Chile is officially presiding over this week’s United Nations’s COP25 summit, but it is in Madrid, almost 11,000 kilometres (6,835 miles) away, where tens of thousands of the world’s leading politicians and activists have converged to discuss the climate emergency.
It was the Latin American nation’s turn to host the conference, but Spain stepped in last month, offering to host the conference after Chilean President Sebastian Pinera withdrew after weeks of roiling street protests against inequality in the country, which have since claimed more than 20 lives.
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There were fears that COP25, which had already seen Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro withdraw from hosting last year, would be postponed or cancelled entirely.
But the sudden shift in location has created logistical challenges for attendees, who have been forced to rebook flights and accommodation at great cost, and in some cases apply for visas, all within a period of a few weeks.
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who traversed the Atlantic by sailboat on her way to Santiago, has now arrived back in Europe after hitching a ride with an Australian family sailing around the world.
But for some, especially smaller organisations in Latin America, the costs have ballooned and attending is no longer possible.
The relocation means that four consecutive summits will have taken place in Europe, an uncomfortable arrangement for the organisers of COP, in which participants from the Global South have historically been underrepresented despite hailing from countries most vulnerable to the disastrous effects of rising temperatures.
Decisions that are important to us as Latin Americans will be taken by people that do not represent us, don't know our reality, don't know how we speak, how we perceive, what we believe, where we come from.
A spokesperson for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) told Al Jazeera that it has not assessed how the location change has affected people, but has registered more than 30,000 participants and is working with the Chilean and Spanish governments to accommodate them.
Sustainability without Borders (SSF), an Argentinian NGO focused on climate adaptation and mitigation, usually sends one or two representatives to COP each year, but Chile’s hosting offered a brilliant opportunity to have its message heard, as well as finding new partners and contacts – so seven team members splashed out on flights to Santiago, paid from their own pockets.
Now, none of that money will be refunded, and the group will not send any representatives to Madrid because the cost of doing so is too high.
“Living, eating, breathing in Europe for us means three times or four times the cost of going somewhere in Latin America,” said cofounder Nasha Ayelen. “So I just decided not to think about it.”
The organisation had planned to closely monitor the activity of Argentina‘s new government and produce Spanish-language reports targeted towards a Latin American audience, which she said are always in short supply.
COP gatherings also allow smaller organisations such as SSF to pitch projects to major international donors.
The effects of losing the summit will be felt throughout Latin America, where environmental groups often struggle to compete for attention with pressing political and economic issues, said Ayelen.
“Climate change is going to be less on the agenda than if the COP was in Chile.”
It is not just about money, she explained, but finding solidarity with peers and colleagues.
“It’s always a place where you find people all around the world that share your same values. [The] impact on a personal level cannot be measured in money.”
Earlier this month, dozens of climate scientists and civil society activists converged to the remote wilds of Tierra del Fuego, the continent’s southernmost point, for the region’s first-ever climate summit, which was due to present its findings at COP25 in Santiago.
Now those proposals, which call to ensure rights to water are prioritised for vulnerable communities in Latin America and not industry, will reach only a local audience, according to Lorena Munoz, the event’s organiser.
She was also involved with an international forum on the role of universities in combating climate change, due to run alongside COP in Vina del Mar, about 90 minutes from Santiago – but the event has now been cancelled.
Munoz, who has spent almost 20 years working in climate policy, is concerned the move to Madrid will omit or sideline important perspectives from Latin America.
“Decisions that are important to us as Latin Americans will be taken by people that do not represent us, don’t know our reality, don’t know how we speak, how we perceive, what we believe, where we come from,” said Munoz.
“If we try to design policies that need to be implemented globally, we need to have significant [numbers of] representatives from every continent.”
When then they heard Madrid would be the new COP host, volunteers at Engajamundo, a group for young Brazilian climate activists, were fearful they would not make it.
“We got really scared that we couldn’t raise funds to go to Madrid,” Bruno Berilli, a 21-year-old engineering student from the northeastern state of Bahia, told Al Jazeera.
The 12 volunteers from his delegation, including several indigenous activists from the Amazon region, had wanted to thoroughly brief themselves ahead of their mission – to lobby UN and government officials, and seek funding for their educational outreach programmes.
Instead, they found themselves scrambling to double their funds within weeks and rebook hotel rooms and flights to Madrid.
A hastily-organised crowdfunding campaign, combined with substantial assistance from major international NGOs, meant they reached the $24,000 required, but those panicked few weeks cost them valuable preparation time.
“We didn’t work at all. We didn’t study a lot of things that we should study,” said Berilli. “So this loss I think is the biggest.”
#Indigenous leaders interrupted the #Chile pavillion inauguration at the #COP25 in Madrid. Atacameño Peoples Council president Sergio Cubillos condemned the gov's empty climate discourse & systematic human rights violations.
— Sandra Cuffe (@Sandra_Cuffe) December 3, 2019
While attending COP24 in Katowice, Poland, he was disappointed with the lack of representation from the Global South and thought Western-centric climate solutions sometimes lacked the local insight and experience to be useful in communities like his.
One presentation by a European professor on managing power grids left Berlilli scratching his head. The proposal would be completely unworkable in Brazil because it failed to account for local circumstances, namely the millions of “gatos”, or illegal power hook-ups common in favelas.
“The problems here ask for solutions from here,” he said. “We were happy the COP was going to happen in Santiago because the number [of Latin American attendees] would be very high. But right now we have this problem. So probably the number will be really really low again.”
More than half of the 164 environmental defenders murdered worldwide in 2018 were killed in Latin America, according to Global Witness, which has consistently ranked it the world’s most deadly region for people who defend their land and water, especially from mining and agribusiness.
Holding the COP in Chile or Brazil would have prioritised voices of those most at risk of climate and resource-related conflict, said Lyndal Rowlands, a UN adviser at rights group CIVICUS.
“The last-minute decision to move COP25 to Madrid meant that the groups we really need to hear from, especially indigenous leaders and those working on the front lines, spent the last month scrambling to raise funds instead of focusing on their important climate work.”
The attendance of young activists, following a year of international youth climate strikes and rallies, was especially important, she added.
“If you listen to the difference between what these children are saying on the streets and what’s on the table at UN negotiations – there is a wide chasm of ambition and, frankly, compassion.”