Of COPs and Robber Barons

The Liberal Climate Change Agenda

In 2007, Adam Weissman and I met with a representative from Charlie Rangel’s office, and in that Adam Clayton Powell building conference room aloft Harlem’s historic 125th Street, we warned Rangel’s office that the Peru Free Trade Agreement would lead to the plundering of Peru’s rainforests and oppression of Indigenous peoples. Two years later, Obama was in office, the trade deal passed, and a massacre of Indigenous peoples ensued.

Known as the Bagua Massacre, the carnage took place after then-President Alan García used aspects of the FTA to open up corridors into Indigenous lands and extract timber. Indigenous peoples responded by blockading the rivers and roads, so García sent the military to remove them. In the struggle, thirty-two Indigenous people were slaughtered, leading to an international uproar and eventually the ouster of García. Despite García’s exit, Peru remains among the most dangerous places to be an environmentalist.

According to Global Witness, on average, five environmentalists and land defenders have been assassinated per year since 2002. More than 80 percent of those cases have been linked to military, police, and private security. This September, prominent rainforest campaigner Edwin Chota and three other Ashéninka natives were murdered in front of villagers. Responding to the ongoing slaughter, the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin recently stated, “We are outraged at the ‘colonization’ of the forest, where indigenous peoples are killed with impunity. We are abandoned and stripped of our riches by those in search of rubber yesterday, and today by loggers, miners, oil extractors, and tomorrow anyone who has ‘power.’”

Although the path to free trade and neo-colonialism was implemented before Obama’s time in office, to the chagrin of many of his early supporters, Obama helped Congress ram through four bilateral FTAs during his first term in office. These FTAs were crafted during the reign of the Bush Administration’s trade representative Robert Zoellick, who famously announced trade as a frontier in the War on Terror. The FTAs were backed by Rangel, who has the prestige of being considered the most corrupt man in Congress, and Nancy Pelosi, whose top campaign contributor at the time was Occidental Petroleum, the perpetrators of a grotesquely polluted oil extraction site in Peru that remains unresolved. That the global Climate Summit, the Conference of Parties (COP), is being held in Lima, Peru, today only serves to highlight the genocidal corruption through which the neoliberal agenda foregrounded by the COP destroys the environment in direct contradiction of real solutions to the deepening climate crisis.

A Crisis Beyond Summits

Since the Kyoto Protocol emerged from the 1992 international UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, environmentalists have looked to international institutions like the Conference of Parties (COP) for global solutions to climate change. They have found only disempowerment and a deepening crisis.

As the US refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol while bumping up its carbon emissions and waging everlasting war in West Asia, environmental NGOs began to feel alienated. The conflict came to a head with the notorious 15th annual COP in Copenhagen, which saw borders closed and hundreds of protestors kettled and arrested over a period of days. The ensuing summits in the Global South centers of Cancún and Durban received less protest, but when the COP returned to Europe last year in Warsaw, climate activists tried to send a message to the decision makers by engineering a mass walkout involving more than 800 delegates and civil society representatives.

Major targets continue to be avoided through the COP process, and countries like Japan and Australia have shirked the minimal agreements decided upon in the meetings. This week, the COP has assembled in Lima to relatively little fanfare or protest—or effect—but lots of ambition. “Ambitious” has become the key word for the global climate process that works within the strictures of capital—ambitious in light of a COP comprised of little more than an edifice of false solutions over systemically corrupt and racist architecture.

The North Atlantic, by far the most industrialized and emissions-heavy area in the world, holds most of the capital and clout behind the COP. The Global South has been calling for drastic reductions of emissions by the North, as well as assistance in the reduction of emissions in the South. The BRICS have organized into a negotiating bloc, and express more interest in decreasing emissions than Washington does, but the G7 has not seemed particularly keen on playing ball.

The COP and the Global Land Grab

Since the pressures of the global markets extending from the World Bank, IMF, and WTO currently require huge quantities of fossil fuels, as well as underpaid labor based in the Global South, it is only responsible for the North to assist their allies in the South by granting subvention for the transition away from a globalized, neoliberal economy reliant on fossil fuels. The response from the North through the COP has been the enforcement of the Global Land Grab through agreements like REDD+. Enriching carbon markets, these agreements tend to expel Indigenous peoples from natural reserves cordoned off to compensate for emissions from expanded resource extraction, including farmlands expropriated and converted into agrifuel plantations of oil palm and jatropha for export. Only slightly less of an emissions hog than the Alberta Tar Sands, the cultivation of oil palm has proven a disaster, both for local, sustainable food producers and for the climate, alike, while investors from private equity funds, banks, and foundations largely based in the North have made staggering profits.

Through impressive research, the nonprofit group GRAIN has produced an exhaustive report showing how charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fill the coffers of agricultural organizations in the US and Europe in the name of producing food for Africans, while bestowing just a tiny percentage of their massive budget on Africa, itself. The Gates Foundation’s project with African countries, known as the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa, includes major agribusiness interests in what is called “Triangular Cooperation” (a term that rings eerily similar to the “Triangle Trade”).

Within this system, much like the old Imperialist system of the 19th Century, plantations are opened in Africa by dispossessing locals and reaping the profits. Free trade opens the doors for Northern corporate investment and extraction, while the New Alliance outlaws export bans, so even in the event of widespread starvation, crops will continue to flow out via the free market. At the end of the supply chain, US investment bankers playing the futures market have insurance on their speculation, which is made even more profitable by the disastrous implications of climate change on food systems, vis-à-vis the collapse in food supply and subsequent increase in demand. Hence, the news site allAfrica recently posted in its entirety a press release from a coalition of three Fair Trade producers networks—Fairtrade Africa, NAPP, and CLAC—demanding adequate protection and support from the COP.

Protests and Outcomes

In a bolder manifestation of public dissatisfaction of the COP, environmental activists condemned the participation of the World Bank, specifically, and called for the support of 500 million campesinos and small farmers. The activists also insisted on the fulfillment of the “Green Fund,” which was established to grant $100 per year until 2020, but has not approached one tenth of that.

As is typical of COPs, however, repression against activists is already underway. The Ecuadorian police recently intercepted and detained a bus carrying a group of environmentalists from the Yasuni National Park en route to the conference. The Yasuni became the site of one of the largest land deals since the Global Land Grab commenced, when Chinese investors purchased 100,000 hectares of rainforest land in a protected national park in order to drill for oil in 2012. The surrender of land-based protection and enfranchisement of Indigenous rights in favor of carbon-based trading schemes manifests the new phase of South-South Cooperation through the “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” framework.

This year’s COP will not decide whether it is the people or the corporations who wield climate power—a question raised by this year’s 400,000-person Peoples Climate March. Instead, as income disparities increase in the North Atlantic, the powers that be seek to engineer a new trans-Atlantic trade deal to undermine unions and environmental standards in Europe, and the North American elite seeks to continue its inexorable pitch into tar sands mining not only in Alberta, but in Utah as well. Perhaps one might consider this a new era of North-North cooperation, which seeks to upend the major unions and coalitions of Europe while demolishing the social wage through the same neoliberal circuits that undermined the national-popular state in the Global South.

Major financial players in the North will continue, however, to seek to increase exploitation of agrifuels, mines, and cheap manufacturing in the South as “sustainable development,” using trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in which Peru is a signatory nation, to facilitate the export of huge quantities of fossil fuels. This is North-South Cooperation, based on the model of Triangular Cooperation that engages “neoliberalism with Southern characteristics” in the extractivist goals of corporations, banks, equity firms in the North.

The Road to Paris

Next year’s COP will be in Paris, and it is being billed as a kind of gestalt of the COP process—the sum of the parts, a crechendo, perhaps, of the global market since that fateful year of 1994. The historic origin of the Arcades; a city that sought to turn the entire universe into “the inside;” the metropolis that saw Haussman set the standard for modern gentrification and urban planning, Paris can also be seen as the staging ground for the Imperialist form of accumulation by dispossession that links urban displacement with land expropriations abroad. But, it can also be seen as a staging point for revolution.

The way to stop the New Triangular Trade is not by working with COP, but against it. Just as the World Bank will not concede its numerous development projects around the world, through which the Gates Foundation and its ilk only further enrich the top-down institutions of the North Atlantic, it is hard to see how Modi’s government in India or an expansionist China with its eyes on the oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea will hold back the extractionist economic platform propelling the Global Land Grab. But the heartening resistance offered by Indigenous peoples, farmers, and women’s movements around the world will not stand aside and allow the process of global finance to consolidate itself—even if the modern world system is multi-polar.

A different form of development is sorely needed. The world’s disenfranchised are amassing every year in greater numbers to cast off the burden of onerous debt, the destruction of land and life, and forced relocation. We have seen in the US a mass uprising extend from the unlikely site of a suburban area, Ferguson, Missouri, across the world. The same force of displacement that is terrorizing African Americans in the US is also displacing Indigenous peoples in Africa; it is pushing people out of the Yasuni for oil while exploiting the forests of Peru in the wake of terrible massacres.

Far from showing the way to a better solution, the COP will only expedite accumulation, while the rest of the world goes hungry. There is a better way, represented by small farmers feeding their communities while rising up in self-defense against the obtrusive presence of globalized agribusiness and exploitation, Indigenous peoples preserving their life-ways, and autonomous communities linking together to fight patriarchy. Let the slogan of the World Social Forum ring out from Lima to Paris; “Another world is possible!”

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and works for Bark. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire.

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Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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