Trevor Davies
Trevor Davies

COP19 – the cathedral and the bazaar

The people in suits want to talk and nothing will stop them from listening to the sound of their own voices. COP19, the global climate-change meeting, might seem far away in Warsaw, Poland, this week but like a massive weather system migrating the globe its impact will be felt in Africa for sure.

Africa knows how to throw a party and South Africa — the 13th largest polluter on the planet — added big time to its carbon emissions, thanks to its hosting of the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference popularly known as COP17 in Durban. A primary focus of the conference was to secure a global climate agreement as the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period (2008-2012) was about to end.

This didn’t happen. After two weeks of negotiations a deal was reached only on the last day, Sunday December 11, after a 60-hour marathon negotiation session. The Durban conference agreed to establish a legally binding deal comprising all countries by 2015, which was to take effect in 2020.

The president of the Durban conference, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, declared it a success, but scientists and environmental groups warned then that the deal was not sufficient to avoid global warming beyond 2 °C as more urgent action is needed.

Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, said then “delaying real action until 2020 is a crime of global proportions … an increase in global temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, permitted under this plan, is a death sentence for Africa, Small Island States, and the poor and vulnerable worldwide. This summit has amplified climate apartheid, whereby the richest 1% of the world has decided that it is acceptable to sacrifice the 99%”.
Two years on the party hangover seems to be hanging around. The climate-change apartheid gap seems wider and wider.

So what did we get from our investment two years ago? Can Africa expect much out of COP19?

Nobody expects too many victories in the “cathedral” of the official COP19. The dissent is too carefully managed and conferences of this magnitude are notorious for their prevarication and indecision.

The cathedral-like dimensions of the official venue houses a cacophony of voices this week. These are the official agenda setters on climate change, ranging from government officials to United Nations officials. They have expensively commissioned research reports, policy statements, statistics and hosts of praise singers to carry the masses of briefcases needed to haul all their documentation.

One delegation leader can have 20 or 50 loyal aides to dance on their every whim. The formal speeches of the leaders are listened to with fervour by the audience who know that it is reciprocal — when it is their guys’ turn, they will expect the same reverence. There may be disharmony on the Kyoto protocol, the green climate fund and other issues but it is all done with proper restraint and diplomacy.

On the other hand, it is in the “bazaar” of civil society ideas at COP19 where our gains might really be made. Networking, information and solidarity around links between climate and gender justice are being enhanced by the thousands of small conversations taking place.

The development paradigm has dismally failed and needs to change fast. It is clear that rhetoric has outweighed action, and that the global community has not “walked the talk”. Reflecting on my own experiences as a development worker seems timely and necessary.

In rural areas today little remains of the early enthusiasm for development projects. Many projects of the eighties era lie in ruins or are seriously underperforming and people now ask what can be done to regenerate the forces needed to bring about a better life more in accordance with their own wishes and aspirations.

I’ve walked through villages where government and international agencies have sank over 50 boreholes but then quit the local scene or abruptly changed the focus of their work. They no longer have any interest in or systematic records of their work in the province. Institutional memory can be very short — sometimes deliberately so.

Most villagers I greet are women. The few males I encounter are old men and young boys. The able-bodied men are working in the mines far away and sending money home.

The remaining men in the village learned long ago that their best contribution to any development meetings is to not get in the way. They stand or sit outside the hall in small groups, smoking and playing cards, a few play games with and otherwise occupy the many young children. No-one invites them inside.

The high risks associated with living in marginal land areas means that communities are often suspicious of untried and laborious new development projects. Their acceptance or rejection of development projects is therefore, often a finely balanced calculation of the possible benefits of a better livelihood or the risks of it failing to deliver — and failure now is all around them.

Water is crucial for these villagers. The negative impact of non-functioning water resources is incalculable. Lost agricultural production threatens food security, workloads of women and children in fetching and carrying water are increased both in terms of time spent and energy depletion and livestock health and numbers are depleted reducing family income and assets.

The range of crop varieties grown is also shrinking rapidly. The elderly particularly point out the demise of traditional crops such as millet, sorghum, rapoko and other drought-resistant cereals. They say that despite many interventions they have seen over the years soils are now exhausted, fields are filling up with erosion gullies, wells have dried up and most rivers fail to even flow at all except in rare years of exceptionally heavy rainfall.

From the village voice to the global voice. The protest is rising everywhere and women’s voices and agency is in there.

It is officially the hottest decade on record but that heat will not be felt in the air-conditioned offices and corridors of power. A more powerful civil society needs to switch off the luxury consumption that is killing the planet and bring the men in suits down into the fields and townships of Africa to listen to our ordinary women and men.

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