Poor farmers hope to influence Paris climate talks with their stories

Thandiwe Chidararume, who farms sweet potato, nuts and corn in Zimbabwe, traveled nearly 5,000 miles to be in Paris for the U.N. climate change conference. She wanted to tell negotiators there of the problems she and thousands of other Zimbabwean farmers face due to adverse weather conditions. 

For the past couple of years, her crops have gotten either too much rain or not enough. That has meant no money at market and no income to support her three children.

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"Our presence is just to show the negotiators that whatever they come up with, they should know that we are here, we are watching them," said Chidararume, 42. "They should make decisions, decisions that are going to make us happy, not to make us suffer."

Chidararume was one of thousands regulated to the sidelines of the U.N. conference on the outskirts of Paris. By Dec. 11, negotiators from 195 countries hope to produce a global accord on climate change and on what to do about it. 

Key issues under negotiation at the talks loss and damage, and adaptation and mitigation, all of which relate to how much compensation should be given to the world's mostly poorer nations for damages incurred due to climate change, or for those nations to be able to "adapt" to using greener but more costly energy sources, instead of fossil fuels, which are the largest source of the greenhouse gas emissions causing global warming. 

Chidararume, backed by U.N. and other official statistics, blamed bigger, wealthier nations like the United States and China for producing the most carbon gases, and said it was therefore up to these richer countries to guarantee a climate change agreement that took her and millions of the world's other poor farmers into consideration. 

"As farmers, first thing we are asking for is adaptation funds, and funds for mitigation, but the first thing is adaption funds, because we are already suffering because of climate change," Chidararume told Catholic News Service Dec 7. 

"We need funding, we are small-scale farmers (and) we don't have much resources. How do we adapt," she asked, from inside an antiquated and ornate room belonging to a Paris syndicate. She sat surrounded by other, mostly African women farmers and their advocates who, like Chidararume, had traveled thousands of miles to France in an attempt to sway U.N. negotiators. 

They were brought together in Paris as part of an experience-sharing workshop, organized by CIDSE, an alliance of Catholic development agencies, and its partners.

"Farmers are no longer able to produce the way they used to ... because the climate is changing, and it is a reality," said Flaida Jose Macheze, who traveled to the workshop the night before from Mozambique, where the civil society organization she works for, UNAC, represents the rights of her country's small-scale farmers. Macheze said most small-scale farmers were women. 

"You may plant and a drought comes, or you may plant and the rains come, so either it's floods or it is drought and we feel it. So we think that coming to this space, maybe whoever is negotiating the issues of climate, can hear our voice, and maybe they can bring slight changes," said Macheze, stressing the "maybe" both times. 

Macheze, Chidararume and the roughly 40 others present at the workshop said they had no formal invitations to the negotiations at Le Bourget, the Paris suburb where high-level talks continue. But they were planning to show up at some point outside the venue, in hopes of meeting and convincing some of the negotiators to take their concerns to heart. 

"We are trying to meet the people who are negotiating on our behalf, so that we can put forth our views," said Susan Chilala, a sweet potato, groundnuts, pigeon peas and maize farmer from Zambia, who was also at the workshop.

"There are so many problems that we have faced, especially now with the climate change. We have tried to look for alternatives, but one thing that we have discovered of late is that even alternatives do not consider climate change," she said.

She gave real-life examples of farmers in Zambia being encouraged to get loans to dig ponds and raise fish, in order to compensate for crops lost due to drought. Finding no water even deep down, farmers had to give up on the project, but still owed the loan. 

"We don't have insurance on climate-change financing," she said. 

Leonie Kiangu of Congo said she'd come to the Paris workshop to share with other farmers her personal experience of growing up in and around her country's vast forests, which she and thousands of other women depended on for fuel. 

"There is the problem of the forests. Congolese women find all they need in the forests -- it is like a supermarket. Now when you tell them don't cut those trees because you have to keep them for the sake of the world's lungs, they don't get it," she said.

"I lived from those forests, so now if you tell me not to live from them, not to make charcoal, what am I going to live on," she asked of the climate conference negotiators.

"Give me an alternative," she demanded.

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