Last week I attended a talk given by Bolivian president Evo Morales in a church in Manhattan. The president’s speech was so inspiring; indeed, he lived up to his designation earlier in the week by Father Miguel D’Escoto at an event I co-organized as perhaps the greatest prophetic voice on the world stage today. Here is a brief transcription of his comments:
Growing up in an indigenous community in the highlands of Bolivia, we didn’t know anything about private property. For me as a child, all land was common land. We viewed the Earth as our mother.
Now, if the Earth is our mother, we have to defend her. After all, you can’t sell your mother. We cannot exist without our mothers, but they can certainly exist without us. So we need to respect and protect our mother Earth. This is why we need to deal with climate change.
We know what the system is that’s causing climate change. But when we challenge this system, we are called terrorists, narco-traffickers, communists, and dictators. History is simply repeating itself here. When indigenous peoples rose up around the huge colonial Spanish silver mines in Potosi, they were called terrorists. Then when miners organized earlier in this century, they were called communists. When indigenous groups protested against the privatization of water in Cochabamba at the beginning of this new millennium, they were called terrorists. In fact, despite being elected with a strong majority, after 9/11, members of my government were compared to the Taliban.
Those who represent the capitalist system keep accusing us, but the people keep organizing in the name of life, peace, and justice.
Unlike in the U.S., the effects of climate change are already evident to everyone. In recent years, we’ve experienced severe droughts and sudden temperature changes. We’ve had to search for water for the people by drilling deep wells, but the water table just keeps getting lower.
The origins of this crisis lie in unbridled industrialism and in the capitalist system itself. Because of this system, there’s always money for arms and for warfare, but not to save lives.
We have no alternative but to save the world.
Yet governments only make changes when strong social movements press them to do so. If the 2oth century was the century of the struggle for human rights, the 21st century is the century of struggle for the rights of Mother Earth.
We cannot have liberty without equality and justice. Yet all around us we see capitalism creating increasing inequality and destroying Mother Earth.
We held a World People’s Conference in Cochabamba last spring so that some movements could meet and discuss with each other how to address the environmental and social crisis we all face. Out of this conference emerged a set of proposals that include calling for keeping greenhouse gases at 350 parts per million, the abolition of the capitalist system, rejection of the phony Copenhagen climate Accord, and the establishment of a World Climate Justice Tribunal.
At the upcoming U.N. summit in Cancun, Mexico, we will see whether the developed nations respect the decisions reached in Cochabamba. If they fail to do so, they will be confessing to their lack of respect for Mother Earth.
We are strong when we organize together. We can change government policies. U.S. citizens don’t need visas to go to Cancun, so we are urging the members of U.S. social movements to organize climate justice caravans to travel to Cancun this December to pressure their government to do the right thing.
You know, many years ago I didn’t understand the comments of Fidel Castro when he said that he didn’t want the foreign debt paid, he wanted the ecological debt paid. Now I do. Now I see he was right.
We need to continue to hold alternative summits to spread this consciousness.
My school was the indigenous movements, peasant unions, and popular uprisings against neoliberalism. I continue to believe that such movements can change the world.
Hearing Evo was, as always, immensely uplifting. Doing so in a church in NYC was, however, very different from hearing him speak in a massive amphitheater in Cochabamba. His faith in popular social movements is very powerful, but it’s no news that the movements in the U.S. and E.U. with most media traction are further and further to the right. Evo’s faith in popular power and in social movements is thus comes across to me as both sweet and bitter.
There’s nothing for it but to keep writing and organizing, hoping that more and more voices will begin echoing Evo’s prophetic message in the months and years to come.