Thoughts and Analysis from Cochabamba and Beyond

April 16, 2010

Welcome to our blog where we will be posting relevant to the World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights in Cochabamba, Bolivia, 19-22 April 2010. See more here.


Article on climate migration and new booklet

September 8, 2010

Just to let people know that the Space for Movement, Reflections from Bolivia on climate justice, social movements and the state booklet is now available, see http://spaceformovement.wordpress.com/ for more details.

Also here is a recently published article about our work in the climate migrants working group, Migration is Not a Crime, please feel free to distribute. Thanks


Migration is not a crime!

July 7, 2010

Feedback article from Climate Migrants Working Group

Here is a short article written to summarise what happened in our working group.

One of the exciting things about the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights, that took place in Bolivia earlier this year (see EC x) was that it considered climate change as a social and political issue. Participating in the Climate Migrants working group was one of our main motivations for attending the conference. The issue of migration induced by climate change again reveals a chasm between the governments of the global north, who see this displacement as a risk to be managed and respond by reinforcing border controls, and southern perspectives which focus on free movement and defence of the environment.

The task of each of the 17 working groups was to create a four page document that would feed into the final People’s Accord. Over three days around a hundred people from all around the world discussed and debated, sharing experiences and understandings of climate displacement. This displacement is being caused by three major factors; rising sea levels, which particularly affect small islands and, often heavily populated, delta regions. Secondly by rapid changes such as mudslides and floods. And lastly, factors such as drought, desertification, or failing crops. All three are already being felt throughout Latin America.

As a country with a high level of outward migration, as well as internal migration from rural to urban areas, the Bolivian perspective in the working group was very important. People explained how this is not a new phenomenon. During the early 1980s droughts forced many Quechua people from the Potosí region, putting additional pressure on already under-resourced cities.

We talked extensively about terminology – forced migrant, climate refugee, climate displaced? This reflects wider concerns about categorising human beings and what frameworks and demands may be appropriate. ‘Climate refugee’ is problematic as it privileges one ‘type’ of migrant – ‘ecological’ – over others – ‘economic’. It is also very hard to prove that any person or community has been displaced directly as a result of climate change. Who could say definitively what role local deforestation, poverty, or a free-trade agreement has played? Would those displaced by mining or false ‘solutions’ such as biofuels be offered protection? All migration involves a complex web of political, ecological and economic factors. In the context of immigration debates in Europe, currently dominated by right-wing views, many fear that opening up the category of refugee to include those displaced by environmental factors could risk losing altogether the limited protection offered by international law.

Despite these difficulties we all agreed that relocation, both internally and across borders, will be one key way for people to mitigate environmental destruction. The final declaration of the conference, the People’s Accord, urged global north countries to eliminate their restrictive immigration policies, welcome those forced to migrate due to climate change and recognise their fundamental rights.

Having worked, and been friends, with asylum seekers and migrants for many years we have seen close up how degrading and dehumanising the UK’s immigration system is. Indefinite detention, forced deportations and massive cuts to legal advice is a pattern being repeated throughout Europe and the global north in general.

It is no coincidence that international migration policies are so similar, coming from a broader policy of global managed migration which is promoted and administered by the International Organisation for Migration, (IOM.) Their involvement within the working group was controversial, because of their anti-migrant practices and policies, but their presence instigated vital discussions.

During the conference we also distributed a text we had written, “Freedom of Movement in an age of climate chaos”, ran a workshop and spoke on a panel arguing that freedom to stay and freedom of movement for all are a crucial part of climate justice. Our workshop participants shared our belief that we are one human race made up of many cultures, and that borders are imposed on us primarily for the benefit of the economy. While capital and corporations enjoy free movement, with resources extracted and traded for the benefit of a tiny minority, people are prevented from following these resources and are displaced by these industrial practices. As one of the panel speakers, Raul Delgado Wise, said, “As workers migrate from south to north, new models of unequal exchange are created in which migration acts as another transfer to the north.”

The working group was a rich opportunity to exchange ideas and to begin to understand how climate change is already wreaking havoc on people’s lives. This is not just an environmental issue, but one that goes to the heart of our social, political and economic systems. Working to build solidarity between all of humanity and opposing the borders that divide us will be a fundamental part of the struggle for climate justice.


Time for feedback

June 12, 2010

Below is a short article which summarises some of what happened at the WPCCC.

We are currently working on a booklet that will provide a much more extended analysis and draw on interviews we carried out in Bolivia. It should be available in early July, more info to follow. Please email us, (ayya [at] riseup.net) if you would like to know when it is available.

We are also giving various feedback events, please see here for details or get in touch with us to arrange something.

The People’s Accord- Carving a fresh path?

I was lucky enough to attend the first World People’s Summit on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights (WPCCC), that took place in Bolivia, between 18th-22nd April. It was called by Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, in response to the failure of Copenhagen and aimed, ”to organise a worldwide coalition of social movements, NGOs and civil society with a common purpose.”1 Morales and his Movement Towards Socialism, (MAS) were bought to power in 2006 with massive support from the unions and peasant farmers movements and surely, no other head of state could have mobilised 35 000 people from more than 140 countries to attend.

The summit produced a powerful nine page ‘People’s Accord’ – a beacon of hope in the dark world of climate negotiations. It identifies capitalism as the main structural cause of climate change, whilst setting out an ambitious raft of proposals which would oblige those countries historically responsible for emissions to act. The Accord opens, “Today, our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.” It proposes:; 1) Binding 50% emissions cuts on 1990 levels between 2012-2017 2) An international court for climate crime implementing the Rights of the Earth 3) No market based mechanisms (including the controversial REDD scheme, which brings the carbon markets into the issue of deforestation 4) Sustainable models of agriculture for food sovereignty 5) That those forcibly displaced by climate change are protected.

The WPCCC embodied participation with seventeen open working groups. It was a world away from the UN climate negotiations, of deals made behind closed doors and repression meted out to protesters. The eight ALBA2 countries, which include Bolivia and Venezuela, will use the People’s Accord as the basis of their negotiations at the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, this December.

The summit was a rich and unique experience for social movement organisers to meet face to face and to strategise, but it remains to be seen how the declaration will be received and acted upon.

The local context

Bolivian glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, threatening the water supply in two major cities. I met people from all over the region who are experiencing the effects of climate change. Effects they played very little part in causing and that will be exacerbated by the country’s poverty. This summit has given a global dimension to ALBA’s demands for climate justice. But this highlights a contradiction. The ‘progressive’ political projects of the ALBA governments are based on redistributing the profits from fossil fuel extraction. Can they credibly promote this declaration while continuing in the same manner?

At the 18th working group, outside the main summit, the contradictions between the discourse of Mother Earth Rights and the capitalist production model still prevalent in Latin America were bought to the fore. Communities who are suffering water shortages, displacement and pollution spoke out against the mega projects, mines and deforestation being pursued across the region and called for an entirely different model of managing natural resources. Participant in the 18th working group, Pablo Regalski said, “Thousands of people have come to Bolivia because they think there is a new model beginning here. We wanted to show the problems in changing between the new model, and the old model-the capitalist, extractivist model. Of course mining fossil fuels is part of the transition to a new model, but we need to discuss it.”

To me, the tensions between social movements and the state in this transition is the key message from the conference. Bolivia stands as an example of what people can achieve when they organise. Significantly, the WPCCC was held in Cochabamba, a city which embodies popular power against corporate globalisation. In 2000, The ‘Cochabamba Water Wars’ saw mass protests against the privatisation of the municipal water supply. The private consortium was forced out and the water company went into public control. Marcela Olivera, an local organiser explained, The conflict was not just about water; it was about something else – what we call democracy. It was about who decides about the things that matter to us.” Bolivians have kicked out multinational corporations and bought down governments – all organised from the grassroots and now they are warning us that governments alone cannot make the radical changes required to deal with climate change.

Whilst we celebrate the breadth of the People’s Accord we must remember that this declaration is the start, not the end, of a process. Briefly it has amplified the social movements’ demands, locally defined solutions and spiritual understandings of the relationship with the earth that are so often marginalised. The ongoing struggle will be to make those with vested interests really begin to listen and act upon what is being said.

Watch Marcela Olivera on Democracy Now

1. Pablo Solon, Bolivia Ambassador to the UN

2Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas


Graffiti and some amusing pictures from our trip (Part 2)

May 10, 2010

One of the picture highlights of the trip was this little gem. After having translated the latest edition of their paper to distribute at the conference, during the closing ceremony members of the Turblence collective were confronted by a number of  policemen running towards them. It seems they were all keen to have a look at the latest ‘ideas for movement’, and some moments later were seen avidly scanning its pages.

While others utilised copies as much needed shade from the strong afternoon sun.

After the lengthy speeches of the closing ceremony, we went and relaxed at the Red Tinku‘s social centre, the buckets of chicha nicely washing down an evening of music, performance and dancing. Here’s a piece of graff adorning the wall of the women’s toilet at la Red Tinkuna.

And here’s another on an outside wall.

A couple of days later, during the march of the CSUTCB through Sucre, we spotted this piece on a wall heading out of the centre.

As well as being the official capital city of Bolivia, Sucre also boasts a number of dinosaur footprints still embedded into rock  just out of the city. A byproduct of this seemed to be numerous giant figures of dinosaurs on roadsides, and these figures on a rooftop near to the venue of the congress.

While a similar photo already exists on our post about May Day in La Paz, here is a close up of the Ministry of Work’s re-decoration.

A novel take on the usual black and white road markings was seen later along the May Day route.

La Paz is also home to the beautiful space that is run by the anarcha-feminist group Mujeres Creando, with their giant wiphala adorned with lesbian, gay, indigenous and queer positive messages.

one message reads: "you have to be brave to be queer"

It was only on one of our trips to the bus terminal in La Paz that we noticed just what a state democracy is really in, one man chuckling “House of Dictatorship” as he walked past.

'House of Democracy'

And the pictures we didn’t manage to get? The live close up of Hugo Chavez picking his nose on one of the big stadium screens during the closing ceremony, the May Day in La Paz including Coca-Cola workers all marching with half drunk bottles of the bad stuff in their hands, and the stencil of Che Guevara wearing a toque above the words ‘Chef Guevara’ are some that spring to mind.


MayDay in La Paz- dynamite and demands for higher pay.

May 8, 2010

The pollution and the altitude in La Paz combine to make breathing even on the flat a challenge. The city is dramatic, clinging to the steep sides of mountains. After dumping our luggage we headed out to look for the May Day demonstration that had made its way down from El Alto, the young sprawling city which has grown to be Bolivia’s 4th biggest city in the last 50 years. We headed to the square that the march was heading to, and saw various different types of police officers waiting with shields and tear gas. It didn’t take long to find the march approaching the centre, as it was accompanied by fire crackers, marching brass bands and chants, El Pueblo Undido- Nunca Sera Vencido! (the people united will never be defeated!)

The march was split into different groups of workers, the fabriles or factory workers who are generally more critical of the government, and the venderdores, or sellers. This resulted, at times, in there appearing to be two consecutive marches happening within the same area of central La Paz.

We got talking to Ricardo one of the workers from a large garment factory in La Paz who export the majority of their products to the US. “We are here today as a protest, the government is offering a 5% pay rise, but this is not enough, we are demanding 12%.” Alongside the demonstrations there are currently 12 people from high up in the unions who are on hunger strike to support the demands for the higher pay increase. And another 50 from Cochabamba fabriles union.

As we passed the Department of Work, a middle aged woman on a megaphone shouted out the many ways the government had let down workers, as the building got pelted with numerous pink paint bombs.

The sound of firecrackers ricocheted off the high buildings, but paled in comparison to the booms of the dynamite that sounded as the march rounded onto the main street, El Prado. One man joked with us, “well that’s one less car,” but there was no evidence that the dynamite was being blown for anything more than powerful sound effects, and maybe a reminder of the historical power that the mine workers have had in this country. A commotion outside the FTSB, Union Federation of Mine Workers of Bolivia, sent a ripple of nerves through the crowd and blinds on shops began rolling down as the marching Pacena woman, in their full traditional dress, ran around the corner and up the hill in the opposite direction.

Despite our earlier expectations of heavy policing and the possibility of tear gas, it was amusingly clear that ice cream sellers were a lot more prevalent than police. After a brief time moving with the young anarchist block, the march seemed to dissipate and everything was all over by lunch time.

However, when we were due to leave La Paz the next day there was a huge detour, some said because of road blocks and strikes. Buses, lorries and colectivos wound through dirt tracks along the sprawling outskirts of El Alto, seemingly lost.

Eventually our bus re-found its bearings and we arrived to the small Lake Titicaca town of Copacabana that was nearing the end of an all weekend fiesta. While some had already packed up their brass instruments, drums and costumes to make their way back to other areas, there was still a throng of people on the streets and many watching videos of the dancing and performances some hours before.

Despite what began sounding like bad karaoke booming out from opposite our hostel until the wee hours, we woke up early to make the two hour boat ride across to the Isla del Sol. Known in Inca mythology as the place that the Sun was born, aside from the growing tourist trade and the fairly recent addition of mainline electricity, it appeared that little has changed on the island for centuries.

There are no cars, the etching of terraces and small scale agriculture across the hills. Broad beans, maize, potatoes, herbs and quinoa are grown on small parcels of land, and water is brought to the houses high up on the hills by small donkeys.

In what was the most tranquil setting we had been in throughout the whole trip, the peace was occasionally spoilt by annoying gringo tourists. Numerous gap year students and those taking ‘career breaks’ so as to be able to ‘do’ continents like South America, many seemed to be there for the sole reason of cheap drinking. They seem so unaware that their position of wealth and privilege, and indeed their political and economic freedom of movement, relies on centuries of exploitation that have created the resulting poverty which means that local plumbing systems may not be what they are accustomed to!

Despite this we did find peace, sights of stunningly light blue waters and incredibly complex constellations in the night sky. We were even lucky enough to find some local folk who hadn’t yet been jaded by the more obnoxious tourists, and who filled us with stories of the island’s past as well as its present.

This beauty and tranquillity made the return via El Alto even more striking, this is where people who are leaving the fields behind often end up. As far as the eye can see in the distance the new city of El Alto stretches in to the Altiplano. Fried chicken joints break up hastily constructed breeze block houses with big metal gates and bare lightbulbs. Dogs run around among piles of burning rubbish and colectivos drop people off still resplendent in their bowler hats and sparkly shawls.

We saw a sign on the dual carriageway that snakes up from La Paz to El Alto, a government sponsored anti-migration advert, showing people crammed on to the back of a lorry leading to a far off and unappealing land, “Don’t go, you don’t know what you’ll find” it warned.

Our time in Bolivia has left us with so many questions. With the complexities of the problems that exist here, how could any government of any leaning really go about resolving the contradictions? No matter how the Evo administration may be trying we are sure from speaking to friends here that to call out the current governments contradictions, the differences between their rhetoric and their actions, is crucial. As we sit in Cochabamba airport preparing somewhat sadly to leave, the questions of how we will summarise and evaluate all that we have seen, learned and heard here buzz around our heads. This is our last post from Bolivia, but we will post more as things settle in our minds.


Report from the Campesino National Trade Union Congress, (Part 2)

May 5, 2010

Before we could take part in the second day of the CSUTCB campesino congress, we had to get our accreditation as ‘journalists’. This involved being taken past some Policia Sindical (PS) or Union Police by a friend, each of them scrutinising us closely, and then sitting nervously for an hour in a huge hall waiting for our passes to come back to us. The PS each had sticks and we certainly didn’t want to get on the wrong side of them. There were very few press people present, and most cameras were taking commemorative pictures of people under the Evo banner.

As soon as we got our passes we made our way outside, relieved. We got chatting to one of the (PS),  Javier from Oruro, about their role. He explained that this was a custom from indigenous communities, where there is autonomy from state police and the PS work as a form of self-regulation. At the congress male and female PS from all the regions had organised into groups with a captain and sub-comandantes. Their main role was to make sure that there was no-one there who shouldn’t be to make sure it was a fair vote,  and to prevent any trouble from breaking out. “We are aware of our cultural idiosyncrasies!” he said, explaining that people outside who had been drinking would be stopped from coming back in.

We asked Javier about the significance of being in Sucre he said, “When I saw the humiliation that happened in Sucre in 2008, I felt as if it was happening to me.” Until that same day nobody had faced trial although now proceedings are beginning against a few of the perpetrators. He had attended the climate conference and while he found it very positive event overall he pointed out that indigenous participation was high, whilst the middle classes and students were noticeably absent. A possible indication of which sectors of Bolivian society are supportive of the government’s policies.

Javier explained that the effects of climate change are already being felt in the Oruro region; less predictable seasons, heavier rainfalls and longer winters. New diseases have been brought by mosquitoes, which they had never had at that altitude, and there is a new plague of hares that are menacing the crops. “Mining has drastically damaged the local water systems, livelihoods from fishing have been destroyed, the water is contaminated and livestock are born with deformities…  Whether the mines are nationalised or not, the pollution is the same.” Unfortunately our chat was cut short as he was called off to a meeting.

After a lot of ushering by the PS, by about 4pm things eventually got started, but it became clear all was not going well. A Cochabambino friend explained that the delays were, “pure politics.” The main aim of the congress was to elect a new president and officers for the following 5 years. Once all the regions were present and sat where they should be, separately from each other around the hall, they each proposed one representative. There were disagreements between the West and the East of the country over the candidates and accusations that the Paceñas (people from La Paz) had brought too many people with them in order to influence the voting. One key decision was how the voting would be conducted. The options were secret ballot, lining up in front of a favoured candidate, or raising the hand and shouting – the latter coming out as the the preferred option.

We soon realised that the internal union politics were not really for us to engage with. Cristian Dominguez, who we had met in the UK and Copenhagen and who had invited us to the congress, was up for re-election and so was busy negotiating with different delegates for their support behind the scenes. The problems faced by campesinos were not being discussed, but instead the complicated regional politics of this trade union and the wider country. Whilst it was an interesting experience, we ultimately left feeling that it was a lot of the same old power politics and not the more directly democratic model that we  expected to find.

The next day it was reported in the papers that there had been a major breakdown in the meetings. A fight had broken out on the stage and the conflicts over candidates had prevented things from moving forward, with the current representatives relocating to continue the meeting. The tensions seemed to be a result of differences between those loyal to the government and those not. It was suggested that any dissenters of MAS were excluded from the congress. The role of the CSUTCB has been key to Evo’s rise to power, but it appeared that now with MAS in government, the union itself may face regional fractures.


Graffiti and some amusing pictures from our trip (Part 1)

May 5, 2010

So on our first full day in Bolivia we couldn’t resist but go and visit the biggest statue of Jesus in the world (so we are told), or “giant jesus” as we lovingly referred to him. While originally this had been a jokey request from a loved one back home, a demand for a photo of us at his feet, we were all in fact quite keen to make the journey and take a look for ourselves. So a hot walk and a short cable car ride later we there at the top, admiring the outlines of breeze blocks still present in the original construction. Jokes aside, it was a great place to get a full view of Cochabamba and its surrounding areas – a moment to take a deep breath before the hecticness of the conference began.

Jesus warning - "danger, avoid being a victim"

Cochabamba has a great array of political graffiti, stencils and murals. This piece is on the corner of the Plaza Principal, a key area of organising during the Water Wars and still to this day a site of mobilising and protest. Only the day before we headed out of Cochabamba there was a protest outside a government building very close to this mural, as residents from District 9 tried to hold the municipality to account for still not having met promises relating to water supply in their area.

"The Water is the Peoples"

During the march on the first day of the Feria del Agua, marking 10 years since the Water Wars we saw a whole selection of political graffiti and messages along the route as well as adorning the walls of the venue, Complejo Fabril. We also watched as pieces as were being made (there’s a photo in an earlier post) and have since been lucky enough to meet some of the awesome women who were responsible for them. Here’s a selection of what we saw on the day.

"The Water Is Ours - Dammit!"

"Mother Earth is not income. It's not for sale. It's not for rent!!"

"Capitalism = Death"

"Death to the State"

"Neither God, Nor Master, Nor Political Party"

Chewing coca leaves here is akin to having a cup of tea back in the UK. The beginning of the conference working groups, meetings and the inauguration of the CUSTCB congress have all included opening rituals and the sharing out of coca leaves amongst participants. Despite ongoing denial, it’s commonly known that the original recipe for Coca-Cola involved coca and in this vein Bolivia has its very own product on the market. Coca Colla (do you see what they did there?!) is available in the major cities of the country, and this specimen was spotted on the floor of a side event during the conference. Unlike its widely known competitor, this one proudly states its ingredients on the bottle.

In a similar vein, the closing ceremony of the conference included the most unusual mascots we have ever seen, who we have since named “Daddy Coca Leaf” and “Babby Coca Leaf”. While different indigenous groups paraded around the arena performing traditional song and dance, our coca leaf friends amused people on the field and made us smile from ear to ear.

More to follow….