Rally at people's conferencePhoto: The City Project via FlickrCOCHABAMBA, Bolivia — A fundamental critique of capitalism as the source of climate change pervaded the People’s World Conference on Climate Change, from the opening speech of Bolivian President Evo Morales on Tuesday to the final declaration agreed upon Thursday.

On the first day, as 15,000 people from 125 countries gathered for the summit, Morales laid out his view bluntly: “Either capitalism lives or Mother Earth lives.”

“The main cause of climate change is capitalism,” he continued. “As people who inhabit Mother Earth, we have the right to say that the cause is capitalism, to protest limitless growth. … More than 800 million people live on less than $2 per day. Until we change the capitalist system, our measures to address climate change are limited.”

Bolivia’s lead climate negotiator, Angelica Navarro, echoed Morales’ points: “You cannot create a climate market to solve climate change. You have to address the structural causes. These causes are not only to be measured in terms of greenhouse gases. They are trade, finances, and economy.”

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The conference ended on Thursday — Earth Day — in Cochabamba’s downtown stadium, with world leaders and delegates presenting a final declaration that broadly outlined a path forward for addressing both the impacts of climate change and the economic and political structures that have brought it about.  That statement will now be taken to the U.N. ahead of the next big international climate conference, COP16, to be held in Cancun, Mexico, at the end of the year. 

The Bolivian government laid the groundwork for the declaration with a set of four demands: climate reparations from developed countries to developing countries; an International Climate Justice Tribunal; a Universal Declaration for the Rights of Mother Earth; and development and transfer of clean technologies.  The final statement called for creating a multilateral organization to fight climate change and protect climate migrants; ensuring that knowledge related to technology transfer not be privatized; and acknowledging and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

The conference sought to avoid the backroom deals and lack of transparency that plagued the U.N. talks in Copenhagen in December. “That is not democracy. That is not the U.N.,” Navarro said of the Copenhagen process. “For months, we were discussing our proposals with other countries. They did not listen. What we want in Bolivia is a true and participatory democracy. If the governments do not come up with a plan for climate change, the people have to lead with a plan.”

The “people’s conference” invited civil society into the process, creating a bottoms-up rather than a top-down approach. Seventeen working groups met over the course of the three days, and dozens of panels and countless informal strategy sessions were held too.  The working groups had varying degrees of success.  Some reached agreements that supporters can organize around and push for at future U.N. climate meetings.

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The forest working group rejected the U.N. REDD program (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), arguing that by using market mechanisms to offset carbon emissions, it allows companies to speculate and get around actual carbon reductions.

The working group on climate refugees drafted a statement that was included in the final declaration, calling for protections for the hundreds of millions of people expected to be displaced by rising sea levels, droughts, floods, and dwindling water supplies. In his opening address on Tuesday, Morales had called for borders to be opened to climate refugees.

The conference also provided a boost to the climate-justice movement, giving advocates an opportunity to network, organize, and share stories about local and regional environmental and indigenous struggles.

But there was also dissent at the conference. Various organizations and an unofficial 18th working group focused on the discrepancy between Morales’ rhetoric on behalf of Mother Earth and his policy of resource extraction, emphasizing the environmental degradation brought about by mining and oil and gas drilling. Revenues from natural gas help to keep Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, afloat. Eduardo Gudynas has referred to this policy as the “new extractivism” of Latin America. 

Oscar Olivera, who was active in organizing the “water wars” against privatization in Bolivia 10 years ago, argued that there are currently two kinds of movements: those on the inside of the government and those on the outside. He said, “Social movements in Bolivia are fragmented not because of ideological reasons but because of cooptation by the government. One of the characteristics of this government is that there is not room left for autonomous spaces, for grassroots organizing. Until 2004, the people of society in Bolivia were very strong and organizing horizontally. The issue of land distribution is not solved. Despite the rhetoric, oil and gas have not been nationalized.”

Still, most conference attendees rallied together around the main anti-capitalist message: to solve climate change, we must stop the push for unlimited growth that capitalism is based on.  This is well summed-up by a slogan that got attention in Copenhagen and even more traction in Bolivia: “System change, not climate change.”

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