South America Leading the Push Toward Sustainability


It might seem odd that South America, too often the victim of corporations looking for cheap labor and even cheaper natural resources, would become Mother Earth’s most vociferous advocate.

Yet it has, confirming a belief that suggests adversity creates heroes. This is certainly true in South American countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and even Venezuela , where some of the most egregious examples of corporate pollution have left South Americans, and their indigenous counterparts, thoroughly disgusted not only with capitalism but with Western civilization as a whole.

Take, for example, the Cochabamba protests of 2000 , incited by the privatization of Bolivia’s municipal water supply by the Bechtel Corporation. Cochabama, Bolivia’s third largest city, has since become the permanent site for a yearly festival, the Feria del Agua (Water Fair).

This year’s event in mid-April was the tenth anniversary of “la guerra del agua (water wars)”, which saw the poor of Cochabamba’s La Zona Sur (southern zone) throwing out multinational Bechtel, which had latched on to all the water under World Bank approval. This uprising eventually saw the founding of Bolivia’s Water Ministry, the election of Evo Morales (an Aymara Indian), and similar anti-privatization and anti-corporate efforts all across the continent.

For the Feria del Agua, a loose confederation of water suppliers, the event is a celebration of their victory in overthrowing a tyrant and providing that most essential of services – potable water – to Bolivia’s poor.

Now, Cochabamba is the site of another environmental and sustainability revolution. The People’s Climate Summit , sponsored by Morales and held from April 19 to the 22, was a declaration of the rights of Mother Earth.

It is, according to Morales, one of the reasons why he rejected the most recent Copenhagen Treaty (COP15 ), which he described as an unacceptable compromise hatched by a “tiny group dominated by a few rich governments” which left the majority of the world’s people (read third world countries ) out in the cold.

The climate summit saw more than 31,000 attendees from 140 countries, represented by 48 heads of state or the like, who together drafted a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth aimed at establishing a legal framework for protecting the environment and raising global consciousness about Mother Earth.

It was a dramatic session, but in fact it merely built on the work of Ecuador’s 2008 constitutional amendment which gave “equal rights ” to Mother Nature. This nature, otherwise known as Pachamama (the Goddess Earth) is — according to the amendment — the place “where life exists, and has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

This puts nature on the same footing as corporations and individual humans, in that it redefines the human relationship with the earth as one where resources are not merely there to be exploited, but rather the property of an entity who has rights of Her own, and whose rights can be adjudicated when threatened by corporate greed.

For Ecuador, the rape of Pachamama has been at the hands of mining companies, and neither the nation nor President Rafael Correa have expanded the rights of the indigenous people sufficiently to allow them to defend their land against these corporate predators, in spite of the vociferous support of Acción Ecológica , the premier environmental organization in Ecuador. On the other hand, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and all sweeping changes begin with a single impulse.

This impetus is beginning to spread. On April 22, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke vehemently about the need to respect and care for the Earth in order to insure the health and well-being of its inhabitants.

Last year, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution proclaiming the day of April 22 as International Mother Earth Day, and expressed its concerted belief that economic, social and environmental justice (or sustainability) depend on harmony with nature. Interestingly enough, the United nations has agreed to pay Ecuador not to remove oil.

Clearly, James Lovelock’s efforts have not been in vain; Gaia is becoming a meme in the human consciousness. Unfortunately, Gaia’s champion (we can hardly call him its creator) now says that the realization – that Earth is a single organism, just like the human body – has come too late to save Earth itself.

In spite of that, Lovelock doesn’t blame us poor mortals. We have, he notes, “pulled the trigger” on global warming with the innocent destructiveness of children who don’t know that every construct is finite, and that every wastrel today implies a regretful tomorrow.

Lovelock also insists that science and politics can’t help, and that using them to save the planet is a “lot of nonsense”. He is supported in this viewpoint by Adriana Marquisio, the former President of the Uruguayan Union of Water and Sanitation Workers, who said, of COP15, that it was a lot of non-governmental organizations talking about the effects of climate change on their people, but there was no allowance made for the people themselves to speak.

This, as many activists have noted, is the real root of the problem; governments can’t speak for people because the scale of governments is not really a human scale.

In South America, the people are changing this, taking back the reigns of social protest and environmental defense and bringing them to a very localized playing field where farmers, coops, water providers, conservationists, and field-level environmental regulators can begin a dialogue about local trees as opposed to the whole forest. And it is at this human scale, perhaps, where real change will begin.

That is, if we are in time. If it isn’t too late.

Article by Jeanne Roberts appearing courtesy Celsias.

photo: kk+

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.