International: The cathedral or the bazaar – making sense of COP 17

International: The cathedral or the bazaar – making sense of COP 17

Date: November 29, 2011
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Durban, 29 November: I have not seen the sun in days. It has been threatening grey skies in Durban, South Africa since we arrived on 27 November. Torrential rains and flash flooding have killed about five people in the townships in the last few days. This has not pushed the UN Conference on Climate Change – COP 17 – off the news headlines though. The people in suits have come to talk and nothing will stop them from listening to the sound of their own voices.

Africa knows how to throw a party and South Africa – the thirteenth largest polluter on the planet – is ironically adding big time in the next two weeks to its carbon emissions, thanks to COP 17. Airplanes fly fully loaded in to the airport hourly; you cannot find a hotel room and from fast food outlets to the posh restaurants, most people are doing a roaring trade.

The International Conference Centre (ICC) dominates the Durban Central Business District. Its “cathedral” like dimensions houses a cacophony of voices this week. These are the official agenda setters on climate change, ranging from government officials to United Nations (UN) 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 twenty or fifty loyal aides to dance on their every whim. The formal speeches of the leaders are listened to with fervor 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.

It is all a bit zanier and more fun outside. A massive “bazaar” of ideas and advocacy is all over town at venues as diverse as the People’s Space at the University of Kwazulu Natal, the Diakonia Ecumenical Centre and the local Ice Rink. Friends of The Earth who passionately oppose emissions trading are sharing a space at a demonstration with a group from Canada, offering to offset your flights carbon emissions to Durban for a US$20 share in a managed forest. They swap cameras to photograph each other’s banners.

Through my eyes, it is massively more gender balanced outside compared to the predominance of male blue suits inside the ICC “cathedral”. Women seem to outnumber the men in the civil society organisations present by about three to one. Discussions are a lot more personalised with individual storytellers from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in Nigeria bantering with the Chiapas from Mexico. Women from the Indian Environmental Coalition take the loudspeaker and invite the Philippine People for Environmental Action to share the platform with them.

They all seem to have made solidarity links with at least one women’s group in Africa. The confusion of African, Asian and Latin American dresses, fading European hippy dresses from homespun cotton, grey hair, white hair, braided hair, black skins, olive skins, white skins and voices from all continents speaks volumes about the networking efforts all have put in for their conversations and joint actions at COP 17.

Overland trucks from many African countries are parked at the side of the road. Many travelled thousands of kilometres by road to get here from countries such as Uganda and Kenya. They swop stories of the border crossings; the small towns they have passed through and how ordinary people have been amazed to hear of their journey to Durban.

Nobody expects too many victories in the “cathedral” of the official COP17. The dissent is too carefully managed and conferences of this magnitude are notorious for their prevarication and indecision. We need to electrify our leaders into a deeper concern for climate and gender justice. Our farmers, small traders and numerous family providers are mostly women and mainly threatened by climate change effects. If the main convention can throw a spotlight on their needs then it will have achieved something.

On the other hand, it is in the “bazaar” of civil society ideas at COP17 where our gains will 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.

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 to listen to women and men.

Trevor Davies is the Director of African Fathers Initiative. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service and African Woman and Child Feature Service special series for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence and COP 17 Conference.

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