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Rural Women in Africa Speak Out at Climate Conference

Environmental activists demonstrate outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties meeting in Durban, November 29, 2011.
Environmental activists demonstrate outside the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties meeting in Durban, November 29, 2011.

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  • Gabe Joselow's report from the climate change conference in Durban

It looked and sounded like a celebration.

But participants at this gathering of rural women from across Africa have a serious message for the delegates at the COP-17 climate conference.

“We've come to join other rural women farmers from the southern African region," said Thandiure Chidararume, a member of ActionAid, an international organization that helped bring together this meeting of the Southern African Rural Women's Assembly. "We have come as one voice from Africa, we are saying no to damning deals, Africa is not for sale, we want this air pollution that is causing climate change to stop now."

The assembly unites women's farming and agricultural unions and movements from around the world.

Women from all across Africa, some as far north as Kenya, came out to the rally at a Kawaulu-Natal University in Durban, several kilometers from the downtown convention center where the more subdued, official meetings on climate change are taking place.


Members of African rural women's movements gather in Durban, South Africa to rally for progress at the nearby U.N. climate summit, Nov. 30, 2011. (Photo VOA - Gabe Joselow)

The women say they have felt the real impact of climate change in their communities, as shifting weather patterns have caused wells to dry up and harvests to diminish.

The concerns are real, said Theresa Marwei, an activist from Zimbabwe.

“I think if we can agree, all the countries that we are here, not to let the air be polluted, because we are having hunger, no water to drink, no gardens, no money to send our children to school because no rain," she said. "If the rain comes it will be floods, we can't do anything.”

Women at the assembly are directing a lot of their anger at the government negotiators at COP-17, who they say are not acting in the peoples' interest.

Canstance Mogale, representing the Landless Movement of South Africa, directed taunts and jeers at the U.S. delegation, blaming them of holding up progress on a global climate pact.  She even led a song directed at chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern.

Women's movements in Latin America have also expressed solidarity with the African women's assembly.

The two regions have confronted many of the same issues, including so-called land grabs in the name of combating climate change.  In these instances, biofuel companies or other firms purchase large tracts of land in developing countries to make a profit from the business of trading credit for carbon emissions.

Former Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solone addressed the women's assembly in Durban.

“In Copenhagen, in Cancun and here in Durban we say: change the capitalist system, not the climate," he said. "We have to change this logic of trying to buy and sell everything.  Life doesn't have a price.”

The women's assembly is mostly skeptical that governments are acting on their behalf.

Mercia Andrews, the director of the South African Trust for Community Outreach and Education, said the organization fits in with her country's history of social movements.

“We have a responsibility, we have to begin to mobilize and we have the power," Andrews said. "We have shaken this country before, we brought down apartheid, now is another turn. This is a bigger struggle, a more important struggle and this is a struggle that we must unite around.  We must say, 'No, to climate apartheid, no.'”

The U.N.-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said Africa is the region that will suffer most from the effects of climate change.

It is not clear whether the world's climate negotiators will come up with a deal to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions, and expectations for a strong global pact are very low.

But the women's assembly is anything but pessimistic. With more mass action and protests planned on the sidelines of the COP 17, the women of rural Africa will be sure they are seen and heard.

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