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December 07, 2011

The Sierra Club in Durban: The Africaravan

Eskom and Sasol sign

While negotiators puzzled over economic figures and postured on their country's politics, activists from across Sub-Saharan Africa came to Durban to demonstrate to the COP 17 negotiators the power of their own communities. They traveled hundreds of miles for weeks on the "Africaravan" buses to gather outside the COP and remind negotiator who is affected most by climate inaction. Hundreds attended an anti-coal event hosted by a German energy foundation and Earthlife Africa at the People's Space outside the COP to learn about Germany's anti-coal efforts and the many coal project struggles around South Africa. 

Many know that while the UNFCC negotiations are a slow and difficult process, it is still a necessary one. However, it is events like this Earthlife Africa gathering that reflect the real forces for change. We cannot hope to affect our governments or create responsible commerce without knowing each other, learning our struggles, and immersing ourselves in our differences and commonalities -- and what our cultures bring to the table in this shared effort. 

This event captured exactly that. As people filed in to the large auditorium, participants sang together, opening the presentation with multiple harmonies, an example of the rich culture and tradition of song within community organizing here. Various t-shirts captured the sentiments of the UNFCC proceedings; some said "Never Trust a COPoration" and "the Conference of Polluters." 

Durban Anti-coal event

The event opened with Georg Kössler from the Heinrich Böll Stiftung Foundation, who gave an overview of coal's role in climate change. Coal companies swooped in with new plant proposals after Germany planned to retire nuclear power -- 17 of which have been defeated, a situation unbeknownst to Sierra Club coal campaigners here. This parallels our own efforts in the U.S., and illustrates the value of coming together in a global context to discover what our communities face, and share strategies.

COPorationSouth African activists then one by one shared the stories of struggles against coal in their communities.  A woman from the far Northern Limpopo Province of the Venda people spoke of confronting new coal mining in her community, and the food and water shortages the mining will cause. She spoke of the lies the coal companies tell her community about the benefits of new mines. She says, "We ask them, 'How are we going to eat? Where will we get our water?' They say they will bring food to us, but they are taking away our livelihoods."

Earthlife Africa's rousing organizer, Makoma Lekalakala, described the monstrous Medupi and Kusile coal plants –- each over 4,000 megawatts –- which are under construction now, supported by U.S. tax dollars. People in this region are literally going without water because of the mining and water draw. One activist who was supposed to be featured at the event could not travel for being so dehydrated.

Such enormous coal mining and power station projects bring many challenges like air and water pollution, displacement, and false promises of employment, while current livelihoods are squashed in the wake of pollution and water scarcity. In between testimonies and questions to the speakers, people would sing and chant, the room erupting again into a unified chorus, evolving into calls to action, and "Amandla!" -– Power. It was a powerful gathering in its own right, but simply a remarkable preview for the global day of action that lies ahead in which affected communities from around African nations gather to demand greater action from the negotiators at COP 17.

At the close of this week's COP 17 conference everyone will return to their homes and to our daily lives and joys and challenges. The negotiators, policymakers, and technical experts will have done whatever it is they felt was best in this process. For all of us, as we continue in our own way of making change, it is the stories and experiences like this we must remember to bolster our commitment to the real work of holding our governments and companies accountable.

-- article and photos courtesy Cesia Kearns

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