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Story Publication logo April 24, 2010

Bolivian Climate Summit Produces Final Report

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Scientists are certain that Earth is suffering impacts of global warming, and that these impacts...

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Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (left) joins Bolivian president Evo Morales at the closing ceremony of the Cochabamba climate conference.

The land occupied by the country of Bolivia has been inhabited continuously for more than 2,000 years. Perhaps due to the long perspective of time such ancient roots engender, Bolivians often view times marked on calendars or in the programs of meetings as advisory not mandatory. Yesterday, in Tiquipaya, a small town on the outskirts of Cochabamba, Bolivia, a small crowd waited to gawk at Bolivian president Evo Morales. They chatted amiably as ten o'clock went by and the president had not appeared. Morales was to host the finale—scheduled for 8:30—of a three-day climate conference that brought an estimated 20,000 people to Tiquipaya. A worker scanned the red carpet (which was maroon). The man bent down and brushed aside one unofficial pebble and kicked away another. Finally, a portly man in a white military suit with gold epaulets marched down the walkway. A phalanx of dignitaries in black suits followed behind. Morales, Bolivia's first president of native origin, strode swiftly at the head of entourage. He spoke with Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela, at his side.

The climate summit was a Woodstock-meets-the-United-Nations event. Officials from all nations of the world were invited. Forty-eight countries sent representatives, though high-level delegations came mostly from countries in the Americas, such as Cuba, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Brazil. The U.S. did not send an official representative. Most of the attendees who thronged a university campus and a nearby resort hotel represented non-governmental organizations concerned with the rights of indigenous peoples and global warming.

Organizations from around the globe had rigged up cloth canopies, turning the school's shady footpaths into a wacky linear mall. Some attendants in the make-shift shops and information booths proffered fliers on protecting rain forest parks. Others sold biscuits spread with quince jam and cakes baked with the mildly stimulating leaves of the coca bush. Bearded and long-haired college-age youths in tank-top shirts hawked jewelry and crystals spread out on colorful blankets spread on grassy median strips. Hemmed in between the kiosks and guided by omni-present police officers, Bolivian peasants—dressed in ponchos and colorful pointed wool caps—brushed shoulders with, and sometimes bumped into, diplomats in suits.

Evo Morales had opened the event at a municipal stadium. There he lectured delegates about the hazards of the lifestyle of northern countries like the United States. He suggested that factory-raised chickens turn boys gay and rob men of their hair. He doused a wool poncho with water, proving it the equal of the disposable plastic one he shook at the crowd. The poncho, he reminded the audience, contains no petrochemicals and will return to the soil when it is discarded. He took special exception to Coca Cola, sold in plastic bottles and made with artificial ingredients.

The goal of the Cochabamba climate summit, officially called the World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, was Bolivia's response to last December's Copenhagen Climate Conference, which is widely regarded as a failure. Bolivia led a handful of countries to oppose the weak accord the meeting produced. "They hijacked the process," says Angelica Navarro who was Bolivia's lead negotiator in Copenhagen. She complains emphatically that the industrialized countries presented the rest of the world with a completed document as a fait accompli for their signatures. There was no opportunity to negotiate. The accord would permit Earth to become too hot, she says. "That was absolutely unacceptable," says Navarro. She says the Cochabamaba conference was intended to embrace those excluded in Copenhagen, especially indigenous people from the less-developed countries.

Participants at the Cochabamba conference engaged in an unusual process. For two days panels of experts in large auditoriums and stadiums discussed the scientific basis of global warming, the impacts of an altered climate and ways to confront the problem. Meanwhile much smaller groups of volunteers in "working groups" debated language for a final product that organizers hope will influence the future of climate negotiations. They discussed such details as what defines a forest (if a country cuts down a jungle and replaces with a palm-oil plantation should it be applauded for producing green bio-fuels, or criticized for clearing virgin land?). They debated the meaning of "Mother Earth" and whether halting global warming requires the end of capitalism. Evo Morales intended to present the results of the hectic event at the closing ceremony. But working groups were still ironing out differences of opinion. The document, not completed till the evening, calls for a global referendum on climate change, the creation of a International tribunal of Climate and Environmental Justice to enforce climate agreements and a goal of returning the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to levels not seen since before the industrial revolution in the 19th century. This final provision is bound to raise eyebrows, as it would require monumental changes in how the world produces and uses energy. Mathew Stillwell, the co-chair of one working group and a lawyer who runs the Geneva office of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable development, says the goal may seem utopian at first. On the other hand, he says, "the only safe level we know of is the pre-industrial levels. We don't know if anything above that is safe."

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