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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Deborah Phelan: Cancún: honing weaknesses into strengths

cancun: honing weaknesses into strengths

by Deborah Phelan, DailyKos, December 13, 2010

I wish I could chat again with South African delegate Themba Tenza.  It's hard to believe it was just Friday morning that an exhausted Tenza was so visibly dispirited as he headed back to the Moon for the last day of COP16.
"The globe is small, but the world is so big," he said. "These conferences are just too big, too complicated. Businesses, national governments NGOs, academics, and scientists -- they put you all into a melting pot and in ten days you are expected to come up with a solution. It can't happen."
Well, Mr. Tenza, perhaps destiny is not written in the stars. Because early Saturday morning, a COP whose tone and tenure was clearly dominated by women, replaced the hype of "Hopenhagen" with the reality of "Yes We CANcun!"

An image on tcktcktck's Pyramid montage. Photo by Deborah Phelan
In the grande finale, the voices of the people who have slid past the tipping point succeeded in regaining a grip on the slide. They succeeded by honing their handicaps to become their strongest bargaining chips.
In the end, reality resonated in all its stereoscopic splendor and the parties reconnected with the nub of the issue.
Perhaps it was Constance Okollet who told the story which will remain forever embedded in my mind. It was the first Friday night of the conference. Okollet was a member of Irish President Mary Robinson's kick off panel, and we were discussing how to expand the voices of women in the climate negotiations, as well as on the frontiers of the global climate justice movement.
That night it wasn't yet clear how powerful and pivotal a role women would ultimately play in the negotiations.

The women of Bangladesh. Photo by Deborah Phelan.
"What we can learn is that using something as crude and inaccurate as carbon to measure our efforts to reduce climate change takes away the true value, the truly complex relationship between humans, animals and plants and the entire system as a whole," said Green Belt Movement’s Francesa de Gasparis.
She also addressed the need to "break down the exclusive club" which creates and owns the acronym-laden language of climate "so that it can be understood by speaking plainly."
Okollet's story was nothing, if not spoken plainly. And without a doubt, her story was especially powerful to me because I could relate to it so experientially.
Okollet is from Tororo, Uganda, a small city on the eastern border of Kenya. She talked about the historic 2007 floods, how they were the first sign that something had dramatically shifted in the world she and her country’s people knew.
The Cancun Agreement: A valuable first step of viable building blocks
The 35-page Cancun Agreement, though admittedly modest in its achievements, succeeded in restoring faith in the UNFCCC process and exemplified the ability of the major players to make concessions which unified the parties in a shared vision of COP16's acknowledgment of much hard work ahead. It is a first step, which:
• Recognizes the commitments set forth in the Copenhagen Accord by both developed and developing countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions
• Sets up of a global climate fund tasks to provided $100 billion in financing by 2020 to developing countries
• Establishes the UN as controlling finances with the World Bank playing an advisory role for two years.
• Revives the legitimacy of the UNFCCC process which was seriously impacted by last year’s COP15
• Recognizes the need for "shared vision," transparency, the important role of education, and an initiative aimed at curbing deforestation.

Photo of WEDO sponsored negotiators. By WEDO.
My daughter had worked in a health clinic in Tororo in the summer of 2007. And I remember that summer so clearly because I was following stories on as the floods spread throughout Uganda. All I knew when they began was that she was traveling from a refugee camp in the north with Africa Aid. I learned later that their van just made it over a bridge from the north before all access was shut down by flooding. People died on the road she traveled that day.
So when Okollet  talked of the shock of those floods and how she and her friends, forced to leave Tororo, prayed to God for help, I was right there with her.  Before going to Tororo, my daughter spent a few weeks in Maundo, to the south, and has often mentioned how proud she was that she did not flinch when the tribal chief talked of how they still sacrificed animals to ask help from God to purify the water.
Just three years ago, climate change was not a part of the lexicon in Africa.
"The Floods covered the whole village and we all had to leave," recalled Okollet. "And when we came back almost nothing was left."
She, however,  was one of the lucky ones. Her house, which was still standing, became home for 29 of her neighbors, and they worked together, like a family, gathering materials to help one another rebuild.
"At times we would just sit and cry and ask God, 'What has happened?' "
And then the drought came. Six months so hot walking on the ground was like "putting a fire inside you. And we would pray to God and ask for an answer. Nothing."
When the floods returned to Tororo two years later, the evacuation lasted for nine months. Entire villages disappeared under mudslides. People began dying. From lack of food and water. Outbreaks of cholera and malaria.
In Tororo today, women still risk their lives at night looking for food. Domestic violence has increased. There is never enough food. Children often cannot get to school when floodwater is so high they cannot cross the streets.
Always, Okollet said, she was praying to God. Asking for an answer.

Constance Okollet of Uganda at the entrance to her kitchen in eastern Uganda, Asinget village, Osukuru sub county, Tororo district. Picture taken August 20, 2009. Photo by James Akena.
She received her answer when Oxfam arrived and called for a meeting in her city.
"That was when I first heard about climate change. 'What is this?' I asked. 'What is happening?' And they tell me that what is happening is that the rich countries are over polluting and that this is why we are having all these disasters with weather. And after hearing that, I cried again. I cried harder."
In eastern Africa, you struggle to get up and tomorrow you are brought down, she said. Granaries are washed away. Vegetables, now quick crop seeds, rot in small family gardens.
"Nothing is certain any more.  You are always gambling between life and death. Are we eating the last food? Is this the last rain? Are we planting the last seeds?"
Things like power, books, and medical supplies? These luxuries are no longer an option.
"We wait to cook and eat by moonlight because there is nothing extra. No electricity. Only the light of the moon," said Okollet. "That is what life is like now in my country."
"How can we adapt to this crisis?  The next generation may not be there."
Post Cancun: Incoming Volleys:

A representative of the Global Alliance of WastePickers. Photo by Deborah Phelan.
In the end, it was, without doubt, the women of COP16 who wove together a  tapestry that throbbed with the life of common threads of stories like these. Stories which were repeated time and again. Day after day. In hundreds of forums both inside the COP talks and at side events, as well as in venues at Klimaforum and Via Campesina.
From the expert, determined leadership of COP President Patricia Espinosa, Mexico's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, the women of COP16 created a panorama representing all walks of life -- academics, scientists, farmers, waste pickers, fledgling delegates, mothers, students. Together, they succeeded in re-awakening the magical depth of perception from which mankind has been for so long disconnected that only faint memories remained, thankfully in sufficient enough numbers to rekindle this awareness.
In the final analysis, the success in Cancun is quite simply this: The real time immersion of thousands of participants into the pulsing core of our very existence re-awakened us. To the pounding heart of a vast intricate ecosystem which has been calling us all home. Begging to be heard. Nurtured. And loved.
We are there now. We have reconnected. Now, we can begin.
Ultimately, we are all Africa. I wish I had the chance to tell you, Mr. Tenza, that to lose you was never an option.

A young local woman participating in an evening of prayer to bless COP16 on the first Tuesday of the conference. Downtown Cancun. Photo by Deborah Phelan
The EcoJustice series discusses environmental justice: the disproportionate impacts on human health and all living things as a result of climate change, extreme weather, and pollution. A key focus of our writing is the environmental impacts on minority communities in countries around the world. A key tenet of Environmental Justice is that all living things have a right to clean, healthy, and sustainable communities.
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