Cancun Eyewitness #1: Checkpoints and Exhibits

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Climate and Capitalism will publish regular reports from the climate change meetings in Cancun, Mexico

by Javier Sethness

Entering the city of Cancún—site of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change’s sixteenth Conference of Parties (COP-16), which began today—one is struck immediately by the number of areas de revisión—checkpoints, effectively—maintained by the Mexican police, with the support of the Mexican military. The checkpoints on the highway leading north from the coastal Yucatan cities of Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Chetumal, like their counterparts throughout Cancún itself, seem for the most part to be mere formalities: drivers are asked to slow down but not stop and are then subsequently hailed on.

The purpose for these checkpoints, beyond that of being able to project force and control movement, may then in part be to intimidate onlookers and passersby, to remind members of the subordinated classes of the presently ubiquitous power of the State: any other explanation for the stationing of Hummers that have soldiers manning machine-gun mounts in locations in which large numbers of people congregate would defy the imagination.

It is estimated that a total of six-thousand police and military are present in Cancún: one-thousand hailing from Cancún and the state in which the city finds itself, Quintana Roo, with the remaining five-thousand being federal units split between the police, the army, and the navy. The police and military can readily be seen at various points in the streets of Cancún, assault rifles at the ready, and both forces regularly conduct patrols through much of the city.

Jaime Hernández, mayor of Cancún, has requested that police not forget to behave with “friendliness [and] courtesy” during the two weeks of the COP, while Tomás Contreras, secretary of Cancún’s city hall, has asserted that police may well have to act with a “strong hand” against protestors.

The navy has declared nearly 600 km² of coastal and littoral area south of Cancún closed for the duration of COP-16, thus negatively affecting fishermen and other sea-workers who depend upon the ocean for their livelihoods.

Via Campesina is planning a peaceful march to the Moon Palace—a highly exclusive hotel, center of the COP negotiations, which, being far-removed from Cancún’s populated areas, reminds one of the castles of antiquity—for Tuesday 7 December; it is at this point unclear if other mobilizations will be held against the COP before this time.

Beyond the official talks being held at the Moon Palace, two alternative summits are planned for the duration of COP-16: Klimaforum10, which takes after the Klimaforum held in Copenhagen last December, and the Via Campesina is organizing an “Alternative Global Forum for Life and Social and Environmental Justice.” The former, which began on 27 November, is being held in Puerto Morelos, some 50 kilometers south of Cancún, while the latter is slated to begin on 5 December and end three days later.

In addition to these three sites, and much closer in political terms to the official talks, is the Villa de Cambio Climático, a space erected by the federal government some seven kilometers south of Cancún. Located within a stone’s throw of a McDonald’s restaurant along a stretch of highway colonized by gargantuan installations owned by big-name multinational corporations, the Villa is adorned in a festive manner that would belie the gravity of the subject-matter it purports to deal with: the campus is plastered with photos of butterflies, flowers, and sites of natural beauty located in Mexico—Los Arcos at the southernmost tip of Baja California, natural reserves in the state of Morelos, and so on.

A live band at the Villa even plays triumphant traditional Mexican music—a sense of triumph radically contradicted by the enormity of the climate predicament. Among the exhibitions featured at the Villa is “La Neta del Planeta” (roughly translated as ‘the best of the world’), a family-oriented museum sponsored by Coca Cola, Walmart, and Unilever, among other power-groups. “La Neta” attempts to explore anthropogenic climate change by means of an appraisal of its causes and an examination of possible alternatives to climate catastrophe, but the perspectives it advances are highly limited, as is to be expected of an event whose description stresses the “importance of adopting small sustainable actions.” The individualist-patriarchal hegemony advanced by La Neta’s “sustainable family” exhibit is particularly disconcerting.

Also present at the Villa—a far more Kafka-esque experience than that to be had at La Neta—is the “pavilion of exposition/cultural forum,” which features a number of booths that putatively address aspects of the climate crisis at which are represented different governmental institutions, non-governmental institutions, and corporations. One such booth promotes the concept of ‘green hotels,’ while another—sponsored by Hewlett-Packard—allows visitors to employ face-to-face video technology to communicate their concerns regarding COP-16 to an HP worker located in the Moon Palace who may by chance come across a COP delegate—itself commentary on the nature of political participation favored by hegemonic groups today.

Worryingly, Biofuels México—an organization that, as its name suggests, promotes the expansion of the cultivation and use of agrofuels as an alternative to hydrocarbons—is present at the pavilion, as are a number of telecommunications companies: Oracle, Symantec, Nextel. When I questioned representatives of these companies about their place at the Villa, the responses stressed the importance of corporate social responsibility as a means of addressing climate change, with vague comments regarding the development of less energy-intensive electronic technologies thrown in as well. Ford and Mitsubishi were also present at the pavilion, showing off their ‘green’ automobile-models.

Not everything at the Villa’s pavilion is entirely alienating. The center sets aside some space for the exhibition of climate-related art, a fair bit of which is rather subversive: one poster in particular calls on spectators to not forget the innumerable victims of climate change. A photograph-gallery in the Villa also explores the alarming phenomenon of glacier-retreat across the globe.

The booth entitled “Que hablen los niños” (‘Let the children speak’) has on display an impressive array of art made by pre-teens that protests against the present environmental crisis: worthy of mention are the two Earths made by the children, one of which sees calamity radiant in pollution, deforestation, and species-extinction; an alternative Earth as envisioned by the child-artists has much of the world’s ecosystems restored and humanity living in reconciliation with nature.

The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association, also represented at the Villa, cogently calls for a general abandonment of meat-consumption as a means by which to avert climate catastrophe.

It remains to be seen if oppositional forces of sanity and compassion will be able to prevail against entrenched power-interests, whether at COP-16 or more. It should not need to be emphasized that the present array of forces militates rather distressingly against such an outcome, as was well-reflected in comments made by Mexican president Felipe Calderón on the occasion of the inauguration of an immense wind-power generator in Cancún on the eve of the summit’s opening: “This dilemma between […] combating climate change and economic growth is a false dilemma.”

In light of the profundity of the threats posed by climate catastrophe, to continue on with economic growth and the system which gave rise to it—capitalism—would be a negation of world-historical scope: it would likely amount to the “final denial of humanity,” in the words of Guy Debord.

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

1 Comment

  • On the first day of Cancún the First, Second, and Third place awards for Fossil of the Day all went to Canada.