Indigenous People Take on the Climate Crisis in Cochabamba

Four months after world leaders who gathered in frigid Copenhagen failed to agree on a binding climate treaty, a peoples’ summit on climate change and the rights of Mother Earth is underway in the sun-dappled hills of Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Convened by Bolivian President Evo Morales, allegedly the first fully indigenous president in Bolivia since the Spanish conquest, the conference is an attempt to place indigenous peoples – and marginalized peoples from around the world – at the center of the global conversation on climate change.

At this conference, indigenous peoples are in the majority. They have arrived from all over South America by the thousands. And because many have come long distances with little funding, food at the conference is free – offered up to all attendees.

Babies Instead of Cell Phones

Here, instead of women with cell phones walking briskly from one late-night climate negotiation to another, women in traditional dress and mothers with babies strapped on their backs with colorful woven cloths sit side by side with elder women in workshops.

They participate in preparing statements on everything from a shared vision of climate justice to green jobs and forest preservation. In accordance with indigenous tradition, each working group must be led by both a man and a woman.

Here, while there are a handful of sophisticated scientists and businessmen displaying PowerPoints on the causes of and solutions to climate change, men in traditional garb open many of the workshops with a prayer and an offering of traditional corn liquor and coca leaves before they vigorously engage in discussion.

And, here people stand patiently in line to share experiences on the Bolivian concept of “buen vivir” – living well – as a core concept and result of solving the climate crisis.

Between workshops, there are dancers and jugglers, musicians and poets, to calm the soul. And there are potato farmers and water harvesters in booths, reminding us of the simplicity, elegance, and low cost of sustainability.

The conference is not without conflict, however. There are some indigenous groups who claim President Morales has not allowed them space to present their concerns about mining in Bolivia.

Bolivia is, like many Latin American countries, dependent on extractive industries for much of its national revenue. These groups are defying Morales and proceeding with their working group.

Most every working group has crafted language that blames capitalism for the climate crisis and condemns carbon markets as a false solution. Consensus on text in the various working groups is still to be reached, but there is an attempt at democratic process.

It is a far cry from official U.N. climate negotiations, where official text is drafted by “sherpas” – government officials who do the heavy lifting before their leaders arrive.

That happens months in advance with little or no consultation with all but the most well-heeled of NGOs, in an environment where businesses have more clout than entire countries in setting policy, and where intrigue and rumor is the closest one can get to transparency.

And so hopes are high that this summit will represent a turning point, in both the process and the product of climate negotiations. The indigenous moment in the climate crisis has arrived here in the hills of Cochabamba, a breath of fresh if rarified air. On the fortieth anniversary of the first Earth Day, it has arrived not a moment too soon.

Daphne Wysham is co-director of the SEEN project at the Institute for Policy Studies.