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Amidst the Rocky Andes, Summiting the Politically Impossible: Power and Rhetoric at Bolivia's World Peoples' Conference

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"Aquí estámos," the campesina's voice rang out, more heart than tongue, "Bolivia, la esperanza del mundo." Here we are: Bolivia, the hope of the world.

And there we were, day two of the World Peoples' Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, filling an overflowing classroom serving double duty as the home for the Working Group on the International Climate Tribunal. Her words pierced the dense clouds of Venezuelan flags, lefty beards, cholita skirts and raised hands that misted the air, capturing perfectly the mix of optimism, anger and political courage that defined the conference.

As the applause died down, the activist retook her seat and the discussion returned to the more mundane topic at hand: the location of the proposed Climate Tribunal. The question had been more than thoroughly reviewed over the last forty minutes, but, sensing the room was not quite ready for a decision, I turned my attention to the small mound of coca leaves piled on my desk. Where conferences in other countries might have had coffee urns, we were supplied with a sizable percentage of the country's favorite leafy crop, encouraged to chew by the handful while working group sessions jogged through their labyrinth discussions.

Like nearly every element of the conference, the coca carried a political message of resistance and opposition to the United States; from the initial planning to the elaborate opening ceremonies, the event was a brilliant act of public theater, one designed to not only bolster Bolivia's international role in the climate debate but to attack the capitalist, imperialist Western powers. It is well-trodden ground. For years Bolivia's President, Evo Morales, has placed the struggle against capitalism in the context of environmentalism, promoting Bolivia as an alternative model of development. His stance was put to the test during the recent Copenhagen accords, where Morales made international headlines by refusing to sign the final climate agreement.

It was within this context that the self-proclaimed spiritual leader of the Andes announced La Conferencia Mundial De Los Pueblos, declaring it an opportunity to bring together the governments of the world "who want to work with their people." Convened on April 19-22 in Tiquipaya, a small town just outside of Cochabamba, the conference was designed as an opportunity for the gathering's eponymous pueblos to voice ideas excluded by the elitist Copenhagen talks. Evo's major goals were to develop a proposal for the climate tribunal, as well as to agree to a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and to organize an international referendum on climate change.

In addition to the stated goals, el cumbre climatico was also an opportunity for Evo to strengthen his political position at home. His vision of an alternative model to capitalism is built around a vague concept of living well rather than living better - in Spanish, vivir bien no vivir mejor. Living well is a catchphrase for what Evo sees as a historical, indigenous cosmology, one that emphasizes harmony with Mother Earth. In Evo's vision, this cosmology offers a path to save civilization from its overconsuming ways. Though lacking in specifics, it is a deeply empowering narrative for a people that occupy a small, poor, landlocked country, providing the Bolivian people with their own rendezvous with destiny.

Though the actual influence of Evo's rhetoric is open for debate, the conference did attract a truly global crowd to little known Cochabamba. International activists, government officials and social movement leaders exchanged greetings and retorts with northern envo-NGO personnel, university students, Bolivians campesinos, and an uncomfortable number of the dredded hippies. The eclectic climate community filled the Tiquipaya township from morning to night, buying, selling, eating, lounging, sunning and generally festivaling, pulling together the best traditions of craft fairs, political rallies and farmers markets into one organic whole.

Meanwhile, the formal proceedings centered around 17 working groups focused on issues ranging from carbon markets to forests to climate migration. Each working group, which met for a total of 16 hours over three days, pulled together some few hundred of the attendees with the goal of producing a series of documents that could be presented at the December UN climate talks in Mexico. While the streets were filled with merriment, the working groups were all business. Or, rather, all politics; the sessions were sites of democracy in true action, with all the good, the bad and the ugly. Sets of exchanges would linger over word choice for hours while casually sweeping away decades of legal precedent with the click of a powerpoint-projected mouse. At the same time, the debates were inspiring as only participatory politics can be; meaningful issues were raised, opinions heard, consensus found.

Yet while intellects strived, the debates were anything but academic. While developed countries still debate the validity of climate science, Bolivia is already suffering the consequences of what Evo had dubbed el crisis climatico. La Paz, the capital, draws 40% of its water from surrounding glaciers, which are already in the process of melting. Climate change is not a question of if, or even when, but how: how bad will it get before the world acts. As one local activist described it to me, climate change is not a potential future but a set of lived experiences. He had made the long journey from La Paz to tell his own story, to tie his own history into the greater tapestry. His aspirations were widely held; there was a sense among Bolivians that the conference was a moment to share their unique perspectives, to be heard by the world at large. "I know the problem is big," a friend told me, "but this is our chance to change things." She paused. "We have to change things." There was hope that, if only they were loud enough, clear enough, if only they could only make us Westerners understand the realities facing Bolivia - the realities facing their families and their communities - we would respond. We would have to respond.

This sense of hope, though, was countered by a deeper undercurrent of anger, an anger focused not on the fact of climate change but on its dynamic. A tragic irony of global warming is that the worst effects will be felt not by the wealthy, emitting nations but by the poorer countries, those least prepared to respond to them; it is in the developing states of the global south, places already prone to environmental fluctuations, with weak infrastructure and little discretionary government funding, that climate change will wreak the most havoc. To students of colonial history, the story is all too familiar, as the countries of south Asia, Africa and Latin America suffer once again for the sins of the West.

It was this anger that reverberated through microphones and strode across fliers, shaking heads and raising fists. Each working group I visited was regularly interrupted by invectives against The West, aimed largely but not exclusively at the United States. Unfortunately, that justifiable rage took material form through politically preposterous proposals. Working groups demanded that 6% of the GDP of developed countries be put towards repaying a "climate debt" to developing nations, while insisting on a complete reform of the United Nation and the opening of international borders to climate migration. Meanwhile, carbon markets, free trade agreements, agribusiness, genetically engineered crops, privatization and intellectual property rights were among the many global trends opposed by the final Peoples' Agreement.

These ideas ignored political practicalities, following instead the logic of Bolivia's social movements, movements that have been empowered by their own successes in domestic politics and further bolstered by the rhetoric of their president. It is a logic that places faith in the visions of indigenous peoples and believes that capitalism, imperialism and colonialism are elements of a single, evil, unitary phenomenon: "Humanity confronts a great dilemma: to continue on the path of capitalism, depredation and death," the Agreement reads, "or to choose the path of harmony with nature and respect for life... [which requires] the recovery, revalorization and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples."

With this logic dictating the conference proceedings, little in the way of realistic short-term strategies or actions was accomplished. But, then, there was little the summit could accomplish in those terms. World powers haven't listened seriously to the demands of developing countries in the past, and they are unlikely to do so now. Power is power, and those who have it have it. Developed countries shift policies when their people demand it, and not before.

But it is here that the conference - and the logic of Bolivia's indigenous movements - may ultimately find its purpose. For while political action is always dependent on current political realities, those realities can change. And major change always begins with big ideas that come from the margins of society and slowly gain credibility. The arguments put forth by conference participants were of conviction and overwhelming moral force, and over time, they may move to the center of debate. Meanwhile, by providing a common, democratic space for activists from developing countries, the conference took an important step forward not only by shaping those big ideas but by providing a more unified voice for the low-income nations of the world. This is exactly how movements around big ideas form, and exactly what is needed to start pushing powerful arguments -- about climate change and our relationship to the earth - into the center of global political debate.

In the short-term, the glaciers of La Paz and those who depend on them face a difficult if not impossible battle. But in the long-term, it is the emotions and ideas arising from places like Bolivia that may ultimately help us confront climate change. Because any serious attempt to deal with our mounting environmental and resource issues will require a hard look at our basic economic systems and our emphasis on growth; eventually, it may just require a revision of our fundamental understanding of and relationship to Pachamama - and a recognition that harmony is more than just a word.