Bolivia vs. the billionaires: limitations of the "climate justice movement" in international negotiations

Nicole Fabricant & Kathryn Hicks
AT THE MOST RECENT INTERNATIONAL CLIMATE change negotiations in Doha, Qatar, Bolivia's minister of environment and water, Jose Antonio Zamora Gutierrez, played on the famous slogan from the 2000 water wars in Cochabamba and declared, "The climate is not for sale." In the water wars, a broad range of popular sectors came together to practice civil disobedience in the heart of the city and successfully ejected Aguas del Tunari, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Bechtel corporation, reasserting the right to public control of this crucial resource. Bolivia's very recent history of distinct successful "populist movements" allied against the privatization of natural-resources (from water wars in Cochabamba to the gas wars primarily centered in El Alto) paved the way for the election of center-left president Evo Morales and new forms of state making. However, obstacles are daunting for Bolivian climate justice activists: They are up against fossil fuel giants from the Global North intent upon blocking any serious and meaningful progress on reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions, but also the capitalist economy itself, and the dependence on non-renewable resources and extractive industries to fuel a particular way of life in the Global North.
One thing is clear: Bolivia will continue to take a radical stance, pointing out the ways in which our global economic and financial system is intimately connected to the destruction of the environment. Zamora Gutierrez spoke before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC (COP18) in Doha:
"The causes of the climate crisis are directly related to the accumulation and concentration of wealth in a few countries and in small social groups, excessive and wasteful mass consumption, under the belief that having more is living better ... We will not pay the climate debt of developed countries to developing countries. They, developed countries, must fulfill their responsibility."
Further, he pointed toward how Bolivia has come to the fore of the climate crisis with concrete proposals to strengthen the global climate system. "We have proposed the creation of the Joint Mechanism for Mitigation and Adaptation for integrated and sustainable management of forests, not based on markets, to strengthen community, indigenous and peasant management of forests. ... We promote consistently the creation of an international mechanism to address loss and damage resulting from natural causes and impacts of climate change in developing countries. Our country will not promote carbon market mechanisms such as REDID." (1)
On the other end of the spectrum are those who have benefited directly from capitalist globalization, including investors in coal, oil, and gas. They rely upon short-term profits from the dirtiest and riskiest forms of exploitation and work tirelessly to make sure that representatives from the Global South do not define international climate policy. While Bolivia has taken a radical stance in international climate change negotiations, proposing alterations to our global political-economic system, the country holds very little power against billion-dollar fossil-fuel giants attempting to paralyze U.S. climate policy and in turn, meaningful multilateral negotiations. U.S. intransigence underpins the international impasse at UN climate conventions. Doha is only the most recent example in a series of failed attempts to solidify a binding agreement on climate change that accords with scientific recommendations. (2)
The most disappointing recent international climate change conference, perhaps, was that of Copenhagen in 2009, Bolivia first emerged as a key player in the international climate justice movement. In Copenhagen, President Evo Morales gave a powerful speech about climate debt, or the fundamental responsibility on the part of the Global North to deal with the ecological crisis it has created, but that everyone will have to deal with. Morales, in a well-known speech at the UN conference, linked exorbitant U.S. spending on "wars on terror" to the minimal "reparations" for climate change:
"I was looking at some figures. The U.S.--how much does the U.S. spend to export terrorism to Afghanistan, to export terrorism to Iraq, and to export military bases to South America. They don't only spend millions, but billions and trillions. ... Trillions of dollars are going to the wars, on the other hand, to save humanity and the planet, they only want to direct $10 billion." (3)
The Copenhagen Accord, drafted by the United States, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, recognized climate change as one of the greatest current challenges and stipulated that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases below two degrees Celsius, but it did not contain any legally binding mitigation commitments from industrialized nations.
In response, Morales convened a Worlds People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, in which 30,000 activists, including labor organizers and NGO representatives came together in Tiquipaya, Cochabamba, to propose an alternative legal framework. The planning for the climate summit began a few months before the event, as 17 working groups were authorized to explore a variety of topics ranging from climate debt to food sovereignty.
The planning and the conference itself exposed some important internal tensions and contradictions within Morales's MAS government. A group called Mesa 18 encapsulated some of these tensions. The group, comprising of a few radical Aymara leaders, had a piercing critique of Morales, bringing to the fore the social conflicts in Bolivia related to climate change, particularly with respect to extractive industries. They spoke about the tensions between Morales's strong anti-capitalist discourse and a simultaneous reliance on extractive industries to support social programming--something that. Eduardo Gudynas, in this NACLA Report, refers to as neoextractivism: increased royalties and taxes on resource extraction to support cash transfers and programs to the poorest sectors. Despite all the radical rhetoric, as Gudynas points out, Morales has backtracked on enacting any alternatives to development, and in a recent book, The Geopolitics of the Amazon, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera, in a desperate attempt to defend the Morales administration, argues that the extraction of primary resources is not synonymous with underdevelopment but rather is critical to generate surpluses "that can satisfy the minimal conditions of life of Bolivians" and fuel "industrialization and development."
Rafael Quispe, a representative from the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Quyasullo (CONAMAQ) disagrees, arguing for the expulsion of all extractive resource industries from Bolivia because inherent in this model of development is environmental degradation, social disruption, and displacement for indigenous peoples. He argued in Cochabamba, and continues to argue, for a new development model based upon ayllus (Andean political and territorial units based on kinship groups and communally held lands) and local self-sufficiency, or what, indigenous people have called "Andean cosmovisions."
Despite these conflicts, the conference resulted in a signed document called the People's Accord, (4) which outlined how the Global South could hold the Global North accountable for emissions reductions and take preventative measures to protect the rights of Mother Earth. The accord draws deeply on indigenous concepts of nature as a sacred home, recognizing the rights of nature, specifically the rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration. The agreement also called for the establishment of an international climate court to hold polluters responsible and outlined the indigenous philosophical tenets of buen vivir (living well). The concept of buen vivir includes ethical and spiritual practices for an inter-cultural engagement with society and nature. This conference, then, represented a great experiment in participatory democracy. As the accord states, "shared vision for long-term cooperative action" in climate change negotiations should not be reduced to defining the limit on temperature increases and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but must also address the underlying system that created these problems.
Subsequent UNFCCC negotiations, including those in Cancun, Durban, and most recently Doha, have produced some small steps forward, which may benefit people in the Global South. These include establishing accountability mechanisms for emissions levels, financial flows, and technology transfer as well as new protocols to protect indigenous rights; although many of these measures have yet to be enacted. Meanwhile, the world moved several steps backward when the Cancun summit adopted the Obama administration's proposal to make carbon-emission reductions "voluntary," thereby undermining the core purpose of the convention. The world had been waiting for the United States to join the global community in committing to cut its carbon emissions. Instead, all governments agreed to let each other off the hook by effectively allowing everyone's emissions to rise. Bolivia was the only exception, refusing to ratify the treaty. Equally troubling are the actions of other Global North nations following the U.S. lead, such as Canada's rwhich recently withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.
The so-called Doha Climate Gateway extends the Kyoto Protocol for eight more years and paves the way for talks on a new global UN pact to enter into force in 2020. At this conference, the United States lobbied to protect the world's largest polluters from liability for damage caused by climate change. As Samantha Smith, a U.S. World Wildlife Fund representative, told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, "This was an incredibly weak deal ... It will do nothing to make sure that emissions go down and not up. It will do nothing to bring finance over the long term to poor countries that are suffering from climate change. And it will do nothing to pave the way for the global deal that we have all been promised in 2015." (5) She pointed toward the most recent "superstorm" Sandy, which devastated the northeastern shore of the United States. Despite hopes that this disaster would spur action, the United States refused to make any commitment to long-term financing of the Global South and refused to cut emissions by 17%.
Indigenous climate-change organizing has had a powerful influence on other negotiating forms as well. At the Rio+20 Conference--the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, which took place in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012,20 years after the landmark 1992 Earth Summit--world leaders, along with thousands of participants from the private sector NGOs, came together to shape policy. The negotiations focused on how to reduce poverty, advance social equity, and ensure environmental protection. The official discussions focused on two critical themes: (a) how to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty and (b) how to improve international coordination for sustainable development. From this perspective, the solution, then, to the current ecological crisis is in large part tied to a green economics or the idea that economic policies should build environmental costs into the price of products and services. Built on regulation theory, or the idea that the crisis tendencies of capitalism--in this case, the tendency of capital to destroy the conditions of its production--can be managed, green economics, accepts the possibility of "clean capitalism." (6)
This means that a framework has been created for folding indigenous ideals like respect for Mother Earth (Pachamama) and buen vivir into the "green economy," which simultaneously opens up new frontiers for business by turning natural-resources and nature's functions and cycles into things that can be bought and sold--commodities. The Rio+20 framework, some Bolivian activists argue, simply bolsters the current neoliberal economic model, with symbolic respect for indigenous principles. This symbolic respect is included to legitimize present extractive policy by adorning legislation with the popular language of the green economy as a way of legitimating this phase of "sustainable" neoliberal development and the free market.
It is on this basis that the Bolivian Platform for Climate Change--an association of civil society organizations focused on climate change--asserted that "the green economy is a distraction that does not resolve our dependency on extractive industries and fossil-fuels. It is simply a way of maintaining the same capitalist model that is destroying the environment and deepening climate change with token 'green' changes and a whole new set of markets to invest in 'natural capital.'" (7) The group expressed a list of concerns and made them public in the wake of UN decisions, including a rejection of green economics and technological solutions like nuclear energy and carbon capture. At the end of their document, they stated, "The vision of Living Well proposes to live in harmony with Mother Earth on the basis of complementarity and solidarity between peoples according to logic distinct from that of the market. It will not be possible to find a solution to the current crisis in an economic vision based on the ownership of nature. We do not own nature; we are part of Mother Earth."
This hijacking of indigenous philosophical tenets at Rio+20 in the summer of 2012 brought to the fore important issues regarding corporate intentions to silence and undermine the radical proposals of the climate justice movement internationally. The ongoing deadlock over global warming negotiations is no accident. So what, or who, exactly is intervening to deter action? In order to understand the current deadlock, we must follow the money trail. At a 2011 international forum on globalization, Victor Menotti outed the "international billionaires." He stated that, in an "attempt to wring out the last dregs of fossil-fuel profit from a depleted planet, the oligarchs of gas, coal and oil are pushing the limits by resorting to increasingly costly, dirty and risky forms of exploitation--from tar sands and 'Cracking' to mountaintop removal and deep-sea drilling. Cooperative global action to address the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced is being held hostage by a handful of profiteers who wield decisive power over our governments." (8)
The report reads like a who's who of the world's wealthiest men, from Carlos Slim, who built an empire on the control of communication (the wealthiest with $63.3 billion) to mining magnate Dorothea Steinbruch and family ($5.8 billion) in Brazil. The common themes in this report are that all of these billionaires acquired profits from non-renewable fossil-fuels, extractive industries, and public entities like transportation. Most revealing about this report, however, is that Menotti also fleshes out a story linking their corporate investments to their carbon footprint. Further, they all have vested interest and investment in the UN energy and climate change advisory groups. For instance, Slim hosted a meeting in 2010 to promote public and private partnerships and increase energy access and efficiency. Others like Sheldon Adelson ($21.5 billion), who made his money from casino development, fiercely opposes international climate treaties because of the possibility of reducing the use of fossil-fuels.
Perhaps the most influential of these are the fossil fuel billionaires David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers--carbon billionaires whose combined net worth totals $80.2 billion--have cashed in on "polluting our planet." (9) Of the 50 wealthiest individuals working to influence U.S. public policy on the climate, the Koch brothers are today's top spenders. They have mobilized their vast personal wealth to lobby politicians/Congress to vote in favor of fossil-fuels and increase subsidies and to promote climate-denial science. Specifically, they spent $12.6 million on campaign contributions to both houses of congress, including to non-incumbents, to support minimal emissions standards. Further, they spent $100,000 on the congressional campaign of Mike Pompeo, (R-Kan.), who happens to sit on the Committee for Energy and Commerce, to back fossil fuel subsidies and resist financial support for wind energy. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, the Koch brothers have provided over $60 million to groups denying climate science over the period of 1997-2010.
The success of these and other efforts are evidenced by the dramatic decline over the past few years in the percentage of Americans who accept the existence of global warming, removing any public pressure for action. Another important victory for oil companies, in particular, lies in the ongoing tax subsidies they receive in the United States, despite record profits.
So Bolivia, along with the rest of the nations in the Global South, is up against a lot: powerful billionaires making money and building empires based on the extraction of non-renewable fossil-fuels, and political and economic might which ultimately shapes science and policy. But as social critic Naomi Klein has argued, building a transformative movement may not be as challenging as it appears. She argues that the earth's atmosphere cannot safely absorb the amount of carbon we are pumping into it--and this is a symptom of a much larger crisis, one that is based upon an unsustainable economic model. She claims that we must break every rule in the free-market playbook and do so with great urgency by rebuilding the public sphere, reversing privatization, heavily regulating and taxing corporations, ending the cult of military spending, and recognizing the North's debt to the Global South. (10) Some might doubt that even a "post-neoliberal" government in Latin America would suddenly wrench itself free of fossil-fuels. (11) Further, there remains considerable controversy over what kind of political-economic system will facilitate the scale of change necessary to alter our relationship to nature. For example, some radical Aymara activists in Bolivia are equally skeptical of capitalism and socialism. One thing seems critically important in the present moment: the need for a global movement. If there is any hope of holding northern nations accountable for their carbon-dioxide emissions, then, a massive transnational movement for climate justice must link popular sectors in the Global North and South, in order to rein in the market forces that have created and are deepening the crisis. This will be a major challenge in the United States given the weakening of labor unions and the ongoing efforts of industrialists with an interest in maintaining the status quo. But only a popular uprising of unprecedented scale will prompt nations of the Global North to take their responsibility to the rest of the globe seriously, and restrain the coercive forces that constrain states like Bolivia.
Republished from NACLA
Nicole Fabricant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University in Mao/land. She is author of Mobilizing Bolivia's Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle Over Land (UNC Press, 2012). 
Kathryn Hicks is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. Her work on food insecurity in Memphis and global warming in Bolivia examines the intersection between political economy, human environment interactions, and health disparities.
(1.) For the full speech, see Jose Antonio Zamora Guitierrez, "Doha Climate Talks: Bolivia Declares, 'The Climate Is Not for Sale!,'" Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, December 5. 2012, available at
(2.) For more on this, See Michael Grubb, "Cancun: The Art of the Possible," Climate Policy 11 (2011): 847-50.
(3.) "Bolivian President Evo Morales: 'Shameful' for West to Spend Trillions on War and Only $10 Billion for Climate Change," Democracy Now!, December 16, 2009, available at
(4.) The full accord is available at
(5.) Amy Goodman, "Incredibly Disappointed: Civil Groups Decry Weak COP18 Denial Among Deadly Proof Climate Change," Democracy Now!, December 12, 2012, available at,
(6.) For more on this, see James O'Connor, "On the Misadventures of Capitalist Nature," Capitalism Nature Socialism 4 (1993): 7-40, and Michael Lowrey, "What Is Ecosocialism?" Capitalism Nature Socialism 16(20051: 15-24.
(7.) Available at
(8.) See Victor Menotti, Individuals of Undue Influence, special report (International Forum on Globalization, 2011).
(9.) Joakim Hellberg, Victor Menotti, Anjulie Palta, and Michael Pineschi, Faces Behind a Global Crisis: US Carbon Billionaires and the UN Climate Deadlock, report, UNFCC's COP 18 (Doha, Qatar. International Forum on Globalization, 2012).
(10.) Naomi Klein, "Capitalism vs. the Climate." The Nation, November 9, 2011

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