Solutions to the EU Crisis: Learning from Latin America
Former Bolivian ambassador Pablo Solon speaks of his successes and frustrations in government, what the EU can learn from Latin America in confronting a debt crisis, and warns of the dangers of marketising nature under the guise of a 'green economy.'
Since you were previously in government, what was your greatest accomplishment in government in your view and what was your greatest frustration?
Pablo: I think the accomplishment I am most proud of was when we approved the human right to water at the UN. Nations like US and Canada, that initially opposed the declaration decided at the last moment to stay neutral so it got passed. I felt my life at least served for a specific thing.
I also feel proud that Bolivia stood up at the UN conference in Cancun against the adoption of the Cancun agreement. Even though we were alone, I was able to explain to 192 countries that what we adopted there is causing deaths for millions because it sets us on the path towards 3-4 degrees. I had to say openly that diplomacy is not the solution for the climate crisis if it means avoiding our responsibilities. Although in some ways this was clearly not a victory, I believe that if more leaders acted politically, thinking not of diplomacy but instead the real consequences of what we are doing, the world would be a better place.
I believe that if more leaders acted politically, thinking not of diplomacy but instead the real consequences of what we are doing, the world would be a better place
In terms of frustrations, my biggest was seeing my own government not applying our own principles that we fought for at international level. You can not say something and then not apply it in your own life. That is why I am no longer in the government.
What was the issue in which you felt the Bolivian government was not practicing what it preaches?
I left over the issue of Tipnis. This is a proposed national road that the government has pushed through against some indigenous and popular opposition. Clearly we need to integrate the country, but we need to do this without destroying our biggest natural parks and can not override and suppress the opposition of indigenous peoples who feel their rights are being affected. When the government talks about the importance of indigenous rights and rights of nature, you need to apply your own rhetoric.
We have seen this on other issues too: in Bolivia we fought against genetically modified organisms, but now we see a law which has provided a backdoor to have GMOs in our country.
If we want to develop a new kind of society, nobody, no single person will liberate us
There are some historical tendencies you don't have to repeat from the past such as caudillismo (cult of personality) if we want to have a real process of change. If we want to develop a new kind of society, nobody, no single person will liberate us; we the people must lead our own liberation. It is going to be very difficult in Latin America to leave this behind, but we need to develop a new kind of relationship with leaders.
How do you analyse the EU crisis from a Latin American perspective?
Pablo: Every crisis is a political moment. We can see a lot of similarities between Europe and what happened in Latin America 20 years ago. Institutions like the IMF told us that you must close the deficit, which in our case meant workers were thrown onto the streets (50,000 miners), state companies were privatised, and state expenses reduced. We are seeing a very similar recipe applied here.
At the beginning, a significant part of Bolivia's population believed this recipe might be the solution. They didn't react straight away. It took about 15 years to build a movement to reverse these policies. It was not easy, we were isolated at the time, dismissed as living on another planet. Now Bolivia doesn't follow the instructions of the World Bank and IMF and in general we no longer apply the same neoliberal measures.
The key question when you have an economic crisis is to ask: where is the money? Governments and institutions invariably look at people, but of course it is big corporations that are controlling the wealth. In Bolivia, when state companies were privatised, 80% of revenues went outside to transnational corporations so we had to revert this, and now 80% goes to the State. So as a result we have more investment in health, education and jobs.
We have to think of a solution that embraces all aspects of the crisis
As well as identifying where the money is and redistributing it, we also need to challenge the model of growth. The solution given even by progressive economists for the EU crisis is growth, but we know to grow for ever is to destroy the planet. We are already consuming more than the planet can in one year regenerate so that pattern is not going to work and humans will end up paying the bill. So we have to think of a solution that embraces all aspects of the crisis. I can understand the first priority is to create employment, that is real, but how do we build an alternative than goes beyond just increasing growth.
The consequences for ordinary people of IMF policies are horrific. How did you get out from under the IMF and World Bank – and in our case from the European Central Bank and European Commission too?
Pablo: Initially, we did have protests and strikes against neoliberal policies but everything was still privatised. The turning point came when we saw that water would be their next target. We mobilised for this battle and succeeded in 2000 in throwing out the Californian firm Bechtel and changed the law.
This victory was crucial in enabling social movements to see their real strengths. After the so-called 'water war' in Cochabamba, then there was a 'war' in support of nationalising gas, and finally people starting asking why not nationalise government!
In terms of how we won, the first thing we learnt was the importance of preparation: to succeed, you need to understand the problem better than them. This meant reading the contracts, the budgets, knowing the issue and outlining alternatives in simple terms. In the EU, our movements are still not there in terms of decodifying the financial crisis, which is why I think we are still on the back foot.
Then we started to build alliances, thinking of how to bring other players into the game, not just traditional actors but the rest of civil society that doesn't usually mobilise. In the case of water, we got the Catholic Church to approve a charter on water, when we got that, we used it to publicise our campaign via their infrastructure.
Then we had to look imaginatively at the the measures we would take. In the case of mobilisations in our capital La Paz and its neighbouring city El Alto, we realised if we developed peaceful blockades in El Alto around the city of La Paz, that the capital wouldn't survive for 10 days. You can't necessarily replicate this, but there is always some kind of creative measure that your struggle can use.
Finally international solidarity is key. When we were sued by Bechtel, they got so much bad press by activists worldwide, that in the end they settled the case for one dollar. This wouldn't have happened if we hadn't thought in a global way.
What can we expect to see at the UN summit Rio+20 in June 2012? What solutions do we need to embrace to confront climate change and the ecological crisis?
At Rio+20 we will see a debate between two paradigms. The official agenda is being labelled “Green Economy.” It sounds good on the surface, but unfortunately the term has been captured and now has a different meaning that will be formalised in the agenda there. Green Economy is now the umbrella term for the privatisation and commodification of nature. The opposing paradigm will come from the Peoples' summit, which will talk about the many non market-based alternatives for emerging from the crisis we are in.
Green Economy is now the umbrella term for the privatisation and commodification of nature
The fundamental premises of what they label the “green economy” is first that we can grow and decouple growth from damage to environment, and secondly that we can we do this with technology They aim to do this by commodifying nature itself; not going after the wood but going after the forest's capacity to store carbon.
This means creating a market, that is fiction, based on nothing tangible. They started this with carbon trading and the forest-trading scheme known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD). They now want to expand this to all of nature's so called 'services.'
These markets in nature create a double perverse incentive to destroy the environment. First if you buy carbon credit, it means you have the right to pollute that amount which means polluters don't reduce emissions. Secondly the offsets bought to support that right to pollute also reward polluters.
In the case of REDD, adopted at negotiations in Cancun, it establishes that if this year you have deforested 1000 hectares and next year say you are only going to deforest 800 hectares than you can sell credits for the 200 hectares you won't deforest. So if I am a good guy and always protect forests, I won't get credits, because they are for those who deforest. So we have the bizarre situation of some communities increasing deforestation to prepare for REDD.
Worst of all, they will have derivatives for this which will create another speculation bubble like we saw with the US housing crisis but this time with nature. They are promoting this new market as a way to get out of the financial crisis and create new business to create profits. It is going to create lots of companies, intermediaries and lay the seeds for the next financial crisis when this fictional speculative bubble bursts but worst of all it will mess up the planet for the next decades.
What are the alternatives?
We have to end the anthropocentric era that put humans at the centre of all life and act realising we are one part of this planet
We need a change of paradigm: we have to end the anthropocentric era that put humans at the centre of all life and act realising we are one part of this planet. We are living in a system, which has at its centre not humans but nature. We need to preserve the system to preserve ourselves. This means recognising that as well human rights, there are also rights of nature, that we must respect the laws and natural cycles of nature.
So our main challenge at Rio+20 should not be looking at how to grow, but how to redistribute wealth, and create balance and harmony with nature. Unfortunately we have very little time. Civil society has been moving backwards since the UN climate talks in Copenhagen so much so that by the Durban summit in December 2011, the only agreement we got was for a decision by 2020, but by then it will be too late. We urgently need to act now.