Youth activists face threats on the frontline of climate change

Eléonore Hughes - Agence France-Presse
Youth activists face threats on the frontline of climate change
In this Sept. 25, 2020 file photo, climate and environmental activists hold a climate strike in the University of the Philippines.
AC Dimatatac, file

PARIS, France -- Just weeks after security forces allegedly killed her friend and fellow human rights defender Melvin Dasigao and eight other campaigners, Filipina activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan was back on the streets protesting. 

"Stop funding our destruction," the 23-year-old shouted outside British bank Standard Chartered at a demonstration in Manila last month against the financing of coal plants.

As critical UN climate negotiations loom, young activists from countries already feeling the impact of the accelerating destruction of nature are rising above the challenges of living in remote areas -- and even threats to their lives -- to sound the alarm.

Organizing protests can lead to violent reprisal, jail or even death in poorer and less industrialized countries, known as the global south, where protection of individual rights can be weak. 

At least 212 environmental campaigners worldwide were murdered in 2019, making that year the deadliest on record for such activists, watchdog group Global Witness said in a July report.

Galvanized from their experiences on the frontline of climate change, however, young environmental campaigners refuse to be intimidated.

"I'm willing to take this risk because it's the planet that we're living on that we are fighting for. Worst things could happen," Tan, a full-time activist, told AFP in an interview by video conference.

The Philippines is the second most dangerous country in the world for defenders after Colombia, Global Witness said in its yearly report. 

The United Nations said it was "appalled" by the apparent arbitrary killing of the nine activists in the Philippines on March 7, in raids targeting alleged communist insurgents.

"I would be lying if I said I was a completely brave and fearless activist all the time," Tan admitted. 

But fears for her future in a country already battered by typhoons made more powerful by rising seas fuel her determination. 

When deadly Typhoon Vamco smashed through the Philippines in November, the streets of Marikina City where Tan lives were severely flooded.

Melting glaciers 

The 2015 Paris climate treaty, signed by virtually all the world's nations, calls for capping global warming at "well below" two degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels.

Since then, the world has seen its five hottest years on record.

Bolivia, the home of 18-year-old activist Michel Villarreal, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of rising temperatures.

The Andean country is struggling to cope with an increase in forest fires, river floods and melting glaciers that create water shortages, Oxfam said in a report in December.

Yet, says Villarreal, climate activists are equated with troublemakers.

When she and her friends hung carefully-crafted placards in trees in La Paz during a march for World Children's Day in November, police ripped them up and accused them of vandalism. 

"It was really sad. We just wanted people to see them and realise the situation we are living in," the first-year law student told AFP by WhatsApp.

"We don't succeed in having an impact because we are always stopped and threatened," she added.

While low-emitting countries contribute the least to climate change, they tend to be the hardest-hit by the consequences.

Kenya is responsible for less than 0.1 percent of global C02 emissions, according to tracking website Worldometer based partly on European Commission data. 

But it suffers from locust invasions that destroy crops and irregular rainfall sparking floods and droughts.

Such disasters can cause hunger given that many farmers are weather-dependent.  

When unusually heavy rain fell in Kenya's western Baringo region in June 2019, activist Kevin Mtai says a part of his grandmother's house as well as her cows and chickens were swept away.

Keenly aware of his country's vulnerability to climate change, Mtai traveled 15 hours by bus from his village, Soy, to join protests in Nairobi and Mombasa last month.

'I went into hiding'

In July, Mtai was part of a campaign to stop a hotel being built on Nairobi's National Park that activists said would endanger local wildlife. 

After a top official called the campaigners "noisemakers" on television -- since seen in a video recording by AFP -- Mtai and a fellow activist received threats. 

"I went into hiding because I did not want people to find me. Here in Kenya you can be killed and disappear," the 25-year-old told AFP via WhatsApp.

Human Rights Watch said in its 2020 world report that the lack of accountability for serious human rights violations remained "a major concern" in Kenya.

However, intimidation has not diminished Mtai's activism.

As well as helping to shed light on plastic waste exportation to Kenya as part of the "Africa is not a dumpster" campaign, Mtai is working on a documentary on the issue.

He is also launching a gardening project to teach children in remote areas of Kenya how to plant vegetables sustainably. 

In November, nations are expected to ramp up plans to combat global warming at the UN climate summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow, the COP26.

It was pushed back from last year due to the pandemic. 

The coronavirus crisis has also often made it difficult for young activists to carry out events.

In the Philippines, Tan has co-organized a week-long camp for indigenous leaders and students to exchange knowledge and experiences of climate change. 

But with Covid-19 cases rising, the get-together planned for the end of this month is likely to be canceled.

"We're still trying to figure out how to have some form of onground strikes," Tan told AFP, adding she believed that health guidelines had sometimes been used to prevent protests. 

The uneven rollout of vaccine campaigns across the world also risks preventing activists in low-income countries from attending the Glasgow summit.

'Last chance'

Greta Thunberg -- who inspired millions with her school strikes for the climate -- has said she will not attend unless a fairer vaccine rollout ensures countries can participate on even terms. 

"For someone of my age and social status living in Nigeria, I don't think I have any hope of getting vaccinated anytime soon," activist Kelo Uchendu told AFP in a Zoom interview.

Uchendu said that being a part of global summits or school strikes was invigorating as kickstarting a climate movement in Nigeria was difficult.

"People believe it is a problem for the global north, they believe we have other problems like corruption that need more attention than climate change," said the 25-year-old, who lives in the southern city of Enugu.

But as a top oil producer and Africa's largest economy, Uchendu said Nigeria had a crucial role to play in battling the destruction of nature.

To raise awareness, the engineering student organises essay competitions and hackathons on climate change at his university.

And to engage older people, Uchendu helped set up the Nigeria branch of Parents For Future which promotes intergenerational solidarity within the climate strike movement. 

Looking ahead to the UN talks, Bolivian activist Villarreal says global leaders have a historic opportunity to embrace a sustainable way of life in their economic recovery plans following the health crisis. 

Piling pressure on leaders with other youth activists is her number one priority, she says, because Glasgow is "our last chance". 

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