Scenes From the People’s Climate Change Summit in Bolivia

Imagine you live in a slow and sleepy village where the cow population rivals that of people and suddenly some 10,000 people from all parts of the planet descend upon it—bearing slogans. Welcome to Tiquipaya for the People's Summit on Climate Change. This repost from the Bolivia-based Democracy Center's blog brings together the on-the-ground reporting from Jim Shultz, Elizabeth Cooper, and Jessica Camille Aguirre, who dare to grapple with the huge questions raised at the summit this week.

The Democracy Center

Scenes From Day Two
by Jim Shultz

The Evo Show

This morning I could hear the booming voice of President Evo Morales projected across fields and farms from the Tiquipaya stadium all the way to my house, where I was busy drilling holes in a wall to hang curtains and ready a guest room for imminent visitors. Just as the town of Tiquipaya waited until Sunday to pave the streets leading to the Summit site, I waited until the last minute as well. I have become Bolivian

I evidently missed quite an Evo Show. As our friends at AP wrote it: "Morales told an environmental conference that chicken producers inject the birds with female hormones, 'and because of that, men who consume them have problems being men." He also suggested eating too much chicken for too long could make men go bald. Nevertheless the men of the Democracy Center took our chances by having solar cooked chicken for dinner. You have to give Evo credit for being entertaining.

Bolivian Environmentalists Show What Strategy Looks Like

Meanwhile, my Search for Strategy continued at today's conference, and I found some in a humble place, among the indigenous and campesino leaders who have decided to challenge Morales here on his own environmental record in Bolivia. Elizabeth Cooper reports below on their efforts at "Table 18".

Earlier this week, on the eve of this global summit, the communities of Potosi who live beside the contaminating San Cristobal mine decided to use this ripe moment to make their move to protest the environmental destruction from that large open pit. Blocking roads in and out of the zinc and silver mine, the communities are demanding action to stop the contamination of their local water supplies, among other issues. While the government has sought to focus blame on the Japanese owners, the Sumitomo Corporation, and previous governments, the mine protests highlight the ongoing weakness of government protection of the environment here.

To be certain, the Morales government deserves a lot of credit for being a global rallying point for deeper action on climate change. But like all Presidents, he has plenty of environmental issues to deal with in his own back yard.

If the thousands of climate activists here want to get a glimpse of what good strategy looks like, these Bolivian activists have shown its basic elements. First, they have a demand that is clear, specific and easy to understand. Second, they have picked an action that maximized their leverage in making that demand to their government. Mounting the protest on the even of Evo's summit is an echo of the move by U.S. civil rights activist fifty years ago when they launched the first "freedom rides" on the eve of the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit. It was smart strategy then and this is smart strategy now.

Strategy Rule # 15: Pressure a president when he is most in the public eye and wants to look his best. The government ought to exclude the groups from the summit and so they have set up shop in a cavernous hall a block away, and are drawing some of the biggest crowds of the meeting.

The Climate Dangers of Chicha

The town of Tiquipaya, where the People's Summit is being held, announced last week that it was imposing a no-alcohol ordinance for the duration of the meeting. This, we assume, is based on the silly belief that either climate activists are prone to getting sloppy drunk or that locals might and will embarrass the town. The ban, which includes locally produced chicha (the fermented corn that is a big part of local culture), prompted a visit over the weekend by my friend Valentina to the Tiquipaya Mayor.

Valentina, a local Bolivian, is an amazing artist (she painted the image that is the cover of our book, Dignity and Defiance and also took first place last year in the wickedly competitive Tiquipaya Chicha Fair, with an organic brew that was super. According to Valentina, the mayor justified the action by explaining that chicha contributes to global climate change. While I am not clear about the science on that either way, I am reasonably certain that it probably creates less climate change than the eight SUV, ten motorcycle motorcade that delivered Evo to the Hotel Regina here this afternoon, or the air traffic that brought thousands of people here from across oceans. But I am just guessing.

By the way, friends of mine, in a brazen and glorious act of civil disobedience, have set up a clandestine "chicharia" a block from the Summit. If you want to know where it is, call me.

“The Subterranean Mesa”
by Elizabeth Cooper

“One thing that every government should know is that when you ban something, you make it more popular. We as writers all wish our books would be banned,” writer and climate activist Naomi Klein told the crowd sitting in the warehouse-style Brazilian restaurant a couple of blocks outside the campus of the official summit in Univalle. She was right.

Several movements across the country have come together to organize a space outside the official summit to discuss the issues of “Collective Rights and the Rights of Mother Earth,” and in so doing have made a powerful statement of the limitations the official discourse imposes on the spaces within the conference to address these topics.

The participants called the group “Mesa 18,” emphasizing that their conversations were external to those happening in the 17 working groups of the conference.

Here, participants lay bare some of the conflicts within the government that is now looked at by many as a global rallying point for (more) radical movements against climate change. One participant addressed the tension in the new government’s and the new constitution’s pro-indigenous rhetoric. “There are a series of contradictions here,” he said. “On one hand, the new laws recognize indigenous sovereignty in theory, but on the other, they are permitting capitalism to pervade our communities even more.”

Juan Carlos Guzman Salinas, of the organization CEDLA from La Paz, recounted what he saw as the failures of the Bolivian government to responsibly develop the country’s natural resources: “Beginning with nationalization, energy has become much more expensive and intensive in terms of environmental cost in relation to economic productivity. We can measure the robustness of our economy by how independent we are in our energy production, and have lost much of our independence in this respect. We export more energy than we did previously, but we also import more.” Nationalization of energy resources also impedes the development of clean energy, he argued. “Renewable energies will never be able to compete in this market while the price of combustible energy is fixed so low. Bolivia must reflect on these practices and correct them.”

“We need to recognize that these resources are not the state’s,” another member contributed. The resources belong to the people of the nation—that is what nationalization ought to imply.

An indigenous woman sitting next to me in the audience explained another shortfall of the supposed autonomy afforded by nationalization. “According to the constitution, we have the right to be consulted in the plans for development the corporations bring, but what we must have is the right to their administration itself, and the power to actually make the decisions. Right now, what happens is that the corporations arrive and they cheat us. They come and the first thing they do is offer some small improvement for our homes to gain popularity, but then once they gain approval for their plan, the way is wide open for them to do what they want.”

Just as the natural resources collectively belong to the people of the country, so too should the power to decide how they are developed. Some members of Mesa 18 saw the government as complicit in handing over this power to the corporations that exploit the communities and their sovereign resources.

“These favors that the companies bring when they arrive are generally carried out in cooperation with the prefects,” explained another presenter. “What we need is for the people to be empowered to monitor what is happening within and between their own communities.”

A Global Solution to a Global Crisis?
by Jessica Camille Aguirre

The summit began in earnest today, as the narrow path running through the main campus became a jostling, elbow nudging gauntlet of vendors and hawkers.

As the number of participants more than doubled over night, the strain of logistics became apparent as people wandered around looking for events that weren’t where and when they should have been. Nevertheless, some of the milling led to some auspicious encounters – an Australian anti-mining couple strategized with an activist from South Korea, a major coal importing country. A young Cochabambina found herself sharing experiences with a delegation arrived from Alaska.

Lucky happenstance aside, it seemed that the conference has become alarmingly big very quickly. Size is a constant matter of discussion here, but the issue goes much deeper than mere logistical concerns.

As people continue arriving from all over the world – most being greeted with an hours long line to register – the largeness of the task ahead has begun to become more perceivable. And despite continuing conversations about the necessity of community-based solutions, many say that a challenge this big requires big solutions.

In a tightly packed panel this afternoon, Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera demanded that if the movement to save the planet is to be successful, it must be a planet-wide movement. Jonathan Neale, of UK-based Campaign Against Climate Change, agrees: “We have to have a resistance. We have to have a resistance like the one they had in Greece, only bigger… We have to have it all over the place.”

But he goes on: “(A challenge is) for people to bring together the economic crisis and the environmental crisis – for the movements to understand that these must go together and that they must be solved together.”

The connection between un-sustainable economic models and the climate crisis resonates around the conference, with social leaders pointing to exploitation of transnational corporations as particular detrimental to the prospect of sustainability. Global capitalism, Frei Betto said this afternoon, is incompatible with harmony with nature.

So as conference attendees meet new friends and suffer occasional lines, the question of scale is addressed in multitudinous conversations. How can movements negotiate the act of going global? How can global organizations be held accountable?


This is a repost from The Democracy Center’s blog, which is reporting on the People’s Summit all this week.

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