Responding to the Cochabamba challenge

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Some 125 people took part in the teach-in Lessons from Bolivia: Building a Global Movement for Climate Justice in Toronto on Saturday November 13. The meeting was sponsored by nearly 40 organizations, including unions, solidarity campaigns and environmental groups.

The following is the text (lightly edited) of the talk given by Climate and Capitalism editor Ian Angus to the opening session.


Good morning. Thank you for being here, and thanks to the organizers for inviting me.

We’re here to discuss, learn from and build on April’s mass international assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, an unprecedented meeting that adopted a powerful charter for action to protect our planet from ecological devastation.

Following the failed climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, where Barack Obama tried unsuccessfully to impose a toothless backroom deal, Bolivian President Evo Morales invited “the peoples of the world, social movements and Mother Earth’s defenders, … scientists, academics, lawyers and governments,” to attend a conference “to define strategies for action and mobilization to defend life from Climate Change and to defend Mother Earth’s Rights.”

That call struck a chord with activists around the world. Despite the ash from a volcano in Iceland that grounded many international flights, more than 35,000 people, took part in World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The participants included thousands of activists from social movements in more than 100 countries.

Particularly notable was the large number of Indigenous people from throughout South and North America, who played leading roles in defining the meeting’s environmental philosophy and drawing up a program for action.

Over three days and nights of intensive discussions in 17 working groups, the participants drafted and adopted a People’s Agreement that places responsibility for the climate crisis on the capitalist system and on the rich countries that “have a carbon footprint five times larger than the planet can bear.”

It said:

“The corporations and governments of the so-called “developed” countries, in complicity with a segment of the scientific community, have led us to discuss climate change as a problem limited to the rise in temperature without questioning the cause, which is the capitalist system…

“The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities. …

“Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people who are see as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.

“Capitalism requires a powerful military industry for its processes of accumulation and imposition of control over territories and natural resources, suppressing the resistance of the peoples. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet.

“Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation, and death, or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life.”

The People’s Agreement calls on industrialized countries to cut domestic emission reductions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2017, and to compensate developing countries for the destruction caused by climate change.

It rejects the use of market mechanisms, in particular the World Bank’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, which purports to pay governments and companies in the South for not cutting down forests. The best way to protect forests, the Agreement says, is:

“to recognize and guarantee the collective rights of lands and territories, especially considering that most of the forests and jungles are in the territories of indigenous peoples and nations, and traditional farming communities.”

It calls for full implementation of the U.N. declaration on Indigenous Peoples Rights.

In view of the failure of many countries (including Canada) to honour their commitments under the Kyoto Accord, the meeting in Bolivia proposes creation of an International Court of Climate and Environmental Justice with the power to impose sanctions.

And in response to the efforts of the U.S. and other countries to limit climate negotiations to a hand-picked group of so-called world leaders, the Conference called for a worldwide “people’s referendum” on climate change, in which everyone can vote on key points in the Cochabamba program.

Evo Morales told the delegates that the eight member countries of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) would enter the next round of international climate negotiations, leading up to the meeting in Cancun Mexico in December, with a submission that is based on the proposals that came out of the Cochabamba conference. And unlike the heads of state we usually deal with, the ALBA nations kept that promise and have submitted the Cochabamba program to the negotiations.

As Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said at the final session of the conference:

“In Cancun we cannot permit the imperial dictatorship to impose itself. We must go to Cancun to continue the battle of Copenhagen with greater fury… we are not going to allow the imposition of a document that does not include the voices of the people.”

In my opinion, the Cochabamba meeting was a major step toward building a mass democratic movement against climate change. The resolutions adopted in Bolivia provide a programmatic basis for such a movement. It’s now up to us to make that potential a reality.

For just a minute, I’d like to address the people here who come from my tradition – those of us who view ourselves as tough, hard-minded materialist radicals. The Cochabamba resolutions, and the discussions here today, include many references to Pachamama, Mother Earth. Many of us feel uncomfortable with that language – it seems sentimental, or mystical, not properly revolutionary. I fully understand that response – but it is wrong. The Indigenous cosmovision may sound different from what we learned, but it is completely compatible with the militant struggle for social justice we all support, and we can all learn from it.

During one of the sessions in Cochabamba, a man whose credentials as a serious revolutionary can’t be doubted, the former guerilla leader and now vice-president of Bolivia, Alvaro Garcia Linera, said:

“The concept of Mother Earth is not just a slogan. It means a new way of producing, a new way of relating with nature and with one another. This relationship is one of equality and not domination, a relationship of dialogue, of giving and receiving. It is not merely a philosophy or folklore. It is a new ethics, a new way of developing technologies and modes of production.”

He recalled a slogan introduced by another tough materialist, Rosa Luxemburg – “socialism or barbarism” – and said that today we should say, “Mother Earth or barbarism.”

Or, as the Indigenous People’s Declaration adopted in Cochabamba says, “Mother Earth can live without us, but we cannot live without her.”

Cochabamba poses an historic opportunity and challenge for environmental activists to join hands with working people, with indigenous activists, with anti-imperialist movements here and around the world. If we meet that challenge, we can build a mass movement to block the drive to barbarism, and build the better world we know is possible.

In his talk a few minutes ago, Marcelo Saavedra-Vargas said that we need to build on the contributions and efforts of our ancestors, without whom we wouldn’t be here. I agree with him, and I’d like to add something to that. Our task is to be good ancestors, to rescue and restore Mother Earth so that our children and their children can live well, for generations to come.

Thank you.


  • “We’re here to discuss, learn from and build on April’s mass international assembly in Cochabamba, Bolivia, an unprecedented meeting that adopted a powerful charter for action to protect our planet from ecological devastation.”

    More talk and still not much in the way of effective action — i.e. action that changes minds, attitudes and behavior or prods political leaders into the desperately and urgently needed mitigation/adaptation kind of policy/program action.

    A “powerful charter for action” is bums-in-the-seats action and not boots-on-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt-action — a la the Transition Movement.

    A turnout of 125 talking to one another is not effective action. Time to recruit worker ants and time to translate that “charter for action” into a project action plan with time-framed goals stated as measurable results to be achieved and a detailed implementation component to ensure progress — with lots of training along the way.