In a central plaza of the Universidad del Valle in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a small group of men and women are presiding over a beauty competition, of sorts. They’re looking after a half a dozen llamas tethered to the base of a nearby stage, and flashing smiles as people come up to have their pictures taken with the tall, wooly animals. Over the sound system, somebody is describing with loving detail the various ecologically important functions that the llama plays in local agriculture, not to mention providing wool for winter clothing.
Nearby an impressive solar panel display has been set up by a local NGO called Energética, which supplies electricity to some of the nearby food stands and feeds into the university’s power grid. “Our goal is to bring clean energy to places in the country that have never before received electricity, rural places where they haven’t even ever had light after sundown,” staff engineer Mauricio Richter tells me, describing Energetica’s work, which is funded by both private grants and the Bolivian government. “We’re here to show that the technology is here, and it’s available.”
Welcome to the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth—a massive meeting organized by the Bolivian government in response to the resounding failure of the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Copenhagen last year. The world’s governments were unable to find enough common ground in Copenhagen to hash out even a weak treaty to control carbon emissions. News reports largely caricatured developing countries at the talks as pawns in China’s chess match with the United States and Europe. But organizers of this week’s meeting see it differently: Copenhagen entirely ignored the question of climate justice—and the debt wealthy nations owe the world for the resources they depleted during their own development.
“In Copenhagen, in the small meetings dominated by the elites, we witnessed an incredible lack of transparency and a lack of democracy—and a lack of willingness to really engage in the real problems,” says Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s climate negotiator in Copenhagen. Navarro is Bolivia’s ambassador to Switzerland, but she is back in Cochabamba this week for the World People’s Conference.
Organizers expect 20,000 people from all over the world at the conference, which kicks off on Tuesday, including government representatives from up to 70 countries and a number of UN agencies. Thus far, the U.S. government hasn’t announced whether it will send any high or even mid-level representatives or observers. A number of big-name U.S. intellectuals, writers, and entertainers are expected to participate (including the suddenly de rigeur James Cameron).
More notable, though, than the bold-face names are the thousands of indigenous Bolivians—decked out in their signature bowler hats and rainbow-colored dresses, jackets and sashes—who are queuing up to participate in sessions on things like climate migration, the pros and cons of the Kyoto Protocol and the wealth transfers from South to North that are hidden in the carbon-trading arrangements that dominate the North’s climate change discussion.
Nicolas Colque, a soft-spoken farmer who lives outside of Cochabamba, is among the participants who have been locked out of meetings like the one in Copenhagen. Colque has watched with curiosity and dismay as local droughts have lengthened and rainstorms have intensified. At the conference, he’ll participate in the workshops centered around “climate debt”—the idea that rich countries, whose fossil-fuel driven development paths have stressed the climate most, are morally, politically and perhaps one day legally bound to finance poorer countries’ preparations for global warming’s impact. Scientists predict the most destructive impacts of climate change will be felt in the developing world.
“People are not that well informed,” says Colque. “We need people everywhere to know what is happening to the land, to our farms. Of course we want our country to move forward and be able to grow just like the rich countries did.”
In the Copenhagen meetings last year, Colque’s eyewitness accounts of climate change would warrant token mention, at best. They may have been used as a colorful anecdote in a presentation by a high-level NGO. Or perhaps he’d be given space to present them in person at the NGO ghetto, miles away from the main event, out of sight and out of mind at the heavily guarded diplomatic negotiations. This week’s meeting in Cochabamba aims to instead bring experiences and observations like Colque’s to the fore. Organizers say they have prioritized voices and perspectives from indigenous communities and of those who hail from countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
“We aren’t demanding a loan or finance; we’re demanding a repayment of a debt, climate debt,” says Navarro. “Really, what we’re demanding is a responsible way to organize our economies, our trade relationships and finance, that respects their environment, and that doesn’t endanger the rest of the world just because of a greedy few.”
On Monday, representatives from 17 large economies, including the U.S., met to discuss following through on an agreement at Copenhagen that they would provide $30 billion between 2010 and 2012 to help developing countries deal with the sort of floods and droughts Colque has seen. The agreement also outlined a plan for rich countries to invest $100 billion by 2020. The gathering was a precursor to the UN’s annual climate change meeting, which will be held in Cancun, Mexico, later this year.
Cochabamba seems an unlikely setting for an international meeting of this scale. This dusty city of some half a million people in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere is not home to any elegant conference centers. It has only a couple of the fancy hotels that are normally requisite for a conference hosting “government representatives from over 70 countries.” But Cochabamba’s symbolic and historic relevance is unmistakable. Ten years ago, the city was home to the “Water Wars”—a popular uprising that reversed the privatization of the municipal water company, which had been sold to the California-based Bechtel Corporation, and its accompanying 400 percent rate hike. That victory marked the first time a privatization scheme in a developing country had been undone by popular pressure. And it presented a breaking point, of sorts, from the global assumption that unregulated markets and mass privatizations are inevitable. Cochabamba’s organizers hope the town will now host a similar break in global thinking on climate change.
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a recipient of the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.