El Cumbre Rights of Mother Earth Conference

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search


Excerpted from the conference notes of Massimo De Angelis [1]:

The Context

"Fifteen years ago, I attended the First Encuentro for Humanity against Neoliberalism, called by the Zapatistas and held in the Lacandonian jungle, Chiapas, Mexico. The Encuentro has been an inspirational event for many of us who participated, for so many reasons. Overall, it started to crack open the claustrophobic feeling we had in the middle of the so called “end of history”, giving us a perspective that perhaps history was once again just beginning, as many activists started to draw their attention to the modes and cultures of struggles against capitalism advanced by indigenous people. Retrospectively, if there was one thing that the Encuentro definitively achieved, was to inject the seed of indigenous democratic method and consensus seeking among a quite diverse set of people, it brought a different set of sensibilities and measures to decision making among political animals. In other word, it planted the seed of the commons into political processes, which, especially in the West, at the time where dominated by the self-imposed ghettos of identity politics and “identity-ideologies”. In fifteen years, this seed has grown through encuentros, nurtured by collectives, flourished in social fora and social movement assemblies, and became the subject of controversy in the dichotomising battles among “verticals” and “horizontals”, socialists and anarcho-autonomists, as in the preparatory period of the European Social Forum held in London in 2004. It was the job of an indigenous president — the first in the history of Bolivia — to embrace the dichotomy, overcome the sterile aspects of this opposition and give it instead productive contents. To the point that on the last day of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, shortly El Cumbre (April 19-22), I even found myself - old “horizontalist” as I am - on the front row of a hectic crowd on the football pitch of the Cochabamba Stadium cheering with chants and flag weaving at Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez (well, I was still cautiously cheering, OK?).

Indeed, one of the things that most impressed me of this conference is the political genius of this president and his team in bringing together a diverse global social movement and finding a way to articulate its energies, expertise and powers to a political process dominated by state politics, i.e. the UN decision making on climate change. And we definitively needed something like this, because unlike the successful struggles against WTO or neoliberal globalisation in the past years, here the social movements do not simply want to wreck negotiations and to say “no” to a model of capitalism (neoliberalism). Here the social movements wants concrete actions that not only are up to the task of drastically and rapidly reducing greenhouse gasses emissions, but also and at the same time that are socially just. Therefore, a wide and diverse spectrum of social movements want the end of capitalism (without which no drastic reduction of greenhouse emission is possible) and the constitution of something new (without which no social justice is possible). Never as in this moment the “shadow of the future” cast by global warming has been giving urgency to the need of an emancipatory project: “Socialism o barbarie”, as Hugo Chavez endless repeated Rosa Luxemburg classic warning, but also, “Madre Tierra o Muerte”, or, which is the same thing, the “rights of Mother Earth” or the “rights of capitalism”.

You may call it co-optation, but I am not sure about it, not yet at least. Co-optation is when a social movement and its aspirations are diverted or used for different purposes than the original one, as when wage struggles against capital are for example turned into means for its development (and wage cuts somewhere else). Surely, there is no doubt that this conference has allowed Evo Morales to score so many political points, both internally and externally, as many activists have kept repeating me. However, both the broad goals and, to a very large extent, the means of this conference — the decision making process giving rise to the documents — are aligned and shared among a wide spectrum of participants, social movements activists, state officials and NGOs.

The success of the conference is unquestionable, at least from the perspective of participation. People from more than 140 countries attended (although definitively less Africans and Asians), more that 40 different official government delegations (at different level), more than 30000 participants.


Four main ideas provided the co-ordinates of the conferences, which where then discussed and provided fine details. First, a universal declaration of “Mother Earth”, i.e. that Mother Earth should be granted rights to preserve the integrity of its processes; second, a “Climate Justice Tribunal”, making those countries, companies and individuals who violate those rights facing legal consequences; third, the acknowledgement of “climate debt”, i.e. that poor countries should receive various forms of reparation not tied to aid for a crisis they are facing but had little role in creating; fourth, the idea of a “World People’s Referendum on Climate Change”, as a way for people around the world to express their views on these issues.

Within these areas, particular demands are that the countries of the global North should respect the Kyoto protocol, which means to put into practice 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and limiting the global temperature increase to a maximum of one-degree Centigrade, as opposed to the devastating 2% target agreed in Copenhagen last November. Demands are also for shifting the resources now spent on military and death (about $1.7 trillion) for life and nature; to set up substantial reparations for countries of the South, to share knowledge and technology with relevance to climate. The final document reporting on these results is here (www.cmpcc.org.bo/PEOPLES-AGREEMENT).

Now, to put it simply, it is clear that if we apply the results of the Cochabamba cumbre, there is some hope to save the world. However, one thing that the conference has not debated sufficiently, are the consequences of its demands, especially for the Global North. The document requires the North to take responsibility and a) Pay up climate debt; b) substantially reduce carbon emission and c) do this without the help of technologies such as geoengineering, biotechnology and nuclear, i.e. reduce emissions without breaking the social movements’ imposed taboo on the use of technology that mess with the earth dynamic equilibria and processes by bringing in irreversible risks. Personally, I feel all these demands are legitimate, and should be complied. However, it is also true that if these demands need to be met, it is not only the governments of the global North that need to be “convinced”, but also, and especially, its people. And at present, there is no grand narrative that can convince anybody that substantial reduction of greenhouse gasses (i.e. GDP) and massive debt repayment are something that is compatible with maintenance not so much of “life-styles,” but of “livelihoods”.

These demands, if met within current social relations of production, will have a drastic adverse social impact in the livelihoods of millions in the developed countries, simply because they de-facto imply a reduction in economic growth, and in the North, our livelihoods heavily depends on economic growth. What need to be spelled out clearly and worked upon by our movements, especially in the global North, is that we also know that economic growth and people livelihoods do not have to be the same thing, and people will pay the price only if the existing dominant modes of production and distribution driven by profit and articulated by capitalist markets is maintained. Therefore, unless we want to face our demands for climate justice with green fascism and austerity, we must accompany the struggles for these demands with the massive promotion of commons, that is with the construction of radically different practices to reproduce our livelihoods, at all scales of social action, including at the level of the state. Because this is the only way we can seek bien vivir at the same times as we promote a massive de-linking of our reproduction to market circuits, especially those markets that fuel global competition and that reproduce dependency on agro-industrial circuits. And in this way, we can also link up with the socio-ecological struggles in Bolivia, not only by creating the condition for reducing climate change and limiting the destruction of water sources and ice caps that is already happening there, but also by drastically reducing the demand for minerals and hydrocarbon and develop other forms of solidarity and grand commoning.

El Cumbre has definitively provided legitimacy for countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela (and other Alba countries) to talk tough at the next round of UN negotiation on climate change. Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez among others, will be arguing that people have spoken, and it is now time to “feed a strategy” (alimentar una strategia) (Chavez) on the basis of what they said and what they want so as we start implementing what has been decided. But in the midst of all flag weaving and enthusiasm for el cumbre, and even in anticipation that the governments money promised by Chavez will bring thousands from the global south to put pressure on empire to comply, I cannot avoid to think that the turning point will happen only when we, in the Global North, decide it is time to face up the true conundrum of our time and do the right thing: shall we go on with our dependence on capitals’ circuits or reinvent new commoning practices outside capital in order to reproduce our livelihoods?" (http://www.commoner.org.uk/blog/?p=243)

The Importance of the Mother Earth meme

"Evo Morales was definitively right in saying that the difference between the meetings in Copenhagen and in Cochabamba is that we were debating here the causes of the climate change, and not only the effects, and that the causes have a lot to do with the system of boundless accumulation we know as capitalism. And when boundlessness is acknowledged, it is as easy as 1+1 = 2 to say that finite earth is threatened by such a system. “Either capitalism dies, or mother earth dies” or “either capitalism lives or mother earth lives”, as Evo put it in his speech. No, there is no much room for playing the postmodern game here and denounce the polarity. As the newspaper Opinion titles in its resume at the end of the conference (25 April), “everybody against capitalism” seem to be the clear common ground at this conference, a sentiment so strong, that even the representatives of mainstream NGOs did not dare to question it.

But there is more to this common ground than simply an opposition to capitalism. There is the question of earth conceptualised and discursively constructed as mother, as Mother Earth. I assume this will be a hard thing to digest among many Western activists and, in general, socialists with excessive “scientific” leanings. Or, if not hard to digest, at least easy to avoid dealing with. I am already seeing reports in which the term “Mother Earth” is only left in the title of the conference, while in the discursive description references are made to “nature” or “environment” only. Let us see how many Western socialist newspapers will use the terms substantially like the indigenous here, or how many will try to conceptually translated it. To me, the terms Mother Earth is undoubtedly a very important term, because it constructs a framework within which we can conceive both the opposition and the alternatives to capitalism, while at the same time bringing into revolutionary politics the dimension of the sacred (i.e. of the limit) — with the bonus of not having to deal with a religion, whether hierarchically organised or not! The expression “Mother earth” was apparently chosen instead of Pachamama for better conveying the message to non Andean people, but I was told that the two carry similar meanings. When one French-Indian activist suggested in a meeting to use other expressions such as biodiversity to make it more appealable to other cultures, the objection he received is that the term “Mother Earth” has now been accepted even by the United Nation, that - following the proposal by the Bolivian Government last year — has instituted Mother Earth day on 22 April. Which made me think that perhaps this conference has been on planning more than few months!

Mother Earth is different than expressions such as “earth”, or “environment” for at least three interrelated reasons. First, it defines a common genealogy shared among all living beings (as well as a common telos, in so far as our bodies will all dissolve into earth basic elements and will be re-articulated into its processes when we die). Second, it defines a set of relations and processes (ecologies) that comprise humans and other species, but also water, mountains, seas. In this sense, the slogan often repeated at the conference is well pointed: “the earth does not belong to humans, humans belong to earth.” Third, it defines a relational field and a set of processes at a scale that comprises and bounds pretty much everything, including the human processes that goes under the name of capitalism. If this boundary is not accepted, if we do not socially enforce it, if we do not give it the character of a taboo, than this is it, “mummy gets angry”, and fights back. The planet will exist after us, as it existed for million of years before, but there will be nobody to call it “mother” or anything else. If we needed to find a limit to capitalism, well we didn’t need to look further than our own condition of existence and reproduction, i.e. what is called here Mother Earth! We have now simply to become its voice, as another slogan puts it. [Note: while I am writing this I run against a newspaper article reporting just the opposite view. The Feministas Comunitaris de Bolivia “denounced that the understanding of Pachamama as synonym of Mother Earth is ‘reductionist and machista, and that makes reference only to fertility in order to keep women and Pachamama under patriarchal domination’”. The argument claims this on the basis that instead Pachamama is a “whole that goes much beyond the visible nature . . .and that includes life, the relations established within living beings, its energies, necessities and desires.” But this holistic and relational meaning is precisely the one that I gathered was given to the notion of Mother Earth in pretty much all interventions I heard and references to it, and not, as it is alleged, “as something that can be dominated and manipulated at the service of ‘development’ and of consumption.” (Feministas dicen que concepto de la Madre Tierra es machista, Opinion. 27 April 2010, p13A). If it was the latter, the entire workings of the conference and the final document would not make any sense!]

But Mother Earth does not only serve as a boundary, as a limit to capitalism. Its conception as a living being, as a set of balancing processes and flows, rather than simply as “resources” to be capitalised, also implies that our own activity as humans is constituent part of the balancing processes. Hence, we need to somehow align the type of activities, goals and set of relations we construct in our economic activities, in other words, the modes of our production and reproduction, to the balancing processes of Mother Earth. And this especially now that we have reached a gigantic level of social production. This alignment however is not possible in presence of social injustice, because social injustice is itself both the result and the source of imbalance. This alignment also is not possible through development, since development as we know it is a source of social injustice. Hence the conundrum is generally resolved with the conception of Bien Vivir, a notion that has found its way into the Ecuadorian and Bolivian recent constitutional changes and that frames pretty much the broad horizons of alternatives." (http://www.commoner.org.uk/blog/?p=243)

The Bien Vivir concept

"In our working table we had a round of opinions of what bien vivir meant to different people. Here is a list of basic terms I have collected: to live in harmony, to breathe good air, to “be concerned when my brother or sister does not have food to eat”, to live together: convivir, to share: compartir, to live in harmony within the family or the community, to problematise how to live together. There is a general correspondence with the understanding of Pachamama, or Mother Earth, and bien vivir. Indeed, the idea of bien vivir moves from the rejection of an anthropocentric idea that human beings are at the centre, and instead moves from the recognition that we are part of a system, and we live in complementarity with one another and other life forms. In other words, bien vivir is definitively not classic socialism with its fetishisation of progress and faith in the endless human capability to control nature. Hence, the notion of reciprocity is crucial in bien vivir, as is symbolised in the Andean cross balancing the giving and taking of life processes. Reciprocity here applies to both relations among humans within a community and between humans and other forms of life (and indeed beyond).

Bien vivir comes from sumak kawsay, a Quechua word. In Aymara it is suma qamaña. The conception is intrinsically tied with the type of commoning of these and other indigenous communities, who organise in aillu, practice reciprocity and organise their unwaged community work as Mingas and Ayuni. Thus what is attempted through this conference is to translate this conception for social movements beyond the Andes, in such a way as to provide a framework within which to conceptualise social relations of production that are alternative to both capitalism and traditional socialism. And indigenous people here have some legitimacy to propose this framework. As put it by Boaventura De Sousa Santos (Democracy Now www.democracynow.org/2010/4/21/the_world_is_changing_in_a,) “the original people . . . have been excluded by all the Western modernity, but kept alive their lifestyles. And their lifestyles now, . . . show the world some signs of the future. They are not a part of the past; they are part of the future. It is no coincidence that 70 percent of the biodiversity of the world is located in the indigenous peoples’ territories.”

Thus, when we are talking about bien vivir, we are talking about commons, in that bien vivir is ultimately a set of relations and processes that can only be actualised as commoning, since you do not have “harmony” or “reciprocity” in capitalist markets or top down state relations. However, bien vivir is an open problematic of commons, and not a model of commons. In this sense, one thing that I think is not problematised sufficiently when this conception is used, is how to understand bien vivir in the context of state policies of development which ideologically embrace bien vivir (such as the Bolivian government) but then at the same time needs to develop integration within the global economy (i.e. play the game of life-threatening competition) in order to gain cash and to meet the needs that cannot be met with domestic production. How is this entering global markets and drive to export oil, gas and minerals compatible with bien vivir?" (http://www.commoner.org.uk/blog/?p=243)

The 'rebel' Mesa 18

"This aporia between bien vivir as relational field of commoning outside capitalist markets, and the process of development that the Bolivian state has to engage with in order to survive within the global political economy — which sees the development of exports, especially of extractive industries but also the development of manufacturing capacities — is a contradiction that has been manifested in the mesa 18, the so called “rebel mesa” that was not authorised to be inside the conference by the official organisers and that has been set up by CONAMAQ (Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu, www.conamaq.org.bo/), to highlight the socio-environmental conflicts that the process of Bolivian development is sparking in spite of the anti-capitalist rhetoric. Its conclusions however are linked in the official site and can be found here (www.cmpcc.org.bo/Conclusiones-Mesa-18 Last accessed 25 April 2010).

The government dismissed the mesa on socio-environmental conflicts as only being relevant to a national audience, and justified by self-referentials NGOs and foundations. However, the international relevance of socio-environmental conflicts in Bolivia is obvious, in that the nature of these conflicts here are quite similar to what is happening in other parts of the world (for example, communities struggles against mine companies destroying water sources and polluting rivers) and it would have been crucial to problematise these conflicts in relation to processes of political change and constitution of alternatives, as it is the one that is supposedly occurring in Bolivia.

On the other hand, the mesa proponents seems to me are making too rushed parallels between the Bolivian government policies and developmentalist policies of the past. In their final documents, proponents of mesa 18 explained that the mesa “was established as a necessary space for reflection and denunciation. . . with the goal of deepening the reading on the local effects of global industrial capitalism. We take responsibility to question the so called popular Latin American regimes and the predatory and consumerist logic, the logic of death of developmentalism and neo-extractivism.” In this sense, the role of the mesa is to denounce that “the development plans of these governments, including Bolivia, only reproduce the developmental pattern of the past” and argue that “to address climate change humanity must meet with their communitarian collective cultural roots; this means building a society based on collective ownership and community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories.” The means through which this path will be carved is through learning the lesson of history: “History teaches us that there is only one effective way to transform society and to build a socialist alternative to capitalism: social mobilization, learning and linking our struggles.”

Now, we can broadly share the vision, a society of self-determined commons in association with one another, if this is the society that meet Marx’s dictum of a society in which “the free development of one individual is the condition for the free development of all”. And we can also share the accent on the “need to make visible the contradictions” of current “popular” government development policies as “reflected in the socio-environmental conflicts.” But I think it is a bit too early to accuse Evo Morales government of being “reproducing the development pattern of the past” and “based in industrial development and consolidation of translational corporations, based on private property, individual profit and consumerism.” Just because oil and minerals are extracted and some form of industrialisation is part of the government agenda, does not mean to go back to the forced endless industrialisation of developmentalist governments. Especially if we consider that many of these programmes of industrialisation — like the development of lithium in the South — is something that campesinos communities have been demanding for years. In the short term, the real test will be the new law on mining that the government promised will soon substitute the existing neoliberal law of the late 1990s. If the new law will embed the right of consultation and participation of communities in defining the mining projects, as the new constitution (february 2009) promises, and whether these rights are interpreted as giving communities decisions and control powers, rather than simply as a way for them to negotiate compensations for decisions that have already been taken centrally, then we may have a situation in which both the development of the mining industry and communities enforcement of a limit to this on the basis of social and environmental considerations will coexist.

One of Evo Morales reaction when he was asked about the issues around mesa 18 was this: “they’re telling me that I should shut down oil wells and gas wells. So what is Bolivia going to live off of? So let’s be realistic.” (www.democracynow.org/2010/4/23/bolivian_president_evo_morales_to_president). Being realistic actually implies to recognise at least two things of processes of transformation. First, as the government claims, some “mega” projects and hydrocarbon extraction are welcome by communities and are necessary precisely to give communities more social power. Of course, necessary but not sufficient (the other element being communities participation in their definition and control). This runs counter the principled position that emerges from the global movement such as “leave oil on the ground” or “no to mega-projects”. These slogans do not allow “flexibility”, they do not say: “the greatest polluters must leave oil on the ground while the other are allowed to use (and/or extract more) as long as we reduce the overall amount of oil extracted”. They do not say “we must stop the growth of extraction and reduce it to a substantially lower level”. They do not say “this mega project is socially necessary as well as welcome by communities”, while “this other is a waste of resources and socially and ecologically devastating”. In other words, they do not allow for operational flexibility, something that is not only necessary to capitalist or socialist developmentalist governments, but also to communities with needs and aspirations. Indeed, many of the controversial projects like lithium or hydrocarbon development have been demanded by communities for many years.

Not to talk about the fact that in Bolivia, schools and hospitals need to be built and maintained, that social security needs to be extended, and that all this need access to resources that in current conditions are largely (but not uniquely) dependent on some access to global markets. In the current context, for Bolivia selling on the global markets means selling minerals. In other words, as you could not have “socialism in one country”, you cannot have today “bien vivir” in one country. Second, as emerging from the works of the mesa 18, being realistic also means that “socio-environmental” conflicts are also inescapable in any process of transformation, whether these processes are promoted from the top, are developed from the bottom, or both (as it seems to me to be the case today in Bolivia). This because the “class”, the social composition of the agents of transformation, is structurally divided into hierarchies of powers that differentiate the access to resources, and pluralise needs, desires and aspirations. So for example, in many circumstances, the communities struggling against mines’ uses of water are not the same than the communities of mining workers, especially if the miners are employed by large private and state firms (in Bolivia there are also many coop mines, whose small scale of operation and little use of technology generally does not affect community waters). What the struggles of the former point at is a limit to the operation of mining as this is the only way to limit their use of water. On the other hand, from the perspective of income and employment generation, mineral production and export must be maximised. Thus, given the structural hierarchy of the class, the question I guess is to problematise how conflict could be constituent of the new, of a new common ground, and not to use conflict simply as indicator that the process of change goes on the wrong direction.


It must also be said that if the government where to flatly and abruptly decreed the principles proposed by mesa 18 of “community management and rational use of natural resources, in which it is the people who decide directly the fate of natural wealth according to their organizational structures, self-determination, their own rules and procedures and its vision of integrated management of their territories”, then large urban areas would have big problems feeding themselves and would be ridded with conflict of all types: bottom-up, top-down, bottom-bottom, middle-bottom . . .and so on. This because they have little natural resources to decide for, and they have largely lost the self-organisational capabilities that here are instead rooted in the countryside and practised by indigenous people. The “association of free producers” must be constituted through a historical process, with preconditions that are shaped by the objective and subjective detritus left in different circumstances by capitalist relations, and cannot be proclaimed by government decree, however leftist and radical that government may be. Thus we have to keep in mind that as this process of constitution unfolds with its own rhythms and times creating the conditions for some communities to self-produce bread and roses, some other people instead are only in the condition to demand bread and roses. Thus, at any time before the constitution of the “association of free producers” as a totality, demands may clash with one another even horizontally and at the bottom, and the illusionary community of the radical state must bring some form of reconciliation among them if the struggling subjects cannot find a common constituent ground. How is the state going to do so, is obviously crucial element of our final judgement on its role, but it has got to do it nevertheless. Ultimately, the acknowledgement of this necessity is a basic element of being “realistic”. Bien vivir is ultimately a process that obviously depend on bottom up struggles and a project that can only be actualised through people’s empowerment and autonomy. However, the hypothesis I want to put forward here is that given the conditions we move from, the state of social fragmentation, the urban aggregations, the structural hierarchy of power and access to resources, the degree of alienation of people from one another, social wealth and nature, implies that to start from, the development of empowerment and autonomy require some means that are developed outside of empowerment and autonomy, namely within the alien socialisation modes of states and markets. Just as capital developed from not only enclosing commons but also from coupling (and subordinating) commons to accumulation (as in the case of domestic labour or, indeed, any moment of formal subsumption of labour), thus the development of alternatives requires access to means of socialisation that, from the perspective of singularities in structural isolation from others, can only be achieved through existing dominant modes of socialisation, i.e. states and money. This statement is not a movement away from autonomy and commoning, it is simply a recognition of some basic preconditions for their development. It also requires us to travel full circle, from commoning to the state, and from the state to commoning, and in so doing embrace the big problematic posed by the need to increase the scale of commoning. So for example, Bolivia’s history shows how commoning struggles (like the water war, but also the 500 years indigenous resistance) has developed through the phases of protest, proposal, and political power. But this is not the end of it. Not only Bolivia is at a moment now that requires the problematisation of the relation between internal socio-ecolgical struggles and the government project of “bien vivir” — project that has its roots in processes of transformation and commoning. Also, the scale of current socialisation of labour and global warming, makes this political power even more insufficient and ineffective as a source of transformation, unless it is coupled more strongly to commoning of greater scale, that is beyond its borders. This commoning of greater scale with which political power needs to couple with in order to bring about change in Bolivia has at least two sources. One, is the global social movements (and the coupling has started right here at the cumbre). The other, is the missing commoning that we absolutely require to develop in the global North, if there is any hope to contrast the “shadow of the future” cast by capital and global warming. Let me clarify this by returning to the results of el cumbre." (http://www.commoner.org.uk/blog/?p=243)