As the Cancun climate talks grind on, it can be harder and harder to see real dialogue taking place. The key negotiators huddle in small groups, hashing out the nuances of language behind closed doors’only rarely seen. NGOs and others bend over computers and hand-held devices, straining to see how negotiating texts have progressed, and what chance they have left to influence the shape of the final words. They may still be able to push amendments into a delegate’s hand or have a rushed conversation in a crowded corridor. But the “big issues” of equity, differentiated responsibilities, climate finance, transparency, and accountability have become suddenly small: compressed into a few, frantic, still-contested words. Dialogue is pretty much over. Now it’s the drama of the endgame where the fewest words, a slightly different tense, can be the most crucial.
But earlier in the week in Cancun, dialogue was available. Some took place inside the Moon Palace, where government negotiators meet, and even more outside, at various NGO forums. While the venues were many, far apart, and, regrettably, often sparsely attended, some of the conversations that took place were fascinating, important, surprising, even essential. One, small, solely in translation, was at Brighter Green’s panel on climate change and animal agriculture, held at the Dialogo Climatica International Forum for Climate Justice in downtown Cancun. Those attending were mostly small farmers, or campesinos, from rural Mexico, in Oaxaca state.
They described their experience of climate change–disrupted harvests and reduced household income’along with contaminated water (“agua negra”) and middlemen, who stand between them and selling their crops directly to consumers. They said that they had traveled to Cancun to see what the climate conference could offer them; could it help them get relief from the obstacles they faced, the constraints they saw all around them? Initially, the dialogue wasn’t easy. The Brighter Green delegation spoke only English; the campesinos only Spanish. As we each explained our work and our reasons for being in Cancun, I wondered: how will the farmers understand this? What will they make of it? Would it have relevance to them?
Our terrific volunteer translator, a Mexican teacher of anthropology and vendor of political videos, rendered what each of us said. It took time. It felt painstaking. I worried that the farmers would get irritated or bored, and leave. One did, but more people came, including a few women and young people. We persevered. We listened carefully, picking up Spanish and English words on each side, nodding our recognition and understanding. We got more relaxed. The turning point may have been when Samwel Naikada, a Maasai from southern Kenya, dressed in his traditional red blanket and intricate beads, spoke of the droughts his pastoral community has experienced in recent years; how many of their cows and sheep and goats have died off; how the land is exhausted and there isn’t enough of it; how they are exploring new livelihoods like crop agriculture and bee-keeping; how such change isn’t easy; how poverty and hunger persist.
As the discussion continued, it ranged over vegetarianism and how to cook healthy meals that kids will eat, how cheap junk food is in Mexico, how even people in even the smallest towns now have diabetes, so insistent is the marketing and promotion of these foods and so wide their availability. We talked about the food movement in the U.S.: the growing demand for healthier food, the interest in organic farming, the proliferation of farmers’ markets, the still-vast power of U.S. and multinational food corporations in the U.S. and, increasingly, in southern countries.
At the end, we were taking photos and exchanging email addresses. I wouldn’t claim it was a breakthrough on the order the Cancun summit needs. I wouldn’t term the session elegant or without some awkwardness and incomprehension. But I can say that real listening took place, an exchange of information and perspectives on a basis of equality. That morning in a tent pitched on a lawn in downtown Cancun, a climate dialogue had occurred. Even as we wrapped up ours, more were underway’getting started in adjacent tents and the indoor plenary hall; and in corridors, on buses and at bus stops, and even on the streets of Cancun. Urgent, essential dialogues about the changing climate and what to do.