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Bolivian Conference Chooses Mother Earth Over Father Time

By Daniel Grossman

Cochabamba, Bolivia–Rarely if ever has the word “Pachamama” been uttered at an international gathering as often or as passionately as at last week’s climate conference near Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city.

For most of the week, Tiquipaya, a tiny Cochabamba suburb,echoed with strident accusations against “el Norte,” and loud denunciations of capitalism. Bolivian president Evo Morales inaugurated the meeting with a rousing—if rambling—speech to a stadium packed with loyal supporters and international guests.

He has made climate change a centerpiece of his international relations. In his stadium address, he exhorted participants sternly to redress the failure of last December’s climate conference in Copenhagen.

Morales, like many environmentalists, condemns the Copenhagen meeting as falling far short of confronting the threat of global warming. The December summit ended with a proposal that would allow the globe to rise two degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures by the middle of this century, an amount some scientists and environmentalists consider potentially catastrophic.

At the three-day Cochabamba conference, the estimated 20,000 activists, diplomats and intellectuals who gathered in the streets and on tree-lined Universidad de Valle campus had much to debate. What appeared to unite them all was a belief that a first necessary step is greater respect for Pachamama—a word from the Andean Aymara language that translates loosely as “Mother Earth.”

While the concept itself suggests no specific action, the conference concluded with many concrete proposals. If taken seriously—which appears unlikely given that the 48 nations that sent representatives to Cochabamba are among the world’s poorest and weakest—the document could dramatically change the course of climate negotiations.

Cochabamba-conference-photo.jpgThe Cochabamba conference dealt with serious topics, but in the plazas and tree-lined streets of the Universidad del Valle, street vendors and musicians created a festive atmosphere.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

The Cochabamba conference was structured around a series of topical presentations where panelists explained the causes and consequence of, and possible responses to, global warming. An unusually broad audience listened attentively to discussions as arcane as the detailed workings of international carbon markets.

Bolivia’s Joe Six Packs—poncho-clad peasant men, teeth green from chewing the leaves of the coca bush—comfortably joined smartly dressed European intellectuals on folding banquet chairs in function rooms and auditoriums.

Cochabamba-conference-photo-1.jpgMeetings took place in halls, stadiums and auditoriums. Even the most technical topics seemed to engage the diverse audience.

Photo by Daniel Grossman

It is a testament to how this mountainous country’s revered glaciers have dwindled that few Bolivians appear to doubt the existence of global warming. (In the United States, in contrast, polls say only about half the population believes Earth is getting warmer.)

By some estimates, the mountainous country has lost half of its year-round ice in less than 40 years, a change readily observable to most adults.

At the same time experts made presentations in large halls, 17 “working groups” met in small classrooms. They debated specific recommendations on topics like how less-industrialized countries might obtain advanced technologies for conserving energy.

Their deliberations sometimes hinged on seemingly trivial minutiae with huge consequences. For instance, should the definition of a forest (which a country might be rewarded for protecting) include a palm oil plantation (which is often created by cutting biologically diverse virgin jungle)?

The working groups deliberated such fine points for days. They drafted single-page summaries of their discussions. Like Talmudic scholars they examined, discussed and approved each word.

Agreement of the People

The 17 summaries, once combined, refined and massaged, became the “Agreement of the People,” a document organizers hope will influence the next United Nations-brokered meeting, in Cancun next December.

Among many far-reaching provisions in the Agreement is a proposal to create an International Climate and Environmental Tribunal of Justice.

François Houtart, a Belgian sociologist and Catholic priest attended the Cochabamba conference to push for such a tribunal. He says human rights tribunals—like the International Criminal Court—provide precedents for an environmental tribunal. He says weak enforcement of international environmental agreements make them almost worthless.

Video interview of François Houtart by Daniel Grossman

The tribunal proposed in the Cochabamba Agreement would have the power to sanction countries, companies and people, threatening to make officials of multinational producers of petrochemicals and devices that use them into international criminals.

Houtart says he hopes the mere existence of such a tribunal will encourage companies and their employees and owners to act more responsibly. However, he foresees prosecutions as well. “The destruction of the planet today is real, and of course there are people who are doing it,” he said.

Daniel Grossman’s reporting in Bolivia was supported in  part with grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Whole Systems Foundation.

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<p>Grossman.jpgDaniel Grossman has been a print journalist and radio and web producer for 20 years. He has produced radio stories and documentaries on science and the environment for National Public Radio’s show Weekend Edition; Public Radio International’s show on the environment, Living on Earth, and news magazine, The World. He has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Discover, Audubon and Scientific AmericanRead more posts by Daniel Grossman.