When Bolivian President Evo Morales took the stage to inaugurate the World People's Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth on Tuesday, April 20, in Cochabamba, he gave his thousands of politically correct attendees a surprise. Somewhere between appealing for an international climate-change court and questioning why the U.N. still uses plastic cups, Morales went after genetically modified foods by making a comment that some think meant that hormones cause homosexuality.
"When we talk about chicken, it's pumped full of female hormones," Morales said, "and so when men eat this chicken, they stray from being men" (literally tienen desviaciones en su ser como hombres in Spanish). The comment went over nonSpanish speakers' heads, so it wasn't until sundown that it rippled its way through the 35,000-participant gathering. By the next morning, the international press had gotten wind of it, Bolivian newspapers had plastered it on their front pages and Spain's national LGBT federation had issued a statement calling the comment "homophobic."
The Morales government swears he meant no harm. "He made no mention of sexuality," the Foreign Relations Ministry said on Thursday, April 22, in response. "Rather, he said that eating chicken that has hormones changes our own bodies. This point of view has been confirmed by scientists, and even the European Union has prohibited the use of some hormones in food," the government asserts, citing studies that have shown that sexual hormones in food can cause genital abnormalities in boys. The document has not assuaged all critics especially since the Latin left, which Morales represents, has historically been considered less than sympathetic to homosexuals but it has taken some of the heat off Morales.
Bolivia's President also called Coca-Cola the poor man's Drano. "If the plumber comes to your house and can't get the job done with all his tools," Morales quipped, "have him pour Coca-Cola down the clogged toilet, and problem solved." This jab was better received, since Bolivians think the beverage company unfairly benefits from the country's traditional coca leaf. The leaf, an integral part of Bolivian indigenous culture as well as the base ingredient for cocaine, is banned outside the Andes. Bolivia therefore can't export its popular tea, for example. However, the U.N. Convention on Narcotics offers an exception when the leaf is used as a "flavoring agent." The Coca-Cola company refuses to disclose any part of its secret formula, but reporting suggests the coca leaf is in the recipe. Morales may have timed this remark on purpose: just last week, a small company in Bolivia introduced "Coca-Colla" into the local market (Colla refering to the native Andean highland people), a new energy soda that proudly uses coca as a main ingredient.
Though the off-color remarks took center stage in the press, summit participants chalked them up to quirky humor and kept focus on what few consider a laughing matter the growing climate crisis. Morales called for this "people's" summit back in January after what he and many in the global south saw as unwillingness on the part of developed-world leaders to set out a sustainable path in Copenhagen. Workshops and panels in Cochabamba echoed with harsh criticism of the Copenhagen Accord's back-door birth and complaints that it falls short of what's needed to curb climate problems.
"There is a cruel irony to climate change," Naomi Klein, author of the international bestsellers No Logo and The Shock Doctrine and a participant in the People's Summit, tells TIME. "The poorest nations that did not create the problem are the ones who are feeling its effects most," she says, explaining that experts are predicting that the developing world is going to suffer 75% of the effects of climate change.
Bolivia is an example of this irony. The Andean nation's millenniums-old glaciers are melting down to bare rock because of global warming that the country's 9 million residents did little to create. Scientists in Bolivia say its ice masses have lost 50% of their volume in the past 40 years alone. But this goes beyond mourning the slow death of great natural beauty. These glaciers provide 20% of the drinking water for two of Bolivia's largest cities, La Paz and El Alto, as well the surrounding countryside, which combined make up almost a quarter of the country's population.
Moreover, this may be a warning for everyone, says Dirk Hoffman, head of the climate-change program at Bolivia's largest university, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés. He considers the glaciers a kind of environmental miner's canary: "They are extremely sensitive, and so when they show their distress by melting, they are telling us that the rest of the planet is in great danger."
Since Bolivia is suffering the consequences of a sequence of conditions it did not cause, there's a debt to be paid, say some activists. For this nation, that could mean funding projects like the construction of reservoirs. But, the idea goes, climate reparations are about more than just aid. They're about industrialized countries accepting responsibility by taking actions within their borders to curb the problems for example, pursuing 40% emissions reductions from 1990 levels to 2020 rather than the 13% to 19% promised in Copenhagen. This debt idea has been met with harsh resistance. Todd Stern, the top U.S. climate negotiator in Copenhagen, says reparations on the scale that activists advocate a cool $400 billion is "wildly unrealistic."
Back on Tuesday's inaugural stage, speakers understood their uphill battle. As the smoke from the ceremonial coca-leaf offering floated into the late-morning air, representatives from Brazil, Nigeria and India said it was time the world chose between survival and destruction. Attendees at the vast gathering showed tenacity despite the challenges. As Alaska Inter-Tribal Council member Faith Gemmil noted in her welcoming address, "Our people have faced destructive policies for centuries. And we are still here."