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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hear us!

(Pics: Humans share the 'People's Space' with other primates who roam the campus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal at will; One of the more colourful characters at COP17 is Paul Okong'o from Kenya; Mphatheleni Makaulule from the Mupo Foundation in Venda, South Africa, made an impassioned plea to treat life with respect - Mupo means 'bowl of life'. Mpathe wears traditional Venda dress)

As I explore civil society initiatives at COP17, I find myself thinking of the very South African image of a laager, the circle of wagons which the travelling Voortrekkers used to protect themselves against attack by the indigenous peoples.

There is Inside and Outside the laager. The Insiders consider that they belong to an advanced civilisation which puts them way ahead of the primitive people Outside. In reality, they are a small group of rather frightened people who are at odds with their environment.

Inside the UN precinct at COP17, the 17th Conference of the Parties, all is sleek and civilised – I’m not accredited, so I haven’t been in, but I know how well South Africa does this kind of thing. (I’ve heard from one person working on catering that the food is ‘super-special’.) Outside, it’s a bit more rough and ready. Inside, the delegates and their teams wear suits and little black Audrey Hepburn sheath-dresses, and they drag cabin-sized wheelie-suitcases with them, containing Very Important Papers. Outside, activists and NGO people from the North wear ethnic shirts, and sandals or bare feet, and tote backpacks. (Aging academic activists have a special wrinkle: they seem to wear shirts made of mother’s old tablecloth or hessian – hair-shirts, maybe?) And southern activists wear a cornucopia of message T-shirts and carry cell-phones, which they use frenetically without cessation.

Humour aside, there’s a very real divide which is immensely frustrating for the people who have flocked here to try and influence events inside: “You don’t really have a voice inside COP17,” as Helena Paul from Econexus put it today ( “We are allowed to make one statement a day for a minute – and to be blunt, they don’t take any notice.” That’s true outside, too: the suits whizz past Speaker’s Corner (where, today, Occupy activists engaged in a bit of guerrilla gardening, creating a heart shape) staring at the curly mops of untamed hair and the bangles and kangas as if the little piece of lawn was a zoo.

Yet the Outsiders are far more representative of the 99% whose fate is being negotiated than the delegates from governments and the corporates (such as South Africa’s fossil-fuel energy giants Eskom and Sasol) who are on the Inside.

Today, I attended a seminar at which representatives of rural African agriculturalists spoke of their attempts to promote traditional wisdom – the use of indigenous foods, saving seeds and sharing knowledge, conserving and enriching soil, harvesting water – and how very little support they get from their own governments in this quest. This despite the real benefits, in terms of greater food security and fighting climate change, which so-called ‘alternative’ agriculture brings with it (one speaker points out that, as this is the fruit of millennia of agricultural experimentation and wisdom, it should really be called mainstream, and the modern style be the ‘alternative’.)

“Governments should prioritise sustainable agriculture, agro-ecology and organic agriculture, “ says Lawrence Mkhaliphi of Biowatch, who works with rural women in some poor and under-resourced areas in eastern South Africa. “But when you use those terms, the extension officers don’t know what you’re talking about.” (Agricultural extension officers are supposed to be “intermediaries between research and farmers [who] communicate to farmers agricultural information on natural resources, animals, crops, and on how to utilize the farmland, and how to construct proper irrigation schemes, economic use and storage of water, combat animal disease, and save on the cost of farming equipment and procedures”, according to a description of this career option.)

Florence Dlamini is a farmer herself, and proud of the fact that she uses 52 seed varieties which she harvests each year from her own crops. “We are food-secure and healthy,” she says. She expresses frustration that government pushes genetically modified seeds; having tried them a few times, “we now say No. Listen to us; we want to grow our own seed.” Indigenous crops are hardier and better adapted to local conditions, as are the ‘exotics’ which rural small farmers have bred to suit their own needs, speakers say. (“Where are the indigenous vegetables in these hotels and restaurants?” asks Paul Okong’o, of Tatro Farmers, in Kenya.)

“Our government, when they draw up policy, they do it from the top down. They don’t go to ask the people what they want,” said Emerson Zungusi from Mozambique.

Mkhaliphi agreed in the bluntest of terms: “Your government and my government don’t want what you want. They don’t care about you; they only want us to put them in power, then they forget about us.”

Yet it is clear, from listening to the very clever tactics these agriculturalists are using to improve their soils and cultivate a very diverse range of indigenous vegetables and fruits to bump up nutrition – and, later, listening to the wisdom of the waste-pickers (of which more tomorrow) – that the 99% have a rich seam of stratagems to offer which could be more than helpful in tackling climate change.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hot stuff

This just in: COP18 will be held in Qatar. Well, hell, why not - if you can get the Soccer World Cup, as South Africa proved, you can get anything. And if you take care to spend enough, it's grrreeeaat publicity for the tourist market...

Waiting for the rains

While the city of Durban recovers from a disastrous storm on Sunday night which killed eight people (“It’s a La Nina event,” they say), neighbouring countries are looking to the skies with anxious eyes.

“I left last week to come to Durban,” says Zimbabwean activist Thomas Sithole of Plant Development Trust, “and we’d only just received our first rains.” Normally Zimbabwe farmers expect rain round October, not late November. “It looks like we will have another drought.” This is why he’s here, he says: to ensure that the delegates “honour their promises” and give farming communities hope of a more certain future. Mailes Zulu Moke from Zambia (Save Environment and People Agency) agrees: when there is not drought, there is too much rain, she says, and the crops are washed away.

Thomas Sithole and Mailes Zulu Moke were some of the many activists from around the world present at an event organised by Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), Jubilee South – Asia/Pacific Movement on Debt and Development (JS-APMDD), World Development Movement (WDM), CRBM Italy, IPS-SEEN and Friends of the Earth –International. The group made a colourful picture on the lawns of Speakers Corner, just opposite the official UN precinct where the negotiations are taking place. The language being used echoed the OWS language of 1%/99% - but among activists from the Global South, it packs perhaps an even greater punch, due to the circumstances they face.

Africa is being harder hit by climate change than other regions, says Bobby Peek of Groundwork and Friends of the Earth Africa. “It’s a reality that we feel and not only talk about, like they are talking across the road: we feel it, and we live it.”

As Africans, we are sick of old solutions, he says: “We do not want carbon trading; we do not want nuclear power; we want reductions at source. We want reductions in the North; we want reductions by the rich countries. We recognise, sadly, that the UNFCC is under corporate siege, that there’s a corporate capture happening inside. We know that governments are listening to corporations and they are not listening to me, they are not listening to you.” He used the rousing language of South African protest, with its typical repetition: “So comrades, we must say Down with corporate capture, down!” (On South African streets, this would become a chant for a toyi-toyi dance: Phanzi corporate capture, phanzi!)

As the second day of COP17 winds down, the feeling is that the action has only just begun to get into gear.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dateline Durban

The heavens welcomed delegates to the 17th Conference of the Parties with a massive rainstorm on Sunday night which left streets awash with water (and killed eight people).

eThekwini Municipality had fielded a rather intimidating force of policemen and women, as well as a horde of young people clad in vibrant green T-shirts labelled COP17/CMP7, but none of them knew where Speaker’s Corner was. This little patch of greenery, opposite the International Convention Centre (ICC) where all the suits are engaged in meaningful mainstream activities, is the negotiated terrain where the city will allow a certain amount of protest activity. Just before midday today, it attracted a small crowd of about 50 activists, some from far afield (there were two Bolivians present, for instance) and some locals. One such was Fundile Dlamini (see right), from a local climate foundation (Plant for the Planet) aimed at creating awareness among children. “Children are the ones who’re gonna be holding on to the future, so they have know about this and they have to act to be helpful about this matter,” he told me.

More Occupy events are planned for the next several days.

This evening, Dr Michael Dorsey from Climate Justice Now! Network, the second largest ENGO coalition in the UNFCCC process, urged the parties to reach a legally binding agreement for substantial reductions in emissions.

He pointed out that carbon trading, Clean Development Mechanisms and similar strategies have failed: “Carbon prices are haemorrhaging. In the two-week lead up to the negotiations here in Durban carbon prices fell more than 30%!” He went on: “Just last week one of the top ten largest banks on the planet, the largest Swiss bank UBS, repeated what is becoming a common mantra: carbon prices are too low to even have an environmental impact.

“We urge you to a) shut down the Clean Development Mechanism and B) do not attempt to link any forms of climate finance to flexible mechanisms or market instruments.

“Devise justice based mechanisms not based in failed market efforts.”

Justice mechanisms might include legal rights for the planet, a cause espoused by Cormac Cullinan, environmental lawyer from South Africa who coined the term ‘wild law’. He is at COP17, and I’ll be talking to him during the course of this week.

(Find his ideas in his book Wild Law: A Manifesto for Earth Justice on or