Latin America Finds a Voice on Climate Change: With What Impact?

July 1, 2010

The people of the planet, in fits and starts, are debating how to address a crisis that will come to affect us all—climate change. So far that debate has been dominated by wealthy countries and global corporations that oppose action that might impinge on their economic well-being. As a result, governments dance together from one global summit to another, never able to agree on any response with real teeth.

In April, a new voice rose on the climate crisis in the form of the People’s Summit convened in Cochabamba, Bolivia, by the country’s president, Evo Morales. At the conclusion of December’s United Nations–hosted summit in Copenhagen, Morales denounced the meeting for marginalizing the world’s most impoverished people and leaving countries like his dangerously exposed to the most dire effects of climate change. In Cochabamba, the people and movements that have been excluded from the global climate debate came together 30,000 strong—a gathering that included everyone from Bolivian campesinos to environmental activists from the U.K.

The Morales factor was not the only reason Bolivia was a symbolic place to convene the People’s Summit. In Bolivia, climate change is not a warning about the distant future but a grim reality in the present. In the country’s highlands, glaciers that have covered Andean peaks for millennia are quickly melting. One of them, Chacaltaya, is already gone. And with that melting comes a threat to the water supply of the most populous urban area of the country, El Alto/La Paz.

As in other nations of the world—Bangladesh, the Maldives, Vietnam, and elsewhere—Bolivians are fighting for their basic survival in the face of ominous climate shifts caused by nations a hemisphere away. Climate change is making the seas rise, the floods more deadly, and the ice melt.

That sense of urgency fed a frenetic process in Cochabamba. A set of official working groups debated proposals on some of climate change’s major issues, from climate migration to carbon markets. Elsewhere participants jammed into more than a 100 panels and smaller workshops on issues ranging from national security to how we might speak more clearly with Mother Earth.

The official declaration from the conference was read aloud in the city’s crowded soccer stadium, with Morales and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez onstage. “Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life,” it stated. The declaration goes on to lay out a series of demands aimed at the wealthy nations of the North. Two of those demands in particular offer a look at the direction these movements are heading.

The first calls on wealthy nations to acknowledge and pay a “climate debt” to the countries on the blunt end of climate change. That comprehensive debt includes reparations for damages done, financing of projects aimed at adaptation, and reducing their own carbon emissions deeply enough to allow for increased contamination from poorer countries as they industrialize. The second was the call for an international tribunal empowered to consider the responsibility of countries and corporations that have contributed to the climate crisis and to enforce penalties and action against them.

But the question remains how these demands will provoke any real change of course from the wealthy countries of the North.


It is an important step forward to have a new and clear voice added to the global debate on climate change, one that represents those who face the most urgent impacts of the crisis. But declarations alone won’t lower the temperature of the atmosphere. The question now is how the demands that came out of Cochabamba become a part of the global decisions ahead.

We are faced with two hard facts. One is that we have very little time to take serious action—a decade or two tops, according to most calculations. Never before has any social movement faced such a stark deadline. The other hard fact is that the countries that need to take the most drastic actions—the United States, Europe, China, and a handful of others—neither seem in a hurry to act, nor are they going to feel any added pressure as a result of the meeting in Cochabamba.

The Cochabamba summit most resembled the approach taken by Bolivian social movements against conservative governments. That begins with a set of unequivocal demands, not unlike the Summit Declaration, but then it builds pressure for those demands with hard action. In Bolivia, road blockades and protests have toppled presidents. But what is the global equivalent of a road blockade that will have any influence at all on the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress?

Declarations and demands are the easy part. Altering the power relationships is going to be much harder. If we don’t change the complicated political calculus within those key countries, we don’t stand a chance. These were the difficult questions the People’s Summit did not get to. How does the climate justice movement go beyond declarations and amassing real power? Spouting rhetoric and forming plans in an ideological echo chamber where assumptions go unchallenged is not the basis of strong advocacy.

What does it mean for the climate justice movement to be more strategic? First, the demands like those that came out of Cochabamba need to be translated into the specific actions that governments and others must take to meet them. What, for example, would the assumption of a “climate debt” mean in concrete terms? Second, the movement needs to move quickly to broaden its base beyond just the kinds of groups that came to Cochabamba. How does it extend its connections and appeal to the vast numbers of people across the planet who do not think that the solution to climate change is the abolition of capitalism? Third, we need to design actions that move beyond public education and genuinely change the power dynamics that have led us to a global stalemate in the face of great threat.

We do know how to do these things. Latin American and North American social movements joined together before to shoot down the Bush administration’s plans for a regionwide Free Trade Area of the Americas. What did we learn from that about building a broader constituency, and how can we apply those lessons to climate change politics? Exactly 10 years earlier the people of this same Cochabamba valley offered up another important lesson. They organized to kick out the Bechtel Corporation and take back control of their water, and then joined with global activists to block Bechtel again when it sought to sue Bolivia for $50 million in a World Bank trade court. This reminds us that not all our targets on climate justice will be governments, and we know a good deal about battling corporations as well.

During the conference in Cochabamba, my mind wandered to old words spoken in a sermon a half-century ago by the Reverend Martin Luther King. “The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness,” he warned, and beckoned us as people and as fighters for social justice to have “tough minds and tender hearts.”

Today it is the threat to the planet that does not allow us the luxury of soft mindedness. To be tough minded in the arena of global climate change means to be strategic. It means not only knowing and declaring what you want, but also having a real plan for how to get it.

If the People’s Summit in Cochabamba helps ignite people and movements to genuinely think and act in a more strategic way, it could end up playing a crucial role in helping catalyze a real response to the climate crisis. But if it ends up lulling people and movements into believing that convincing each other is all we need, then we and future generations are in very deep trouble.

Jim Shultz is the executive director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia. For two decades he has provided advocacy strategy training and support to thousands of social justice activists across Latin America, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the United States.


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