While heads of state and negotiators gathered behind closed doors at the 17th conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, more than 500 women from across Africa arrived by the busload at the nearby University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) chanting and singing.
"They are refusing to sign the deal! We want a legally binding agreement with sanctions. Men, you don't know what you want!" a woman sang, echoing the same frustration that negotiators from developing countries are facing inside the UN conference centre, trying to push more powerful countries to commit to emissions reductions.
For the duration of the official conference, UKZN hosted an alternative, a "People's Space", where activists, environmental justice organizations and social movements converged to build solidarity at the grassroots level and pressure governments to take a tougher stance on causes of climate change.
The Rural Women's Assembly, a network of women's groups from more than 10 African countries, including Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Burundi, came together in Durban, joining the civil society meetings outside the conference seeking to raise awareness about the impact climate change will have at the grassroots level.
A 2010 Oxfam report states that 75 percent of the world's poor live in rural areas and that rural livelihoods are especially vulnerable to climate change.
"You know, we feel the impact of climate change, but it is difficult for us to understand it. Sometimes we have a lot of rain, sometimes we have none at all," Ana Paula Tauacale of the National Union of Farmers of Mozambique, told IRIN. "The problem affects us as women because we are the main food producers and we depend on the rain. We are not like men, who can migrate to find work elsewhere."
The Durban conference, unlike previous climate gatherings, included substantial participation from NGOs. But many on the outside of the conference felt they did not sufficiently represent their interests. "Ninety-five percent of NGOs cannot represent us," said Mercia Andrews, director of the Trust for Community Outreach and Education, part of the Rural Women's Assembly.
She added: "There is hardly any or no relationship between the conference and social movements. They say that the negotiations are too technical for poor people and therefore they, the technocrats, have the knowledge and can negotiate. We are saying no, there should be no negations without us, that we don't inform. It is us, the mass base and peasant and labour movements, which hold power. We are the ones who can push for change. Both NGOs and governments must begin to realize this."
In Durban, more than 6,000 people took to the streets on 3 December in a Global Day of Action, calling for climate justice and for a legally binding mechanism on emissions reductions. Holding banners like "Stop Cooking Africa" and "Listen to the people, not polluters", the protesters made their way through the city to the conference centre. South African activists made a link between apartheid and climate change, with banners such as "1948-2010 - it's just the same game for the same companies that equipped apartheid". Some activists called for the conference to be shut down entirely.
"For 16 times now, it's been failure by these elites to make a deal that will save the planet. And each group here has separate grievances, so there may be women farmers, trade unionists, democracy activists," Patrick Bond, from UKZN's Centre for Civil Society, told IRIN. "People are not optimistic because the balance of forces is so adverse. Think of the 1 percent doing all the deals on Wall Street and the London Stock Exchange. These are the same people that are here in Durban, and all they are interested in is their own national interests, especially fossil fuel interests."
As the conference comes to a close, the EU and an alliance of developing countries are urging the US and big developing countries such as India and China to sign a deal that will enable a roadmap toward a legally binding agreement on emissions reductions.
"It's really frustrating to developing countries that developed countries are not increasing their ambitions," said Rashmi Mistry, climate change advocacy coordinator for Oxfam. "We're really concerned because time is running out. If we continue along this path, it's been estimated by the International Energy Agency that in the next five years, we won't be able to prevent the worst onset of climate change."