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Cochabamba’s Message: Let the People Speak

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change held last week in Bolivia was an experiment in replacing the less-than-democratic UN process with one that invites public participation. Janet Redman, one of the drafters of the People’s Accord, explains the difference between Copenhagen and Cochabamba.
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At the World People's Summit, photo by The City Project

The World People's Summit on Climate Change broke new ground by allowing the people who will be most affected by a changing climate—and who are rarely included in high-level talks—the chance to speak out about their ideas for just solutions.

Photo by The City Project

As the crowd pushed in close, an elder from CONAMAQ—the national council of the Ayllus and Markas indigenous nations in Bolivia—asked for blessings from Pachamama (the Aymara and Quechua name for Mother Earth). She sprinkled homemade corn alcohol at the four corners of a charcoal fire that spewed forth a pungent smoke from the offerings of incense and a llama fetus set atop it, and uttered a plea for the governments of the world to hear the will of the people to uphold the rights of Mother Earth.

After taking turns throwing handfuls of coca leaves in the fire and offering their own silent prayers, the crowd quickly dispersed, filing back into the stuffy university classrooms that housed more than a dozen working groups on themes ranging from climate finance to living in harmony with nature.

Thus began the work of drafting a Peoples’ Agreement, one of the more tangible outcomes of the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The conference, hosted by Bolivian president Evo Morales, drew more than 35,000 people from over 140 countries to the normally sleepy town of Tiquipaya, Bolivia, for a week, culminating with a celebration of Earth Day 2010.

Stark Contrast

At UN conferences, non-governmental constituencies have less than a total of 15 minutes to voice their concerns, demands, and solutions to the most pressing problem the world has ever faced.

The People’s Conference was a far cry from the UN climate conferences that have taken place for the last 15 years—most recently in Copenhagen last December. At the sterile UN talks, people in suits with armloads of paper rush around generic conference centers in a frantic mania. You could be anywhere on the planet. The same vendors offer you the same overpriced cup of coffee and stale croissant whether you’re in Bonn, Copenhagen, Poznań, or Bangkok.

There, civil society is kept on a tight leash. Their numbers are restricted, and UN officials spontaneously revise the rules of engagement at will. When civil society is allowed to speak, it is in short interventions, usually of 60 to 120 seconds. In the best of circumstances, when all of the seven recognized non-governmental “constituencies” (which include environmental, labor, business, and research NGOs as well as youth, farmers, and women—but not indigenous peoples) are allowed to participate, they have less than a total of 15 minutes at the opening meeting and at the closing plenary to voice their concerns, demands, and solutions to the most pressing problem the world has ever faced.

This shocking lack of public participation in decisions that will affect every person on Earth—particularly considering the dearth of adequate solutions being offered up by the world’s governments—was part of the impetus for the Bolivian conference on climate change.

It was also convened to create a counter proposal to the Copenhagen Accord—a document drafted behind closed doors in the eleventh hour of climate negotiations last December and rammed through by the United States. So far, even if countries lived up to the non-binding pledges to reduce greenhouse gases they made under the Accord, global temperature increases would be catastrophic to impoverished nations. But developing countries that refused to sign the Accord, including Ecuador and Bolivia, have been denied access to much needed climate finance.

A Peoples’ Alternative

While in Bolivia, Father Miguel D’Escoto, former president of the UN General Assembly and former Foreign Minister of Nicaragua, decried what he saw as a corrupted system and called for the overhaul of an institution where the powerful call the shots. “The United Nations was created in the name of we the people,” he said. “And I think it’s about time that we the people take it over.”

D’Escoto added, “Democracy means having the possibility to join in the decision-making process.” The climate conference in Cochabamba provided just that possibility.

Each of the seventeen working groups began their work in March in virtual spaces in which participants from anywhere in the world could submit proposals on a particular topic. For me, the topic was climate finance.

In Bolivia, we spent our first day collecting proposals from students, indigenous elders, municipal officials, community organizers, labor leaders, and representatives of NGOs. Surprisingly, the room only grew increasingly full as we dove two, then four, then ten hours into the discussion.

Over the next 48 hours, sparks flew from the heated exchanges elicited by the town hall-style discussions anchoring our group’s work. Particularly controversial in the climate finance debate—and, I later learned, in the groups on forests and indigenous peoples—was whether carbon markets should be used as a source of climate-related funding, and whether that funding outweighed their potentially devastating role in commodifying nature. Overwhelmingly, these conversations conveyed a spirit of common purpose based on the belief that, to be effective, the solutions to climate change must be just and concrete, grounded in the lived experiences of communities that have been protecting the Earth for generations.

Thanks to the dedication of the more than 150 members of our working group to listen attentively to one another and to respond critically but respectively, after much negotiation we were able to reach consensus on Wednesday morning, day three of the process, on a three-page draft text outlining how developed countries must make restitution for the financial part of their climate debt. This in turn was put to a gathering of several thousand people in the local university’s coliseum, where an open microphone offered the opportunity for voicing approval, disagreements, and questions about the text. The facilitators again went back to the text and incorporated commonly raised issues.

By the end of the third evening, each group’s work was summarized in a few paragraphs highlighting the most essential demands and principles. Following the conference, on April 26, Pablo Solon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations, assembled the results into a single document and submitted it to the UN Framework Convention on Climate on behalf of the 35,000 participants in the World Peoples’ Conference.

The process was not perfect. Communication was a challenge for non-Spanish speakers. The logistics of collecting proposals through the Internet meant that a fast connection was a necessity. And travel to Tiquipaya was arduous and expensive. Some who overcame those hurdles were met with an even greater barrier: The Bolivian government blocked the formation of an 18th working group on the impact of extractive industries on collective rights, calling into question, among other things, the Bolivian government’s support of lithium, zinc, and silver mines.

But even in the face of contradictions between its rhetoric and actions regarding the environment and indigenous rights, Bolivia’s experiment with democracy opens up new ways of thinking about multilateralism.

With the submission of the People’s Agreement on climate change, a diverse array of voices will be incorporated into the UN climate summit planned for Cancún in December. While not a complete takeover, it’s a solid step in the direction of inclusion. And it blasts open the parameters of negotiation that have focused on temperature increases and atmospheric CO2 concentrations deemed too high by many, to the detriment of just pathways to climate stability.

What’s Next?

At an Earth Day rally in Washington, D.C., Reverend Jesse Jackson said that one way forward from Bolivia is, “to support the deep democracy and deep ecology proposals set forth by Evo Morales,” and the people from more than 140 countries who gathered in Cochabamba.

Jackson outlined four such propositions: Nature should be granted rights in a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth; those who violate those rights should face legal consequences in a climate justice tribunal (to be established by Earth Day 2011); industrialized countries should repay “climate debt” incurred by causing the climate crisis; and a worldwide People’s Referendum on Climate Change should be undertaken.

Any one of these is a massive undertaking. To bring all four into fruition would take a force of political will that the world has rarely witnessed. But what the World People’s Conference on Climate Change has demonstrated is that democracy, Bolivia-style, in all its dynamic and untidy forms, may be the best way to consensus at the international level, a consensus that is essential if we are to solve the climate crisis.


Janet RedmanJanet Redman wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Janet is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network at the Institute for Policy Studies, the country’s oldest multi-issue progressive think tank, where she provides analysis of international financial institutions’ energy investment and carbon finance activities.

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