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Voices from the frontlines of climate change

By Darryl D'Monte

In sharp contrast to the jargon and red-tape of the climate negotiations so far, victims of climate change from Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Peru and other affected places, called for urgent action

Delegates at the UN Copenhagen summit heard a cri de coeur from several victims of climate change from around the world – in sharp contrast to the rambling jargon and cliché-ridden deliberations in official sessions. 

Oxfam International held the world’s first International Climate Hearing on Tuesday with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa and Mary Robinson, former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was the culmination of 1,000 smaller hearings in 36 countries, reflecting the voices of over 1.5 million people. 

“We are on the frontline of climate change. We have no mountains or rivers, but we maintain our mountains in our hearts,” cried out Penelise Alota, from the tiny Pacific island of Tuvalu. “We don’t want leaders who can be bought and sold.” 

“Our environment isn’t negotiable; in this conference, people sit and throw figures on the table. Climate change is wrong and we must call it wrong,” she asserted. “We are looking for leaders who also have these mountains in their hearts.” 

Closer home, Shorbanu Khatun from the Sundarbans in Bangladesh narrated her heart-rending saga of a single mother of four, who had lost her husband to a tiger when he was looking for honey in the forests. The second blow was Cyclone Aila which robbed her of her house. 

“I want to live,” she pleaded. “I want justice in my life; for my children’s lives and livelihoods. We imagined that this was God punishing others. But in public hearings on climate, I have heard that these occurrences are man-made. 

“Over the last five years, everything seems to have changed. It is suddenly too hot in summer. There is a severe scarcity of rain. In summer, I can’t see the other side of the river bank because of the fog. I find less trees than ever before.” 

“You should refer to us indigenous people as your brothers and sisters,” Cayetano Huanca from Peru, exhorted. “The glaciers are melting, water resources are declining. We beg industrial countries to manage their emissions; the most vulnerable countries must be compensated.” 

Archbishop Tutu declared: “I too stand before you as a witness. I have seen with my own eyes the changes in my homeland. The Southern Cape is currently experiencing the worst drought anyone can remember. There is not enough food. There is too little water. The situation is becoming increasingly desperate.” 

“We have so much in common with these communities,” said Mary Robinson. “There is deep and global injustice. Some 16 countries, constituting 14% of the world’s population, have contributed 60% of the emissions; they are still responsible for 40%.” 

The “tck tck tck” (UNEP’s global campaign for sealing a deal, simulating a clock) is louder than ever. Industrial countries are being called upon to cut emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. So far, their commitments only amount to 8-12%. These countries must pay $200 billion a year by 2020 – half for mitigating climate change and half for countries to adapt to it. 

Infochange News & Features, December 2009