On one side of this tropical strip, UN delegates, media, and observers shuttle between luxurious hotels, posh restaurants, a white sandy beach with turquoise water, and a modern convention center where they spend their time bemoaning man-made climate change and planning the energy future for the rest of the globe. One the other side of the Cancun “Hotel Zoneria,” just 10 or 15 kilometers from downtown, live countless numbers of Mexican families without electricity, running water, or any of the other modern conveniences we in the developed world take for granted everyday.
It was to this other side that CFACT traveled today, bringing delegates and reporters to see what energy poverty looks like, up-close and in-person. “As COP16 participants consider the future of the world’s energy policy, it is vital that the voices of those suffering energy poverty are heard,” I said in our announcement.
So off we went in a convoy of white vans – Germans and Kenyans and Americans and Kazahkstanis and English and Tawainese and others – to see a side of Cancun featured in no magazines or travelogs. Fifteen minutes on the highway headed through the Yucatan jungle, another five minutes or so on Merida Road, and then a bumpy, twisting ride over a pothole scarred back road, and there we were, in the Comunidad de La Libertad, more easily known as “Community of Freedom” back in Des Moines or Omaha.
One young mother graciously agreed to let us visit her makeshift house – made of some wood planks and stone and a bit of cement – and share with us how she and her family live. After telling us through a translator that “her heart was beating out of her chest because she’s never had any visitors like this,” she went on to show the sparse interior of her abode, and then took us outside where most of her work is done. She cooks most food in an old metal barrel over an open fire – tortillas on a metal pan or beans boiling in a pot of water – because she can only afford a little gas for her indoor stove, and wouldn’t waste a week’s worth of energy on one pot of beans.
Thus, she and her two little children get to breathe in the smoke from the cooking fire; smoke that kills an estimated two to three million women and children around the world each year from respiratory diseases. There is no plumbing or proper sanitation – just an outhouse-style bathroom where basin baths and other necessities are attended to. Clothes-washing is done by hand, taking hours of time, and water comes from a small hand-pumped well that provides relatively convenient, but certainly not uncontaminated, water.
One son is able to attend school, but the younger daughter, age five, is not able to attend because even though tuition is free, there are small expenses associated with going to school that can’t be met on her husband’s one-day-yes, one-day-no part-time labor. So the delegates looked, and listened, and asked questions – and were thankful for having the chance to get away from the UN gabfest, and remember who it is that actually has the most skin in the climate and energy game. “It is one thing to talk about poverty, but it is another to come here in person – where you can feel it,” commented one representative from India who joined the CFACT tour. “I would have left anything at the summit to come here and see this,” he added.
But for others, the visit was surprising from an opposite perspective. One delegate from Tanzania said the women’s house would be like a palace back home, and that his own mother doesn’t have a house even half as good. But maybe that’s not so surprising after all, since 90% of those living in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity, and children there must also do their homework by candlelight or paraffin lamps, as CFACT demonstrated when it organized a visit with local Kenyan schoolchildren during the COP12 meeting in Nairobi.
CFACT’s energy poverty tour of Cancun ended on a joyful note as the group visited the local elementary school of La Libertad – the sole school in the area for four large communities – and sponsored a small lunchtime fiesta for the children complete with a mariachi band, piñatas, and a magician. CFACT also pledged to provide the school with its first electric lights. In remarks at the school, I noted that CFACT’s “adopt a village” program actually started in Cancun in 2003 during the WTO summit when the group began a relationship with a neighboring community, delivering two tons of food and visiting three more times over the next few years to provide solar ovens and panels, laptops, and various cleanup efforts. “For many years, we merely talked about public policy, but in 2003, we decided to actually get involved hands-on, and work alongside communities to help lift them out of poverty.”
Despite such hopeful efforts, the sad reality remains that many global warming campaigners are here in Cancun proposing treaty provisions that would do nothing to affect the climate. But they would callously trap millions of families, like the one we visited today, in perpetual energy poverty.