Despite the recent reports showing the alarming advancement of global warming trends, climate negotiators at Cancun were destined to abandon the essential goal of mandatory emissions controls. The result, a set of voluntary, market-based incentives, is a worst-case scenario for the planet. These will not only spare polluters from having to reduce emissions, but they will also likely allow polluters to strip indigenous communities of their land rights as industries seek out carbon offsets.

A coalition of environmental, indigenous, and peasant advocacy groups from Bolivia to Kentucky descended on Cancun to protest the adoption of market-based offset schemes. They were ignored by the official negotiators, but their way of life demonstrates a more fundamentally harmonious relationship between the land and the people who live off it.

The marchers in Cancun didn’t just protest. With their rallying cry of “Small farmers cool the planet,” they also argued that traditional farming practices actually absorb carbon, unlike the currently preeminent mass agriculture that contributes to global warming. In a sense, to protect the indigenous way of life is to protect the planet – and vise versa.

The U.S. government has been working hard to push the so-called Copenhagen accord, a face-saving measure that dispenses with Kyoto’s binding emissions controls and sidelines 20 years of multilateral efforts. The absence of heads of state from the United States and other developed countries reflected their low expectations for any other result from Cancun.

The marchers had a few allies, notably Bolivia, among the negotiating countries. But sustainable, small-scale solutions to the climate change crisis will be the work of these civil society groups, not the negotiators in Cancun’s Moon Palace.

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