Battle in Cancun: The Fight for Climate Justice in the Streets, Encampments and Halls of Power

For the past two weeks in Cancun, Mexico parallel conferences on climate change have taken place. One gathered behind closed doors and police barricades in a luxury beach side resort. The others met in downtown Cancun bringing together members of civil society, indigenous communities, environmental groups and campesinos from all over the world in encampments of shared food, housing and informational forums.


Photo by Andalusia KnollFor the past two weeks in Cancun, Mexico parallel conferences on climate change have taken place. One gathered behind closed doors and police barricades in a luxury beach side resort. The others met in downtown Cancun bringing together members of civil society, indigenous communities, environmental groups and campesinos from all over the world in encampments of shared food, housing and informational forums.

Over the past 15 years we have become accustomed to this scenario – where the powerful leaders of the world pay little attention to those representatives of social movements and civil society whom they allow inside their meetings and those that clamor at their doors demanding justice. Not surprisingly the COP 16 ended as many of these conferences do, with the signing of a non-binding agreement guaranteeing market-based solutions to climate change and a complete disregard for human and indigenous rights.

While world leaders and mainstream environmental movements are declaring the meeting a victory, social movements have declared this agreement a complete failure. Bolivia, as the one dissenting voice to the final agreement, says they will file a complaint with the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the text approved in Cancun.

Many of the accords in the final COP16 document make official proposals that had been circulated at the Copenhagen talks in December 2009.  These include the creation of a “green climate fund” which will supposedly raise $30 billion to give to developing countries to combat climate change by 2012. Yet there is no text about how this money will be raised. The agreement also approved Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), a market-based strategy to “preserve” forests.  Countries have also pledged to lower their greenhouse gases by a small amount that critics say will still lead to a 3.2C rise in temperatures – far higher than the 2C generally considered to be a level of “safe” warming and also countries disregarded any talks concerning a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol.

Photo by Tamar SharabiThese agreements stand in sharp contrast to the demands of the social movements who gathered outside the talks and also with the accords that were reached at the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth which took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in April 2009; with the participation of more than 35,000 people from 142 countries. These accords demand that countries lower their emissions to lead to no more than 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature and require developed countries to transfer technology and aid money to developing countries who are suffering the worst effects of climate change.   The Cochabamba accords, and those people at the alternative gatherings in Cancun who are advocating for these accords, have a general framework to guarantee the Rights of Mother Earth, including the right to clean air, the right to water as the source of life, and the right to be free of contamination, pollution, and genetic modification.

Food Sovereignty and Campesino Movements

This last point abut Genetic Modification and people’s opposition to it was expressed loud and clear at the encampment of La Via Campesina, an international movement of “peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers.”   Participants wrists were adorned with bracelets embroidered with the words “Food Sovereignty! Monsanto leave!” and banners hung throughout the meeting space declaring that campesinos both have the knowledge and experience to cool the planet with their small scale farms.

Alberto Gomez, one of the Mexican leaders with La Via Campesina said, “Food sovereignty is at the core of all strategic planning and policies concerning agriculture and commerce and also policies to combat inequality and poverty.”

Photo by Andalusia KnollVia Campesina along with other groups including National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Peoples, the Movement for National Liberation, the Mexican Electricians Union (SME) and Otros Mundos, organized 30 caravans to travel to Cancun. The caravans started from six different destinations but all stopped at places that exemplify environmental destruction and resistance, including farmers in Hidalgo fighting against a large dam that catches Mexico City’s sewage, people occupying a government  building in protest of  a new Super highway in Jalisco, and the countless communities fighting contamination of their lands and rivers from pig factories and industrial parks.   Mickey McKoy participated in one of the caravans as a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and a delegate for the US based Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.  He comes from an area of Appalachia ravaged by coal mining and mountain top removal and likened their struggle against corporate greed and pollution to many struggles in Mexico.   McKoy said the caravan gave him inspiration to keep doing this work “As long as i remember these faces that I’ve seen and these voices that I’ve heard I will carry on and hopefully inspire others to do the same.”

REDD/REDD + and False Solutions

One of the most controversial agreements that came out of COP 16 was the “Reduction of Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation” more commonly known as REDD or REDD + a market based program for climate mitigation strategies.  At the luxurious JP Marriott, Ban-Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, Sam Walton, the CEO of Walmart, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, various politicians and renowned Kenyan conservationist Wangaari Mathaii and Jane Goodal all lauded REDD as the panacea to the depletion of the world’s forests and indigenous peoples. Zoellick said, “REDD+ is a winner, it is key to climate change mitigation and is one of the best chances to save our tropical forests and the people and animals that depend on them.”

Yet a few kilometers away from the Marriott credentialed observers at COP16 were being denied entry to the Moon Palace if they had an anti-REDD sticker on their credentials badge.  Tom Goldstooth president of the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) was kicked out and had his credentials revoked, following a press conference held by youth, members of grassroots organizations and indigenous leaders calling for Climate Justice. He spoke to TV program Democracy Now! about the irony of  indigenous  people’s voices being kept out when they can “teach humanity how to survive climate catastrophe” and added that he was merely “telling the truth about the treachery of carbon trading and REDD—and the insanity of the mitigation and solution to climate change based around a market-based system.”

Photo by Tamar SharabiIEN brought a 17 person delegation to advocate for the rights of indigenous people and also produced the REDD reader, which addresses the program as a “false solution” to climate change and calls it Colonialism of the forests. IEN also joined with indigenous delegations from all across Latin America, the Philippines and Africa. Miguel Palacin, an indigenous leader from Peru, along with the Ecuadorian organization Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), believes that proposals like REDD will lead to the commercialization of forests and Mother Earth at large: “Forests will no longer be the heritage of the people but instead of the state.  According to this new legislation the trees will belong to those who pay for them, which makes this issue very complicated.  Forests are not just trees, forests are alive, in the forests are animals, plants, and the indigenous people who have protected them.”

Many argue that REDD would prevent indigenous people from accessing their land because the forest from which they have subsisted on for centuries is now considered an ecological reserve which they can’t enter.  According to numerous articles in IEN’s REDD reader, this has already been happening in Ecuador and Peru among others. Countries like Papa New Guinea are now being scouted by venture capitalists looking for land to purchase and then sell for carbon offsets.

The criticism of REDD doesn’t stop there. Opponents say that REDD also encourages the creation of monoculture plantations of pine, eucalyptus or teak trees which decision makers consider equivalent to natural bio diverse forests.  Additionally, many people from the global north says that REDD allows their countries to continue with their carbon intensive projects, such as Tar Sands extracting oil in the sands of Canada, and the operation of polluting power plants and factories all across the U.S., Europe and Asia.  Kerri Fulton with Youth for Climate Justice from Washington, D.C. said, “What we find in these carbon offset programs is that they will decide to plant a tree plantation in another country and think that they reduced their carbon emissions, but they didn’t actually stop the emissions at the source.  We are dealing with people who live next to huge polluting industries in the U.S. in communities of color and low income communities. That pollution is what we want to see reduced at its source.”

Cultural Resistance and Independent Media

The thunderous sounds of Zampoña music played on wind instruments by indigenous members of the Bolivian delegation echoed throughout the hallways of the climate forums and the streets of Cancun during all of the week’s marches.  At night Jaroneros picked their Jaranas, and belted out lyrics of paz and justicia with Son Jarocho music, a traditional Mexican folk style that has recently become popular in resistance movements across Mexico and the United States.

Photo by Tamar SharabiA group of young autonomous anti-capitalists known as “Anti-Cap, Anti-Cop” traveled from Mexico City in a veggie oil-powered bus graffitied with a homage to Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean Farmer who took his life at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests that took place in Cancun in 2003, in protest of the WTO’s neoliberal policies.  As the march weaved through the streets of Cancun an Anti-Cop team plastered the walls with wheat-pasted posters created by an international collective of artists addressing climate change and systematic change.  When the Anti-Cop bus arrived at the Via Campesina march where hundreds had gathered on the December 7th day of action against Climate Change, it had atop of it an enormous silver inflatable hammer, a protest relic left over from the mobilization in Copenhagen. Separating the protesters’ road blockade from the locations of the Climate Talks was a large metal wall blocking the highway along with hundreds of Mexican federal police. Anti-Cop and friends joyfully charged the wall with the silver hammer blazing in the wind above them, then launched it over the police barricade.  As the corporate and independent press gathered to record this powerful moment, a member of Anti-Cop explained their martillazo with a Bertolt Brecht quote “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it” and went on thanking all the independent media for transmitting the message.

Independent Media played a strong role throughout the gathering. At the Climatico Dialogo a media collective from Chiapas called Koman Ilel hosted a week long live video stream while simultaneously members of a network of popular communicators across Mexico, Boca de Polen and ALER hosted Clima Radio, a live radio broadcast. A few blocks away in the encampment of Via Campesina members of Ke Huelga Radio from Mexico City, and Mexico Indymedia transmitted all of the live forums concerning Food Sovereignty and the speech given by Bolivian President Evo Morales.  Members of IEN produced a daily TV show on Red Road Cancun which hundreds of people from more than 30 countries worldwide tuned in to. These independent media outlets not only informed the global populace, but also opened spaces for exchange among participants, something that was lacking in the top-down forums that both alternative spaces hosted.

While many are disillusioned by the outcomes of the talk, it is clear that the worldwide movement for Climate Justice was strengthened.  People vowed to take this struggles back to their respective communities and also go to the next COP meeting in Durban, South Africa to continue advocating for the rights of indigenous people and against the commercialization of the air, water, and Mother Earth.

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist, popular educator and organizer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.  She is a producer with the national Criminal Justice Dialogue Project Thousand Kites, a reporter for the worker collective Free Speech Radio News and an organizer with the NYC Community/Farmworker Alliance who work in alliance with The Coalition of Immokalee Workers.