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"Climate witnesses" don't want handouts

Constance Okot (45) at entrance to her kitchen in eastern Uganda Asinget village Osukuru sub county Tororo district
(James Akena/Oxfam International flikr )

The "climate witnesses" - all poor farmers - told a special tribunal on climate change in Cape Town, South Africa, on 5 October: "We don't want any handouts from the West." Instead, they needed strategies and policies to help them overcome the effects of climate change.

It evoked memories of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but rather than apartheid, the first of 125 hearings being held in 17 countries before a global UN meeting in December to clinch a deal on tackling global warming in Copenhagen, Denmark, was part of civil society's efforts to ensure that the voices of those least capable of dealing with the effects of climate change would be heard.

"It was not until I went to a meeting in Kampala [capital of Uganda] about climate change that I heard it was not God, but the rich people in the West who are doing this to us by releasing too much [greenhouse] gases into the atmosphere," said Constance Okollet Ocham, a farmer from the Tororo district of drought-affected eastern Uganda.

"We are asking that they stop, or reduce [emissions]," she urged. Between 1991 and 2000, Uganda experienced drought seven times and water tables have dropped, leaving dry many boreholes on which the rural poor rely.

Small-scale farmers from Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Ethiopia and South Africa also gave moving accounts of how their communities were coping with the cycle of floods and droughts that has gripped their homelands to a panel of guests led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Okollet Ocham told the panel that the seasons in eastern Uganda had stopped following their normal annual pattern in 2007, when the region was hit by floods. "Before, we had two harvests every year, but now there's no pattern. Floods like we've never seen came and swept up everything [in 2007]. We went back when the waters had left and there was nothing: our houses, crops and animals were gone."

The receding flood water led to outbreaks of disease because the water holes were polluted and stagnant, which made them breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

"We are not rich, we are poor, and depend on agriculture to survive. People are getting only one meal a day, so many are dying. Sometimes five [people] or six each day are dying from disease and starvation," she said.

From 200 cows to 20

Omar Jibril, pastoralist, community leader and cattle farmer from drought-affected northern Kenya who takes care of 40 children and grandchildren, had a similar tale. The pastures in his region were devastated by drought in 2005 and have yet to recover because of the ongoing lack of rain.

Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, (red jacket) former UN commissioner for human rights, with some of the witnesses from around Africa who gave their account of the impact of climate change at a special tribunal in Cape Town

L’archevêque Desmond Tutu et l’ancienne haut-commissaire des Nations Unies aux droits de l’homme Mary Robinson (en veste rouge) avec quelques-uns des « témoins climatiques »
Bill Corcoran/IRIN
Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, (red jacket) former UN commissioner for human rights, with some of the witnesses from around Africa who gave their account of the impact of climate change at a special tribunal in Cape Town
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Les « témoins climatiques » ne veulent pas de charité
Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mary Robinson, (red jacket) former UN commissioner for human rights, with some of the witnesses from around Africa who gave their account of the impact of climate change at a special tribunal in Cape Town

Photo: Bill Corcoran/IRIN
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former human rights commissioner Mary Robinson (red jacket) with some of the "climate witnesses"

"I had 200 cows then, but now I have only 20 left - they have all died. In the past our land was able to recover from drought, but not any more. I must give human food to the animals I have left if I want them to survive, and we must walk a long way to get water to drink."

Kenya's eastern, northern and southern pastoral zones have been hit by four consecutive years of poor rains. "I used to sell animals, so I could afford to send my children to school, but now some have had to drop out," said Jibril.

"The increase in drought has also brought disease, and because of the food shortage people are forced to resort to deforestation to survive - you will not see trees where I am from."

Repeated flooding has washed nutrients out of the soil, bringing degradation in the quality and productivity of farmland, and more failed crops; women in poor rural communities were sometimes forced to resort to sex work to survive.

Tutu and former UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson will take these messages to African and world leaders at the UN Climate Summit to bring home the human cost of climate change to the world's poorest regions.

"The testimony of women and men who are already struggling to cope with a changing climate is a powerful reminder of what is at stake in the international climate negotiations. Already impoverished communities across Africa stand to lose so much because of a climate crisis in which they have played no part," said Robinson, an Honorary President of Oxfam International, one of the organizers of the hearings.

"Their voices - and their demands for a fair, ambitious and binding climate deal - deserve to be heard by political leaders in Africa and across the globe."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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