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Agriculture & Farming, Carbon Farming, Regenerative Supply

Greening the way – welcome to the COP22!

[this article was written during the 1st week of the COP22 in Marrakesh in November 2016]

It’s 7pm – closing time at the COP, the hoovers are already whizzing around me, cleaning up the carpet floor inside the tents, as I’m enjoying a glass of Riesling that I gleaned from the stand of the Austrian chamber of commerce and taking some time to reflect on my impressions of this event. TGI has been invited by Regeneration International, a new partner organization, to join a side event of the international climate conference COP22 in Marrakesh, one year after the famous COP21 in Paris. Before I launch into a personal report from this global event: Is everyone clear on what COP stands for? Conference of Parties. Parties to what? To the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And why 22? Well, it’s the 22nd of their annual meetings. That already sets the scene quite nicely: since 1995, the member states try to agree on concrete measures to reduce or limit climate change. Reversing climate change, which is the ambitious goal of actors involved in global regeneration like TGI, has not been on their agenda until now, but as you will see – there is hope! And to introduce myself quickly: my name is Anselm Ibing, I’m a new consultant working with TGI – so new that the pdf of my business card only came through a day before I left to Marrakesh and I had no time to get them printed properly – well, I guess the TGI website written on neutral old cards of mine will have to do for now! My intentions for this mission to the COP22: explore the state of the international conversation on agriculture and soils with regard to climate change, look out for organisations TGI might want to partner with or join in order to raise the level of this conversation, identify and approach potential clients, and feel my way into how I would like to bring my unique gifts to this global conversation and how TGI could support me doing so.

How to imagine the COP22?

You might have seen some images on the news: rows of huge white tents covering a fallow just outside the old Medina of Marrakesh (surrounded by an even more larger parking lot). This fancy tent town is divided into two: the green and the blue zone. The latter is guarded by the UN blue helmets and is an extra-territorial zone, i.e. once you step in, you’re no longer on Moroccan soil (or dust in this case). This is where the official UNFCCC negotiations are happening, accessible only to delegations of countries and observer organizations. While TGI is not (yet?) a UN observer organization, we have quite a few friends inside, both from Regeneration International (who are part of the IFOAM delegation) and from the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). The green zone on the other hand, is open to the public and includes a tent with conference rooms, a restaurant tent and three large tents that are basically nothing other than a trade show. The actors presenting themselves in the green zone (both through stands and conferences/panel talks) are companies, trade organizations, geographic regions (e.g. of Morocco) and civil society actors (from the academic, research and NGO sectors mostly). And maybe you can imagine the show… everyone puts on their ‘sustainable dress’ and brings out the green paint. Although I have lost all faith in the word ‘sustainable’ years ago, there are still some wonderful surprises… some of the nuggets (related to agriculture) are posted on our Instagram channel. I imagine that the more interesting stands are in the blue zone tents, but the green zone can certainly keep you entertained for a day.

Insights from the blue zone

Having a good source of free alcohol in a Muslim country is always useful… tonight this helped me to attract one of our elders to come and share a glass of beer with me at the generous Austrian stand (that was before the Riesling, needless to say): Albert Bates, co-founder of GEN and The Farm in Tennessee. He had just spent 3 days in the blue zone this week and took a few minutes to share some of his insights. I was aware that he was part of a team that had been asked to design the Commonwealth countries’ strategy for the COP22 negotiations (read his great article on this epic assignment). During that meeting, the top representatives of the Commonwealth nations agreed that simply reducing emissions wasn’t enough – aiming for a level of CO2 in the atmosphere of way below 350ppm is what is needed! They also admitted that artificial carbon sequestration and storage or clean coal techniques were not working and they understood that the only way to really sequester carbon effectively is good old photosynthesis: trees, soils, compost, biomass, biochar etc. This falls into the mitigation category and Albert was telling me that the fight is on in the blue zone about funding for such endeavors. Apparently the G77 countries (the so-called developing world) presented earlier this week a plan for how to use the Green Climate Fund’s finance: 100% on adaptation, 0% on mitigation, by which they mean, according to Albert, moving cities threatened by rising sea levels and developing biotech “solutions” like drought-resistant corn varieties. The EU jumped in saying ‘wait a minute – last year in Paris we agreed on 50/50 for mitigation and adaptation!’ Negotiations began. The next day the G77 announced: ‘we’re not ready for a compromise – we want 100% funding on adaptation.’ Without having to say it, both Albert and I both thought of the economic interests that might be influencing the developing countries to hold that position… Negotiations are ongoing and we shall see what comes out of this.

Meet the big players

With regards to agriculture, there are two clear tendencies of the stands here in the green zone: very small and very big. Hmmm, does that remind anyone of real life in the agriculture sector? The small stands were mostly local Moroccan initiatives for sustainable rural development, women cooperatives, urban farming or start-up social enterprises etc. The largest two stands in the whole green zone are operated by two actors with nice, simple abbreviations: OCP and AAA. They are two separate stands, but not so separate as I found out. OCP stands for Office Chérifien des Phosphates – it is one of the world’s 10 largest fertilizer companies, and the world’s largest phosphate exporter, owned by… hmm, let’s just say private Moroccan interests. While the OCP has an elaborate and incredibly spacious stand, its name only appears quite small on the outside of the stand. If you miss it and you’re inside, you wonder where you are, who all this is about, because all you see is ‘green’! Sustainably increasing productivity, “climate-intelligent” agriculture, soil fertility, supporting small-holder farmers… you name it. Big screens, fake parquet flooring, funky wall illustrations of African soil data and alarming numbers of world population rise and the pressure to drastically increase food production (“reasonably” fertilized of course) – the old discourse.


Just opposite the OCP is the other mega-stand: AAA – the Initiative for an Adaptation of African Agriculture. I had been recommended to go see this stand by a friend, so I was curious – could this initiative be interested in really improving small-holder farmers’ livelihoods and ecosystem health? And could AAA fund a large-scale implantation of our “village hubs” in Africa? (The “village hub” is a concept developed by a coalition of 24 partners, led by TGI’s Mary Johnson. Read more about it here.) An even bigger and fancier stand than the OCP, the AAA initiative’s stand is divided into four sections:

  1. a lounge area with a reception desk and an information stand,

  2. an auditorium space for conferences,

  3. a zone for private meetings, with comfy couches and a snacks & drinks table – but alas, it’s guarded by a smiley security man who raises a hand and says “yes, can I help you?” if you approach,

  4. lastly, about half of the stand surface is dedicated to a tour through 4 rooms, a bit like in an amusement park.

I look at all that and immediately think: who is behind this? Who paid for all this? And without further ado I march to the reception desk and ask this very question. “Sorry, we are only working here during the COP22, we don’t really know.” Nevermind.I decide to do the “ghost train” tour to find out more. Of the four rooms, the first three have one thing in common: the only source of light comes from large screens and the rest of the room is painted black.

The future room – imagine the year 2040 and listen to all that AAA has achieved in the 20 past years since COP22, through the mouths of hologram characters in the middle of the dark room, surrounded by three man-sized screens allowing panoramic projections of beautiful agriculture landscape


The data room – dozens of screens of varying sizes and backlit panels, displaying photos, infographics and videos, selectable on touch screen tables, giving you the feeling that you’re operating a NASA space mission


The testimony room – again large screen walls, this time with talking heads – statements about the magnificent impact AAA will have on Africa by partners, members and associates of the initiative: ministers of many African countries, AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa), UN groups, IFDC (International Fertilizer Development Centre), Avril Group (French agro-industry giant) and many others.

The fourth room is white-walled, open and vast: the projects room – yet more screens and wall posters, showcasing a few dozen agricultural projects from all across Africa… development of high-yield seeds; making rain by shooting ions into the atmosphere; inoculating compost with micro-organisms “of agricultural interest” (GM biopesticides) etc. Hmm, I wonder: AAA was only created mid-2016. Whose projects are these? And again: who is AAA – who initiated this? I very naively ask a young man in a suit, who looks official. He also only works there for the COP, but he voluntarily shares an interesting piece of information: AAA was initiated by the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture at the demand of and with support from… guess who? The Office Chérifien des Phosphates – the OCP. This rather crucial information is not visible in any of the printed or online communication of AAA and certainly nowhere on the stand, unless you look out towards the neighboring stand and connect the dots.


For further information the honest young man points me to a lady holding a phone in one hand and a laptop in another – she actually works for AAA. She tells me that AAA is mostly going to be a platform connecting investors from agro-industry and other sectors with project leaders or entrepreneurs. The projects highlighted inside the stand are only examples of what some of the already affiliated future investors (Avril group for example) have recently invested in on the African continent, demonstrating the types of projects AAA imagines promoting. I verify the information about the OCP being the initiator of AAA with her and immediately her eyes light up in alarm: “No no” she said, looking uneasy, “it was started first by Morocco’s Minister of Agriculture, then supported by the OCP.” I thank her for that precision and wish her a good day. As I move on, I see her swiftly walking to the young man I had spoken with before. She does not look amused as she talks to him in a directive manner and just before I turn away, I see her pointing her finger at me. This young man had clearly been too honest and needed to be put in his place. A few random observations at the end:

  1. Because of all the high-level dignitaries present, the Marrakesh police has received massive reinforcements from all over the country – sometimes streets are practically lined with army or police and at least one well-dressed traffic policemen stands at every major junction.

  2. For the same reason it is not uncommon that a big road or a whole street block is closed off temporarily – then you either sit and wait for a quarter of an hour, watching the flagged, black limousines whizz past, or you do massive detours through residential areas or tiny streets of the Medina.

  3. There is a WiFi network in the green zone unabashedly called “FBI Surveillance”

  4. Apart from having received a brand new coat of paint, Marrakesh has also taken some precautions to reduce the culture shock for delegates: some grubby or run-down parts of town (especially between the airport and the COP zone) have simply been boarded off from the street, the boards displaying green dreams.