Cochabamba: A Growing Hope

To many observers the weak Sustainable Development Goals and the hollow draft climate change treaty being considered for adoption in December in Paris do not bode well for future generatins or our planet.

Despite this pessemistic situation it must be gratifying for any observer, governmental or non-governmental, to experience the energy of even a small group of people wiling to speak truth to power. From 10 to 12 October 2015, this is what thousands of activists, a handful of government leaders, and a few academics did in Cochabamba, Bolivia at the second World Peoples Conference on Climate Change and the Protection of Life known as the CMPCC.

This electic group produced a declaration that calls for the people of the world to halt its over-comsumption; that demands respect of the rights of all, including ‘Pachamanma’ or Mother Earth; and that makes concrete demands as to the mechanisms that we need to arrive at a sustainable way of life that is good for everyone. Many of these demands may sound like dreams to most people, but to the people meeting in Cochabamba, including three heads of States, it was a vision that can become reality if we have the will to make an effort to achieve it.

The panels, working groups, speeches by Nobel Prize winners and heads of States, accentuated by a heavy dose of music and dancing by indigenous artists, were a celebration of human potential. Unlike the frequent market mantra of capitalism and its proponents who emphasize competition, this extravaganza emphasized cooperation between peoples. During the conference that cooperation was plentiful as young people helped old, peasant and sophisticated professors debated, and Presidents danced with other Presidents and their people.

But despite the festivities, the problem that this extravaganza was addressing was dead serious. These thousands of people had come together to consider climate change, the increasing inequalities in the world, and whether human beings were responsible enough to care for Mother Earth.

Most of the estimated 5000 indigenous people and guests were provided the means to travel to and stay in Cochabamba by the host country. It was this support that contributed to bringing to the table people who could never have participated in such discussions, despite the fact that they were the most effected by climate change and the global relations that allow their exploitation.

It was the indigenous caucuses, the meetings of peasant groups, the conversations among academics, lawyers, judges, economists and activists from dozens of different countries that made the meeting so unique.

At one of several plenaries, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorian President Raphael Correa, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro echoed calls for people everywhere to shun the wasteful ways of consumption driven development and to replace it with a strategy for achieving ‘vivir bien’ or living-well for all.

How this could be accomplished was articulated by both the leaders and other panelists at the CMPCC, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Alfronso Alverez Esquivel. “We need a new way of thinking,” urged the Argentinian human rights advocate, “We cannot go on as usual.” The consequence of business as usual he pointed out was our own extinction after a torturious route of growning inequalities.

In one panel renowned lawyers from several different countries joined Esquivel in calling for the establishment of an international climate justice and/or environmental tribunal or court. Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón pointed out that this call was not new. The final Declaration of the first People Conference held in Cochabamba in April 2010 had included this demand. Moreover, in 2009, the then President of the United Nations General Assembly Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, called for the establishment of an International Tribunal for Climate Justice and Protection of the Environment.

Yet to date, a sufficient number of States have failed to take this call seriously. States who continue to add to their historical over-exploitation of the planet’s atmosphere don’t want to be called to task. When the weak compliance mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty providing specific greenhouse gas emission limitations under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), found Canada not to be in complaince with its international legal obligations, Canada merely withdrew from the treaty rather than live up to its promises. The fact that the compliance mechanism had no bindjng legal authority, as would the envisioned court or tribunal, left the legal obligations of the universally ratified UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol without any teeth.

Another panel dealt with the phenomena of the privatization of basic necessities of human life such as water, health care, education, and even the financing of the necessary international action on climate change. This panel heard that many States were placing unwarranted trust in the private sector to come up with the resources needed to meet global development needs while protecting our planet from human beings currently destructive ways.

Melik Öznuk from CITEM outlined the ongoing efforts in the United Nations to hold transnational corporations directly responsible under international law. Despite the fact that international law already makes States respoznsible for the actins of private actions emanating from their territories, Member States of the United Nations have noted this is not working. In practice transnationals often operate above the law due to their disproportionate ability to lobby and sometimes even intimidate governments.

Within the United Nations Human Rights Council a treaty is being drafted to remove this loophole, but it faces strong opposition from developed States that see it as a challenge to a model of economic development based on unbriddle markets and comsumption.

In addition to the series of panels, in more intimate working groups the participants debated how to address the shortcomings of capitalism, a call for a Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, the rights of indigenous peoples, the special position of women and children, the problems climate change is causing for agriculture, and the call for the establishment of an international climate justice court or tribunal.

Nearby, while the CMPCC was taking place, a meeting know as Mesa 18 also brought together about 300 mainly Bolivian activists who challenged the compromises made by the Bolivian government. Among the items at the top of the agenda of this alternative meeting were calls for protection of indigenous peoples’ lands that participants argued were being denied by the Bolivian government’s efforts to fund national development.

Former Bolivian Ambassador Pablo Salon, who attend both the CMPCC and Mesa 18, championed a call to end deforestation in Bolivia by 2020 by enhancing its wind energy capacity. The criticism that Bolivia was heavily exploiting its forests to finance its development after failing to win international support for non-market mechanisms hit home with the dwindling rural population, now approximately 15% of all Bolivians. How the conversion to wind energy would be achieved, especially financed,was not entirely clear.

In line with its domestic focus, Mesa 18 also challenged the efforts by President Morales’ party to change Bolivian law to allow him to run for a third term. The challenges, however, seemed motivated by the opposition’s inability to field a credible candidate to challenge the incumbent’s popularity.

While the criticisms that Bolivia has made compromises to privide for its own social and economic development are not without merit, the contrasting Cochabamba meetings also reflected the dilemma that many devoping countries are facing: how to do the right thing for the world, while protecting their own people from significant suffering.

At the moment the larger part of the development burden, especially the shouldering of the adverse consequences of climate change and the action needed to address them lies on developing counties. It is a burden that is supressing their development and even driving some to a seemingly irreversible future of abject poverty and suffering.

The CMPCC showed that there is something that sets Bolivia and its partners apart from the many deveoping countries that have opted for the unsutainable short-term fruits of the traditional devolopment paradigm. Almost every developing country has been forced to make compromises. Some have gone so far as even betraying the trust of those in similar circumstancesto claim the temporary approval of paymaster seeking only to further their own interests. Bolivia and its partners, on the other hand, have made what they view–rightly or wrongly–as necessary compromises, but they have not given up the hope for a better world.

On the last day of the CMPCC, Bolivian Minister of Environment and Water, Alexandra Moreira López, declared to the newspaper Opinión that “Bolivia will asume the responsibility to servecas the voice of the people in the international organizations of the world.” She pledged to ensure that demands of the CMPCC will be brought to Paris Climate Summit later this year where she will lead the negotiating team. President Morales is also scheduled attend the Paris meeting.

The CMPCC was an expression of hope. It was an expression by imperfect governments, but also governments that were honestly striving under almost unbearable circumstances to ensure their peoples’ development while respecting others’ rights to sustainable development. And in large part, their people and those who sympathize with them around the world understood the courage it took to stand by the hope of a better world despite the challenges faced today.

Curtis FJ Doebbler is a visiting professor of international law at the University of Makeni, Webster University (Geneva) and the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations. He is attending the climate talks in Paris on behalf of International-Lawyers.Org, an UN ECOSOC accredited NGO.