Lessons from Language: CFS41 in Hindsight

by Khristian Méndez //

Two weeks ago, Chairperson Gerda Verburg was wrapping up CFS41 in a room that had perhaps a third of the people who were there on opening day. An exhausting experience, this plenary session of the CFS planted several ideas in me about language. If you like numbers, ghosts, or interpretation, keep reading.

Numerical Language

Days of negotiations: 8. 

Average number of hours of sleep every night: 5.2

Average hours spent inside the FAO building daily: 12.4

Average cups of cappuccino’s (yum!) per day: 6.4

Full-hours spent negotiating decision boxes at CFS: 19 (over the course of the week)

Number of members in our Food Losses and Waste civil society team: 10 ± 2

Total hours spent commuting between Trastevere and FAO: 8.
Now, don’t get me wrong. My experience was hardly the most intense anyone had at the CFS this week, and plenty of other UN intergovernmental meetings (such as the Convention on Biological Diversity which was taking place that same week) are circuses with many more rings than the CFS. Personally, this was the first time I was keeping close track of my numbers during the week. They spell out a detailed lesson on human endurance and the taxing nature of engaging at the UN.
Ghost language
Completely unrelated to Halloween. This is diluted, meaning-twisting language that is agreed upon by everyone at the table which comes back to haunt you elsewhere. And you are powerless as it comes to you.
During the Food Losses and Waste negotiations, one of the key positions of civil society was that member states recognize Agroecology as a method of production that reduces waste. This is a core position for the Civil Society Mechanism and was also part of parallel CFS negotiations. A diluted version of this language was included in the responsible agricultural investment (rai) negotiations. which also wrapped up at this session of the CFS. The final sentence from rai, nested under Principle 6 on conservation of natural resources, reads:
"vi) Integrating traditional and scientific knowledge with best practices and technologies through different approaches, including agro-ecological approaches and sustainable intensification, among others."
For those of you who are not familiar with sustainable intensification, it is a completely opposite approach to food production and agro-ecosystems, essentially trying to make production systems more efficient, without applying ecological principles, and including a higher use of conventional agricultural methods. Therefore, even though the word “agro-ecological” is there, it is not written in a way that responds to the needs of the thousands of people represented at the CSM (and those most vulnerable to hunger.) Further, it is placed along with a type of solution that will perpetuate (or worsen) the problems we are trying to correct.
This sentence was brought by the US delegation to the Food Loss and Waste negotiations, and it was swiftly supported by several other US-friendly governments in the room. And the ghost of the language that undermines our work came back to haunt us. The question is, as was raised by a fellow Civil Society member in our final debrief, how much will governments continue to lower the bar? And does that mean we are losing battles that will trap us into worse and worse language every year? Happy halloween.
Many languages
This CFS had a parallel decision box negotiation on Fisheries and Aquaculture. Fisheries is a complicated political subject that is dealt with in other UN fora (such as the FAO Committee on Fisheries) but that had not been addressed at the CFS. As noted by several actors at the CFS, food politics often tend to be centered around land-based farm-based agriculture, and don’t always acknowledge the role that fishers, pastoralists and foresters have to play in food systems. This may be an explanation for why we have mostly people who are farm-based or land-based political actors at the CSM itself.
This meant that the delegation working on fisheries was not only limited in number, but also in capacity. Two out of the total three members of the Civil Society working group on fisheries do not speak English (in theory they shouldn’t have to since Spanish is one of the six official UN languages) As the long negotiations chipped away everyone’s energy and patience late at night in an almost empty FAO building, there are no interpreters echoing the words of negotiators. No spanish, french, arabic, russian or chinese is whispered to your ear. So if you don’t speak English or don’t have an interpreter, you’re in trouble.
The CSM volunteered their own interpreter for the fisheries negotiations, but the chair did not accept it after a certain point, and other governments (such as Egypt) complained that they should have translation too. I wonder what governments from countries like Armenia or Thailand thought, given that they never have translation into their native languages.
I have no answer for this dilemma. All I know, for now, is that it makes the negotiations expensive, and the process long. Maybe it is a symptom of other things that are wrong with the way we address negotiations at the UN, and the importance we tribute to verbal language over other forms of language. Imagine if more people danced at the UN when trying to resolve disputes.
This incident with translation and interpretation was not the only rock in the shoe for this CFS. On Friday at 3pm, as governments had gathered to endorse the finalized documents, the Group of Latin American countries refused to do so, in light that their negotiators couldn’t read a document that was only produced in English. Gerda Verburg responded with a simple proposition. Since the translations would only be ready by 8pm that night, she adjourned the meeting, and ask that we all reconvene at that time to endorse the final documents.
The work is cut out for us, until the next time we meet in Rome.

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