Choking On the Fumes of Progress
The night the APE team arrived in Durban, the film ‘2012’ was on the television – its apocalyptic vision of a flooded, devastated Earth with a lucky and privileged few saved in giant arks, served as a grim reminder of the task faced by the delegates arriving for the COP17 talks. 2012 is three weeks away and marks the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. The NGOs present at COP17 believe a new agreement must be in place by the end of the talks in order to deliver the stringent emission reductions the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has clearly indicated are necessary to keep the Earth habitable. As no binding agreements were made at COP15 or COP16 there is a growing sense of urgency at the talks. As the delegate from Singapore said – “The document currently on the table may not be a thoroughbred but it is a camel!”
Africa is suffering chronically from the effects of climate change – yet is least responsible for it. One predominant experience of COP17 was the amount of Africans who had come to demand and insist on a new binding protocol. The African continent in general has a very low carbon footprint although South Africa’s carbon emissions are the 12th highest in the world. Poor rural communities who lived off the land for thousands of years and set their calendars by the seasons, now struggle as the weather patterns become more and more erratic and the lack of rainfall in some communities has fatal consequences. Up to a quarter of Africa’s water resources are no longer readily available to people who need them most. At the Greenpeace solar tent, in a talk given after the world premier of the film ‘The Weather Gods’ women spoke about children being regularly swept away in floods in the Niger basin whilst in Kenya, devastating drought has created thousands of climate change refugees.
I met a group of Kalahari Bushmen inside COP17, who are the original indigenous population of Africa and the tribe from which we are all descended. They told me how they are still hunters but the animals have moved further north to find water and the bushmen cannot follow as they are no longer free to roam at will. Situations like this cause conflict – a subject again highlighted in the documentary The Water Gods where violence is erupting over water rights.
The Kalahari are small, strong people with extraordinary cheekbones. They are ‘Animists’ who live closely with animals and the land: they are said to cradle and bless and thank the animals that they have hunted as they die. I was told, “If we kill nature – the man up top is also going to kill us.” They had traveled two thousand miles to ask the UN for help as their tribe and traditions are dying. They gave me sand from their land. For many Africans, the land is part of who you are, and the old people will not move on even in the face of severe drought.
From all over Africa people came; there was the climate train and the climate caravan – a convoy of caravans carrying 229 African farmers, pastoralists, members of women’s groups, youth and other community activists from 10 African countries who traveled more than 4,350 miles from Burundi to the UN to raise awareness of global warming.
The women’s groups had a strong presence, as 75% of rural and agricultural workers are women, with the result that they have become the most affected by climate change. At one side event at COP17 hosted by 350.org an African girl scout told how the men were heading for the cities, leaving the women behind. She has seen the women and children dying – she wept as she spoke. There were several side event conferences addressing this issue of gender and climate change. Rural women’s groups held a rally at Speakers Corner just outside COP17, where people gathered to talk about such issues of concern between 11-1pm each day. 350.org launched a climate song there too: “Occupy”
Many of these groups were based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, home of the Peoples’ Space and COP17 Civil Society. Day and night there were lectures and events such as The Climate Justice Film Festival; Agricultural Solutions to Support Food Security; Sustainability and Animal Welfare; Climate Debt; Food Sovereignty and the Intersection of Climate Change and Agriculture; People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty; and the launch of One Million Climate Jobs booklet.
Many groups came together in the Climate Change March on Saturday. It paused outside COP17 where representatives from agriculture, women’s, youth and indigenous groups spoke to Christiana Figueres the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and to H E Maite Nkoana-Mashabane the South African Minister of International Relations who were handed a petition which they promised to look at, and to do their best to come up with a binding agreement.
Back inside COP17 Climate Acton Now hosts the daily ‘Fossil Of The Day’ award to the country that most scuppers the negotiations. This is done with much humour, costumes, singing and pazang, with comedy sketches ironically depicting the greedy business interests and hypocrisy of the chosen country’s behaviour. Canada frequently comes in the top three and the US. Remember how exciting it felt at Obama’s inaugural speech when he mentioned climate change? “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories”… Yet the US still don’t want to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol.
On Sunday afternoon APE held a wonderful concert on the beach, which went on into the night. With sand underfoot and the sea behind, fans listened to many of South Africa’s greatest musicians: Johnny Clegg, their “national treasure,” Wendy Oldfild a folk singer who is very concerned with the environment, Amaryoni, a traditional acapela group, Jika Nalenga with their dynamic singer Lu who also sings on the new RDM Africa album and Jimmy Dludlu who wowed the crowd with his virtuosity, energy and sheer stage presence. Introduced with a welcoming speech by Bianca Jagger, the APE ‘A Climate of Change Concert’ was a welcome relief from all the conferences and marches.
I left with the words of Bill McKibben from 350.org in my consciousness: “We know, definitively, that the old planet worked. That is, it produced and sustained a modern civilization. We don’t know that about the new one.”
Sophie Molins – APE