Genocide, community and NGOs

April 28, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

When Terry Cannon accused fossil fuel corporations of genocide for continuing to explore for oil, gas and coal, he caused eyebrows to rise. Yet some of his other remarks to the final session of the conference on community-based adaptation to climate change – and to a short parallel course on monitoring and evaluation – may prove to be both less sensational and more controversial (not least because he told me later that he had not intended to use the g-word).

For example, he questioned the morality of non-governmental organisations that were interested only in the people in their project areas. Given that these projects touched only a small proportion of the public, he said, unless NGOs designed activities so that they could be scaled up without cost, they would be failing. Is that ethical, he asked.

“If we don’t help everyone adapt, there will be hunger and crisis,” he told participants on the course, run by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, set up in Dhaka by Saleemul Huq, who is also one of the organisers of the conference.

That wasn’t Cannon’s only challenge.

He questioned the very idea of “community”: “Communities are not warm and cuddly… it’s we who find community convenient. It fits in with what we want to do and what funders want. Let’s not be afraid to talk about class and power.”

There was also a need to design top-down policies that would help people adapt to climate change, he said: not a revolutionary idea in itself, but not the sort of language that participants in community-based activities – proud of their bottom-up approach – are accustomed to hearing.

Investment in community-based adaptation was infinitesimal compared with the billions spent annually on subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture and on fossil fuel exploration: “We are tiny gnats trying to push an elephant,” he commented. “I’m not convinced agencies are interested in scaling up. They are comfortable working in projects.”

Cannon, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, also said that NGOs needed to experiment if they were to find policies to deal with climate change, and that meant they should seek funds for research rather than projects. It might mean, too, going into partnership with academics and research organisations, and becoming more scientific – donors would demand that they do so.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Climate change delegates stranded in Dhaka hotel

April 24, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

A conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is in lock down because of a “hartal”, or general strike, which aims to bring commercial life in the city to a halt. The strike makes it risky to leave the hotel that is staging the meeting and where most participants are staying. Demonstrators use sticks and stones and occasionally fire to enforce their action, and the conference hotel has “strongly recommended” guests not leave the premises during the 36-hour protest.

That solves the problem faced by all such conferences of participants going for walks or shopping and failing to attend sessions on time. But the organisers have provided in-house entertainment with a number of “out of the box” sessions, the star of which was a climate change game under development by game champion Pablo Suarez. For more than an hour groups of participants representing communities, doctors and governments rolled dice, jumped up, sat down, made instant decisions and gambled beans competing fiercely with each other and with the clock.

The extraordinary thing about such games is how quickly players of all genders, cultures and roles assume the identities they have been assigned and enter into the spirit of role-play.

Suarez, associate director for research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – and a member of the Games for A New Climate Taskforce – is an enthusiastic proponent of games, which he says are an entertaining and effective way of learning.

“They can elicit behaviour that is likely to happen in the real world”, he says, and can vividly illustrate elements such as complexity, risk and unexpected events – “Knowing what is likely to happen is useful but is not enough”.

He says that “serious games” involve brain power and emotions, “and everyone engages”.

Judging by the whoops of excitement from the winning groups and the buzz and applause at the end of the session, every conference needs a game.

In a later session, a comment by Gareth Jones of Oxfam introduced a different form of reality. He told the organisers that the proceedings were engendering “a sense of false optimism”. True, said conference host Saleemul Huq, “but we wouldn’’t be here if we were no’t optimistic.”

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

‘We told you so,’ and other final messages from the Science Forum

June 17, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

There is a scientist’s version of the phrase “I told you so”, I discovered at the closing plenary of the meeting.

The observed changes are already consistent with predicted trends

It sounds like this: “The observed changes are already consistent with predicted trends”.

The scientific ‘I told you so’ was the first theme that Steven Wilson, executive director of the International Council for Science, said had emerged during the week-long sessions of the Forum for ST&I and Sustainable Development.

After a stormy session on the Green Economy (which we’ll write about here on Monday), he took the floor to sum up the week. Firstly, he said that plenty of evidence had been presented that planetary damage —  and consequent human harm – is already happening. Just like scientists said it would.

The second message emerging from the meeting, he said, was that there is a need for sustained observation — not just one-off bits of science.

For example, sustained observation by the array of buoys that stretches across the Atlantic, measuring the Gulf Stream, has discovered, over time,  a surprising variability in flow.

“So, past isolated measurements could well be misleading,” he said.

The third theme of many talks was the “untapped potential of current knowledge”.

He highlighted a survey by Lisa Dilling of the University of Colorado, US, that found that the biggest obstacle cited by people trying to implement climate adaptation was poor access to information. Plenty could be achieved by better application of what is already known.

The final two themes were, in fact, the mantras of the week: the need for integrated science and the need for whole systems solutions.

A fine example of the latter, Wilson said, is the move to consider air pollution and climate change together – because some pollutants have the potential to warm the atmosphere and others to cool it.

ICSU will soon publish the outcome statements of this meeting, but it is unlikely that anything newly concluded this week would find its way, by any official means, into next week’s Rio+20 conference – at this stage the official channel for S&T input is just two minutes wide.

The benefits are more likely to accrue from the organisers having taken advantage of the greater magnet of Rio+20 and drawn a multinational and multidisciplinary audience. There were 5-600 delegates from over 70 countries, according to Wilson.

Before the meeting, Gisbert Glaser, senior science advisor at the International Council for Science, which organised the meeting, said the goal was to help drive forward the post-Rio+20 implementation.

Such an impact will be hard to measure. But, reviewing the 500+ events scheduled for the Rio+20 period, it is evident that, without this meeting, science would have been a much softer voice in the melee.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Whoops! Policy-makers just picked up my science

June 16, 2012

Aisling Irwin

Aisling Irwin
Consultant news editor, SciDev.Net

There has been regular, gloomy and frustrated introspection by scientists at this meeting about how to get policy-makers to listen to them more.

It was mind candy, therefore, to hear one scientist’s account of how he was just going about his normal business when the policy world seized his work.

Is it something about the diagram?

Before he knew it, his group’s ideas had been adopted by the European Union and promoted for the Rio+20 agenda. Soon policy-makers had even entered the concept into the draft of the Rio+20 outcome document — although it has subsequently been dropped.

The scientist was Johan Rockström, of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, leader of the international team that drew up the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’, which first had their public airing in a feature in Nature magazine in 2009.

“The fact that it was carried over into the policy arena was a positive surprise,” Rockström told the Forum on ST&I in Sustainable Development yesterday.

His group had been experimenting with integrated science and how it could find a way to advance sustainability, he said.

“It was never ready to be transmitted into policy.”

It will be interesting to follow this story. Some policy-makers, he pointed out, dislike the idea for fear it sets limits on development.

Perhaps the prematurity of its entrance into policy-makers’ minds also spells an early departure.

Nevertheless the case might provide insights for those trying to attract policy-makers to their scientific ideas.


This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Weathering uncertainty: learn from indigenous communities

June 14, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Sha Zukang: Everyone is equally unhappy.. which means they are equally happy
Flickr/UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferra

Hello, and I pitch in to wrap up our blog.

Sustainable Development is a multi-dimensional, complex topic that is, and should be, viewed through a variety of lenses, but it is often impossible to have all the lenses with us, even if we want to.

During Rio+20, SciDev.Net looked at it through the science lens, offering a rich fare of issues from energy for all, to oceans, to agriculture to technology transfer and the role of science in sustainable development.

That coverage was peppered with a view of the scenes outside the conference venue, including exhibitions and the bustling people’s summit.

And there was the African perspective on sustainable development.

The conference secretary general, Sha Zukang, says the summit achieved some notables: including a “substantive pathbreaking outcome”; a registry of voluntary commitments from corporates, international agencies and others for sustainable development; and the ‘zero hunger challenge’ initiative.

“We would have been happier if there had been more science in the document. But the outcome document is something we can build on,” Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change, remarked to me.

Civil society was predictably furious over what Greenpeace’s Kumi Naidoo described as a “missed historical opportunity” to see a stronger agenda through.

Many of us living in developing countries, including me, recognise the complexity of sustainable development — the sheer magnitude of poverty in some areas; the inequity within countries that has worsened as economies grow and the never-ending ‘environment versus development’ tension as we struggle to lift millions out of poverty and provide access to clean water, sanitation, energy, education and jobs.

I would like to mention two lasting impressions as I sometimes switched the science lens for other lenses.

I, like countless women, am left aghast that this summit has regressed on women’s reproductive health and rights issues which has implications for access to safe contraception and family planning services. It is Rio minus 20 on that count.

Then I am left uneasy with this corporate juggernaut  — it was there with all its public relations machinery.

Jose Maria Figueres, president of the non-governmental organisation Carbon War Room,  told the media that, while governments let Rio+20 down, corporates took it forward. Time to watch out for who will be in the driving seat from now on.

But then as Sha Zukang philosophically noted, such meetings leave “everyone equally unhappy … equally unhappy means equally happy,” he observed. So be it.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

Indigenous communities emerge as proactive negotiators

June 14, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

For me, a refreshing change in climate change and sustainable development meetings, compared to the high-brow, purely scientific meetings, is that they bring in local communities’ representatives on the podium to share their insights and wisdom.

And so I enjoyed listening to Roberto Marin,  (Asociación de Capitanes y Autoridades Tradicionales Indigenas del Pira Parana (ACAIPI), Colombia; Jaqueline Dias, (Articulação Pacari) PCARI, Brazil; and  Myrna Cunningham, member, UN permanent forum on indigenous issues ad executive director of CADPI, Nicaragua, albeit I had to make do with an English translation of their speeches in Spanish or Portuguese.

They narrated their struggles to preserve their culture and knowledge even as they assimilate some of the more ‘modern’ concepts of education and health; their efforts to forge inter-cultural universities for indigenous community students and with special courses on traditional knowledge; and their emergence from passive or helpless, marginalized victims of relentless modernization to determined negotiators in international treaties and conventions.

For example, Brazil’s Pacari network brings together 47 traditional pharmacies and community-based organisations to cultivate medicinal plants, preserve traditional ecological knowledge and health traditions, and protect biodiversity in the Cerrado (savannah) biome.

With no comprehensive legislation that recognizes traditional health practices in Brazil, the network mobilized medicinal plant producers and local health practitioners to create self-regulating policies; set standards on the amount of plant used to prepare traditional medicines, safety and sanitary conditions for plant processing; and sustainable harvesting techniques.

And Myrna Cunningham Kain was the first Miskitu woman to become a surgeon, and was the founder and first rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast (URACCAN).

Jennifer Rubin, climate frontlines negotiator at UNESCO, explained how indigenous communities are determinedly making use of state and national dialogues; and UN mechanisms, to express their concerns ad protect their rights. Indigenous people live in or sue resources on some  22 per cent of the world’s land area, which harbours 80 per cent of the global biological diversity.

They made effective interventions in the Convention on Biological Diversity   (CBD), but feel they are yet to make a similar dent in climate change negotiations.  There has been some progress though. – recognition of indigenous knowledge at the the 2010 Cancun adaptation framework principles; and the upcoming fifth IPCC assessment report.

Indigenous people have not been passive. We are negotiating, resisting, adapting, and engaging with policymakers, nationally and internationally,  Rubis said.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

An informal moment with Lidia Brito

March 30, 2012

Bothina Osama

Luisa Massarani
Latin America regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Last day of the conference… I was in the press room, very tired, thinking on what to write about, when the lovely and smiling Lidia Brito came into the room. Not even showing how tired she should be as co-chair of this conference…

We start talking in Portuguese – a Mozambique Portuguese much near of my Brazilian Portuguese than the one spoken in Portugal… I asked: “So Lidia, what next?”

Basically, the idea is to keep the level of engagement reached for this conference aiming to sensitize the negotiators of Rio+20. Next month, for example, a side event will be hold in New York, during the round for discussing the Rio+20 document.

Lidia Brito

Lidia Brito

In June, a five-day Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development will be held prior to the Rio+20, organised by the International Council for Science (ICSU), UNESCO, the World Federation of Engineering Organizations, the International Social Science Council, the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.

Both meetings aim to join different stakeholders and keep sensitizing the negotiators of Rio+20. But… how much the scientific community is in fact being heard during the negotiations?

According to Lidia, the hopes are high – same feeling expressed by Alice Abreu, ICSU Regional Coordinator for Rio+20 as a chat we had in Brazil a couple of weeks ago.

Both of them believe that the scientific community movements are being able to influence already the negotiations, as – they say – expressed in parts of the draft document.

“I think we will make the difference, but we still have a long way to go”, said Lidia.

“We are learning how to work differently, much more collaborative, in an inter and multidisciplinary way and we need to be prepared to answer the new scientific questions that are to be presented”, she believes.

Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development 

This blog post is part of our Planet Under Pressure 2012 coverage — which takes place 26–29 March 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

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