A Necessary Reflection on the Climate Change Meeting in Bolivia

Apr 19, 2010

A Necessary Reflection on the Climate Change Meeting in Bolivia

The following is an unofficial translation of a piece written on 22 February, 2010 by Uruguayan ecologist and writer Eduardo Gudynas. The original, which includes links to Bolivian government documents, can be viewed at his blog Acción y Reacción.

The Bolivian government has convened an international meeting on climate change and the rights of “mother earth.” The call out was made by President Evo Morales, and the meeting will take place in Cochabamba in April, 2010.

The importance of this theme obliges a careful analysis of the implications of the call-out. The text that follows contains some reflections made in this spirit. Let’s start by pointing out that this text doesn’t represent a position for or against this meeting, but points to questions that should be analyzed with regards to the call-out. This analysis may be more or less important that a presence in Cochabamba, especially from the perspective of citizen organizations. But in addition, it is necessary to recognize that distinct people and organizations will have distinct answers to the questions that are asked in this text.

The theme of the Summit

First off, the relevance of the theme of the meeting and of the proposals that have been advanced should be considered. Is the agenda and its content important? There will certainly be a broad consensus that yes, climate change is of major importance, and given the political failure of Copenhagen, a highly visible international meeting could inject a new energy into international diplomacy.

The Bolivian meeting is a call to discuss to very important points: the universal declaration of the rights of Mother Earth, and a global people’s referendum on climate change. Both ideas are powerful and attractive, and should be discussed in detail. Consequently, from this point of view almost all citizens organizations could be interested in the proposed themes and agree that they are important, these are important factors that will encourage participation.

In addition, the capacity for the Bolivian government to innovate in this sense should be recognized, in that it would be very good if other countries also organized meetings with their people to discuss this theme.

The Role of Civil Society

Secondly, this meeting is being presented as a “conference of the people,” and this proposal is very positive. Putting “people” first is more than welcome. This also contrasts with the lived experience in Copenhagen where everything was done to hinder the presence of NGOs and citizen delegates.

Regardless, the concrete form of convening and organizing the conference is in the hands of and controlled by the Bolivian government. It’s not clear how openness to “the people” will be guaranteed. Nor is it clear what the mechanisms are to guarantee the plurality and independence of the discussions, given that, at least for now, the formal structure and the concrete processes of the summit have not been announced. Neither is it clear how other governments who have been invited to this meeting will participate.

This isn’t a small issue for citizen organizations, since on more than one occasion there has been a call to a meeting of this kind, but the final declarations stay in the hands of the convening governments. The solutions to all of this is relatively simple; for example by using a mixed organizing committee (that includes delegates of the Bolivian government together with representatives of Bolivian and international citizen networks).

Some feel that the current organization scheme is the most adequate, since they believe that they should support governments like Evo Morales’, or even that their organizations are in some way part of these political structures. But other organizations surely wish to maintain their independence from the state, and would like to participate, but only with the guarantee that they will be able to make proposals and that they can truly influence the final declarations.

In essence, this issue is at the heart of present day relations between “civil society” and “political society.” And this question is of key importance under progressive or leftist governments in South America. These same tensions are behind the crisis in the process of the World Social Forum, which some consider to be too aligned with some leftist governments, while others insist that these relationships need to be deepened even more. The problem is that, whether it’s one path or the other, there is a risk of leaving the independence of civil society proposals in the background.

The presence of civil society in Cochabamba is what will legitimize a summit that is presented as one of the “people.” For this exact reason, distinct networks and citizen organizations could demand more open and transparent mechanisms in the organizing and development of the conference from the Bolivian government. Therefore, the organizational scheme deserves an attentive examination from civil society to evaluate whether these conditions are guaranteed or not.

Geopolitics from the South

There are various organizations that consider that since the failure of Copenhagen, the U.S. and other industrialized nations have demonstrated a lack of commitment. Following this idea, it is assumed that Cochabamba could affect the outcome of the geopolitical direction on a global scale.

The problem is that this analysis is a hurried one, in that the position of other nations like China, India and South Africa were equally questionable. And let’s not forget Brazil, which didn’t only work together with said countries, but also doesn’t coordinate anything with its South American neighbors.

Consequently, if you are thinking about traveling to Cochabamba to make geopolitical demands, included in the list should be various Northern capitals, but also some Latin American ones. Here is where the necessity of reflection on how citizen demands will be presented in the face of governmental action, as much in the rich north as among our neighbors.

International demands and national politics

Another aspect to consider is whether or not the accusations governments make in international forums correspond with their internal actions and policies. In the case of Bolivia, as convener of the meeting, one would hope their internal policies with regards to climate change would be as energetic as their demands and denunciations in international forums.

Thus, it is important to examine what is happening inside Bolivia. That’s where we see that their internal environmental policies are weak, and among these weaknesses are their climate change and energy strategies. In turn, the goals of energy, mining and petroleum, are conventional, betting on increasing the exploitation of oil and gas, building new dams, and even building new coal plants.

In Bolivia various new hydroelectric dams have been stated, which is especially concerning as much for the number of dams as for the fact that some are located in the Amazon, including adjacent to protected areas. In effect, the political plan of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) proposes the construction of dams, like the Cachuela Esperanza, the Río Grande and Bala, for purposes including exporting energy to neighboring countries, and finishes off legitimating the Río Madeira hydroelectric complex.  It defends oil and gas exploration and exploitation, which has already caused a reaction from local groups, including the complaints by the Indigenous Mosetén people against PetroAndina. In addition, there are mining expansion projects, with associated deforestation, and the use of carbon (for example in El Mutún). The social and environmental impacts of all of this will be enormous, and have been pointed to repeatedly inside Bolivia.

In addition, since in the case of Bolivia most greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture and land use changes, it is necessary for there to have an environmental component in agro-fishery and forestry policies. Regardless, this connection is arguable, and there have been indications of problems in forest management.

The climate change area within the new Ministry of Environment and Water appears to be very weak given the strength and pressure from the extractive sectors. Recent analysis of the government proposal of oil and gas regulation suggests that the status of protected areas is degraded and environmental evaluation is weakened.

These types of contradictions are not a problem of Bolivia exclusively, and are also present in other countries. For example, Lula da Silva made an energetic speech in Copenhagen, but his national program against climate changes falls into grave contradictions, including the construction of new dams and the existence of coal plants, while farming and fishing pushes up against tropical forests. The same goes for other South American countries.

Organizations from civil society can confront the tensions and contradictions governments have between their international speeches and national actions in different ways. For some the most important is to question the role of industrialized countries, using evidence of their hypocrisy, while the limitations in the environmental policies in southern countries, be it Bolivia or another nation, will stay in the background. The emphasis will be in criticizing the rich north; and the problems of the south will be excused as inevitable to escape from underdevelopment.

For other citizen organizations, however, it will be necessary that South American governments (including that of Evo Morales) are coherent, and develop environmental actions within their borders in the same vein as their international statements. They’ll note that the environmental problems inside their borders are serious, and that a leftist government should justifiably be the most committed to solving them.

Civil Society, Again

The current government of Bolivia is prioritizing the exploitation of natural resources, particularly in the hydrocarbons and energy sector. Many citizen groups in Bolivia have raised their voices in alarm and have even rejected some of these undertakings, including oil exploration in the north of the country and announcements of new dams to be built in areas of the Amazon (most recently more than 50 organizations rejected the relaxation of environmental norms for oil companies).

The problem is that these actions have unleashed harsh reactions from the Bolivian government. It is important to keep this in mind when we analyze the call out for Cochabamba. How can the “people” discuss global climate change when the convening government refuses environmental warnings? Some government leaders have even arrived at saying that citizen participation and consultation should be regulated so that it does not interfere with mining and oil and gas projects.

There are some worrying symptoms that intend to control and quiet the voices of the concerned public. Again, this is not a problem limited to Bolivia, as it has been repeated in other countries in the region.

Therefore, one key question is what will happen in the International Conference on Climate Change if civil society organizations demand stronger actions against climate change within Bolivia? Said another way: Many environmentalists could demand that the Pacha Mama is defended within Bolivia as well.

I recognize that with regards to all these issues, responses from civil society will be very diverse. First off because many organizations involved in these questions do not define themselves as environmentalists, and therefore tolerate, and sometimes support, diverse undertakings that are of high environmental impact because they see them as indispensible to maintain the state. Others may also say that the environmental problems within Bolivia are small in comparison to the ecological disaster of the industrialized countries. Those who follow this logic will certainly support the summit in Cochabamba.

But other organizations will see the necessity of having space for denouncing and warning of environmental problems inside Bolivia. More than a few people are asking themselves about the sense of talking about climate change if their friends and colleagues within Bolivia are harassed for their environmentalist positions.

Possible future Steps

As was indicated at the beginning of these notes, here there is a recognition of the diversity of positions. And from these differences, the importance of having a much deeper discussion about the implications and significances of this conference is highlighted. This pre-analysis may be more or less relevant than the trip to Cochabamba itself, at least within the environmental movement.

This analysis can also consider many possible ways out of the tensions and contradictions that are examined above. There are also some intermediate paths that deserve to be discussed.

For example, there could be an effort to influence the Bolivian government to achieve true participation by civil society and to secure more diverse positions in the preparation and development of this summit.

Another possibility is that different continental networks on climate change elaborate documents with clear indications of what kinds of promises Latin American governments should assume within their own borders to attack climate change, and to reclaim coherence between their national strategies and their international speeches. In addition, very precise recommendations on the strengthening of environmental politics within Bolivia, including moratoriums on oil and gas and in protected areas and the Amazon, as well as radical changes in forest and biodiversity policies.

Once these and other aspects are established, there is no doubt that the call to this international conference will be welcome. It will serve to amplify many worries and proposals about climate change, but it will also create the potential to promote internal reflection within citizens organizations about the political pathways to battle environmental problems.

Translated by Dawn Paley.