Countdown to Copenhagen: Suing the Global North for "Glacial" Pace on Climate Change Action

Fed up with the "glacial" pace of climate negotiations and the unwillingness of the Global North to address their concerns, Indians and environmentalists in South America have come up with a shrewd new way of drawing the world's attention. Meeting recently in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, civil society groups set up an international tribunal on climate justice and actually brought legal cases against the principal countries and companies responsible for global warming.

Of particular concern to indigenous peoples are vanishing Andean glaciers. During a meeting of leftist Latin American leaders allied to the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA, an agreement designed to facilitate trade and reciprocity amongst like minded progressive regimes), a symbolic group of eight progressive jurists took up the issue of Illimani, a glacier located in the Bolivian Andes. Elderly Aymara Indians inhabiting the area of Illimani can still remember a time when the snow capped hills extended close to their native village of Khapi. In the past few years, however, the snow-line has risen 1,500 feet up the mountain.

It's getting hotter, and Illimani is melting. Indeed, within the next thirty or forty years the Aymara fear that the snow will vanish entirely from atop Illimani. That spells trouble for Khapi, whose residents depend on the glacier for their sustenance. Without Illimani, the villagers will not have any water supply or means to irrigate their small, terraced parcels which are used to grow simple crops such as maize, beans and potatoes.

It's unjust that the Aymara, who do not contribute significantly to climate change, should pay a disproportionately high environmental price for global warming. Yet Bolivia's Indians have hardly been idle when it comes to confronting the Global North for its ecological crimes. Recently, some of the communities in the vicinity of Illimani formed a civilian pressure group which demanded the convening of an international tribunal on climate justice.

Grass roots pressure from below resonated amongst Bolivia's political leadership. Indeed, as recently as September the country's indigenous president Evo Morales called for the creation of the tribunal while attending the United Nations in New York. Climate change, Morales remarked, was "a product of the capitalist system which merely pursues the highest possible profit without taking into account the lives of others." Indigenous peoples, Morales added, had the most "moral authority" to address climate change because it was they who had historically protected mother earth and natural resources. The Global North, Morales concluded, should indemnify poor nations for the ravages of climate change.

In Cochabamba, the Aymara submitted their case relating to Illimani to a symbolic jury comprised of European and Latin American environmentalists, lawyers, and human rights activists. During the proceedings, the Indians charged that nations of the Global North were responsible for the melting of their glacier. After reviewing the Indians' case, the jurists concluded that indeed climate was endangering the Aymaras' right to cultural self determination and physical health. Even worse, global warming threatened to displace indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.

Moreover, the jurists had harsh remarks for the Global North, which in their words shared "historic responsibility" for emitting most of the word's greenhouse gases over the past 250 years. The capitalist system, the group continued, contributed to climate change while impeding a rapid and effective environmental response. The jurists noted that Illimani and other cases brought before the tribunal demonstrated how governments, international financial institutions, banks and transnational corporations worked in tandem to worsen our climate change dilemma. Following deliberations in Cochabamba, the jurists handed over their findings to Morales who in turn spoke with fellow ALBA leaders.

The crisis afflicting Illimani underscores larger environmental problems confronting Andean glaciers, an issue which I take up at some length in my upcoming book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, April 2010). In the Andes, so-called "tropical glaciers" spread out over 965 square miles and form an imposing landscape. Peru contains a full 71 percent of South America's tropical glaciers, and to the dismay of many local inhabitants ice peaks are now turning brown.

Quelccaya, the world's largest tropical ice cap, is retreating at about 200 feet a year, up from 20 feet in the 1960s. Over the past few decades Peru has lost 22 percent of its surface glacier area. That spells trouble for the Andean nation, which relies on glaciers for much of its water supply. According to authorities, the country has lost seven billion cubic meters of water as a result of glacier melt. That's the same amount of water consumed by Lima, a city of more than eight million people, over the course of ten years.

What is it going to take for the Global North to take the glacier issue seriously and to help protect Andean indigenous peoples from the worst ravages of climate change? Unfortunately, the recent international tribunal on climate change has no official legal standing and its decisions are non-binding. Jurists and organizers however are hopeful that the tribunal may help to promote meaningful political action.

Specifically, they hope that international entities such as the Organization of American States and International Court of Human Rights will take up and investigate the issue of climate change and ecological crimes. In the long term, the Indians expect that governments, lawyers, judges, the Inter-American system and the United Nations will start to label human rights violations resulting from climate change as true crimes against humanity.

Outmaneuvered by powerful corporations, international financial institutions and foreign governments of the Global North, the Aymara have few political options available as they seek to save Illimani. They are now playing the last card on the table by attempting to shame powerful countries into doing the right thing. During an upcoming climate summit held in Copenhagen, Denmark organizers will read aloud sentences issued by their own Cochabamba tribunal on climate justice.

Taking up the call of his compatriots, Evo Morales has said that countries attending the Copenhagen summit should undertake "a profound analysis" to quantify environmental damage unleashed by climate change. Poignantly, he hopes that Copenhagen will serve to identify those countries and transnational corporations most responsible for spurring global warming and melting glaciers like Illimani.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, April 2010). Visit his blog at