Reflections on Cochabamba

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(Mural at the Universidad del Valle in Cochabamba)

The 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia emerged out of the ashes of the 2009 climate change conference in Copenhagen. Bolivia, one of four countries which stood against the Copenhagen Accord, convened a World People’s Conference to unite developing countries and social movements under the banner “system change not climate change.” Five years later, the World People’s Conference convened to again unite the voices of developing countries and environmental movements demanding ambition, equity, justice, and the rights of Mother Earth. The Cochabamba Conference illustrated the realities, tensions, and potential of Bolivia: international proponent of "living well," extracting hydrocarbons and minerals, and post-colonial survivor of neoliberalism.

The second World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Defense of Life took place from October 10 to 12 in advance of the November negotiations which would determine a post-2020 agreement on climate change. The conference identified capitalism as the root cause of climate change and demanded recognition and implementation of the rights of Mother Earth against commodification, modification, and over-exploitation. It put forth demands such as an international tribunal to punish climate change criminal and technology transfers as reparations to developing countries. At its core, it put forth the Bolivian indigenous notion of “living well” as an alternative to capitalism.

The reason Bolivia is a leader in climate change is its urgent need for climate change solutions and its recognition and honoring of indigenous knowledge and traditions. Climate change solutions are urgent because Bolivia’s great poverty makes harsher the impacts of climate change, and its melting glaciers threaten the water supply by inflicting droughts in some parts and floods in others.

Like the first, the second World People’s Conference on Climate Change also took place in Cochabamba because of its great significance in the rise of indigenous people. The Water Wars were waged in 2000 which catapulted into office Bolivia’s first indigenous president Evo Morales took place in Cochabamba. Millions of indigenous mobilized to place Evo Morales into office, thus, fulfilling the 200+ year old prophecy uttered by indigenous leader Tupac Katari before being drawn and quartered for leading an indigenous insurrection: “I will return and be millions.”

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(Source: SellosBolivia)

When the Morales government came into power, indigenous identity, culture, and knowledge were finally acknowledged and honored. It was within this context that indigenous beliefs that still retained respect and a spiritual connection to Mother Earth emerged as an alternative to a capitalist system that commodified Mother Earth and made her an object of exploitation.

“Living well is about finding the equilibrium between the spiritual, social, and material in harmony with nature,” explains Dr. Freddy Delgado of Agruco, one of the architects of the living well law in Bolivia. To Delgado this isn’t simply beautiful and romantic, it is also an alternative to capitalism found among indigenous people in Bolivia and around the world. It is at the heart of the Cochabamba challenge against the climate change negotiations that fail to question the living better of the West - capitalism - that created the climate crisis. Living well doesn’t mean that we simply leave the “the earth untouched.” It is about taking but also replenishing. Delgado explains the Morales government is driven by two camps: “The materialists are extractivist. They say, ‘The indigenous people need electricity, drinking water, money.’ And, others [the spiritualists] that say, ‘We need to protect Mother Earth.’” Where does Evo Morales fit in these two camps? “Evo embodies both these tendencies: He is indigenous, so he grew up in a spiritual tradition, but he was a syndicalist with the farm workers union, so he contains that materialist tendency also.”

This dual tendency within the government manifests in society. Activists and intellectuals I met outside of the conference are critical of the Morales’ government’s rhetoric of living well even as it plans to explore for hydrocarbons in the Amazon and builds a road across parts of the Amazon. Indigenous groups living in these areas are also divided about more extraction. And while their words make sense, as an anti-imperialist, I can’t help but be moved by Evo Morales’ words, later repeated by Rafael Correa, that the West has cut down its trees and now expects the Third World to become “the park rangers of the world.” Bolivia is South America’s poorest country. Its carbon footprint and wealth are dwarfed by those of the developed world and become microscopic when placed within historical context. Much of this poverty is concentrated among its indigenous and looking at the streets also appears concentrated among women. I saw mothers sitting on the sidewalk with outstretched hands, children sleeping on their laps; women squeezing orange juice off carts for 50 cents a cup, selling cut fruit for less. The money generated from the extraction of hydrocarbons is used to fund subsidies for women and for children.

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(President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, and President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela at the closing ceremony)

Equity and Justice is also one of Cochabamba’s challenges and interventions against developed countries who seek to institutionalize green imperialism at the COP negotiations by seeking climate change solutions that reinforce the current unequal global relations. The developed countries act with impunity: The media turns a blind eye to their bullying, and they are powerful from plundering the atmosphere. The wealthy want to limit the emissions of the poor and profit by providing loans and selling green technology. Trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement strengthen intellectual property rights and make sure that green technology is not shared but sold to the poor.

image07 (A Chilean banner that reads: “A Sea for the People. A Sea for Bolivia”)

We that went to Cochabamba stand against great foes, some of them our own governments. Our hope - not just to change a system that plundered the environment, but also our communities - lies in international solidarity. During  the opening ceremony, after a series of call-outs, the emcee gave a call out for Chile, the Chilean delegation responded by chanting its name, waving its flag, then chanting, “Mar Para Bolivia!!” Their chant, “a sea for Bolivia,” - stood against their government’s official position, and in solidarity with Bolivia who had lost access to the sea, after a war with Chile, and was now demanding it be restored. Let us draw strength from such solidarity and move the world toward a solution.

written by Dae-Han Song (chief editor, World Current Report)