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.