As I arrived at the Community Church in New York City last night for a talk given by Bolivian President Evo Morales, I headed for the back of a line that stretched two blocks long. The crowd, many of whom had arrived three hours before Evo was slated to appear, was buzzing with excitement, and more than a few passerbys asked us what we were all waiting for. A Peruvian man from a small village high in the Andes who now works for the UN stood next to me, chatting about Evo and the Indigenous movement. “You know,” he said, “when he first announced his candidacy, nobody believed he would win. And now, several years later, people are rallying behind him for the next Nobel Peace Prize.
We filed into the church, a large space that soon filled to capacity, and listened to a Lakota tribe member introduce the night, calling for “peace with Earth, rather than peace on Earth.” Leaving us with a Lakota saying: “One cannot sell the earth on which people walk,” he handed the evening over to President Morales. He took the stage to the sound of chanting – “Nobel Peace Prize!” – and the crowd leaned forward, sitting on the edges of the pews and listening in anticipation.
Championing the rights of Mother Earth has indeed become Evo Morales’ legacy, and this Indigenous-led social movement, his source of greatest pride. The time has come, he says, to defend the rights of Mother Earth and to organize around this concept. According to Morales, we can no longer embrace economic models that concentrate capital in the hands of a few, while poverty persists, and environmental destruction ensues. The current economic systems seek to commodify nature, a framework in which equality, and therefore peace, cannot exist. But to focus on socialism would be a too divisive, and a mistake, he insists, urging us instead to rally around the environment.
The People’s Agreement that emerged from the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, earlier this year, calls for the creation of a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, and rejects the Copenhagen Accord’s allowance for a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperatures. Such a rise, Morales argues, would be disastrous for Nature. Already (with a rise of 0.7 degrees Celsius) droughts in Latin America, as in elsewhere in the world, are wreaking havoc on agricultural production, and temperature fluctuations are destroying biodiversity. The Agreement also calls for the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal that will try violating countries or companies.
The COP-16 in Cancun is rapidly approaching, and Morales wants the People’s Agreement to be taken into account. He encourages us to come to Cancun to put pressure on governments to recognize the rights of Mother Earth. It remains an open question if global leaders are ready for an Indigenous-led environmental movement. If they are not, Morales says, the people must continue to organize and unite, offering an alternative vision for our relationships with the environment.