Australian 'Beyond Zero' Activists at People's Summit

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Australian ‘Beyond Zero Emissions’ activists report on their experiences at the World People’s Summit in Cochabamba

By Pablo and Taegen
Beyond Zero Emissions, April 20 and 22


Today the conference began. Unfortunately it was marked by a registration process that seemed to have been designed by the love child of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. Let’s just say that by around 5pm we finally had our entry passes and programs to add to our frazzled nerves and tested patience, but had missed most of the day’s proceedings.

Rewinding to a more innocent time at the beginning of the day, the bus ride to the Universidad del Valle allowed us to see Cochabamba in daylight for the first time. Cochabamba is a significant city in the recent history of Bolivia. Ten years ago this month, it was the scene of the Water Wars, a mass uprising against the privatization of the water supply, which resulted in the water being put back into public hands and the strengthening of anti-capitalist sentiment across the whole country.

Cochabamba is also the location of the headquarters of the Union of Coca Growers. It is via the leadership of this union that Evo Morales, the current socialist president of Bolivia came to prominence, and he first entered parliament as a representative of Cochabamba.

We will be seeing President Morales tomorrow back in his old stomping ground when he officially opens the conference.

In between standing in queues, we met briefly with the other Australians at the conference (although not the mysterious Rudd Government representative, who remains elusive). Groups represented include Beyond Zero Emissions, Rising Tide, Socialist Alliance, Climate Emergency Action Network of South Australia and inner city climate action groups Yarra Climate Action Now and Climate Action Newtown. Most of us are hoping to use the conference as a learning and networking experience, and to bring these experiences back to strengthen the climate movement in Australia.

All in all a fairly uneventful day, but we promise tomorrow will be full of fiery latino speeches and high rhetoric.



“We are gathered here because the so-called developed countries didn’t meet their obligation of establishing substantial commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in Copenhagen. If those countries had respected the Kyoto Protocol and had agreed to substantially reduce the emissions inside their borders, this conference would not be necessary.” – Evo Morales, 20 April 2010

The Cochabamba summit was officially inaugurated today with impressive colour and movement. The outdoor stadium was packed with approximately 20,000 people and probably as many indigenous Andean rainbow flags, video cameras, dancers, soldiers, you name it. The sun beat down as we sat through several hours of ceremony and speeches. Pablo managed to take a break from sitting in the sun when he was roped into translating between two indigenous Mohawk Indians from North America and a Bolivian Aymara. They exchanged warm words of solidarity and grains of corn.

After an official and inclusive indigenous welcome ceremony, we heard from representatives from the ‘5 continents’ attending the conference (we’re not sure how they classify continents). These included: an indigenous woman from Alaska, an African, an Indian, a Spanish member of European parliament, and a leader from the Brazilian branch of Via Campesina. A representative from the UN spoke and got heckled a bit. Oceania missed out.

The speeches all echoed one another. We heard several times that Evo Morales is an inspiration for giving a voice and a platform for developing countries, indigenous peoples and social movements on the issue of climate change. We heard that Copenhagen failed and that developing countries are not going to ‘dance to the beat’ of the rich world. The only interruptions to the cheers of support were the decidedly lukewarm/mixed response to the UN address and the usual argy bargy between patriots from different Latin American countries about flag waving etiquette.

And then there was Evo himself. In his hour-long address this popular, proudly indigenous President of Bolivia made it clear that 2 degrees warming of the earth is completely unacceptable and gave us his perspective on the climate crisis, presenting what is essentially the crux of this conference. It is a perspective that is unashamedly and explicitly anti-capitalist. It places climate change firmly within the ideological story that says that the capitalist model (which to us Westerners is better known as ‘just the way things are’) does not value the environment, does not value people and never will.

In this part of the world this story is well-understood and popular. Similarly widely grasped is the idea that indigenous values and lifestyles offer a legitimate and superior alternative. Evo presented numerous examples: ceramic plates and cups are far superior to disposable plastic ones, quinoa is better than rice, the beautifully designed and hand-made ponchos of the Andes could never be substituted for $2 el-cheapo versions, Andean potatoes are better than Dutch ones and chicha (the local alcoholic drink made from maize) is far better for you than Coca Cola. The list went on and the speech became theatrical as the props were brought out to demonstrate his points.

The conference represents a major push for ´Mother Earth rights´, which Evo presented as the alternative to capitalism and as the application of indigenous thought to human development. This concept is one of the most interesting and radical that we´ve come across at the conference and we explore it further below.

Mother Earth Rights

In late 2008, the Ecuadorian people via a referendum approved a new constitution that had been written by an elected assembly. This constitution is the first to include rights for the natural ecosystems of Ecuador.

The new constitution gives nature the “right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution”. It places the responsibility on the government to take “precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.”

While it is still unclear how this clause will be implemented and whether it will have an effect on the current destructive extractive (and greenhouse gas intensive) model of development being followed by Ecuador (with some exceptions including the Yasuni ITT initiative), it is still a fascinating advance in environmental law. It also represents the growing influence of indigenous views in Ecuador. The indigenous people see themselves as a part of nature (Pachamama), and have fought throughout the history of colonisation and capitalist development against the commodification and exploitation of essential resources. This new constitution is a major victory for them.

In Bolivia since the election of the Morales Government in 2004, indigenous ideology and culture have also been in ascendancy. Bolivia is pushing hard within the UN for the development of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth to sit alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So far this proposal has the backing of nine countries and it is expected that this conference will give this concept a boost. The Bolivian Ambassador to the UN explains this concept further here.

In Bolivia the shift towards giving ‘Mother Earth’ rights is embodied in the concept they call ‘living well.’ This is a form of development that emphasises quality of life and harmony with nature rather than GDP growth or accumulation of wealth. We hope to find out more about this concept and be able to give you some concrete examples as the conference goes on.

These developments, stemming from the cultures of indigenous Americans, are starting a fundamental paradigm shift that puts humans inside nature, rather than outside it.

Is this paradigm shift necessary to reach a safe climate future? It´s not an easy question to answer.

What we do know is that we are finding it hard to reconcile the kind of rhetoric we are hearing so strongly here with what is happening in Australia. This is something that we are grappling with.



We realised that we have so far neglected to paint a picture of what exactly are the activities underway at this conference and for this, dear readers, we apologise and rectify forthwith.

First of all, there are the seventeen working groups that we mentioned in our first post, each preparing statements and recommendations which will eventually find their way to the UN climate summit in Mexico at the end of this year. These working groups reported back to several plenary sessions today and we have listed some of the main outcomes below.

Apart from the working groups there are countless self-organised workshops, put on by organisations on a range of different topics (including, funnily enough, Australian coal). At the same time, there has been a range of panel discussions. These panel discussions cover the big picture issues, such as the structural causes of climate change or the concept of climate debt, and feature conference celebrities such as Naomi Klein, Dr. James Hansen and Bill McKibben, as well as a range of Latin American government ministers and international climate negotiators.

Of course there are also the stalls, both official and unofficial, with the government run stalls giving away posters and flyers attracting long queues and indignant accusations when they run out of free stuff (the crappiness of the free stuff bearing no relation to the level of indignation).

The Bolivian media has also given plenty of attention to the unofficial 18th working group, which the Morales Government tried to suppress. This working group, focused on local Bolivian climate and environment issues and run by Cochabamba grassroots environment groups, has been critical of the Morales Government, accusing it of not living up to its environmentalist rhetoric in its domestic policies (sound familiar?).

So back to Day 3. This morning we managed to accost a bureaucrat from the Bolivian Environment Ministry and talk to her about the Beyond Zero Emissions approach and specifically the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 project. Unfortunately, people don’t seem to have much awareness of the backcasting and full transition to zero emissions concept here. In fact, so far, we’re the only ones we´ve heard talking about it. The coca-chewing bureaucrat was very excited about the idea, and promised to pass on our work to the appropriate people.

After a lunch of vegetarian empanadas (and that’s Australian standard vegetarian, not South American standard which sometimes includes chicken or fish) came the moment we had all been waiting for: the Aussies got to run their own workshop! We almost had to cancel it because the room it was supposed to be in had been taken over by the working group on forests, and they were in heated debate furiously trying to finish their work, but luckily they were done about ten minutes before we were due to start.

The workshop was about the climate movement in Australia, with a focus on coal export campaigning and direct action. Steve from Rising Tide in Newcastle presented some facts and figures on Australian coal and then went through a series of photos showing actions in Australia over the last few years.

We emphasised the significant impact of Australian coal exports on global greenhouse gas emissions and the importance of working together as sellers and buyers of coal to break the coal addiction. While the presentation may have seemed a little abstract to an audience consisting mainly of Bolivians with a smattering of other Latinos, Europeans and South Africans, an interesting dialogue was generated afterwards in the question and answer session, and continued after the workshop had finished.

Key outcomes of the 17 Summit working groups

As mentioned above, 17 themed working groups have been meeting and working continuously since the conference began three days ago. Anyone was free to participate – if they could get into the room! These groups today presented their conclusions and recommendations at three concurrent plenary sessions.

The ideas generated, some of which are listed below, will be formally passed on to government officials (from Bolivia and other delegations) tomorrow morning at a special ´Government-Peoples Dialogue´ session. The story goes that several people have been nominated to then integrate and prepare a final document which will constitute the official outcomes of the Summit and be taken to UN climate change negotiations.

Some of the main statements or outcomes of the working group process include:

  • An International Climate Justice Tribunal should be formed with headquarters in Bolivia. The Tribunal would have the capacity to warn, judge and sanction States, businesses and people who pollute and cause climate change by action or failure to act.
  • Preparation of text for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, outlining obligations of humans to preserve and take care of natural systems, which will be presented for adoption by the UN in Mexico in December this year.
  • The United States should sign the Kyoto Protocol and the commitments of developing countries under Kyoto limit global emissions sufficiently so as to return atmospheric carbon dioxide to less than 300 parts per million.
  • A Global Referendum on 22 of April, 2011 to determine agreement with issues including the need to change the capitalist system and redirect current military budgets towards defense of the Earth. In countries where referendums cannot be carried out officially there should be a popular vote or consultation.
  • Capitalism, and its model of endless growth, is incompatible with life on a finite planet. We need to choose a path that establishes harmony with nature. (There was agreement about the need to change the capitalist model of production, but not that socialism would be an appropriate alternative.) The notion that economic growth should contribute to wellbeing was put forward as a shared vision.

There was lots more said, of course – with some speaking in higher-pitched voices than others. We will post a more complete summary if it is available before the end of the summit.

1 Comment

  • “People don’t seem to have much awareness of the backcasting and full transition to zero emissions concept here. In fact, so far, we’re the only ones we´ve heard talking about it.”

    That is unfortunate, as the zero emissions concept represents an important component in the global climate movement. We need to research systematically, as BZE are doing, how our economies can be rapidly and fully converted to renewable energy. This is essential in terms of winning more people to the climate movement, as it shows that a rapid reduction in GHG emissions is feasible and helps prevent the growth of cynicism and even apocalypticism (both dominant tendencies in the peak oil movement).