African Voices Must Be Heard Loudest In Fight Against Climate Change
Most of the time, an activist isn’t born with the cause they will go on to devote their lives to imprinted on their heart.
Sometimes their passion and energy will spring from a growing awareness of the ways in which their surroundings have been impacted by huge and frightening forces.
This was certainly the case for Vanessa Nakate from Uganda. One of the most prominent young climate activists on the planet, Vanessa is the founder of Rise Up, a movement working to amplify environmental activist voices throughout the continent of Africa.
Vanessa began her fight for climate justice alone, staging a solitary protest outside Uganda’s Parliament against climate inaction and worryingly high temperatures. But she wasn’t alone for long.
Founding both the Youth for Future Africa and the Rise Up movement, Vanessa also helped to spread crucial awareness about the devastating impacts of deforestation of the Congo rainforest.
A dynamic force for change, the 23-year-old campaigner has inspired people across the planet, representing her movement at both the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference and the World Economic Forum.
However, like many influential leaders before her, it took a deeper understanding of the cold realities of an issue to spark her into serious action.
Like far too many of us, Vanessa grew up believing climate change was something that would ‘come in the future’, meaning she didn’t have to worry about it too much. She was aware of climate-focused protests taking place in Uganda, but didn’t immediately pay much attention.
But in late 2018, the business administration graduate realised climate change wasn’t something which could be neatly passed on for future generations to deal with. The dire consequences were already plain to see throughout her country.
Often referred to as ‘the pearl of Africa’, Uganda is a country teeming with breathtaking natural beauty, home to iconic locations such as Lake Victoria and the gorgeous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Sadly, Uganda is also extremely vulnerable to the horrors of climate change, particularly in areas such as the cattle corridor, which is characterised by erratic rains and flooding as well as frequent and prolonged droughts.
According to figures from USAID, rising temperatures and increasingly variable rainfall in Uganda will have profound effects for public health and welfare in the near future; increasing floods and landslides and exacerbating diseases such as malaria, plague and yellow fever. This will inevitably lead to poorer socio-economic conditions and hampered sustainable development.
Upon realising the world was ‘looking climate change in the face’, Vanessa began reading up on the subject, horrified by how rising temperatures were already inflicting human suffering upon Uganda and the entire continent of Africa as a whole, that is so reliant on agriculture.
Vanessa told UNILAD:
When these climate disasters happen, like droughts or floods as a result of the extreme weather conditions, it really affects agricultural production in various countries.
This is threatening the availability of food in Africa, and the availability of clean water. Because of these disasters, many are pushed to extreme poverty, and only the privileged can have access to food and to clean water.
Africa is particularly vulnerable to the brutal effects of climate change, according to the UN Environment Programme.
As per a recent report from Care International, approximately 2.3 million people in Zambia urgently require food assistance, with recurring and prolonged droughts having had a severe knock-on effect for food security.
The hardest-hit area in Africa is widely regarded to be the Sahel region, which is experiencing escalating population growth (estimated at 2.8% annually) while suffering the effects of diminishing natural resources, including the degradation of land and water sources.
As a result, the Sahel – which is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture – has seen ongoing humanitarian problems exacerbated by food security threats, with conflict, violence and widespread displacement all on the rise.
Meanwhile, citizens in East African countries are currently battling with swarms of desert locusts, with Kenya having to contend with its worst locust outbreak in 70 years. These locusts pose an ‘extremely alarming threat‘ to food security and human health.
Vanessa told UNILAD:
According to what I’ve read and what’s been explained, these locusts breed more in warmer temperatures and heavy rainfall, and we all know it rained that way in East Africa at the end of 2019.
We strongly believe these locusts are as a result of these rains, with climate change being the cause. These locusts are causing lots of destruction, eating up and destroying crops across Kenya. This is threatening the availability of food, and many people are scared of a food crisis.
Although Africa is bearing the brunt of climate change, this continent produces just 2-3% of the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions from industrial and energy sources, according to the UN.
Indeed, as per recent findings by OXFAM, the average Brit will have emitted more carbon dioxide in the first two weeks of 2020 than a citizen of seven African nations will within the space of an entire year.
Furthermore, researchers found the average person in the UK will take just five days to emit the same amount of carbon as a person in Rwanda will throughout the course of a year.
Climate change activists on the global stage generally come from the very same Western countries holding the most responsibility for choking and polluting our beautiful planet. Their voices dominate the conversation, while others are left notably on the outskirts, marginalised and ignored.
With this in mind, in 2019 Vanessa kickstarted the Rise Up Movement, a climate change-focused movement formed in the hopes of ‘amplifying’ African voices while recommending activists deserving of a greater platform.
Vanessa told UNILAD how the movement has since grown and spread throughout nations:
I realised there are quite a number of climate activists in Africa who deserved a voice, who deserved a platform, who have stories to tell.
I think the movement is really growing, by the fact that it’s in 10 African countries, and hopefully the people I’m working with right now in these 10 African countries can have an opportunity to tell their story.
In January 2020, Vanessa experienced, on a very personal level, the devastating feeling of having her voice, her cause and her country excluded from the global environmental conversation.
While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Vanessa took part in a group photo op with fellow environmental campaigners Greta Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson.
However, Vanessa – the only non-white activist within the group – was cropped out of the photograph entirely by media agency AP. The original reason given was because of a distracting building in the background, just behind Vanessa’s head.
Such a dismaying incident would have hurt even the most experienced of activists, and yet Vanessa – who has been campaigning for just ‘around 57 weeks’ – has become ‘more determined than ever’:
It’s something that we realise as activists from the global South, and the media was so biased about the kind of things they report when it comes to climate change. And we had clearly seen the ongoing erasure of the voices of people of colour in the climate movement.
But what I can say is that this experience has made me a stronger person, a stronger activist, and it has given me a platform and an audience to help amplify climate activists across Africa and to give them a voice as well.
It has made me more determined than ever to push for change, because everybody needs to know that in Africa there are people who are fighting for a better future for everyone.
Speaking about what she hopes to seen from the climate justice movement going forward, Vanessa told UNILAD:
The changes I would want to see is seeing everyone involved, regardless of who they are, where they come from.
We would love to see everyone join the climate movement because it matters to all of us; climate change has no friend, and it can choose anyone as a victim.
So it’s important for all of us to demand for the climate action that we need because it rightfully belongs to us. Governments need to listen to climate activists. Governments need to take decisions that will help us with the planet.
Governments need to try as much as possible to cut the CO2 emissions. We need to keep the temperatures from rising if we want to survive the wrath of climate change.
And, of course, African activists need to be given a voice, and African countries deserve be fully represented on different platforms; platforms of speech, platforms of decision-making.
Because they really have a lot to say. They have solutions to give. They have stories to tell. And they deserve to be heard.
Like Vanessa, we all need to start connecting climate change to the realities we are seeing every single day, and we need to recognise how it has already crept insidiously into the everyday lives of ordinary human beings.
Most importantly, we need to open our eyes to the fact that Africa and the global South are being disproportionately hurt by our warming planet, and that the situation will only become more dire with inaction.
It isn’t enough to simply hear from campaigners from a small, often privileged section of the global community. A far wider range of perspectives will be needed if we are to have any hope for future generations.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]