Community Action vs. Corporate Control – A Reflection on Cancun

by Ananda Lee Tan

Cancun – the Mayan Snakes Nest (turned Tourist Playground of the Rich) was host to the UNFCCC 16th Conference of the Parties this month, resulting in another step in advancing the carbon markets and development agendas of the corporate elite. While mainstream NGOs continued pleading for compliance with science-based targets, and grassroots social movements found themselves restricted, evicted, and barred from trying to speak frontline truths to the UN, the U.S. and rich nations muzzled, bribed, and coerced their way forward to serve the interests of the world’s largest climate polluters, carbon brokers and the World Bank. Recent Wikileaks of U.S. State Department cables reveal that a number of poor nations that vocally opposed the Copenhagen Accord were silenced under pressure and promise of financing and climate aid.

Arranged in the exclusive Moon Place resort, 20 km south of downtown Cancun and remotely located to allow only restricted bus access from other convention venues, the UN Climate Summit, with the help of the Mexican military and police force, succeeded at keeping public protest at bay while convening negotiations to expand the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM – the primary “carbon market” mechanism of Kyoto), and advance other market-based strategies for climate capitalism.

It was clear from the start that much of the development agenda has shifted over from the WTO’s trade liberalization arena to the carbon-trading arena of the UNFCCC. The deals being brokered and negotiated, such as the rapid expansion of the CDM, World Bank management of climate financing, and the Horse Trading venture that is known as REDD, or (United Nations Collaborative Programme on) Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, underscore the emergence of one of the largest growing markets in human history.  According to Soumya Dutta of the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy: “Many debt-ridden small African nations are seeing the money that they might get through the scheming designs of REDD and have capitulated under the attack of this REDD brigade. It’s a win-win situation, both for the rich nations as well as for the rich of the poor nations. The real poor are a burden in any case, to be kept at arms length - if not further.”

Nonetheless, the working poor did arrive at the doorsteps of the Moon Place, and, a few voices challenged the credibility of the UN Summit. Responding to La Via Campesina’s global call to action, thousands of small farmers, working poor and Indigenous peoples converged in Cancun to demonstrate that grassroots movements have their own leadership, one that can lead and protect people and planet through this crisis, with political action and community-based solutions. For the grassroots, the real pathways of mitigation and adaptation remain focused on flipping the script of global governance.

Flipping the Script is a term I have come to embrace while watching these UN Summits unfold. The core problem with the story of global climate governance is one where the storytellers have lost their way in the narrative due to a basic deficiency – a lack of practical knowledge. Even the most dedicated UN delegations would continue to struggle to find consensus on such burning mandates as climate action, because their education and experience is predominantly learned from books. Books, computers, seminars, and institutions of higher learning a Euro-centric learning that has been decoupled from the dynamics and rigors of labor and traditional knowledge for centuries. And, a learning whose direction is predetermined and paid for by the corporate elite. Hence, this modern, reductionist education simply serves to perpetuate paving the streets for carbon colonialism – straight into the resource base and markets of the global south.

What the world desperately requires in these times is the knowledge and leadership of the working poor. The learning that results from the wisdom of hands that grow our food, protect our natural and agricultural ecosystems, build our homes and recycle society’s discards is the knowledge required to lead us out of this global crisis and illuminate the thousands of pathways towards a clean, safe and just future. Small farmers, Indigenous peoples and thousands of frontline communities and workers carry such traditional knowledge and expertise needed for resisting polluting corporations, restoring local ecosystems, and reclaiming a trashed economy. Its time the world took their leadership seriously.

For over a decade, the demands for climate justice have prioritized the need for frontline communities and workers to be represented at UN climate assemblies. While this fundamental right to community self-determination has yet to be acknowledged by the UN, more communities are stepping up to assert this right.

In their call for a Global Day of Action (December 7th), La Via asserted that “Small Farmers Cool the Planet” and that “People hold thousands of (local, community-based) solutions in their hands.” Many other social movements responded, both in Cancun and around the world. I spent a few days working in Cancun with the Global Alliance of Wastepickers – frontline workers from South Asia, South Africa, and all over Latin America who sort and recycle society’s discards; and in doing so prevent a massive amount of methane and CO2 emissions from landfills, incinerators, and industrial production. These workers had come to Cancun to demand recognition and respect for their climate protection services and demand that the CDM stop financing the death of their livelihoods – through climate-destructive Waste to Energy (WtE) and Landfill Gas projects. Perverse subsidies are rarely so well-illustrated. The waste workers held the first public action at the Moon Palace, alongside members of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. UN Security staff tried to stop the action, which resulted in members of the (rather bored) media rushing out of concurrent press conferences being held by the Official U.S. delegation and the International Climate Action Network.

This action was followed by a series of stoic protests organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network and allied groups – to highlight the threat of the Alberta Tar Sands and REDD, where new forest investment schemes will permit both increasing corporate pollution and access to energy, water, and land resources on traditional Indigenous territories. IEN and other U.S. grassroots allies such as Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the EJ Leadership Forum, and the Global Justice Ecology Project joined La Via in protest both outside and in. Many of these grassroots activists were removed from, and denied entry to, the UN conference, including IEN Leader Tom Goldtooth. Following the re-instatement of his UN pass, Tom said, “The UNFCCC has drastically limited the number of civil society representatives allowed inside the talks, and increasingly our freedom of speech and right to peaceful protest is being withdrawn. We must stand united against this type of censorship that is designed to silence the massive opposition to the co-optation of the UN process by an unholy alliance of short-term thinking, denial, and greed.”

While the frontline community and youth actions in Cancun were inspiring, it felt good to leave the Cancun Summit early and return home to family and community in the Bay. Here at home, our bothers and sisters with PODER, Mujeres Unidas, POWER, MCJ West, and other grassroots, community-based groups celebrated the success of community action, grassroots organizing, and local solutions for climate justice in local streets and neighborhoods. And, in solidarity with the farmers, workers, and Indigenous peoples who marched on the UN Summit, the local fisher-folk in Cancun that were barred from working their waters during the Summit, communities everywhere fighting corporate pollution and exploitation, we painted a few banners, planted a garden, and danced in the streets.

In our communities, in our streets and amongst our comrades is where Climate Justice will succeed. 

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