Power, Distrust and the Politics of COP20

WP_20141210_004Dave Shanks in Lima with Leonardo and gringo star bingo @writefullymine who blogs at Writefully Mine

The stars are rarely at their brightest in Lima thanks to a fug of natural and man-made elements. La panza de burro, a heavy-tog grey stratus shroud so named for its similarity to a donkey’s stomach, tightly swaddles the city for much of the year. A Pacific seaboard haar frequently deepens the gloom, with the inevitable air pollution in a city of 9 million inhabitants, excessive car ownership and minimal, if any, harmful gas emission controls – identified here by Michael Jacobs as the principal climate change challenge, with a new target to cut emissions by 60% by 2020 set in Lima – compounding the problem; a richt auld pea-souper.

So when any stars do appear they tend to be greeted with keen enthusiasm, if not borderline hysteria. Such was the case when I reached Lima in the run up to COP20; my mother-in-law, Julita, was in thrall to the A-list illumination of the climate talks by Leonardo di Caprio (less so Al Gore). On the drive from the airport into the city the airwaves of her FM car radio were thick with the buzz of gringo star bingo, obscuring the more earthly issues of Madre Tierra at hand.

The Lima authorities have embraced their important role as host of these critical talks, crucially involving China for the first time, with a free eco festival and numerous themed public engagement events and interventions across the city. One of these, an environmental time machine projecting climactic conditions in 2050 if we don’t change anything, is situated in the arrivals hall at Jorge Chavez airport. I’m sure many travellers less bewildered than me by the switch in time zones will enjoy this installation. Another, involving three giant green balloons, each containing one of the estimated 380,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted by Peru every day, is certainly eye catching but has so far, in the typically cynical Limeño way, been noted more for its metaphor for the hot air being generated by the COP20 delegates than for its intended purpose.

Indeed, the main local talking points as the climate talks kicked off were: the increased traffic chaos caused by the event; unpaid, striking waste collectors in a Lima district where the authorities had taken their wages and run prior to imminent, doomed elections; and how the final football championship play-off between two teams from Lima was having to be contested in a provincial city due to the COP20 drain on security resources for the protection of the visiting delegates.

Any visitor to Lima cannot fail to notice the hustle and bustle, a real sense of industry and hard-working people with their heads down, making ends meet, getting on with life, dawn to dusk. The city itself is a monument to human endeavour, stretching back centuries to the conquistadores who established their imperial HQ here for the temperate climate and strategic geographical position; from its nucleus around the mighty Rimac river, which charges down from the Andes, the city has sprawled north and south, encroaching on the vast sand mass that runs the entire western length of the continent and incorporates numerous deserts including the Atacama, the driest place on earth (land-grabbed from Peru by Chile with British help as my father-in-law always reminds me). It ‘rained’ once in the two years I lived in Lima at the turn of the century, the weak drizzle lasting all of five minutes.


Lima’s Costa Verde

In this context, water is a high value commodity, more so in a region severely affected by the increasingly prevalent El Niño climactic phenomenon and the extreme floods and droughts it brings. As Lima grows, so does water demand and pressure on its supply. Sedapal, the company tasked with meeting this demand, is in the process of establishing a new desalination plant to recycle sea water for domestic potable use.

Water recycling is old hat on Lima’s Costa Verde, where the verdant, blooming parks of Miraflores are enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Over a decade ago an irrigation initiative involving the use of treated sewage waste was introduced to keep the costa squeaky green. Sometimes, when the cocktail measures are not quite right or the wind is blowing in a certain direction, the cliff-top walk along the malecón can be a bit whiffy but there’s no doubting the value and benefits of such a project.

It was encouraging to read in the local press about the success of another local eco project, especially after working on a recent Greenpeace campaign promoting sustainable, small-scale fishing in UK waters in the face of a monster boat invasion. Following a scientific investigation into fishing stock by Imarpe – Institute Mar del Peru – a ban imposed on landing anchovetas due to overfishing has been lifted thanks to a revival of its stock off Peru’s coast.

Overfishing is a key issue at COP20, with more than 500 million people worldwide depending directly or indirectly on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. Fish also provides essential nutrition for 3 billion people and at least 50 percent of animal protein and essential minerals for 400 million people in the poorest countries. It’s encouraging, again, to hear of action amidst all of the talk taking place here in Lima, with Ecuador, Chile and Peru agreeing to join forces and proactively monitor regional fishing stocks and marine ecosystems.

In a world where we increasingly distrust what people in power say, and where the effects of climate change in the face of ongoing ignorance are increasingly evident, the actions speak louder than words idiom has never felt more relevant.

Cynicism around all things establishment is deeply ingrained in Peru. They were enthralling political times when I lived here, for all the wrong reasons. Ousted President Fujimori was on the run from state prosecutors and his stooge, Vladimiro Montesinos, chief of Peru’s secret service (bearing the ironic acronym SIN), had been snagged for numerous illegal activities, including bribery of congress members, embezzlement, gunrunning and drug trafficking. New details of the multi-million dollar swindles he orchestrated under Fujimori’s watch were released to an outraged, yet captivated, public every day, the hundreds of covert video recordings of his dodgy deals making the evening news the TV soap opera of choice.

Montesinos’s lair was the government’s Ministry of Defense building, known locally by the disparaging diminutive el Pentagonito, intended to at once suggest similarities with its USA equivalent and mock the comparison. The irony was not lost on anyone when it was revealed that Montesisos had received $10M dollars from the CIA in a dodgy deal. And the irony of COP20 being held at el Pentagonito has not been lost on many locals either, who argue that it’s just the same cronies getting together at huge expense to continue the state charade and reinforce the illusion that politicians are in control, not big businesses.

vovesA radio advert running during the talks encouraged listeners to take action with the slogan: if you change for the better, the climate can too. Every one of us has a role to play, indeed the only way things can change is if we all take responsibility. On the penultimate day of COP20, protesters attempting to clear the political smokescreen took to the streets of Lima to expose the pointlessness of such meetings. With so much skepticism around politics and politicians in general, do they really have the required credibility or capacity to engage the masses with these issues? There’s a strong chance they do more harm than good in this respect.

Surely the challenge, as with Scottish independence, is to help people make the mental leap between short-term, individualist thinking and historical, impactful actions? The climate can be changed for the better, but not by sitting back and accepting the politicians’ or celebrities’ lead. It’s a question of critical masses, not jackasses.

Postscript: The Greenpeace campaign stunt at Peru’s archaeologically unique Nazca Lines has caused consternation amongst locals. The environmental activists have done their job in hijacking the attention of the world’s media but they also seem to have disillusioned, and possibly alienated, many potential supporters with their actions.

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