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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.

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