Interview: Climate Justice Organizing in Mexico

This November, Mexico will play host to the follow up to the Copenhagen climate talks. Activists around the country are already preparing for the 16th Conference of Parties summit, which will take place in Cancun.

I spoke with Gustavo Castro Soto, an activist, agitator and organizer based in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. Though he has decades of environmental organizing under his belt, Castro hasn’t cashed in on his credibility to take a plush job. He remains a dedicated grassroots organizer whose first commitment is to communities. Castro is a founding member of Otros Mundos, an NGO that works on popular education and developing alternatives to capitalism, as well as with the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA). He’s one of many who plan to be in the streets in Cancun, so I caught up with him after a long workday in San Cristobal de las Casas to ask him about how he sees climate organizing playing out in Mexico over the next eight months.

On the possibilities of COP 16 in Cancun…

“We are convinced that after 16 sessions of COP, things are not going to change. Governments and corporations have done everything possible to not make commitments, rather, they’ve looked for a way to sort out all of the demands and difficulties and incorporating new legislation and new ideas to continue doing the same thing, including making a business out of the climate change they’re generating.

I think the opportunity for us is to generate political awareness in the population, and this is our big chance. We know that there is going to be this conference, and we want to be there, and this mobilization creates awareness. I think this is the biggest benefit we’re going to get, the fact that it’s here in Mexico obliges us to understand, to educate ourselves, to learn and reflect.

The meeting itself requires us to put on the accelerator, so we can have an active presence there, a presence with a knowledge and understanding of why we’re there. If it wasn’t here in Mexico, in reality, I think this process would be much slower.”

On awareness about climate change in Mexico…

“There is not much information, not even among NGOs, with the exception of environmental NGOs, official or business NGOs, of what a Clean Development Mechanism is, what the Kyoto protocol is, even what climate change means.

I think there is, little by little, a developing interest in learning what this means. As we learn about what climate change is, we can see the links between these diverse projects, how they contribute to climate change.

We as an organization, Otros Mundos, in workshops over the last six months, have been insisting in the links not just between mining projects and climate change, but also with the other projects the government is implementing, like dams, mines, biofuels, monocultures like African palm. All of these things are linked with climate change.

Little by little, in the last workshops we’ve done, they’ve been three or five hundred peasants and Indigenous people from many communities, and we have other workshops planned over the next weeks, where we will emphasize climate change.

The people are demanding to know “what is this, and how does it work.” This implies a long and sometimes complicated process of formation and education, to understand in a simple way what [climate change] is, and what it implies. The next step is people deciding ‘we’re going to organize, we’re going to do something, we’re going to stop this,’ and the next step, an even bigger step, is, ‘what is the alternative?’”

On market solutions to climate change…

“Our political position is very clear: clean development mechanisms don’t work.

With them the appropriation of Indigenous and peasant territories is justified, deforestation is justified, and as well, the very projects of transnational companies are carrying out for profits are justified.

These projects include ecotourism, highways, forest plantations, bio-fuels, hydroelectric dams, and mining, they just keep looking for justifications, and not just legal justifications through free trade agreements, but justification related to climate change.

Our position is very clear. Bio-fuels, large monoculture plantations, dams, and mines don’t fight climate change, they significantly accelerate it.

Here in the state [of Chiapas] we’re seeing, how peasants and Indigenous people are getting in the way, and so they are being displaced by these megaprojects. The state of Chiapas has created a bio-fuels division, they call it the reconversion of production, which means peasant farmers and Indigenous peoples shouldn’t plant corn because it’s not profitable in economic terms.

Instead, they are invited in a multitude of ways, including being convinced through trickery, to accept projects that benefit transnational companies.”

On working with environmental organizations who accept market solutions to climate change…


“Well, it’s very difficult to work with them, and it’s actually quite a strong confrontation. We’ve been invited to have a dialogue about these mechanisms, and, for example, about environmental services.

But we think accepting this dialogue implies accepting a discussion about, for example, whether or not they will pay Indigenous people and peasants well to render an environmental service, and if they pay them poorly, maybe they can pay them a little more. That’s not the root problem. We’d fall in a trap if we discussed these things.

At the root, their framing and their mechanisms are false. They are false solutions to climate change. Quite simply they should not be used.

We don’t want to discuss if they’ll give us more or less, or if, by way of example, they’ll pay producers of African palm well for their product or for their work. That’s not the main theme. It’s the mechanism itself that’s a false mechanism of clean development.

That puts us up against some organizations that are implementing these mechanisms, and that push for them, including some universities here. Even ECOSUR, or Conservation International, or Pronatura, or Greenpeace, are in favor of these mechanisms, and they’re also seeing how to implement them together with the state government. They know there is lots of money behind this. They know that this means administering resources and funds, and playing the investment game with the big transnational companies.”

On Mexican organizing in the lead-up to COP 16

“Well I think it’s going to be a big accomplishment to try and coordinate ourselves as a Mexican [national] platform, in order to offer coordination to many networks who will be coming from all over the world, that have among them fundamentally contradictory positions.

It seems there is an initial willingness, a political willingness, to coordinate ourselves and create a Mexican platform that helps and facilitates the arrival of many delegations from around the world, that facilitates coordination.

But, it’s probable that as time goes on, these political differences will become more obvious, and there could even be splits, as there has been on other occasions, and that each group will define their position and their activities on their own.

Hopefully it doesn’t end up that way, in the sense that we hope we could, given the sometimes radical political differences, offer a collective, coordinated space to receive the distinct positions that exist.”

Dawn Paley is a Vancouver based journalist.