Bolivia provides resistance and hope at Brokenhagen

I have just published this article on TNI about my experience of working with the Bolivian government at the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference.

It was 3am on Saturday morning – a time you might expect to be heading home from a good party, certainly not waiting for a international diplomatic meeting to begin. Yet that was the reality on 19th December, as I sat with the Bolivian delegation in the main plenary of the UN Conference on Climate Change. Bolivia's negotiators however did not seem tired; rather furious and incredulous. For whilst we waited, the US and EU were out at press conferences celebrating a global UN accord on climate change that Bolivia and most of the world had not even seen.

The accord had been drawn up in a private meeting by the major powers with the token participation of a few other developing countries but had no mandate from the whole UN. To make matters worse, when the Danish Chair of the Conference eventually opened the session, he asked everyone to read the Accord and clearly expected everyone to approve it. Commotion broke out on the floor. Rene Orellana, the normally quiet-spoken Bolivia's Minister for Water and the Environment, angrily denounced the Copenhagen Accord in no uncertain terms: “This is no way to decide the future of humanity and the planet. We can not in one hour  decide on the future of millions of people. We will not accept a document imposed by a small minority that does not respect consultations over the last two years with peoples and amongst governments.”

Thanks to the courage of Bolivia and a few other nations – and against huge pressure and threats to sign the deal -  the UN did not endorse or adopt the accord but instead were forced to use the much weaker and vacuous language of “noting” it.

Flawed process

Sadly the catastrophic denouement of the Copenhagen conference was not atypical but rather symptomatic of a highly flawed process controlled by industrialised countries that are unwilling to take responsibility for climate change.  I had been asked to volunteer my time as an unpaid media consultant (along with Denmark-based Ron Ridenour) by the Bolivia government, and witnessed up close the way the major powers at the conference did their best to silence voices such as Bolivia's but also how Bolivia's impressive team resisted and forced more radical demands for action onto the international political stage.

The power imbalance of countries at Copenhagen was immediately obvious as soon as I entered the aircraft-hangar like Bella Centre where the conference was held. Whilst the EU had a vast array of offices, and even its own pavilion and bar, Bolivia had to have meetings of its delegations in one of the conference centres. Whilst even NGO staff all seemed to sport blackberry and iphones, the Bolivian delegation had to resort to second hand mobile phones that exasperatingly ran out of pay-as-you-go credit at the wrong time. Bolivia at least had enough negotiators to just about cover the simultaneous sessions but had little capacity to do the analysis of different papers and positions that emerged during the talks. Bolivia's lead negotiator Angelica Navarro recounted one meeting where the EU official said he would send a document to his team of legal advisors. “Team??!” she scoffed. “I could do with one person but I only have enough people to attend the meetings.”

It also became obvious early on that there were two processes going on: one in the main conference hall that involved all countries that remained deadlocked, and another by the most powerful nations (and also those most responsible for climate change) held in dining rooms in hotels in Copenhagen. In the first few days it emerged, thanks to a leak in the Guardian, that the Danish Presidency had been holding secret talks with a small circle of countries to prepare a draft text (called the “Danish text”) without any mandate from the full Conference of Parties (192 nations) and divorced from the overall discussions. In the uproar that took place at the release of the text, the Danes pretended it was just one paper amongst many. Of course the Danes, in a fit of short-term amnesia, then repeated the exercise at the end causing the tumultuous final session and effective collapse of talks.

Pablo Solon, Bolivia's UN ambassador, aptly related it to the film, The Matrix, where it turns out that what humans perceive as reality is in fact stimulated by machines to keep the population subdued. “It seems  negotiators are living in the Matrix, while the real negotiation is taking place in in small stealth dinners with selective guests,” he said, adding that the demonstrators outside the conference were the only ones who had taken the “red pill” that allowed them to see the reality.

It seemed many of the other delegations from developing countries were not willing to take the “red” pill. Whilst many delegates expressed frustration at the Copenhagen accord for failing utterly to meet the challenge posed by climate change, very few in the final plenary stood up to actually oppose the agreement. The most painful speech I heard was by the President of the Maldives Islands who admitted that they had got none of their demands by attending the small meeting of the large polluting nations, yet pleaded desperately to everyone to agree to the deal as the only option on the table. It is a question that should never be asked of anyone but is a damning indictment of our world's leaders: What would you do if your country is going to disappear because of climate change? Accept a deal that will do nothing to stop its disappearance but at least talks of taking action or reject it as a moral outrage and demand a just deal?

Putting a more radical critique on the agenda
Despite the flawed process, however, Bolivia's delegation remained tireless in pushing a more radical critique of global climate policies as well as putting forward innovative proposals. Bolivia's  strong stance on climate change is firstly informed by the effects it is already feeling as a result of climate change with disappearing glaciers and water shortages in the mountainous regions and more regular flooding in the Amazonian region. In June 2005, I visited a community whose mini-hydropower scheme had stopped working due to disappearance of glacier melt water and heard concerns from indigenous community members about the changing climate. 2009 saw prolonged droughts in the Altiplano region and increasing water shortages in the impoverished and highly populated city of El Alto.

However Bolivia's position was also closely tied to its integration with social movements working on environmental justice worldwide. Alongside negotiators, Bolivia's delegation included respresentatives of Bolivia's principal indigenous and campesino organisations, such as respected indigenous community leader Don Rafael Quispe who has even held the Bolivian government to account for its actions related to a flawed environmental licence for a copper mine in his region.

These movements have a very clear position on the need for justice to be at the heart of climate policy. This has led Bolivia to take a strong position on climate debt – highlighting the debt industrialised countries owe to developing countries both in terms of emissions (ie the industrialised countries have a duty to radically cut emissions to below zero to allow developing countries equal access to the atmosphere) and an adaptation debt (paying the costs developing countries are burdened with as they deal with climate change effects both in terms of real finance and technology transfer to allow development of renewable energy).

During the climate conference, Bolivia's tireless promotion of the concept led to more than 100 nations supporting the call for rich nations to pay their climate debt. This put US chief negotiator Todd Stern on the defensive in a press conference: "We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere up there that are there now. But the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations – I just categorically reject that."

Pablo Solon's response was biting: "Admitting responsibility for the climate crisis without taking necessary actions to address it is like someone burning your house and then refusing to pay for it. Even if the fire was not started on purpose, the industrialised countries, through their inaction, have continued to add fuel to the fire." He added: "In Bolivia we are facing a crisis we had no role in causing. Our glaciers dwindle, droughts become ever more common, and water supplies are drying up. Who should address this? To us it seems only right that the polluter should pay, and not the poor."

Bolivia also put the issue of “Rights of Nature” on the table. In a fascinating and packed side-event, Pablo Solon from Bolivia spoke with South African lawyer Cormac Cullinan on the emerging field of earth jurisprudence. It revealed how long-held indigenous values which treat the planet and our environment as Mother Earth is now linking up with cutting-edge international lawyers looking at how nature rights could fundamentally change how we relate to nature and prevent dangerous environmental exploitation. As Pablo Solon argued, Mother Earth rights could cause a revolution in the field of rights in the 21st Century in the way that human rights did in the 20th Century.

In addition to raising issues of rights of nature and climate debt, Bolivia also put forward a proposal for a Climate Justice Tribunal to judge perpetrators of climate damage and also critiqued the use of free market mechanisms for resolving climate change. Bolivia made clear that without changing the economic system that causes climate change, we could never prevent the climate crisis. As Evo Morales put it in his speech to the conference: "After hearing all the presentations, I am very surprised that everyone only talk about effects and not the causes. The cause is capitalism." In a Democracy Now interview, Morales explained that ending capitalism meant "changing economic policies, ending luxury, consumerism. It’s ending … this searching for living better. Living better is to exploit human beings. It’s plundering natural resources. It’s egoism and individualism. Therefore, in those promises of capitalism, there is no solidarity or complementarity. There’s no reciprocity. So that’s why we’re trying to think about other ways of living lives and living well, not living better."

Throughout the conference, Bolivia's team of negotiators struggled, often in 20 hour days, for these issues, taking both an inspirational lead within the Latin American block of countries belonging to ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America) and the broader G77 group of nations.   I always had a long list of requests for interviews and Bolivia was keen to communicate its messages to the media – but I also knew how gruelling the  negotiators' schedule was. Angelica Navarro, the lead negotiator for Bolivia was both typical of the team and extraordinary in her own right. Even after only sleeping 40 minutes one night, she would still greet me with a tired smile when I cornered her for an interview, and then forcefully and clearly explain Bolivia's position to the BBC, for example, in a way that hit the heart.

One day we came out of a press conference by the Bolivian government on climate debt, I noticed a group of Indian youth singing a song to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel's Homeward Bound. Except they had changed the lyrics:

"Every day they are stalling and they are saying the same old things again,
But one bright country stands apart,
They’re saying things close to my heart,
They’ve got a plan with hope in hand,
They’re saying c’mon, let’s just start…
Bolivia, I wish I was Bolivian…
Just one degree temperature rise,
300 ppm in the skies,
100 per cent emissions down by two thousand forty"

Pablo Solon, who had barely stood still since the conference started, suddenly stopped and listened to the song, emotion etched on his face. He smiled: “They explain Bolivia's position perfectly.” It was profoundly moving to see the spontaneous demonstration of South South solidarity.

Blame game and the way forward

Since the collapse of the talks, the world has erupted into a blame game – some accusing the Danes, others the rich countries, others China. In an Orwellian twist, some have even accused Bolivia of blocking the talks, when countries like Bolivia were leading the call for much more radical action.

UK environment secretary Ed Miliband is one of the figures who said that Bolivia hijacked the negotiations and argued that there must be major reform of the way UN negotiations are done. This was a bizarre accusation given the fact countries like the UK and US systematically blocked Bolivia and G77 proposals, underminined even existing binding agreements, and then stitched up an agreement with a select group of countries. It was blindingly obvious that the only group that hijacked the negotiations were the countries most responsible for causing climate change.

Until the rich countries that have pushed the planet to the edge of climate catastrophe admit their full responsibility and the climate debt they owe the peoples of the South, we will not make progress. Those who say that President Obama, with an offer of just 4% emissions cuts by the largest polluter (per capita) of the atmosphere, came to Copenhagen with a serious offer are deluded.

That is not to say that developing countries like China and India don't also have a responsibility. As TNI fellow and Indian journalist Praful Bidwai has pointed out, there is something grotesque about Indian industrialists with private jets hiding behind the millions of poor in India to justify  their consumptive lifestyles. The real divide is not one of countries but of class, with a rich elite throughout the world recklessly living out an unsustainable lifestyle whilst the vast majority try merely to survive in an increasingly fragile planet.

President Evo Morales has proposed a platform that could offer a way past this impasse. As the conference concluded, Morales said: “As there are no agreements and there remain such profound ideological differences on the best way to confront the threats that threaten the world, it will be important that peoples mobilise and decide the policies that need to be developed.” Specifically he proposed a global referendum, asking the public whether vast sums spent on the military should be invested instead in conserving the planet. He has also convoked an international peoples conference on climate change in April 2010 in Bolivia to put forward an alternative popular programme for tackling the climate crisis.

Immense expectation was placed by many movements and peoples around the world on the Copenhagen conference. Yet we saw that not only did it fail, but it also clearly operated in a way that prevented a just and effective outcome. By comparison, what does seem to be working in actually stopping ever increasing carbon emissions are the countless movements stopping carbon emissions via diverse means from blocking coal power stations in the US, fighting mono-cultural plantations in Brazil and Indonesia, along with communities modelling shifts to low-carbon use such as Transition Towns in Britain. There are also millions of people already living sustainable lives throughout the world that we should emulate. Morales is right: we can't rely on political leaders to tackle the most serious crisis humanity has faced. It is down to us.


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