Bolivia Steps Up | An Interview with Climate Negotiator Angelica Navarro

Joseph Huff-Hannon, April 12, 2010

On one of the last days of the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, the 16th of December, I found myself with thousands of others outside of the well-guarded perimeter of the Bella Center, where UN delegates and heads of State where slouching towards a negotiating failure of historic proportions.

Earlier in the day news started filtering out that the G-77 bloc of developing countries, which had entered the conference with one of the toughest negotiating postures, abruptly dropped most of its steep demands and was effectively sold down the river by Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, after a suspiciously timed meeting with President Sarkozy of France. This was hardly the only sign that things were going downhill. In the afternoon as sympathetic UN delegates, journalists and civil society representatives inside the Bella Center were blocked from leaving the premises to meet with environmental activists outside, large police tanks started moving in on the huge crowd assembled outside. A stern voice on a loudspeaker announced, "In the name of the Queen, and the laws of Denmark, this is an unlawful demonstration, if you do not leave you will all be arrested," before proceeding to arrest people en masse.

“In truth I felt more comfortable with civil society than inside, our perception is that there was more common sense,” Angelica Navarro, Bolivia’s pugnacious climate negotiator at Copenhagen, tells me. “It was a completely hermetic experience; governments every now and then would go out and give a little to civil society. But if we’re going to move forward, the real problems of real people need to get in to the negotiations.”

More than anybody else in the lead up to Copenhagen, Angelica Navarro helped to elucidate the concept of climate debt—the idea that rich countries, by virtue of causing most of the historic climate change inducing emissions, owe a debt to the developing world. This debt is especially acute given that climate scientists predict the worst effects of climate change—drought, coastal flooding, the spread of airborne diseases like malaria—will ravage the developing world in disproportionate ways.

While that concept was largely sacrificed at the altar of realpolitik in Copenhagen, where the U.S., China, and other heavy emitters hashed out a closed door non-binding “agreement,” Angelica’s work is far from over. Currently serving as Bolivia’s ambassador to Switzerland, Angelica will be one of the four Bolivian government representatives (alongside President Evo Morales, and UN Ambassador Pablo Solón Romero) speaking at an April climate summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is framing itself as the “anti-Copenhagen.” Organizers expect more than 10,000 people to attend, including government representatives from more than 50 countries. The aim of the “Peoples' World Conference on Climate Change” is to advance an agenda led by civil society organizations, analyze the structural causes of climate change, and develop specific proposals and actions for addressing it. The conference ends, auspiciously, on April 22, which marks the UN’s International Mother Earth Day.

I reached Angelica Navarro by phone for a long discussion about post-Copenhagen doldrums, hopes and expectations for the Cochabamba summit, and why a small country like Bolivia is taking on such an outsized role in the international arena on the issue of climate.

Joseph Huff-Hannon: You spent all of 2009 negotiating Bolivia’s position at a number of climate meetings around the world in the lead up to Copenhagen. After all of that work, how did you feel coming away from the Copenhagen summit? What was your interpretation of the outcome?

Angelica Navarro: I have to say that I took a holiday after Copenhagen, many of us did. I think the disappointment came from the lack of real solutions to real problems. We were all expecting more. Not only didn’t we address the problem, if you look at the numbers in the accord, what is actually in the accord will allow an increase in emissions. What we are allowing in the Copenhagen accord, not a treaty, an accord, is actually an increase in global temperatures of up to 4 degrees. Islands will keep disappearing; droughts will worsen.

So we were disappointed in the process but also in the content. I’m not a banker or an economist, but I really felt that developed countries were negotiating a trade or economic accord, and those of us on the other end were negotiating an environmental accord. So what was the meeting even about? If the biggest failure of the market is climate change, how are we going to stop climate change by setting up a kind of carbon sub-prime market through carbon trading?

We were supposed to talk about climate change and discuss real solutions, but it seems like we were worlds apart.

Joseph Huff-Hannon: How will the setting and the format of the Cochabamba summit in April differ from what we saw in Copenhagen?

Angelica Navarro: By no means is the Cochabamba meeting replacing the UN system. It’s an effort at dialogue, at opening up to each other. Why did Copenhagen fail? One of the failures was not speaking to real people enough, to civil society, and most of the time the best ideas and solutions are coming out of civil society. In Cochabamba we are going to bring those two worlds together, not like in Copenhagen where civil society was on the periphery of the discussion.

And I think if we can get this dialogue more entrenched in the UN process, it will benefit everybody. The most exciting thing about it for me personally is that civil society is not outside in the trenches, but that we as government are listening to civil society, not the other way around. I don’t think anything of this sort has been tried before.

Joseph Huff-Hannon: Why has Bolivia taken on such an outsized role in the global stage on the issue of climate change?

Angelica Navarro: Well, mostly because these are not theoretical concerns for us. In Bolivia our glaciers are melting. Tuni Condoriri, one of the glaciers that supplies water to La Paz (the capital), has decreased by 40-45% in the last twenty years. We are talking about a shortage or water for one to two million people.

In the South, countries like Bolivia that don’t produce much CO2, we’re on the receiving end. We’re the ones seeing the negative effects of what others have produced, their economies, their way of life, and they don’t see that our countries are bearing the cost.

You can say we’re innovating, not only in climate change, but also in international politics. Why haven’t other governments done this before; consulted their own citizens in such a broad way? We’re used to consulting in our culture. The way we do things, our surprise is how come this hasn’t been done before.

Joseph Huff-Hannon: For Americans traveling to Cochabamba, be they from civil society or representatives of government, what should they expect?

Angelica Navarro: I hope that people come with an open mind, ready to dialogue, to speak but also to listen. Particularly to listen to the diversity of alternatives that are coming from around the world. A lot of the alternatives don’t cost millions; it’s just that international political will needs to be there so that they can be implemented in those countries that don’t have the capacity, or sometimes the finances.

Also they should try to share with us the experiences in our country. We’re very interested to hear not only the political part—what is happening with your government—but also what is happening at the local level. How are the grassroots in the U.S. responding to the situation? What are their challenges? What solutions have they found?

Of course maybe what they can expect is a lot of questions about US leadership, or lack thereof. On the international level what we are afraid of, or don’t want to see, is the US continuing to put the lowest common denominator out on the table, in terms of reductions. When the U.S. does that, other governments will always be happy to follow along.

So we are very interested in hearing how civil society can help push the U.S. to make these negotiations a higher priority. What can we deliver for the planet? Are we really doing our job now? In Bolivia I think we’re trying, trying to produce that kind of leadership.

To learn more about the April Climate Summit in Cochabamba, visit:

Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a recipient of a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. See more of his work at

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