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The UN Climate Conference (COP16) in Cancun is turning out to be both anti-climactic and anti-climatic.

There will be no major agreement to stop global warming this week, despite the timed release of a number of reports that show that the phenomenon is advancing more rapidly than expected, with lethal consequences.

There likely will be announcements of progress in schemes to allow contaminating industries and nations to continue with business as usual and add another lucrative area to their portfolios–trade in carbon offsets and credits.

It’s a worst-case scenario for the planet. Most negotiators seem to agree on abandoning or postponing the essential goal of mandatory emissions controls, while promoting markets for the global trade of permits to pollute.

Rather than commit to this massive assault on our futures all at once, the representatives of 192 nations gathered at this beach resort are expected to put off major decisions until next year in South Africa. Here in Cancun, they will probably announce progress in market-based incentives like the UN Reduction of Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) proposal and the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol.

Both allow developed-country polluters to use peasant and indigenous lands and projects in developing countries to offset continued pollution. In the bargain, not only do polluters avoid having to reduce emissions, but the land-management contracts that verify offsets typically strip traditional communities of their rights over the carbon-absorbing lands they have preserved for millennia.

A March Against “False Solutions”

On Dec. 7, thousands of members of grassroots organizations turned out for a long walk from Cancun’s city center toward the cloistered Moon Palace, where delegates meet to hash out a response to climate change. Hundreds of men in blue stood guard behind a metallic police barrier, preventing the march from getting anywhere near the center of power.

For marchers–International La Via Campesina of small farmers, Mexico’s National Assembly of Environmentally Affected Communities, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), Friends of the Earth, and other groups–the showdown in Cancun is over preventing a market-based approach to global warming. Sadly, no one who came to these meetings expects progress on the urgent issue of emissions controls.

The peasant and indigenous organizations of the Americas that demonstrated on Tuesday maintain that carbon market schemes make cynical use of the global warming crisis to launch an offensive on their territories. Dallas Goldtooth, a Diné-Dakota member of the IEN who carried a large “No-REDD” banner, said that the offset schemes present the biggest threat of the COP 16 negotiations. “It’s the negotiators’ main objective now. We’re here to march and to strategize to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Members of Mexican and international organizations walked in the worn shoes and disciplined rows of poor people’s organizations accustomed to mobilizations. The streets are usually the only forum open to them. Cancun is no exception, as climate talks have been marked by excessively restricted access and exclusion of civil society. Their banners proclaim: “No REDD”, “Our Forests are Not Just Carbon Sinks”, “We are All Made of Corn–No to Transgenics”, “No to False Solutions”, “Small and Medium-Sized Agriculture is the Solution”, and “We Defend the Mother Earth.”

In addition to REDD and other carbon credit plans, the “false solutions” opposed by the grassroots organizations include the use of geo-engineering, genetically modified seed, monoculture tree plantations and agrofuels.

Reading the signs and listening to the marchers quickly reveals the distance between the Moon Palace–“far from planet Earth,” quipped one critic–and the communities of the protestors. The marchers’ philosophy of the relationship of humans to the planet we live on comes from their own experience and cultures. Theirs are hands that work the earth, and eyes that measure the rains the way others check the Dow Jones.

For them, the planet is not just the source of exploitable resources for production and consumption. They come from cultures that view the planet as a Mother; “Mother Earth” is not a counter-cultural phrase–it’s the root of their land-based cultures.

Mickey McCoy comes from the town of Inez, Kentucky, population 600. A bearded veteran of many battles against the coal companies, his family has lived in the Appalachians for generations. Mountaintop removal has destroyed the environment and led to an epidemic of cancer in his town. He shows off a bright red t-shirt with what he explains is the motto of resistence in Kentucky hill country: “What we do to the land, we do to the people.” A Bolivian Quechua woman, dressed in the traditional montera (hat) and colorful pollera (skirt), nods in approval when the phrase is translated.

Whether from Bolivia or Kentucky, what they have in common and what has brought them together in Cancun is that bond with the land and a great sense of urgency. Climate change is only one among many threats their communities face–from mining, dam-building, industrial pollution. They explain that all these threats trace back to a system that extracts for the few and leaves the consequences to the many.

Real Solutions from the Ground Up

The force of the Cancun march can’t only be measured in numbers. The bonds forged in the Alternative Global Forum on Life, Environmental and Social Justice, where hundreds of people from all over the world are camped out for the week, constitute the best hope citizens have for turning around climate change.

Indigenous farmers who speak little Spanish explain climate change fluently. They intuitively understand the connections between greenhouse gas emission and other environmental threats to their communities, which stem from the corporations insistence on exploiting the earth for profits.

Rafael Alegria, a Honduran leader of Via Campesina tells the crowd that the first task is to fix the relationship between earth and human beings. The knowledge and wisdom of the people, especially indigenous peoples, should be the basis for restoring harmony and equilibrium, he says.

People at the campesino and indigenous camp agree. They’ve come to protest, but also to demand that world leaders look to them for answers and support agroecology and traditional practices that have proved effective. Forget the mass media’s stereotype of violent globalphobics–this is clearly not the “no” brigade. Thousands of men and women are saying, “yes, we have solutions.”

The march slogan sums it up: “Small farmers cool the planet.” Many scientific studies back them up. Small-scale farming practices convert agriculture into a carbon-absorbing activity, inverting industrial agriculture’s current role as a major contributor to global warming. Consuming local and seasonal foods, growing food organically, restoring plant material to the soil, all contribute to stopping climate change. In this sense, to protect the peasant/indigenous way of life is to protect the planet–and vice versa.

Diplomatic Maneuvers

A UN Environmental Program report released this week shows global warming advancing rapidly. The report noted that the number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean affected by extreme weather events–including high temperatures, forest fires, droughts, storms and flood–grew from five million in the 1970s to more than 40 million between 2000 and 2009.

But as campesinos marched, negotiators fiddled.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon formally recognized the urgency of the situation and the ineffectual efforts of negotiators. “I am deeply concerned that our efforts so far have been insufficient,” he said. “Nature will not wait while we negotiate. Science warns that the window of opportunity to prevent uncontrolled climate change will soon close.”

Ban’s exhortations may have little weight. Rumors suggest a planned attack on the entire framework of a binding, multilateral commitment. Although the current talks ostensibly aim at extending and deepening the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the U.S. government has reportedly been pushing the much weaker Copenhagen Accord–a face-saving measure with almost no binding commitments that resulted from the failed COP 15 and was supported by just a handful of countries.

Wikileaks cables show that the U.S. government has been doing some serious arm-twisting since Copenhagen to get buy-in to the voluntary accord as a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which it has not signed.

Chair of Friends of the Earth International, Nnimmo Bassey, warned of the consequences, “Replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a system that is pledge-based would sideline 20 years of multilateral negotiation and devastate the climate and the world’s people. It would be unjust and unacceptable.” UNEP research estimates that the Accord could result in up to five degree warming–a level that would have drastic effects on the planet and its life forms. There are also reports of efforts to remove the carbon markets from the Kyoto Protocol so that the business of global warming no longer needs the U.N. commitment framework.

A New Climate Paradigm

Pablo Solon, the Bolivian Ambassador to the UN, left the official negotiations to come out and speak to join the grassroots organizations at the end of the march. He told the marchers, “The battle in the streets is just as important as the battle in the Moon Palace.” Solon noted that for the first time in COP talks, a strategic alliance has been established between the protesters outside and delegates inside, based on a shared understanding of what’s at stake. The terms of the alliance resulted from the unprecedented process of forging a global consensus in Bolivia during the People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth last April.

According to Solon, the introduction of the concept of “the rights of nature” represents a huge change in the debate and directly confronts attempts to commercialize the crisis. Combined with full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, this rights-based perspective pushes nations to respond to the crisis with deep reforms, not technological fixes.

He added that 300,000 people a year die from climate change-related causes. Bolivia has proposed the creation of an International Climate Justice Tribunal to ascertain legal and moral responsibilities for the disasters occurring throughout the world.

Some 20 to 25 heads of state are taking part in the last few days of the conference–far fewer than Copenhagen. Presidents of powerful developed countries, including the United States, won’t be coming to Cancun. Their absence both reflects and contributes to the low expectations for this meeting.

As talks draw to a close, the Cancun COP 16 has racked up a carbon footprint of 25,000 tonnes, and a place in history as the stopgap conference on climate change–a tropical layover between the failed Copenhagen talks and next year’s round in Durban. If not for the critical battle over carbon markets, it would seem to have little justification for being.

Compared to the opacity of the official talks, a ray of hope comes from the marchers in the streets. It´s not just banners they carry aloft. They carry the message that the world urgently needs new ways of seeing and treating the earth. They’ve met each other Cancun to insist that elite economic interests give way to sustainable, small-scale solutions to the climate change crisis.

These are messages capable of carrying us into the future, illuminating ways of reclaiming our severely threatened planet.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org

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