The Bolivian sun was hot today – even at 9am – and my shoulders are more than a little sunburned. Although the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth began yesterday, with working group planning sessions and self-organized panels, the official inauguration was held today, in the Tiquipaya Municipal Stadium. (Almost all of the conference events take place at a university in Tiquipaya, a small town bordering Cochabamba.) The event commenced with a variety of performances from South American musicians from Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, etc. After a prayer to Pachamama and several dance performances by indigenous groups wearing white robes and feathered headdresses, President Evo Morales joined the rest of the conference’s most influential political leaders and civil society attendees on the stage.
Although the few Spanish words I know have started coming back to me as I navigate around Tiquipaya and the conference site, I know that being an English-speaker has placed me at a disadvantage. In addition to the frustrations encountered in face-to-face interactions, many of the events have not been translated from Spanish. At the inauguration, only the speakers who addressed the audience in English were translated – and there were only three of them. The conference has an incredible number of indigenous participants, and many other attendees hail from South America, so for most this wasn’t a problem. However, as Bolivian President Evo Morales cracked jokes and the audience laughed and applauded, I felt frustrated and left out. When he held up a wool poncho and a plastic one (which looked ridiculously flimsy in comparison), I greatly appreciated the visual demonstration, but I wish I could have heard his words.
As a result, my experience of the event was somewhat fragmented. Obviously I understood the three English presenters;a Native American woman from the United States, an African man representing an indigenous network, and Soumya Dutta from India (whom I shared the stage with yesterday, at the panel on Bringing Agriculture into Climate Change Negotiations) but they were introduced in Spanish, so I was unable to catch their names. I expected to look up the speakers’ names and titles online this evening, but the lack of media coverage on the conference is shocking. I couldn’t find a single mention in the New York Times and only two articles in the Guardian, written earlier this week.
Despite the language barrier and the threat of sunstroke (we were sitting outdoors for over 5 hours), I was inspired by what I heard and saw. The Native American woman from the US, who focused on the plight of indigenous people in the face of imperialism and corporate interests, said, “The people who can change the world are here.” There’s one thing for sure: The people at this conference are not the same people who attended COP-15 in Copenhagen. Many of them are local Cochabambans; many of them (including several members of the NY delegation) are international participants who just received their first passports in time for this event. Amid chants of “Evo! Evo!” I felt the incredible energy of the audience, most of whom, dressed in brightly colored traditional garb, were not the crowd one might expect to encounter at a global climate change conference. However, these are the people who have felt the effects of climate change in their everyday lives, and now they have the opportunity to share their stories and participate in a global dialogue. Hopefully, this people’s conference will succeed where Copenhagen failed and bring groups together under a universal declaration on climate change and the rights of Mother Earth. Even if an agreement isn’t reached, I hope that this event will shape the direction of COP-16, taking place in Cancun later this year, and establish a more accessible, inclusive model for global climate meetings.
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Corazza