“Talking about millet never fills the harvest barns with millet.”
This ancient African proverb underscores the attitude with which many Africans at the grassroots embrace the global climate change discourse. As the world talks about new forms of adaptation, these Africans live the adaptation that a changing climate has already necessitated.
Though often presented in technical terms as a contemporary philosophy, adaptation as a concept and a survival tactic has been present in African countries for ages. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the rare occasions when rains failed, traditional coping strategies rarely failed. The societal support system inherent in many African cultures filled any food gaps that resulted from failed rains. In addition, the food barns would often have sufficient surplus that would last until the next harvest season. This food was usually cooked in pots that used less energy and kept the food warm for longer periods. Food like meat was then preserved through energy efficient means like smoking and drying.
The late twentieth century and early twenty first century brought with it an explosion of energy usage in the North, consequent green house gas emission and related climate change. Highly vulnerable African societies became the worst hit casualties. In many African countries, erratic rain during the planting season became alarmingly common. Consequently staple food like maize is becoming increasingly expensive. Although this sometimes has a lot to do with storage and distribution, climate is almost always a culprit.
Every year, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gathers delegates from all over the world in Conference of Parties that discuss global climate occurrences and policies. This year, the COP will be in Lima, Peru. Sadly these climate COPs have been generally underwhelming and anti-climatic. Will Lima be any different?
Will the delegates discuss how Kenya and other African countries can walk away from rain-fed to irrigation powered agriculture?
Will these discussions take on board the age-old coping strategies of African farmers that may appear outdated but are in fact highly resilient and just need some contemporary polishing?
Will the talks empower Africa in particular and the South as a whole, to own and control emerging environmentally sound technologies?
Will the high polluters who are responsible for the deteriorating climate situation be held accountable and impressed upon to take full responsibility of their actions?
Even if the answers to all these questions and other similar ones are in the affirmative, when will the new agreements come into force? And when the agreements do come into force, how long will it take for an African farmer and consumer to benefit?
These questions must be honestly answered sooner rather than later, if the Lima talks are to yield millet into harvest barns across Africa. This is the only measure that Africans who are neither in board rooms nor in meeting halls care about. Their very survival is pegged on this measure. Although hope lingers that Lima can and should live up to this measure, it should not be an excuse for deferred action and new bureaucratic bottlenecks. Neither should it raise the climate change discourse and action so high that people on the ground lose touch with it.