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From Melting Glaciers to Structural Adjustment: Maude Barlow on the Need for Water Justice

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In the Andean highlands of South America, climate change isn’t just an abstract threat. In Bolivia, glaciers are melting at what experts say is an alarming rate as a result of rising global temperatures. We speak with Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians, about the melting glaciers, climate change and water. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryApr 22, 2010Bolivia Climate Conference Moves to Establish Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting, yes, from the World Peoples’ Summit on Climate Change and Rights of Mother Earth in the Bolivian town of Tiquipaya just outside Cochabamba on this Earth Day.

Glaciers are considered to be one of the most sensitive indicators of climate change. In the Andean highlands of South America, climate change isn’t just an abstract threat. Glaciers are melting here at what experts say is an alarming rate as a result of rising global temperatures. Earlier this month, a huge glacier broke apart in Peru, sending a block of ice into a lake in the Andes and triggering a tsunami wave. According to the World Glacier Monitoring Service, glaciers across the globe are continuing to melt so fast that many will disappear by the middle of this century.

As the glaciers on Bolivia’s Mount Illimani continue to melt, villagers living nearby are deeply concerned with the threat of drought and dwindling water supplies. They want compensation from the international community for environmental damage that they blame on greenhouse gas emissions from rich, industrialized nations.

Well, for more on the melting glaciers, climate change and water, I’m joined now by Maude Barlow. She heads the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy group. She’s founder of the Blue Planet Project.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why did you come to Bolivia, Maude?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, to support the climate justice movement; to support the Bolivian government and the social movements here in their rejection of the Copenhagen Accord, which has been imposed on the world, which really is in opposition to the UN process; and also to try to merge the analysis of water and justice, water justice and climate justice, and the movements, because they tend to be working in separate silos, and it’s really important that we put them together.

AMY GOODMAN: So, when we flew in — maybe you did, too — we flew into La Paz — El Alto, to be exact. And this largest urban area in Bolivia is being deeply affected now by the melting glaciers. Explain what’s happening here.

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, remember it’s a landlocked country, so their only water that they have, really, is the water of the glaciers, and they’re melting very quickly. The Mount Illimani is really the only one left, and it’s receding very quickly.

What’s happening is, as the glaciers melt, the people have no water, they can’t grow food, they have to move, so they move to the periphery of large cities. And of course then there’s the demand on the government to bring in modern water supplies, which cost a lot of money. And then, of course, the World Bank comes in and says, “OK, but we’ll give you the money, if you privatize.” So it’s kind of a bad one-two-three scenario.

What we’re finding is, in many of these countries and communities around the world, we’re losing whole peoples, we’re losing whole cultures, because their cultures were based on their ancient traditions, their ancient birthplace, which was mountains. We’re losing a lot of mountain people around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: And what could stop this process?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, obviously, if we’re successful in sounding the alarm about greenhouse gas emissions and the need to go far deeper than the Copenhagen Accord went with all of our governments — I mean, I’m a Canadian, and I’m totally ashamed of my government. We’re the only government in the world that signed the Kyoto Accord and then backed out and went into Copenhagen announcing that we were — intended to fail, and we won’t touch our greenhouse gas emissions from the notorious tar sands. I call them Canada’s Mordor. So we have to sound the alarm.

It’s our job to go back and say this isn’t some kind of esoteric, off-in-the-future thing; this is ground zero. There are people going to be dying. There are going to be climate refugees in the very near future, or right now. And we have to understand our part in this. I mean, this country has contributed — I think it’s 0.17 percent of the entire greenhouse gas emissions in the world. They don’t deserve to have their glaciers melt. They’re holding onto their lifestyles, their traditions and their own food sustainability, and we’re destroying it with our greenhouse gas emissions from abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: As people describe it here, the glaciers are their bank, their reservoir, for water.

MAUDE BARLOW: Yeah, their water towers. We call them water towers.

And what we’re trying to do here — it’s been a big part of the work, and it’s been successful — is trying to put the analyses together, because not only do greenhouse gas emission fuel climate change, melt glaciers, melt snow packs, and so on, but conversely, the way we take water from where it exists, in watersheds and in some cases mountains — I mean, we do remove the glaciers for water for cities, so it’s not just that it’s melting, or we displace water to grow inappropriate crops in deserts, or one of the many things that we do — we’re actually destroying the world’s freshwater stock, which is something we all learned couldn’t happen back when — I don’t know, grade six. But it is happening.

There’s a brand new World Bank study that says that in twenty years our global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent. I mean, that is a stunning statistic, if you can try to imagine the human suffering and the loss of biodiversity behind a number like that. There isn’t enough water, if we continue to treat it this way, for all of us. And now we know who’s going to go first: it’s going to be the poor, it’s going to be the marginalized.

So we’re saying we have to — if the displacement of water and abuse of water is one of the causes of climate change, and not just greenhouse gas emissions, then that has to be put into the official debate, the official agenda. It’s got to be put on the table. And then we have to put our movements together, because not only are there multiple causes of climate change, but there are similar solutions that are being proposed, which is privatize the air, privatize the water, continue with economic globalization, market-based growth, just continue everything, but let’s make money on it, let’s, you know, make derivatives out of pollution and trade them. That’s a very similar — oh, and technology, in the end, will save us. So the answers that we’re getting from northern governments around how, you know, cap and trade and how technology will save us are the same answers that we’re getting for, you know, desalination and recycling, and, you know, somehow technology is going to be the savior. So we continue to abuse water.

Where these come together is something wonderful that’s happened here, and that is a declaration that we’re putting forward here to go to the United Nations and to the peoples of the world to be a companion piece to the 1948 document on human rights, Declaration of Human Rights. And this will be the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. And this has, not surprisingly, come from the people and the government of Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world, that, as I say, is ground zero for the destruction that we’re doing.

They’re saying, if we don’t reverse it, if we don’t [stop] seeing all the resources — the water and the air and the soil — as just resources for us to make us rich and to make us comfortable, and we don’t understand they’re a living, breathing ecosystem that has to be respected, then this will be the story for the world. You think, you know, melting glaciers are only going to happen in the Global South? Uh-uh, talk to Europe. I mean, look at the glaciers in the Alps. Look at the glaciers in the Himalayas that supply all of the water to Asia. We are marching far quicker down this path, in terms of climate change, than scientists were even talking about ten years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Maude Barlow, this clearly is critical. The question is, how will this summit, the World Peoples’ Summit here in Cochabamba, affect all of us? Will it have meaning?

MAUDE BARLOW: Well, truly —-

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not coming out with binding decisions.


AMY GOODMAN: It’s not part of the UN process, though it wants to affect what happens in Cancun.

MAUDE BARLOW: That’s right. No, I think what’s absolutely wonderful here, I mean, that the police are here to help you -— imagine that, right? — give you directions and make sure you’re safe and maybe even help you get food. This is a process for the social movements and the governments that are saying basically no to a hijacking of the process that took place in Copenhagen at the UN.

And I think their voices will not be heard by most Northern press. And thank goodness for you, Amy, and I mean that. But, you know, I know a lot of the mainstream Canadian press will kind of poopoo this, and I know our government is not here officially, nor is yours. And so, it’s this kind of — this is just a kind of a, you know, let them have their little fun, and it won’t mean anything.

But in fact, I think they’re going to be very surprised, when they get to Cancun, at the movement that is building. They underestimated this movement ten years ago in Seattle, and we shut the World Trade Organization down. I’m not saying anybody is going to Cancun to shut it down, but when you underestimate the power of a movement of people who are getting together from the North and South, from peoples, you know, from all over the world, of all ages and all backgrounds, who are saying this is a life-and-death struggle and our governments are failing us, they underestimate a very powerful force. And they underestimate it at their peril.

AMY GOODMAN: The British environment secretary Greg Clark called President Morales’s form of activism “watermelon environmentalism.”



MAUDE BARLOW: Green on the outside and red on the inside. It’s insulting. It’s insulting. And if he would come here and he would go visit the communities affected by glacial melt and global warming, I think he would — it would take his breath away. And the beauty of the people and the kindness and the tragedy that’s unfolding here and in communities around the world — if they would leave their ivory tower and their five-star hotels and their, you know, their fancy offices, and if they’d come here and they would actually meet people, they’d meet the miners or the people in the mining communities who are being so devastated by the terrible effluent, toxic effluent from mining companies — and many of them Canadian, I have to say — they might find their humanity. They might look to the core of themselves and find their humanity. That’s an insulting and racist statement, and [inaudible], in my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: We have thirty seconds. Tar sands?

MAUDE BARLOW: Tar sands is Canada’s shame. They’ve taken down a boreal forest the size of Greece. And I call it Canada’s Mordor, because it’s the death of nature. We have a planned fivefold increase in production.

AMY GOODMAN: What is tar sand?

MAUDE BARLOW: The tar sands is a northern Alberta heavy oil mining operation, and they have to steam-blast the oil out of this bitumen, this very heavy sand mix. They do it by destroying water. For every barrel of oil we get, we destroy three —

AMY GOODMAN: The US getting much of it?

MAUDE BARLOW: The US getting most of it. We call ourselves America’s gas tank. And this all comes from NAFTA, because in NAFTA we signed a proportional sharing agreement on our energy. So as we’re running out of conventional energy to send to the US, we’re now having to tap these terrible new sources. We’ve got cancer clusters in the First Nations communities all around, all in the Athabaska. It’s our shame. And, you know, it really brings us closer to people here who are suffering the same thing. It’s not like everything’s fine in the North and everything’s bad in the South. This is what brings our movements together.

AMY GOODMAN: Maude Barlow, I want to thank you for being with us. She heads the Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization. She’s a founder of the Blue Planet Project and a Right Livelihood Award winner.

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Bolivia Climate Conference Moves to Establish Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth

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