Via Campesina Meeting Debates Climate Change and Social Change

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Speakers at  the “National Encounter for Environmental and Social Justice” in Mexico City discussed key aspects of the global environmental crisis and its impact on the countries and peoples of the global south

by Javier Sethness

On July 24, the North-American section of Via Campesina held a National Encounter for Environmental and Social Justice in Mexico City. The day-long encounter featured interventions by representatives of various oppositional social groups and organizational processes, both Mexican and international, on questions related to the climate crisis, agricultural production, and the human predicament.

The following is a brief summary of the contributions by forum participants.

A central address at the Encounter was that of Aldo González, from Oaxaca. Noting in his comments that indigenous communities of Abya Yala — what is now referred to as the Americas — have experienced a historical trajectory rather different than those experienced in Western societies, González attempted to set up a dichotomy between “indigenous cosmovisions” and “Western cosmovisions.” He said that some of the former see in nature living beings rather than natural resources, the latter being a product, in his view, of Western thought.

González went on to say that indigenous communities in Oaxaca do not want ‘development,’ at least as historically practiced: they would, he said, instead continue to live in the future as they have previously. González emphasized that this should be the message advanced by the indigenous at the coming Cancú¬n Conference of Parties (COP-16) on climate change.

González closed his remarks by arguing that the human prospect will be imperiled if it waits for the states of the world to act in reasonable fashion with regard to climate change. Against such peril, he held out the indigenous concept of buen vivir, which he defined as comunalidad — community, or communality.

Manuel Munguía Zapien, of Michoacán, a teacher in Section 18 of the National Education Workers’ Union, spoke of the efforts in which he had engaged to integrate ecological considerations into public-school curricula within the wider consideration of advancing the goal of attaining “harmony with nature” in such schools. Claiming environmental destruction to be inevitable within the confines of hegemonic economic models overseen by the present “world-masters,” Munguía Zapien called in his remarks for a “new social form” — one different than the one which is currently “killing us,” on the one hand, and barring the “self-development” of peoples, on the other.

Graciela González Torres, from Mexico’s National Assembly of the Environmentally Affected, spoke in similar terms of environmental destruction being inherent to the existing world-system, though her analysis was perhaps more dire than that of either González or Munguía Zapien. Destruction is everywhere, she declared, and humanity finds itself “against the wall, fighting for life.” She stressed the need to denounce the various false solutions advanced by status-quo apologists. and said that the struggle against the destruction of the Earth should be one engaged in with joy. She later expressed her belief that various oppositional social struggles had been converging of late, thus perhaps forming the beginnings of a broader anti-systemic movement.

Álvaro Salgado, from Mexico’s Network for the Defense of Maize, shared the alarming findings of a recent study that concluded some 14,000 Mexican communities have lost the ability to cultivate maize and beans due to climate change. Referring to the Via Campesina slogans exhibited on banners in the conference-hall, he asserted that campesinos could indeed “cool the Earth” (enfriar la Tierra) in theory, but only if more general changes in the world as a whole were realized.

Some of the destructive effects of existing relations between Mexico and the U.S. were examined by Camilo Pérez Bustillo, organizer of the November 2010 Forum and International Tribunal of Conscience on the Rights of Migrants and the Displaced, who situated the “violations of dignity” suffered by those displaced by environmental degradation — environmental refugees — in the context of the worrying recent developments in migration policy seen in the U.S.

Marco Giusti, from the Italian Network for Environmental and Social Justice, shared a document entitled “Towards Cancún: change the system, not the climate” detailing the various failures of the Copenhagen conference and the necessity of instituting social relations other than those dictated by capitalism.

The encounter’s keynote speaker was Pablo Solón, the current Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations. He began his address by observing that a number of socio-environmental problems exist today in Bolivia that cannot be resolved without changes on a global scale, emphasizing that the world must be changed if the social advances realized in recent years in Bolivia and elsewhere are to be maintained and furthered.

With regard specifically to the various threats posed by climate change, Solón noted with concern that approximately one-third of Bolivia’s glaciers have disappeared since 1750 CE, that another third may well disappear within ten years, and that all could in theory be gone by mid-century. Linking the fate of those who depend upon water provided by Andean glaciers with that of those who reside in small-island nations and the continent of Africa, Solón reiterated the present Bolivian government’s call for an average-global temperature increase target of no more than 1ºC — that is, just 0.2ºC more than has occurred so far.

In accordance with the People’s Accord released at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, Solón proferred the principles of equity and recognition of historical responsibility as standards to guide ongoing efforts to avoid climate catastrophe. In concrete terms, he called on industrialized societies to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 50 percent before 2020 and demanded that the resources presently dedicated to global military spending be re-directed to deal with the climate crisis.

In addition, Solón denounced the fundamentally authoritarian manner by which most climate-negotiation processes to have been carried out to date — rulers of a handful of powerful states essentially deciding the fate of all future generations. Solón held democratization struggles to be one of the hopes still left open to humanity. In stark terms reminiscent of those by which Rosa Luxemburg characterized the human predicament nearly a century ago, Solón warned that total environmental degradation the world over will come to pass if international society is not thoroughly re-arranged.

In sum, the Encounter offered important insights on the world-situation that the climate crisis poses for humanity. It is to be hoped that such reflection can be, in Adorno’s metaphorical formulation, “transformed into teaching” — that is, contribute to the actual transformation of existing reality.

Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate. He maintains the blog Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.