David Simpson is a long-time Northern California bioregional pioneer and community leader based in the deeply rural Mattole River Valley of Humboldt County. Having written about and performed theater pieces with his partner Jane Lapiner on the subject of climate change in many places for several decades, they went to the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark to participate in whatever ways seemed appropriate. Now David and Jane are in Cancún, Mexico at COP16. Planet Drum will distribute all of David’s impressions and welcomes your reactions at email@example.com.
December 1, 2010
By David Simpson and Jane Lapiner
Click on photos for larger images
At the beginning of last year’s international climate conference (Conference of the Parties or ‘COP 15″) in Copenhagen, it was announced that next year’s event, COP 16, would take place in Mexico City. Two weeks later, at the end of the conference, word came that the sight of the 2010 event had been changed to Cancún, a resort city built on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula where it juts out into the Caribbean Sea.
What had intervened to force this change was two weeks of relative pandemonium in Copenhagen. The city, in order to prepare for the event had injected itself with vast corporate hype almost completely at spiritual odds with what turned out to be the most compelling set of actors of the whole event-tens of thousands of climate and environmental activists from all over the world but especially from Europe.
This loosely organized force became increasingly strident both in and outside the conference as it became apparent that demands for social equity and for real progress toward emissions reductions were not likely to be met. Mass protests and near-riots had developed, exacerbated by a large, provocative police presence. It sent a tremor of concern through some of the larger governmental and commercial interests behind who were perhaps cognizant of the great WTO debacle in Seattle in l999. It should be remembered that after that cataclysmic event, the WTO moved its follow-up conference to Cancún, the first of a series of world powers’ conferences the locations for which came to be determined at least in part on criteria of isolation from mass population centers and of plain old defensibility. The original tremor seemed to have morphed for the UNFCCC into a full blown paranoia of some of Democracy’s messier aspects. Cancún’s tourist towers were and continue to be sufficiently fortress-like and defensible. The primary resort areas run along narrow strips of beach, and there is only one road in and out of the whole city. On the major of these strips one enormous palace of excess follows another creating an uninterrupted line of beckoning indulgences that runs off into the distant horizon. Any effective physical challenge to security would have to come by sea. As of this writing, no green battleships filled with angry climate activists have been spotted.
Cancún also has the distinction of being a completely new-built environment. In the early 1980’s, less than thirty years ago, the city was hardly a city, with a population of about 50,000. Today it’s over a million. The vast majority of that growth is related to an almost unexcelled boom in tourism engineered by investors who saw in the sun-drenched beaches and waving coconut palms golden opportunity. The array of luxury resort hotels that literally sprung up in the boom are rivaled by few in the world besides Las Vegas perhaps or the fabled Mediterranean Riviera. Interestingly enough, the Cancún resort region, with its long thin strips of beautiful tropical beaches separating ocean from lagoons, has become known as The Mayan Riviera.
This is indeed Mayan Country or had been. The place and street names bear witness—Kukulcán, Yaxchilán, Cancún. Great temples and whole towns that had been excavated out of their sunken resting places dot the coastal countryside. The most famous of them, Chichén Itzá and Tulum, are under an almost constant siege of organized tours led by guides speaking an array of languages (Europeans form a considerable block of the tourist trade and Spanish and Italian investment played a dominant role in the overall development of the area.)
We visited Tulum, a whole Mayan town now known to have been a community of aristocrats, architects, priests, traders and, one suspects, lawyers.
You enter the town through a triangular rock arch built into an ancient stone wall partially buried in brush. Suddenly, as you emerge, the landscape opens up to a broad sloping, carefully trimmed meadow around which are situated the grand foundations of what had been palatial homes and public buildings. Built obviously of long-gone softer materials that had sat upon these walls of large, carefully-placed stones, the original mortar still holding, these remnants in their integrity and their relationship to the sun testify to the sophistication and spirituality of ancient Mayan culture.
Scattered about these mowed green landscapes, herds of tourists roamed sheep-like after their guides. Shards of French or Italian or English thrown up into the tropical air bounce among the sun drenched stone ruins and then fade into the profound silences of a long-gone civilization—the last murmurs, one might imagine, of the ancient ones themselves trying with little success to tell us a cautionary tale.
The Mayan’s legacy is still alive today. One sees it often in the short strong frames of many in Cancún’s working population, in the faces of cab drivers zipping by, instants of recognition of ancient lineages haunting today’s inexplicable events. One almost expects a century’s deep antagonism to leap from these people who are caught in a low wage, semi-servitude seemingly far beneath what one imagines as Mayan dignity. Instead, they are for the most part studiously polite and thoughtful, their tangible generosity of spirit an anomaly against contemporary Cancún’s backdrop of a constant, merciless commerce.
Into this odd cauldron wherein shades of a great disappeared culture haunt a pulsating full-throated materialism, come an ostensible world-saving event with its crowds–the thousands of official delegates from over 190 countries, businessmen in dark suites, idealistic NGO’s and other civil society representatives driven by a great sense of urgency, reporters, photographers and camera men-all who constitute the “Inside” of COP 16. On the “Outside” a small army of campesinos and hard core Mexican activists, many with long-festering grievances, arrive on buses from Chiapas, Tabasco, Morelos, Oaxaca, Guerrero, la Ciudad de Mexico-all over the Mexican map.
Meanwhile, an even larger and better equipped army—the Federal Police—are in place by the thousands throughout the city. It is, all in all, a strange social landscape in which to take another crack at solving the greatest dilemma humankind has ever faced.
Previous: Copenhagen (COP15) Report #6
Next: Cancun (COP16) Report #2