Alternatives to the Commodification of Mother Nature: An Interview with Pablo Solon

On December 10th, the UN sponsored international climate negotiations known as COP 16 concluded in Cancun, Mexico. 194 countries were in attendance of which 193 signed a non-binding agreement approving market based solutions to forest preservation, loose commitments to send an undefined amount of aid to developing countries, and to lower greenhouse gases by 2020.

While many of the negotiators and even mainstream environmental movements are calling Cancun a success, grassroots movements, including many indigenous and campesino organizations, have denounced the final agreement, saying it will further commodify Mother Earth and not actually combat the world’s climate crisis.

During the climate talks, thousands of members of social movements held an alternative gathering outside the negotiations. On the inside, many of their views were represented by Pablo Solon, the chief UN negotiator for Bolivia in the talks. Solon is also Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN.  Bolivia was the one country out of the 194 that was against the final agreement, and has threatened to file a complaint with the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the text approved in Cancun.

What follows is an interview with Pablo Solon on the eight day of the negotiations when an unofficial text had been circulated by an anonymous committee chair. This text disregarded many of the demands of Bolivia and the agreements that came out of the People’s Climate Assembly held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April, 2010.

Andalusia Knoll: What would you like to see in the text of the COP16 agreement in regards to climate justice and the rights of indigenous people?

Pablo Solon: First and foremost it is unacceptable to have a text that doesn’t say with all climate related actions we should guarantee basic human rights.  This should be a basic principle or guideline for any activity.  It is especially important for indigenous people who live in the forests, because when you are going to take an action that involves forests, you are in someway dealing with the home of indigenous people. This has to be clearly recognized. The Declaration of Indigenous Peoples Rights should be recognized.

The issue of climate migrants is also very important. You are going to have hundreds of people who are going to migrate inside the country or outside of the country because of climate change and their rights have to be respected.  Its not possible that you burn the house of someone and then when he has nowhere to stay and he wants to enter your country you don’t accept him, you’re violating his rights. This is a key issue that must be addressed.

AK: Today I was looking in the news and saw there are floods in Australia, Colombia and Venezuela, yet no news about the climate talks.  Why do you think that is?

PS: From my point of view the media has not put the climate talks in the center because they want to water down the process because the COP16 don’t intend to have big commitments here. The consequences of not having strong commitments here when it comes to emission reductions is something that is going to strongly affect the lives of millions of people around the world.  What is happening here is very important.

If you do not have significant reductions of emissions of greenhouse gases the temperature will increase more than 4 degrees Celsius and that is catastrophic for human life.  There is a report that says this year 300,000 people died because of natural disasters due to climate change. 300,000 and this figure can increase to 1 million. We are speaking about something that has a magnitude that is worse than the wars we have seen in the past decade.

AK: Speaking about death and war can you talk more about the agreement that was reached in Cochabamba about the greenhouse effects of war and how that issue is being discussed here in Cancun?

PS: They are saying they are going to mobilize, not even provide, mobilize which means I’m gonna say how much money you are going to give, lets get some money from the private sector, lets get some from the market but what we ask is that the developed countries [contribute].  So how much money do they want to mobilize? $100 billion dollars.   It seems like a big figure but in reality it is not.  How much do they spend on warfare and their defense budget? Sixteen times more than what they are saying they are going to mobilize for climate change. Climate change is more important than all of what they are trying to do with defense. The other issue is the greenhouse gas issue. War and all the industry that is related to war is one of the sources of greenhouse gas. There should be some accountability about this. Until now there has been no reference to this.  We are studying the impacts of cars, gas, diesel, and airplanes. How come we’re going to avoid studying the impact of warfare in reference to greenhouse gases?

AK: Here we are conducting this interview in the Zona Hotelera, a luxury tourist spot, very far away from both the Mexican people who live in Cancun and the thousands of people who are staying at the Via Campesina and Climate Dialogue encampments in the city center.  Can you speak about your relationship to these social movements and how their demands are being represented in the inside?

PS: After what happened in Copenhagen, President Morales called for the first People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. More than 35,000 people from more than 140 countries participated in this conference.  That was very important because the positions we are presenting here are not the positions of Bolivia, but instead the positions that were developed in that conference.  This is the first time you have had a delegation from a government of a country that says we are going defend the positions of the people and we are here to move forth an agenda that matters to social movements.  Here they have tried to isolate the process from the mobilization of social movements because there is more than 20 kilometers separating the negotiations from the social organizations.

AK: And a lot of police.

PS: Yes, and a lot of police in between. We are dealing with an issue that has to do with the lives of people and if we are doing a good thing we shouldn’t fear the presence of the people.  In Bolivia when we had this conference it was completely open, because what can we fear? Nothing, if what we are going to do is going to be in the benefit of the people.

AK: So you mentioned that at the peoples assembly there were people from 140 countries and I know Bolivia has had relations with some low income communities and communities of color in the United States such as the South Bronx. Can you talk about how Climate Change impacts both communities in the U.S. And Bolivia.

PS: If you see the impact of Katrina in the United States, you have a clear picture that climate change can affect any country, developed or developing. But there is some other thing that Katrina shows, that even in a developed country, the poorest people are the ones who suffer more of the impacts of climate change.  That is the great similarity with what happens in developing countries.  In Katrina the people who had cars left before the hurricane came, but if you didn’t have that possibility you had to stay and suffer everything that happened. It’s the same with developing countries. In a way, when we are talking about this issue, we are clearly saying “hey this is going to affect all of us, and especially the most vulnerable sections of our population.”

AK: I have heard many people on the outside of the agreement talks discuss market based solutions as false solutions. Can you speak to that and also what do you believe are the real solutions?

PS: In these talks we see that there is too much interest in having market mechanisms. There is hardly any discussion on the figures for greenhouse gas emission reduction, but instead a lot of discussion about how to promote this new market mechanism. We are against this because these market mechanisms are not going to solve the issue of climate change. They are just going to create a new business that will generate profit for some company or some bank. First developed countries instead of doing their emission reduction inside their country, they are going to buy a certificate from a developing country so they can say “I am doing the reduction because I have bought this certificate.” But in reality the developing country is doing the reducing.  We developing countries are going to be financing the developed countries.  How? Because if a company in a developing country has to spend 50 dollars to reduce one ton of C02 and he has the possibility to buy a 10 dollar certificate he is going to be very happy because instead of spending 50 dollars he only has to spend 10. So who is financing who?

The third thing is that we are going to have a new financial bubble. Because he buys a 10 dollar certificate and he can sell it for 30 and the new owner can sell it for 60 and you can have certificates in the future worth 100 or even more. But in reality how much money has gone into that developing country – 10 dollars.

This situation is even worse when we speak about developing market mechanisms in relation to forests because we are going to begin a new process of commodification of nature. Once you begin to sell that certificate, what is going to happen to that forest, to the functions of the forest? Actually, there is a market for wood when it comes to trees but this is a new kind of market. What is going to be commodified are the functions of the forest and the capacity of the forest to capture CO2.  Now there is going to be a discussion on how we can develop a market in capacity of the earth to also absorb CO2 and suddenly we are going to develop a very big business around this.  For us, this is something that is not acceptable.

We think the right solutions have to do with another approach. An approach that doesn’t take Mother Earth as a commodity, as an object, as a thing, but instead recognizes that nature is our home and we  have to have a relation of respect to our home and we cannot sell it or buy it and instead we have to recognize its rights and integrity.   That is why we are promoting the recognition of the rights of mother earth in these negotiations.  We need not to promote a new commodification of nature but instead develop a process of how to recognize the rights of nature.

AK: What are your thoughts on some countries backing out of Kyoto?

PS: The problem is that there should be a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol. That is something that was not in the negotiations because it was something that was already agreed on. It was established in article 3.9 that there should be a second commitment period. Now, they are trying to say it wasn’t agreed and let’s discuss a new kind of agreement   If this happens we are going to use the only international regime that we have to deal with greenhouse gases. We don’t say that is the perfect thing, no it has a lot of problems.  But if we are going to kill the Kyoto Protocol without having any better new framework or agreement to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions we are going to go to a worse situation. That is why we defend the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol and second commitment period.  This is key.  If this doesn’t happen where different countries will do what they want to do without any clear international obligation and reference like the one we have now.

AK: What are your hopes concerning both what is being forged between social movements on the outside and on the inside the talks in regards to actually passing accords that would advance climate justice and human rights around the world.

PS: All of my life I have fought for human rights against different dictatorships and against neoliberalism.  I’m used to seeing that this fight is difficult. It’s not easy and if you want to succeed you have to stand firm and have to play always until to the end.  That is what we are going to do.  It’s not easy what we have to do in the negotiations. But we know that what we are doing is what the social movements and people of the world want, need and tell us to do.

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist and organizer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.  She is a producer with Thousand Kites, a reporter for Free Speech Radio News and an organizer with the NYC Community/Farmworker Alliance.