The Paris agreement. And now what?

This week’s guest writer is Stephanie McDonald, senior policy advisor for the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.  

As I entered the site of the Paris Climate Conference, known as COP21, late last November, I was surrounded by representatives of 196 nations, including negotiators, civil society leaders, people of faith, business executives, politicians and Indigenous people.

They had all gathered in the French capital for the talks. Some were there as official country delegates, others to show, en masse, their support for a deal that would slow global warming and ensure all on the planet had a chance to survive and thrive.

José Miranda 1
José Miranda. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

But it was the people who weren’t in attendance who were on my mind the most.

The noticeable voice missing in Paris was that of small-scale farmers from the developing world — people who are on the front lines of changing weather patterns, and whose lives are being disrupted the most by climate change.

Two months earlier, in September, I had traveled to Nicaragua to meet farmers and learn how they were being impacted by our changing climate. The country was well into the second year of a drought and farmers spoke of at least a decade of unpredictable rainfall and growing seasons.

I met José Miranda, a father of three, in northern Nicaragua. His family has never had excess harvest to sell on the market, but until five years ago they at least produced enough for their household consumption. Since that time, they’ve had to purchase more of their food, and cut out items that are too pricey.

José told me something chilling that I wish all of the negotiators in Paris could have heard: “Until 2007 we had pigs. We had grain before to feed them and now we don’t. My uncle used to have cattle and then the water source dried up. The only thing left is for the people to disappear as well.”

Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot
Guillarmina Castro with soil from her CA plot. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

In the community of Pavón, 150km to the southwest of José, I met Guillarmina Castro.

She too wasn’t in Paris to tell how she lives close to a river that used to flood with the heavy rains, sometimes cutting off Pavón for up to two weeks at a time. The last time the river was high was with Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Now the river is dry.

Guillarmina is working with a project funded by Mennonite Central Committee Canada, through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, that is teaching conservation agriculture (CA). Its three main practices – soil cover, crop rotation and minimal disturbance of the soil – have had success in increasingly arid regions. Guillarmina is having to adapt to what appears to be the new normal in her area.

Thankfully, she has reason to be hopeful. “We get better yields and can produce with less rain,” she said.

Now what?

On December 12, delegates to COP21 reached an agreement and the climate talks concluded. It was the words of one man in the gathered faith community in Paris that helped me put in perspective the question of “now what?”

In 2013, Yeb Saño was a negotiator for the Philippines at the annual climate conference, that year held in Warsaw, Poland. As the talks were underway, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, killing over 6,000 people.

In his  address to fellow diplomats in 2013, Yeb wept as he spoke of the devastation at home. He said he would fast until the conference ended or until concrete commitments for action on climate change were made. Yeb inspired the global movement Fast for the Climate.

Yeb Sano, Fast for the Climate
Yeb Saño and Fast for the Climate, Paris. Photo/Stephanie McDonald

At an event in Paris in 2015, Yeb said, “We need to stop believing a single conference will define our collective future. It is through every act of caring and love that we build a future free of climate change.”

It was a powerful reminder that each of us has agency, countless times every day, to show love and caring for our neighbour. We can be conscious of our purchases, what we consume and how we get around.

We can also applaud our government when they get it right, such as providing financial support to those most affected by climate change, as the Canadian government did in late November.

And we can tell our representatives that we care about the issue of climate change and what it means for farmers like José and Guillarmina who are dealing with the impacts right now.

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