $600 million in international debt relief if Bolivia didn't privatize Cochabamba's public water system.
Secrecy serves privilege and lies. Public participation and public scrutiny are instruments of democracy and truth. In choosing closed doors, Bechtel and the World Bank have made clear which method they prefer. Now the public must demand that the rules of globalization be debated and implemented in the light of day. Bechtel vs. Bolivia is exactly where that battle should begin.
Jim Shultz is executive director of The Democracy Center, lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and is the author of "The Democracy Owners' Manual" (Rutgers University Press).
Cochabamba, Bolivia -- The U.S. war on drugs is at the very center of one of the worst political crises that has gripped this Andean nation in decades.
A nationwide teachers strike has crippled the Bolivian public school system idle during the final weeks of the school year. Blockades of the major national highways have brought virtually all overland travel and commerce to full stop.
The protest actions were launched by a loose alliance of teachers, farmers and consumers to force the Bolivian government to negotiate over issues including teacher salaries, coca crop eradication and the construction of three new U.S.-financed military bases.
Before agreeing to recent talks, President Hugo Banzer, who ruled the nation as a dictator during much of the 1970s, deployed more than 20,000 soldiers and police to stop the protests.
At least ten people have been killed and more than 100 injured by gunfire from government troops. An unknown number of protesters have been jailed. Eyewitnesses claimed that army officers, including sharpshooters, were doing much of the shooting.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recently declared Washington's support for Banzer's actions: "We share and fully support President Hugo Banzer's call for communication and reconciliation."
Just hours later, Banzer sent 1,500 troops into the small town of Vinto to remove a highway blockade. Soldiers killed a 25-year-old taxi driver and injured 29 others, including six-year-old girl whose nose was smashed by an army tear gas canister.
The current crisis comes just six months after Banzer declared a national "state of emergency" in a vain attempt to stop a civic uprising over water privatization. Those protests forced the departure of a U.S. Bechtel Corporation subsidiary that had raised water rates as much as 300 percent.
According to sources close to the talks convened by the Catholic Archbishop between government officials and various protest leaders, the toughest issue to deal with is the U.S.-financed Bolivian government plan to eradicate the last remaining 5 percent of the country's illegal coca leaf crop.
That plan calls for three new military bases in the chief coca growing Chapare region. To be built with $6 million in U.S. aid, the bases would permanently deploy 1,500 troops in the area, a move bitterly opposed by local residents and many human rights groups.
"These bases were never debated in the Bolivian Congress or by the Bolivian people," said Edwin Claros, vice president of the Assembly on Human Rights in Cochabamba.
"The role of the military is to protect our borders, not to wage war with our own people," Claros added. "The bases will definitely mean more use of the military in the region and more violations of human rights."
The government announced it would back away from the bases only if the military's presence at an existing base in the area can be expanded.
"We can't leave those areas unprotected to be retaken by the black market of narcotrafficking," Banzer proclaimed in a televised speech, arguing for a permanent military presence in the region.
U.S. Ambassador V. Manuel Rocha said that the bases were "not an imposition by the U.S. government but a decision by the Bolivian government." But many here question if the United States is as dispassionate about the issue behind closed doors.
An Embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, admitted that if Bolivia should back way from the U.S.-financed bases plan, it could create doubts about the Bolivian government's much-touted pledge to make the country "free of illegal coca" by 2002.
"If you are committed to eradicate coca using the military, how are you going to continue it without a military presence?" the official asked.
In September, President Clinton cited the Bolivian government's coca eradication efforts as his main reason for proposing that the United States and other lenders forgive the nation's multimillion dollar foreign debt.
U.S. officials are eager to use Bolivia as a model for a successful eradication effort, especially with Clinton's new $1.3-billion military-led coca eradication plan in Colombia.
Even with the apparent government concession on the bases, it is unclear how long the conflict between the government and coca farmers in the Chapare region will continue. Blockades there have cut off highway passage between the nation's second and third largest cities, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz.
Farmers are demanding that they be allowed to continue growing small plots of the plant (less than 1/2 an acre). Coca farmers also note that small plantings are allowed under the nation's coca-eradication law approved under U.S. pressure in 1988.
With nearly 95 percent of the crop already eradicated in the region, they argue, the small crops that remain would be for traditional uses, including the widespread Bolivian practice of chewing coca leaves.
Unprocessed coca leaves are legal, sold and chewed widely and also used for commercial production of coca tea, popular as a treatment for stomach and altitude ailments.
While the coca leaf is the base ingredient for cocaine, it only takes on the drug's effects after being processed with powerful chemicals.
Talking about the eradication program, a top official admitted, "We've also wiped out the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands, maybe one million people."
Meanwhile, food shortages caused by the blockades have started to take effect in some cities. Many Bolivians are growing weary of the protest, lobbing criticisms, and more, at both sides.
A collection of children's drawings pasted on the wall of one Cochabamba school shows images of soldiers opening fire on people and trucks stopped at blockades. The drawings are accompanied by writings such as: "I want peace; Don't throw rocks; and Don't kill people."
A week ago chicken producers angrily dumped a pile of 1,000 dead and rotting birds in front of the office of Cochabamba's governor and that of one protest group. The birds died because blockades cut off feed supplies. Still, an informal poll by a daily newspaper here of 1,440 readers showed a 51-percent support for the protesters and their demands.
Following their talks with government officials, protest leaders returned home to consult local bases on possible accords. Some coca farmers announced that they were prepared to take up arms to protect their land if an acceptable agreement is not reached.
Meanwhile, highway blockades, public mobilizations and military deployments continue throughout the nation, creating a thick air of tension, with no immediate end in sight.