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African Soil in the Blood and Dust of COP17

Last hours of Durban Climate Negotiations Indicate Kyoto Protocol is Set to Lose Its Heart

The rallying cry of the South African hosts of COP17, repeated throughout these two weeks, has been “The Kyoto Protocol will not die on African soil.”

Photo by Ron Mader

The theatrics of these UN events revolves around a kind of ritual called “high-level negotiations” during which the nations of the world don their battle armor and enter into the fray. The drama reaches a climax in the middle of the second week, when heads of state arrive prepared to defend their national interests at any cost. The drama’s denouement, after two bloody weeks, is the achievement of consensus. On Friday night, as the negotiations stretch into the wee hours in what some describe as a “war of attrition” in which the countries with the strongest reserve troops win, the drama of COP17 is drawing to a close.

In fact, there will be no surprises here. Central to the theatrics is the open secret that the rallying cry – “The Kyoto Protocol will not die on African soil” — will survive the melee and emerge unscathed at the end of the negotiations, free of blood, dust, and gunpowder. And yet the Kyoto Protocol itself will die. After the theatrics of the summit are over, the protocol’s corpse will be stuffed in a closet, the rallying cry, “Long Live Kyoto” will be brushed off and put on display for all to admire, and the world will continue its grim descent into climate chaos.

What will die on African soil as a result of these theatrics are African people. Quite possibly by the millions.

As I write, at 11 p.m. Durban time on Friday night, the COP is in its last hours of negotiation. At a press conference held just now, Pablo Solon, former chief negotiator for Bolivia and now a member of civil society, put it like this: “A few moments ago we found out the decisions they have been making behind the scenes. The Kyoto Protocol will lose its heart. The promise of rich countries to reduce emissions will be incredibly low until 2020, and will lead to temperature increase of more than 4 degrees Celsius. The Kyoto Protocol will turn into a zombie, and will keep on walking until 2020, so that carbon markets don’t disappear.”

I won’t pretend to be surprised.

A few heartbeats later, Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International, said, “We are telling all those in the secret rooms that their delays constitute a crime against humanity.”

But while many developed countries seek to end the Kyoto Protocol, they simultaneously attempt to retain and expand their favored elements of it in a new agreement, and shift their responsibilities onto developing countries — what I referred to previously as drowning the baby in the bathwater. This essentially means maintaining deeply flawed offset schemes like the Clean Development Mechanism, building investment in the more-than-dubious REDD+ scheme, and, in the latest twist, pushing soils and small-scale farmers into a vast new carbon market scheme.

Which brings us back to African soil.

One of the new bits on the table in Durban, to be sealed up tonight, is an effort by the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and developed countries to promote agricultural carbon offsets, with the argument that this will bring money for African agriculture. This “transformation of agriculture” is being promoted under the term “Climate smart agriculture.”

But many civil society groups foresee carbon offsets and carbon accounting in agriculture as a grave threat to African farmers and farming systems. Over a hundred civil society groups have signed La Via Campesina: “They want to use the logic of carbon accounting to determine agricultural policy. This means that agriculture will no longer be about food and culture and land and livelihoods, but about turning farmland into a carbon sink.”

Sylvia Ribeiro of ETC Group — the horizon-scanning organization that had the foresight to call a moratorium on Monsanto’s “Terminator seed” a decade ago and on geoengineering last year — warns that the advancement of climate smart ag is one of the worst losses in Durban.

“We are hearing that Kyoto is dead, and we won’t have any concrete targets, reductions or commitments,” Ribeiro says. “But other things have been advancing, such as the use of soils and agriculture in carbon markets, which will be devastating for the farmers and peasants who produce 70 percent of the world’s food. What we don’t need are the financial speculators — who have failed and can’t administer their own house — to enter carbon markets and tell farmers, who have done this for thousands of years, how to administer their own soil.”

Teresa Anderson of the British Gaia Foundation, who worked closely with African delegations over these two weeks, says: "The World Bank's aggressive push for ‘climate smart agriculture' echoes the same rhetoric of saving Africa, but it’s a Trojan horse to bring in carbon offsets based on farmers' soils. Soil carbon offsets will promote a new spate of African land grabs."

The Green Belt Movement, the organization of the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, tried a forest carbon project in partnership with the World Bank — and then came to COP17 this week to denounce it.

The organization’s director, Professor Njoroge Karanja, warned that “poor communities are greatly disadvantaged” by such projects. “The lack of upfront funding, and the need to wait many years before payment for offsets, shuts out almost all the grassroots communities whose involvement is critical to the long-term sustainability of the projects. If we continue with carbon offsetting — where polluters are able to offset their emissions through buying credits — Africa, Asia and South America will become hewers of wood and drawers of water. We need clear reduction of emissions from the major polluters before they can enter the carbon buying market in the South."

La Via Campesina agrees: “We don´t want agriculture in the market mechanisms. The mission of peasant agriculture is to produce healthy food to feed the world, and it is a way to cool the planet. Our struggle is to keep agriculture out of the carbon market.”

Tonight in Durban the halls of the COP are clearing out of observers; the press corps is having drinks outside in a cold rain; and negotiators are still locked behind closed doors, forging some deal that they will no doubt declare a “positive step for the multilateral process,” even as it deals the death blow for binding emissions reductions. The Kyoto Protocol will be put into a state of suspended animation, the carbon markest will limp along as new speculative commodities are invented under the pretext of “climate mitigation.” And African soil itself — the source of food for millions, and the birthplace of humanity — will become the next territory in the struggle for survival of the 99 percent.

As they shouted here in South Africa under racial apartheid, and continue to cry under climate apartheid today: Amandla Awetu! – All power to the people. Because, if there is any hope for African soil, and for the world climate over the next century, it lies not with the governments, but, more clearly than ever, with the power of the people.

Jeff Conant, writer and social justice activist
Jeff Conant is author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and is Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project.

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