Stella Gama: Malawi’s only female on climate change negotiations

Women must be at the table when climate change issues come to the table.

This is the view of the director of forestry Stella Gama, the country’s only active female negotiator in the global climate change talks held every December.

“Women bear the brunt of extreme climate-related weather shocks, but they lack the economic muscle and voice men have,” she said in an interview at the United Nations (UN) climate conference in Madrid, Spain, last month.

Thanks to her passion for science, she is the rapporteur for COP’s subsidiary body for scientific and technological advice and vice-chairperson of the Technology Executive Committee.

She is also the least developed countries (LCDs) lead coordinator for gender, technology and facilitates subsidiary agenda items as co-chair.

“I believe in equal opportunities for both men and women, but climate negotiations remain a male-dominated field. We need more female voices at the negotiating table and in leadership roles,” says the former teacher.

State business

Since 2014, Gama has been working closely with long-time negotiator Evans Njewa and Care International’s Vitumbiko Chinoko to make Malawi’s voice count in the annual conference of parties (CoP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

In the Spanish capital, the trio carried the hopes of the nation which requires K375 billion to recover from the devastation caused by flooding last year.

“Climate change has become the most catastrophic tragedy of our time as it claims innocent lives, frustrates national economies and inflicts suffering on many people everywhere,” said President Peter Mutharika during the opening of CoP25.

He asked wealth nations—the largest emitters of gasses that fuel climate change—to invest more in helping the LCDs withstand and tackle the climate emergency.

This was the position of Malawi as an ally of the African and LCDs groups.

The pay-as-you-emit policy was a sticky issue in Madrid, with no consensus reached.

The topic was postponed from COP24 in Katowice, Poland and this time, it was further pushed to Glasgow, Scotland, in December.

Throughout the crunch talks, the negotiators insist on the good of their countries and the shared planet.

For the LCDs voices, this is not easy. In the negotiations’ halls, they are few and far apart while developed countries deploy busloads of experts taking turns day and night.

Gama states: “As negotiators, we advance the interests of our countries and like-minded groups depending on the agenda.

“So, we have to be patient, resilient and committed. We have to be in the room and awake during discussions. If you move out or doze off, your country’s agenda suffers.”

The UN conference entails several negotiations—on adaptation, mitigation, finance, technology development and capacity building— happening concurrently.

They discuss climate issues throughout, with constant reviews.

However, Gama—who obtained Bachelor of Science, majoring in Biology and Home Economics, from the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College—belongs to the technology development and transfer stream as well as gender and climate change.

In 2018, Gama was named the director of the Department of Forestry, up from the regional forestry officer in the centre.

She joined the department as an officer in 1997, ending a half-decade teaching career which took her to Mchinji, Phalombe, Masongola and Chipasula secondary schools.

Giving a hand up

Her first encounter with climate change negotiations was CoP17 in Durban in 2011. She represented Malawi during the creation of Redd+, a global forest restoration initiative to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

She first worked as a climate change negotiator in 2014 at CoP20 in Lima, Peru, where she tirelessly led the LDC Group negotiating the first ever Lima work programme on gender.

She says the journey has been thrilling as well as draining.

Every year, she dedicates at least three weeks to the conference so far hosted by only three African countries—Kenya, South Africa and Morocco. She sounds unfazed by those who think climate change is a hoax.

She reckons Malawians looking for evidence need not gaze further than science and experience as weather shocks associated with climate variability have become more devastating and frequent lately.

But what does it take for one to become a climate change negotiator in the halls of heated debates?

“It takes a personal interest, the support from the country focal point and the rest of the team; knowledge of the agenda and burning issues you follow,” she says.

Gama underwent an online training offered by the UN Institute for Training and Research (Unitar) in Geneva, Switzerland.

She represents LCDs’ special circumstances and needs which poor countries feel are not getting adequate attention and funding.

The SBSTA rapporteur who is also one of the champions of Women Leaders in the Climate Change Action mentors emerging female voices in the Green Women Leaders movement in the UNFCCC process.

During a side-event at COP25, she asked young women to always support each other to become effective and impactful.

“We need to give each other a hand up to inspire future leaders and climate negotiators. If we speak with one strong voice, our demands carry weight,” she says.

Looking forward, the mother-of-two is excited with new negotiators embracing climate change negotiations.

They include deputy director of energy affairs Joseph Kalowekamo, deputy director of environmental affairs Shamiso Najira and junior climate change negotiator Yamikani Idriss.

Wordplay

The negotiations involve lengthy debates and parties sometimes spend days discussing terms as mundane as ‘will’ and ‘shall’.

In Poland, they spent days debating whether ‘to welcome’ or ‘just take note of’ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPC) scientific findings that global warming of over 1.5 degrees celsius will be catastrophic for the planet, especially sub-Saharan Africa.

In Madrid, the longest CoP since UNFCCC took effect failed to resolve sticky issues carried forward from Poland.

“Words have different meanings, weight and legal implications, so the parties always select their words carefully,” she explains.

When the talks are over, Gama heads home to reunite with her family and clear the in-tray in time for Christmas.

She was once a child, a pupil at Mpemba and Dharap primary schools, from where she was selected to Chichiri Secondary School in Blantyre. She made it to Chanco from Ludzi Secondary School in Mchinji.

“As a negotiator,” the country’s forester-in-chief says: “At the end, what makes me happy is to see Malawi’s voice incorporated in the global agenda and the decisions influencing policy change and action to make life better for Malawians hit hard by climate change,” she explains.

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