7th Hemispheric Conference Against Free Trade Agreements, Havana, Cuba

Urgent Measures in the Face of Climate Change and the Privatization of Water

2008-04-11 00:00:00

Citing the conclusions of the 2007 Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Julio Torres Martínez from the Science and Technology Observatory of Cuba said that climate change is a reality necessitating measures which challenge the neoliberal model of consumerism and free trade. He addressed participants attending the 7th Hemispheric Conference Against Free Trade Agreements in Havana during a panel discussion on Thursday morning entitled "The Environment, Climate Change and Defense of Natural Resources."

Cuba is setting an example, he says, noting former President Fidel Castro's role in committing the island population to do its part to address climate change resulting in a constitutional amendment following the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Stating that climate change is primarily "a consequence of what the big capitalist countries have done by large," he said that the resulting loss of the polar icecap and new climactic phenomena constitute a grave risk for less developed countries in particular, with major implications for public health and their water supply.

Citing decisions at the People's Summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia during December 2006 and referring to current initiatives toward energy integration in Latin America, he said that energy generation has to be determined based upon "the benefit of the population of a country through state owned companies and the nationalization and recuperation of control over natural resources," currently dominated by transnational corporations.

Collective Rights at Stake

Jose Maria Villalta of Costa Rica said that privatization of natural resources and the monopoly that transnational corporations have over oil, minerals, water, and biodiversity is guaranteed through provisions in free trade and investment agreements. A member of the Parliamentary Group of the Broad Opposition Front (El Frente Amplio) and part of the Green Block, Villalta added that for change to take place "the rights of communities that are seriously threatened by the free trade model with regard to territory and determination of their own means of development" have to be recognized.

Free trade agreements have promoted the privatization of services such as healthcare, education and telecommunications for some time, but the recent inclusion of water arose as a particular concern of several panelists, including Villalta. "It's an attack against the rights of communities over a resource that's growing ever more scarce," he said.

Elizabeth Peredo from the Solón Foundation of Bolivia and the Boliviaran Movement for Peoples Sovereignty, emphasized that water should be recognized as a human right. Right now, however, "the rights that transnational corporations enjoy are much more powerful" than that of people and communities said Villalta, and according to Peredo, the right to water currently "doesn't exist."

Private Tribunals an Issue

Villalta described how the ability of corporations to sue governments as a result of provisions in free trade and investment agreements, trumps the rights of affected communities and puts a heavy load on governments who face such cases. Bolivia has not signed a free trade agreement with the US, but they have a law prioritizing the use of water for irrigation. If they had such an agreement, their government could be sued for this and face tremendous penalties, such as in the case of Argentina for restricting water service fees, noted Villalta.

Additionally, the privatization of justice regarding natural resources arbitrated by tribunals such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) in Washington also hinders affects communities from participating in their own defense. The way in which arbiters are selected can put communities at a disadvantage, particularly given that under certain circumstances the third judge may be selected by the World Bank, which Villalta recalled, is now under the direction of Robert Zoellick recently appointed by US President George W. Bush.

The costs of fighting these cases also add up and Bolivia knows what that's about. During Cochabamba's water battle, the government racked up a bill of more than one million dollars after two years including lawyers, transportation and hotels, said Elizabeth Peredo, calling this "an aggression against states." Bolivia recently pulled out from ICSID.

The World Water Forum and Privatization through Services

While privatization of water takes place through the rapidly growing water bottling industry, provisions for unlimited water exports, as well as through industrial uses such as mining and agro-fuels, Peredo added that another important actor to consider is the unelected World Water Forum.

This forum, she outlined, functions on the principal of water as a "necessity" rather than a human right, meaning that it can be sold. It also operates on the premise that private industry will take charge "of solving the water crisis in the world" prioritizing its use for industrial agriculture and promoting the use of genetically modified seeds.

She concluded by reading from a letter written by President Evo Morales of Bolivia shortly following the signing of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which cited the conclusion that worldwide we are consuming in a year what we produce in a year and three months. She expressed hope for upcoming constitutional changes pertaining to natural resources and water in Ecuador similar to processes that have taken place in Uruguay and Bolivia.

Paraguay, the Guaraní Aquifer

The Hemispheric Social Alliance has to date not had strong representation from Paraguay, but during this panel two participants from the Paraguayan Initiative, Ruben Vera Suarez and Alberto Alderete, affirmed the demand that water be left out of WTO negotiations and free trade agreements, that tribunals such as ICSID be abandoned, and that water be protected as a human right with special status in the convenant on economic, social and cultural human rights.

Agro-fuel projects being developed by Brazilian and US investments in areas such as San Pedro, the poorest part of Paraguay, is leading to land speculation and reduced agricultural production for the local food supply. They also testified that where rural communities are organizing against transnational corporations such as Cargill, that people have been facing criminalization and strong repression by police and military forces.

Finally, they emphasized the strategic importance of the Guaraní Aquifer which straddles the border of Paraguay with Uruguay and Argentina and which is currently threatened by privatization. Interested transnational corporations include Coca Cola.

During the brief discussion following the presentations, Adilson Viera from the Amazonian Working Group of Brazil, commented that more research is needed into these issues so that more official complaints are registered about the impacts this is having on communities. And that this knowledge "shouldn't remain amongst government and scientists, but that it needs to be in the hands of the people."