Reading the Coca Leaves: Climate Change, Cancun and Bolivia
On the way to participate in a rally organized by the international peasant group Via Campesina in Cancun, a Bolivian indigenous farmer took some coca leaves out of his hand-woven satchel and pressed them into my hand. "You will need these during the climate talks in Cancun to keep you from getting tired or hungry," he insisted. "Pachamama -- mother earth -- gives us these leaves. She takes care of us if we take care of her." Bonding as we chewed the bitter leaves together, the wizened Bolivian farmer shared his hopes that the negotiators would listen to his president, Evo Morales, and come up with an accord that would allow the world to live in harmony with nature.
The climate agreement that was ultimately hashed out in Cancun did not reflect the viewpoint of Bolivia's indigenous community, their President Evo Morales, or Bolivia's passionate UN negotiator, Pablo Solon. The Bolivian government and its grassroots allies wanted a binding agreement that would force significant reductions in greenhouse gases. They wanted an agreement that respected indigenous rights. They wanted an agreement grounded in a new concept -- the rights of nature -- that acknowledges that she who gives us life and abundance (and coca leaves) has as much right to exist as humans.
Many mainstream environmentalists were quick to defend the Cancun agreement, insisting that that a weak agreement is better than nothing, since it allows the international process to go forward and allows activists to keep fighting for better outcomes in the future rounds, including at next year's talks that will take place in Durban, South Africa. No agreement, they suggest, would have stopped the process cold.
But we should be clear that the minimalist agreement from Cancun is totally inadequate to address the climate crisis. It acknowledges that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required, but does not set binding targets. This is due, in large part, to the refusal of the United States -- from the time of the Kyoto Accords -- to agree to mandatory cuts.
The agreement sets up a much-needed Green Climate Fund to help poor nations obtain clean technologies but does not lay out clear sources of financing or how the fund will be controlled. The governments agreed to give an interim trustee role to the World Bank, a move that angered groups in the global south that have suffered at the hands of Bank and activists who have opposed the Bank on a policy level.
The agreement embraces a policy on "deforestation mitigation" known as REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. This gives polluters in the north a chance to buy carbon credits for protecting forests in the global south. Bolivia, and most organizations on the ground and in the streets of Cancun for the past two weeks, object to REDD on the grounds that it commodifies the forests of the global South, endangers indigenous control over the forests and their right to livelihood, and allows northern polluters to keep polluting. Bolivian negotiator Pablo Solon said handing out carbon credits for protecting forests makes it easier for industrialized nations to achieve their emissions reductions targets without taking domestic action to rein in greenhouse gases. "We want to save the forest, but not save developed countries from the responsibility to cut their emissions," Solon said.
At the 11th hour, the negotiators -- desperate for an agreement -- were annoyed at what they saw as Bolivia's obstructionism. "The experts that know about climate change know that we are right," Solon insisted. "This agreement won't stop temperature from rising by 4 degrees Celsius, which is just not sustainable. But they just want an agreement, any agreement, so they are pushing this through." While inside the confines of Cancun's Moon Palace Bolivia was left isolated, outside Bolivia was seen as the superhero standing up for the poor, the indigenous communities, and the rights of nature.
Addressing a news conference in Cancun on December 9, Bolivian President Evo Morales -- himself an indigenous former coca farmer -- made some dire forecasts. "We came to Cancún to save nature, forests, planet Earth, not to convert nature into a commodity or revitalize capitalism with carbon markets." He predicted that without strong, mandatory emissions reductions, the world's governments would be "responsible for ecocide".
I think Evo and my Bolivian coca farmer friend would agree that if we are to avoid ecocide, we cannot rely on government officials meeting in plush golf resorts. Instead, the solutions will come from organic farmers and social entrepreneurs. They will come activists who confront corporate polluters. They will come from passionate environmentalists putting even more pressure on their governments. They will come from those fighting for climate justice on their communities around the globe. Ultimately, they will come from a grassroots global movement steeped in the values of mother nature.