Sonali Kolhatkar / YouTube

On Dec. 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, marking the first International Human Rights Day. Sixty-seven years later, the United Nations is hosting arguably the most important climate conference of our time. But the global institution has seemingly divorced human rights from the impacts of climate change.

Outside the confines of the conference being held in Le Bourget, a Paris suburb, hundreds of activists gathered next to the Peace Wall at the Eiffel Tower to mark International Human Rights Day and draw clear links between human rights and climate justice. The gathering, organized by the It Takes Roots Delegation, consisted of people from indigenous and other communities of color from all over the world.

Among those who gathered in the fog and freezing cold were African women who have traveled to Paris to draw attention to how climate change is affecting their communities. Global warming has a serious ripple effect on many aspects of African women’s lives that officials fail to account for.

Martha Agbani is the executive director of the Lokiaka Community Development Center in Nigeria, an organization aimed at “promoting democracy, human rights, and development.” Agbani explained that she was at the event to “take action against multinational companies, against the U.S., against the bourgeoisie that are killing our environment,” and to make sure that the COP21 delegates “offer climate solutions for we, the poor people.”

Agbani, a member of the Ogoni tribe, said that Nigeria represents multiple facets of the problem of climate change, noting that major companies are “extracting fossil fuels from my community. [As a result], that has been depleting my environment; we no longer have good water.”

Agbani raised the issue of agriculture, which has been left out of the COP21 negotiations. “We’re seeing the government coming in to grab our lands for monoculture GMO crops, and we are not comfortable with that because our environment is already fragile.” As an indigenous person, Agbani sees these actions as tantamount to genocide, saying, “They want to kill us, they want us to go extinct. They want to wipe away the Ogoni people, and we’re saying no.”

The delegates representing the Nigerian government are also part of the problem. “They want to work with the U.S. in order to have a market for Nigerian oil,” Agbani said.

Pinki Alanga, with the South Africa Green Revolutionary Council, told me how severely climate change is affecting her country. The region of Limpopo, near Botswana, is experiencing record-high temperatures. “Streams are drying up. It’s so hot, the weather has drastically changed—we are frying,” she said. The area has significant mining operations, an extractive industry that has resulted in a form of pollution called acid mine drainage, which leads to contamination of the local water and soil. Farmers, Alanga said, are then “forced to use more chemicals for the food to grow,” which in turn has poisoned the food system even more. She contends that as a result, girls are experiencing severe disruption of their hormonal systems; some as young as 10 are starting to menstruate.

A hallmark of climate-disrupting industries is the unfair economic system in which they operate. Unemployment in Uganda is high because, according to Alanga, companies do not hire local workers. “They are bringing in cheap labor from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique. It’s so depressing.”

“Food is expensive, people have to buy water. They don’t have money to do that,” said Alanga. That, in turn, has led to the rise of prostitution. “Now, our young women are forced to be sex workers because there is unemployment, so they’re forced to sell their bodies to these guys who came as laborers.”

Uganda native Patience Muramuzi works for the National Association for Women’s Action in Development. Like Alanga, she explained how her country’s climate has changed, saying, “We don’t know what is the rainy season or dry season. This has greatly impacted agriculture.” Farmers begin planting at the beginning of what they expect to be the rainy season, but then a drought begins and “everything dies.”

Because food production has been so severely disrupted, hunger is rampant. Women are the hardest hit, according to Muramuzi, because “as you know, it’s us women who are usually responsible for providing food for the family. There is a lot of conflict within the households.” Like prostitution, domestic violence is another of the ignored effects of climate change that decision-makers are failing to account for. As in Nigeria, the Ugandan government is not lobbying in its people’s interests. “Our government is betraying us,” Muramuzi said. “They are not in for the citizens of the country—they are in for themselves.”

Kenyan activist Sophie Obutu, with the World March for Women, told me that the effects of climate change in her country are “huge.” Weather patterns that defy normal seasonal predictions are becoming the new norm, resulting in floods and drought. “With climate change, the African woman is suffering a lot,” Obutu said. “Traditionally, women are expected to acquire water, food, looking after children.” Clean drinking water is an especially serious problem because, she said, “You open up the tap and see dust instead of water.” Because women are forced to leave their homes and walk for miles to search for water, their safety is jeopardized.

So severe is the water problem in Kenya that “even newborn babies are feeling the impacts of climate change,” Obutu said. When women give birth in hospitals, there is literally no water to wash the newborns clean; new mothers have to take their babies home unwashed, covered in blood and body fluids.These effects are not being discussed at the highest levels of the climate negotiations. While civil society representatives are allowed to be present and observe the proceedings, fewer accreditations were approved this year compared with previous years. One accredited observer told me that drafts of the agreement are simply handed out after all the decisions have been made, with no mechanisms for feedback.

None of the African women I spoke with were optimistic that a robust climate treaty would emerge from COP21. Obutu was disdainful, saying, “The story is the same. They keep telling us that they have the solutions, but you cannot say that you have the solutions if you are not affected directly, the way a lot of us are. Women especially are in touch with nature every day. At the COP it is only men sitting there giving directions.”

Alanga too was skeptical of the kinds of climate solutions being proposed at COP21. “Most of the delegates are people who are working in the fossil fuel industry that we are complaining about,” she said. It is certainly true that corporate elites, referred to as “stakeholders,” have special access to country delegates.

Agbani, the indigenous Nigerian activist, is among those who criticize the limitations on the discussions at COP21. Upon learning that agriculture was not part of the negotiations, she reflected that “agriculture means survival, means livelihood, means life. They are not talking about that.”

Muramuzi concluded by saying, “I really think the solution is with us, because it is us who are suffering.”

While most media coverage is fixated on how the negotiations are proceeding, on International Human Rights Day it is most fitting that ordinary people are calling out government and corporate elites for betraying their rights. What the African women activists gathered in Paris are calling for is not simply “climate solutions,” but “climate justice.” In order to achieve justice, the voices of the most affected communities have to be at the center.

Watch Sonali Kolhatkar’s video report from the protest below (via YouTube):

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