Cochabamba Postscript: Lessons, Reflections, and the Road to Cancun

There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the alliance gathering around grassroots solutions.
Morales on stage

"Cochabamba changed the game," according to one commentator.

Photo by Tupac Saavedra and Lauren Rosenfeld.

I’m on the plane back to the United States, flying at 29,000 feet over the Amazon. A green carpet of trees, only interrupted by winding veins of brown rivers, stretches to the horizon. From time to time, a small cluster of buildings appears on the side of a river. Later, geometric patterns interrupt the expanse of the forest in areas where trees have been cut. In their place are roads, but few buildings and no crops or livestock. Suddenly, these clearings disappear and only forest and clouds are visible again. The forest is immensely beautiful, and just seeing it there gives me hope—even knowing the many challenges the forest and its people face. It’s hard to look at something so huge, a system that's complex beyond human comprehension, and know that many think it won’t exist in 100 years. The forest and its people may well become victims of the greed and myopia of those who run today’s world.

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (CMPCC, for its Spanish acronym) ended on Thursday in Cochabamba and every airport I’ve stopped in (more than a few now) has been filled with people heading home with new energy, new direction, and excitement to get back to work. But before the movement moves on I want to share some last reflections that we’ll be taking forward.

The Meaning of Cochabamba

When I asked Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights what he thought the significance of the CMPCC was, he replied, “Cochabamba changed the game. The U.S. will push what it’s going to push, but now there is a new proposal on the table. It’s a counter balance.” This new proposal, brought together by social movements from around the world and anchored by Bolivian and South American social movements, will exist as a synthesis and a road map for both climate negotiations and the movement itself. The conference successfully wove together the strengths and experiences of many movements; at times differences emerged (which I’ll talk about more below), but overall the conference was remarkable for the level of agreement expressed.

What was this agreement?  The content of the proposals is too extensive to list here (click for Spanish text or partial English translations), but it was remarkable for being intersectional, based on a structural analysis, rooted in the experiences of communities on the ground, and truly democratic. The outcome makes clear that solutions to climate change won’t come from the back room or the board room, but instead from real people making decisions about their future.

The question now is: Will it have legs? As an organizer from Vía Campesina Mexico pointed out in one of the opening sessions of the conference, what is possible in Cancún (where the next UN Conference of Parties will meet to try to negotiate a global climate policy) will depend on what is developed internationally prior to November. He also pointed out that the ability to resist the imposition of a bad deal rests on the ability to advance unified counter demands. While the proposals coming out of Cochabamba are comprehensive enough to be a map for the climate justice movement in the coming months, more work is needed—and already happening—to make sure that enough of us are working together.

Markets, Oppressed Communities, and the Right to Development

Even in Cochabamba, there were places where the inside strategies of governments and the outside strategies of social movements diverged. A particular flash point for debate was on the issue of REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD is a proposal to include the conservation of forests in the global mechanisms developed to fight climate change. Supporters say it would give a monetary value to forests, which today only have value when they are cut down. This would then slow deforestation, provide funds to forest communities, and address the contribution of deforestation to climate change. Opponents say that REDD is just a scheme to commidify the world’s forests in a carbon market—a scheme for creating profits rather than conserving forests. They also contend that in existing REDD projects, indigenous people have been displaced from the forests or coerced into signing away their land, and that forests have been razed and replaced with plantations (which are considered forests under REDD).

It’s up to us to build a movement in which people’s ecological and economic needs aren’t squaring off against one another.

At one workshop I attended, representatives from indigenous communities and the government in Bolivia described the benefits of their REDD pilot project. The crowd in attendance was skeptical but reserved. The working group on forests was another story: Indigenous organizers and leaders from the Indigenous Environmental Network worked very hard to include a condemnation of REDD in the working group text and ran into head-on opposition from Bolivian government representatives and some Southern indigenous leaders in the group.

The REDD debate points to a larger dynamic at work in climate policy. Forest communities, and especially indigenous communities, have been marginalized and impoverished by decades of neoliberal policy, not to mention centuries of colonialism. Now REDD appears, and communities have to decide whether they want to make a deal with the devil. If they refuse, then conditions stay the same—they are still poor and their forests are still under attack. Otherwise, they decide that by accepting they can work the program to their advantage, kind of like a climate community benefits agreement. (This scenario assumes that the community is giving free, prior, informed consent, which is almost never true. In most cases, these projects, like many rural development projects in the South, are forced on communities by their national governments.)

The lesson here is that we can’t forget that communities have issues that are already extremely dire, and we want to create conditions that don't force them to choose between short-term and long-term survival. Whether we call it the right to development, el vivir bien, the just transition, or an E-squared approach (addressing ecology and economy), it’s up to us to build a movement in which people’s ecological and economic needs aren’t squaring off against one another.

The Politically Possible vs. the Materially Necessary

Governments and social movements also disagreed about whether carbon markets have a place in their ongoing strategies. Social movements generally opposed them. The governments that were present opposed carbon markets in concept, but given the current context of negotiations, they supported the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol as a tactical demand.

This tactical position made some participants uncomfortable. If neoliberal economic policies and unchecked capitalism are causing climate chaos, how can we take a position in favor of Kyoto—which not only included a carbon market but has also driven destructive projects in the South? The discomfort felt by leaders of social movements is historically rooted. For years, well-funded NGOs have played the politics of the possible, keeping social movements on the outside and giving increased support to ineffective or damaging corporate-led policy. Was the position taken by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA, for its Spanish acronym) in Cochabamba just the same thing?

My answer would be "no," and here’s why: We need to keep an eye on both what’s politically possible and what’s materially necessary—and then struggle to make more of what is necessary possible while making false solutions (like carbon markets) politically impossible. In this political moment, we need to take stock of where our forces and our allies are and figure out the best way to play our hand. Given the state of affairs today, that definitely includes: (1) Influencing and gaining support from a much bigger segment of the population—particularly in communities that are already or will be among the first and worst impacted by climate change, and (2) impeding the U.S. government’s ability to screw up this global process. I think the ALBA governments are attempting to do the latter.

Additionally, international climate negotiations like those in Copenhagen and Cancún are just one of many fronts that we’ll be working on. The core of our work in the U.S. will be to build political power, consciousness, and alliances at the levels where we can have the most impact right now—locally and regionally. These projects will be tactics towards advancing our long-term goals, all of which can’t be realized right now. The clearer we can be about what we want to do and why, the better chance we have of managing our alliances.

The Road to Cancún

We are leaving Cochabamba, en route to Cancún by way of our communities. We have our work cut out for us, but I believe that we are up to the task. In the next seven months we can build a climate movement stronger and more grounded than this country has ever seen. We can win support, and put the “army of cynics” that President Obama described during his campaign (and whose ranks he should leave as soon as possible) on their heels. We can strike a blow for our allies in the South and build a replacement for Copenhagen Accord. And we can begin the hard task of transforming this country to meet the needs of the people and Mother Earth.

We don’t lack talent or desire, so let’s not lack confidence or imagination. As Eduardo Galeano wrote in his letter at the opening of the conference, “May we be able to do everything that is possible, and the impossible too.”


  • from the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.
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