DURBAN: 081111 Waste pickers protesting at the COP 17 outside the ICC. PICTURE: GCINA NDWALANE

Leanne Jansen

An NGO which was prohibited from displaying placards that had not been pre-approved on the sidelines of the COP17 talks believe that their right to freedom of speech has been infringed.

UN security officers yesterday told members of the Global Alliance of Wastepickers, who wanted to hold a peaceful demonstration within the International Convention Centre precinct, that they were not allowed to hold aloft or disseminate any material because the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat had not given the demonstration the green light.

Nevertheless, they held their demonstration within a small square cordoned-off area, with some defiantly displaying posters.

The wastepickers, who say their livelihoods are being threatened, are calling for their working conditions to be improved, for Green Climate Fund resources to be channelled directly to them, and for them to be recognised as the “backbone” of the recycling industry.

The NGO said wastepickers would make more money if the “middle-men” were cut out.

It said wastepickers struggled to make ends meet because they sold the material they collected at ridiculously low prices to middle-men who then made a fortune.

Wastepickers mainly sell plastics, aluminium, paper and metals.

South Africa had many wastepickers, but only 30 000 were organised, said Mariel Villella, a climate policy campaigner who represented the NGO.

Villella said that, although they had signed a code of conduct when obtaining accreditation, it seemed the secretariat was not supportive of grassroots civil society voices and wanted to “limit and isolate” them. Villella said the NGO had not yet decided whether to take the matter further.

An American radio journalist who attempted to record the argument between representatives of the NGO and the security official was told he was not allowed to do so.

“I told him that in my country, if the police ordered me not to record something in public, they’d be violating the first amendment,” Brian Edwards-Tiekert told The Mercury. He said the security official had told him: “This is not a public space, this is the UN.”

The journalist said he understood that the UNFCCC had to set rules to maintain order, but said it was unreasonable for the secretariat to insist on pre-approving materials such as banners.

Elston Seppie, the director of the Freedom of Expression Institute, said it was “shameful” to prohibit the wastepickers from showing their messages on protest material. “It undermines the spirit of our country”, Seppie said.

Asked about the incident with the foreign journalist, Seppie said his treatment had been “completely out of order”.

The secretariat was unable to comment at the time of going to print.