Mesa 18 gathered anyway, off the official summit grounds and off the official summit record. “I fully believe in the message put forth by our president this morning,” Rafael Quispe, leader of the indigenous rights group CONAMAQ, said as he inaugurated Mesa 18, just hours after Morales affirmed his relentless fight on behalf of Mother Earth. The rebel group’s makeshift forum, a tin-roof barn, was packed with hundreds of people. “But we have serious problems in our own country with extractive industry and we can not ignore the effects this has on brothers and sisters around the nation,” Quispe explained.
Indeed, Bolivia’s extractive industry is expansive. From the second largest natural gas reserves in South America to large deposits of silver, oil, tin, zinc, and copper, almost 13 percent of the economy rests on environmentally destructive industries. And it’s expanding.
“Our very own YPFB [Bolivian state hydrocarbon company], supported by the transnationals, is coming into our communities without any real consult with the Indigenous peoples on the land to carry out oil exploration activities,” Justin Zambrana, president of the Guaraní Association’s Leader Council told the Bolivian press recently.
Just days after the conference, Bolivia’s Finance Minister, Luis Arce, gave a presentation in Washington, DC where he called natural resources the key to funding “a new Bolivia,” and said the government planned to expand extraction to fund social programs.
Few deny that development for South America’s poorest nation is necessary. Mesa 18 tried to bring the issues to the table in part, according to one organizer, because it is not a Bolivia-specific issue. Many other developing nations – Nigeria, Venezuela, Indonesia – rely on extractive industries, and few have established mechanisms for weaning themselves off of it.
Though seemingly disparate from the argument on climate debt, the Mesa 18 controversy is actually the flip side of the same debate: Who holds responsibility and what needs to change? By demanding discussion about the Global South’s own reliance on environmentally damaging industries, participants made a statement that they are not willing to simply cast blame northwards, or to wait for the industrialized world to provide solutions.
“The minerals and hydrocarbons that are taken out of our soil in our communities is the same raw material that creates disequilibrium in our planet,” CONAMAQ’s Quispe said after the conference. “And so when our President Evo Morales says ‘Mother Earth or death,’ then we must talk with urgency about creating a new model of managing our natural resources.”
In other words: To demand responsibility also involves claiming some.
Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a Bolivia-based freelance reporter who has worked for TIME, The Economist, and ABC News.
(Republished with permission of )
(Evo Morales Photo: Joel Alvarez; Aymara flag: )