Issue - July 2007

July 2007

In this issue we invite you to read and enjoy: by Mikko Mäkimartti, Living with the Yuracare; Santa Teresa de Jesús Convent is now a museum that can be appreciated by the public in all its splendour. Climate change talk is more than hot air by Lucy Witter. more...

July 2007

Climate change talk is more than hot air

Raising awareness of climate change is a challenge in a country like Bolivia, but Cochabamba’s Medioambiente Las Americas is having an impact, finds Lucy Witter

By: Lucy Witter
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Warrington - United Kingdom

In a country plagued with high infant mortality rates and widespread poverty, getting people to see why they should care about climate change and its effects is a challenge. But from its office in Cochabamba, environmental charity Medioambiente Las Americas (MLA) has already made tangible progress in at least raising awareness of the issue.

American-born Adam Zemans and his Bolivian wife Maria Eugenia founded MLA in 2004 from the living room of their home in Cochabamba, after discovering that repeated refuse burning nearby was responsible for releasing some 18 potent toxins into the same air their two young children were breathing. Working to raise awareness of environmental issues related to aspects of Bolivian life – burning refuse, industrial pollution and the way Bolivia manages its waste output – the charity has since established offices in the United States and Canada. A screening late last year of Al Gore’s famous documentary on the threat of climate change, An Inconvenient Truth , put on by the charity at Cochabamba’s Cine Avaroa and promoted heavily on billboards and in local TV commercials, drew crowds of some 1200 people – 600 of which had to be turned away due to lack of seats – made a real mark. “The number of people that showed up was really impressive for a city of this size – there were fights to get in,” Meghan Kallman, ML´s national director, tells Cocha-Banner.

“Since then we’ve had a steady stream of people visiting our office wanting to see the movie, buy a copy, ask us to talk at their school, requesting t-shirts - it generated a big buzz. I think a lot of times what happens is that there is just not much compelling information out there about climate change, it’s too scientific”, says Meghan. “It has to be palatable for people to get interested in it, and that’s what the screening did. I’ve had a couple of people come up to me and say, ‘I’ve seen that movie, it changed my life and now I do things differently’”.

MLA´s mandate is to improve environmental health by changing the way that countries, governments, corporations and people all over the Americas practice ecology, economics and equity. “These are what we call the three Es of global sustainability, the way we can make our society, our economic system, our world, sustainable” Meghan adds. These are hot topics for Europe and North America at the moment, but for developing countries like Bolivia, climate change goes over many heads. “We know that in a country with poverty rate as high as Bolivia’s; it’s hard to get people interested. Many people are kind of worried about climate change, but they’re more worried about feeding their kids, and of course it is not a reasonable demand to ask that Bolivians pay more attention to their garbage or their purchase habits than buying the baby new shoes.

We can’t talk about just environmental health, for example, because you can not remove it from the social and economic issues in this country.” The charity has grown by leaps and bounds since the Zemans’ first lobbying and publicity campaigns, conducted from their home-run-office in the north of the city, achieved federal approval in the form of a large sign at a major refuse site in Cochabamba threatening offenders with hefty fines. In recent months, the media community has responded to the cause too. MLA has its own radio slot manned by two volunteers on Radio Gente, 97.4, for one hour every Saturday at 1pm, and has had Cochabambinos calling in to discuss some of the city’s environmental blights, including municipal dump K´ara K´ara and its renowned community of recolectores living beside it. “The show is a really excellent medium for us to get our message out there”, believes Meghan. “Everybody listens to the radio here. People do call in and ask questions.” The plan is to roll the show out to partne stations in other major Bolivian cities, like Oruro and La Paz.

The charity is making strong links with the communities it serves, mobilizing volunteers to spread the message. The Cochabamba Boy Scouts have signed up to carry out doorto- door canvassing to promote the end of trash dumping and burning, and encourage recycling. Meghan believes the Bolivian tradition of protest help MLA to get things moving and make a bigger impact in less time. “In the States it takes so long to decide how we’re going to do things, but here people organize really quickly,” she says.

“If we can get people fired up and making connections between global climate change and what’s going on in the city, I think we have huge potential to make change. On the other hand, across the Americas people blame El Niño for a lot of things, and it is kind of billed as a natural phenomenon,” she continues. “It is, but its impacts are exacerbated tenfold by humanimpact climate change. It’s one of our goals to make the connection between El Niño and its effects as a natural weather phenomenon, and climate change.” The charity has also been working closely with Voces Libres and medical student volunteers from Universidad Mayor de San Simón to talk to K´ara K´ara´s recolectores on public health and hygiene issues. “The goal is not to stop people working on garbage dumps, because that simply is not an option, but rather to make it healthier for everybody involved.”

Meghan and her colleagues have taken their proposal to the top, and with a full time staff of three lawyers the charity has drafted a list of proposals to amend the Bolivian Constitution, drawing on concepts like the rights of future generations, inaction liability, and collective environmental rights. MLA did intensive lobbying with its proposals in April to coincide with protests to change the constitional capital back to Sucre, and has had letters of support from some influential quarters. “A bunch of competing organizations have already started to integrate our proposals into their programmes,” Meghan reports. “Whether or not it goes in under our name is another issue, but the important thing is that the ideas get there.”

Sticking to its aims to create change at the corporate level, MLA is committed to legal advocacy. It is supporting the campaign of the Ecuadorian-Amazonian community of Lago Agrio against U.S. oil company Chevron in it’s legal battle against alleged extensive environmental degradation due to drilling. MLA is working on establishing a legal clinic, staffed by lawyers and law students, as a resource for leaders in marginalized communities in the area. They are also working to set up an exchange program bringing Bolivian, North American, Canadian and European undergraduate students to Cochabamba for educational internships on environmental advocacy, while a 5-week ecology immersion trip in the jungle will aim to help those involved “bond with the Bolivian wilderness”.

This integration of Bolivian and North American is a central feature of MLA´s outlook. “This would show North American visitors how badly planned our international economy is in regards to environmental issues, and that changing it is our collective responsibility – as well as helping them discover what we can do about it.”

Even in the last month there is evidence that the people of Cochabamba and Bolivia are waking up to environmental issues and starting to take action. World Environment Day saw a protest in Plaza Colón, with marchers holding posters and dressed up as trees and bushes, demanding that greater consideration be given to our environment. Perhaps this year’s International Climate Change Day, December 7th, will demonstrate the growing strength of the environmental movement in Bolivia, to which Medioambiente Las Americas will undoubtedly have made a significant contribution.

Climate change ...
In a country plagued with high infant mortality rates and widespread poverty, getting people to see why they should care about climate change and its effects is a challenge...
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