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April 2013 journal letter - Ellie Roberts

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QUNO, Geneva

Dear Friends

I am almost half way through my year as Programme Assistant at QUNO and a snow-covered Geneva is gradually giving way to spring as the crocuses bloom in the Quaker House garden. The last few months have been thought-provoking and reflective as I have become more involved in developing QUNO’s emerging work on climate change and natural resources.

For more than a year QUNO has been discerning its role in relation to the international climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), asking the same question of negotiators, experts and colleagues: how can we help? Following from afar the most recent round of negotiations in Doha last December, I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the stresses and disagreements that continue to block progress. The suspicion among states, and particularly between many developed and developing countries, seems particularly damaging in inhibiting open discussion of ideas. The role that Quakers have often played in international processes, that of providing a trusted forum for informal discussion, is urgently needed.

QUNO is currently exploring whether it can facilitate discussion on particular areas of the climate negotiations by creating a space where states can develop possible solutions together, and I am excited to be part of taking this work forwards.

At the time of writing my last journal letter, QUNO’s work on natural resources was beginning to cut across its programmes on climate change, food, peacebuilding and human rights. As we develop this work, the linkages between these areas, and the need to bring them together within the UN and other international settings, becomes increasingly clear. QUNO seeks to present a positive message that resource scarcity and variability do not inevitably lead to violent conflict. Effective and equitable resource management can negotiate disputes and even facilitate wider conflict resolution by bringing together different social, political and economic groups. However, poor resource management has the potential to sow the seeds of destructive conflict by producing power imbalances and worsening marginalisation among the most vulnerable groups.

Peacebuilding approaches to water and land management may help to address the social inequalities and injustices that can determine access to decision-making and natural resources. Yet, at both the national and international levels, these issues tend to be approached in isolation, often resulting in top-down policies that fail to take account of local needs and knowledge. This is particularly apparent in the way large-scale agricultural and water investments are often negotiated, with community participation minimal despite the impact of such investments on local livelihoods.

I am currently co-researching and writing a paper on water management, food security and peacebuilding, bringing together examples of good practice to inform policy-makers at the national and international levels. At the local level, there are examples of innovative methods for bringing peacebuilding approaches to water and land management, while effective community participation is achieved by linking local groups with government, businesses and other stakeholders. QUNO intends to facilitate a series of informal discussions between states and others to explore ways of creating better links between local and international knowledge, as well as issues of water and food security, peacebuilding and human rights.

Our discernment of this area has developed alongside the growing realisation among Quakers that sustainability speaks so strongly to the Quaker testimonies because it is essentially about peaceful relationships. I have been particularly influenced by the Quaker Peace and Environment group that QUNO initiated last year to link Quaker thinking on the interaction between these issues. Meeting virtually every two months, the group provides a forum for sharing work, momentum and ideas, and I have found being part of a wider Quaker network both inspiring and encouraging. Members of the group have stressed that addressing climate change can be empowering if we see it as an opportunity to transform our economic system from one that produces pollution and inequality to one that promotes sustainability, justice and peace. I have found this very motivating for my own work.

Whilst these areas are new and exciting for me, seeing the disconnection between policy and reality is also frustrating. There is often a tendency to focus on developing country communities when considering conflict in relation to natural resource management. Not only does this suggest that these communities are somehow more helpless in the face of difficulty than others, it ignores the marginalisation from water and other resources that can be prevalent in developed country societies. As states consider adaptation to climate change and resource variability, I hope that international policy-making processes will find a way to respond to reality by not only hearing but valuing community voices.

In friendship,
Ellie Roberts