In Cancun, Can We Talk? Or Not?

In Cancun, Can We Talk? Or Not?

Constance Okollet: A voice that must be heard

In Cancun, it’s hard to always know when we’re talking to or past each other. For one, there are a number of venues where events are taking place; it’s hard to know about all of them, and even harder to get there. Apparently one NGO network had a fight with another: hence, two venues, neither terribly well attended. While the beaches in Cancun are beautiful, as are the trees and other vegetation—when we can see them (the beaches have pretty much been denuded)—this is a sprawling resort town. It’s not the most logical place to hold a big conference, particularly one dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For one, getting from place to place by bus or car takes from 30 to 50 to 100 minutes, and it’s hard to predict how long it’ll be each time. (Case in point: a full load of people, included me, waited for the last bus to depart from the Cancunmesse, one of the main conference venues, for more than half an hour. There wasn’t any explanation. As if in recompense, a video of Celine Dion in concert played, loudly. Not exactly the balm we might have needed.) Not only do we miss buses or get to events late, we miss talks and people and constituencies we’d like to connect with.

It’s not only the transportation that’s an issue. Even when we’re in the same room, we don’t always hear each other. People use their hand-held email devices like a tick when others are speaking. Acronyms—a plague of UN meetings—are tossed around with abandon, even thought not everyone knows what they mean (REDD, REDD+, CF, and others that are considerably more opaque). Even though we’re in Mexico, English is the lingua franca, but not everyone speaks it, but it’s as if we expect them to. And if they don’t, we continue in English.

Inside the negotiations, countries also talk past each other. They support positions, but don’t make their support explicit, for example, on the concept of nature’s rights. Only Bolivia has called for its inclusion in any agreement that emerges from Cancun, but so far, Bolivia is the sole country supporting this.

At a day-long session on Agriculture and Rural Development, speakers made the point repeatedly in the final plenary that there are substantial differences between large agribusinesses and small producers, and that recommendations had to take this into account (makes sense, no?). Others noted the lack of attention to gender issues, to improved nutrition as the objective of increased food production, to animal welfare, and to the struggles of small farmers against the effects of climate change. But neither I, nor the woman from Italy I sat next to, saw anyone official writing any of this down. Were the speakers truly heard? And is there ever enough time.

Another session—on climate change and animal agriculture—was alloted just half an hour. It started late and each of three speakers had three minutes to give a presentation. Just as we began to get into a discussion, time was called and we had to leave the room. It was hard not to feel aural whiplash. What was the point, I wondered?

Finally, at a panel on women’s leadership and climate change, Constance Okollet, a small farmer from Eastern Uganda, told her story of climate disaster: drought, floods, her community’s granary swept away, persistent hunger, instability, fear. The room got very quiet; so did the near-constant typing on a pad of some sort. We were listening to Constance. “Our lives are agriculture,” she said, “[and] you want to have your life as you had it in the past, but you can’t.”

But how does Constance’s voice get heard in the government negotiations at Moon Palace? Would her story there be viewed as sentimental? Just one among millions (which is it)Mary Robinson, inaugurated as Ireland’s first woman president 20 years ago this month, spoke of the “climate deniers” and how unconscionable that they exist. She then called climate justice the biggest human rights issue of the 21st century. How far and wide will that message be heard? Within the halls at Cancun and outside? Can people listen and truly hear? It would help if we could do it at Cancun. Sometimes, it appears, we actually can.