Interview Elizabeth Wathuti, Kenyan climate youth leader

‘There is a lack of empathy for vulnerable people and for the nature that gives life’

©UGent, Mirco Buyls

Elizabeth Wathuti during the Amnesty International Chair speech, Ghent, March 21, 2023

She is 27 and one of the global faces of the climate youth movement. Kenyan Elizabeth Wathuti is an outspoken global advocate for local climate solutions. ‘Transition should make people’s lives better.’ Defending nature and defending human rights are deeply interwoven, she believes. She received the Amnesty International Flanders Chair in Ghent this week.

Elizabeth Wathuti gave a speech at the opening session of the Glasgow Climate Summit (COP26) in 2021 that drew international attention. Instantly she became one of the recognisable faces of the global youth movement demanding urgent climate action. That she is being listened to is not a given for a girl who grew up in Kenya’s mountainous interior.

‘From the window of my primary school, I could see the Karima Hills in the distance, with their green flanks and the forest all around, which looked just as glorious as the forest I knew, near the village where I grew up. The landscape and trees impressed me as a small child, as did the fast-flowing river and the multitude of life in the forest.’

Elizabeth Wathuti has no problem tracing back the sources of her environmental and climate struggles. They lie in her childhood and in the blissful time nature and seasons gave her. ‘I was a child who realised I was part of all this impressive richness that nature all around meant.’

Women at the source

‘Caring for creation,’ says Wathuti, ‘may have come with my Christian upbringing.’ That is also why she usually prays or meditates in full nature. But even more important was the influence of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and who hailed from the same region as Elizabeth.

‘She also organised women’s groups in my community to protect both nature and their farms, because agriculture and nature conservation are closely intertwined,’ she said. Maathai taught the women of the villages that nurturing and caring for trees helped to keep the soil nourished and fertile — which also helped to keep agricultural yields stable.’

‘Wangari Maathai thaught us that agriculture and nature conservation are closely intertwined.’

And then there was Wathuti’s grandmother. She too ensured that little Elizabeth learned the value as well as the fragility of nature, and the importance of forest and trees for clean drinking water and nutritious food. In short, she learned that nature was not separate from her life, but needed to ensure a dignified life for herself, her children and grandchildren and the whole community. ‘I remember very well how I kept asking my grandmother how I could meet Professor Maathai, because I wanted to plant trees with her.’

Elizabeth Wathuti was seven when she planted her first tree. Wangari Maathai was not there and due to her untimely death, she never really met her great role model. But she does embody her. She has since become head of campaigning for the Wangari Maathai Foundation, and in 2016 she founded her own Green Generation Initiative. She was 21 at the time.

‘What can I do?’

Between that first little tree and the first movement, is the experience of secondary school. During that period, she had the chance to really go hiking in those Karima Hills. But Elizabeth returned not enraptured, but angered and bewildered. ‘I was expecting impressive trees and a canopy of green leaves, but immediately bumped into stumps and felled trees. I could not and would not understand why someone would cut down such beautiful trees,’ she says, with some remnants of shock still in her voice. ‘My anger at the dead trees later became outrage at the damage to the forest, even later came the realisation that an entire ecosystem was being destroyed, and finally the realisation that in this way we are making the climate and thus life on earth itself impossible.’

‘It gives hope and courage, to see that even the efforts of teenagers at a school are bearing fruit years later.’

Even before the anger at the destruction of the beautiful forest had faded, the question arose: ‘What can I do about this?’ That response typifies Elizabeth Wathuti. She took her question to her geography teacher and pleaded for the reactivation of the environmental club at school. Until then, that was the least active club, especially compared to sports clubs or drama clubs.

‘The school responded very positively to that and provided a large piece of land where we could plant trees and shrubs. Today that is a big park at that secondary school, where students find shade during hot afternoons to read or work. That gives hope and courage, to see that even the efforts of teenagers at a school are bearing fruit years later.’

The need for equitable transition

An important question, of course, is: who cut down those beautiful trees from Elizabeth Wathuti’s memory forest? Was it a timber company, was it corrupt politicians, or was it local villagers. ‘It was people,’ Wathuti replies. ‘In the end, it is always people who destroy nature. In this case, they turned out to be poor villagers, looking for fuel to cook.’ Meanwhile, Wathuti knows those people have no alternatives. They are not connected to the electricity grid, they do not have the means to buy gas or other stoves, and so they have to fall back on the precious forest to survive.

‘By the way, that example has taught me to be very careful in my activism now when talking about the much-needed energy transition. For that is not merely a matter of technology or CO2 emissions, it is ultimately about how we improve and ensure the dignity of those people. How do we ensure that the transition will be a just transition?’

That transition and climate action are urgent at all possible levels, Elizabeth Wathuti has no doubt about that. Even in Africa, even if the continent has so far hardly contributed to the problem that is becoming increasingly tangible — especially in Africa.

‘My grandmother and my parents could plan their agricultural work because the climate was stable and the weather predictable. Two weeks before the rains came, the fields were prepared. Then the maize could grow and the harvest was brought in. That harvest was often so plentiful that just about every farm had a shed to store the surplus. Little of that remains today. The rains are not coming, or they are too late or too abundant. The harvest is meagre and barns have disappeared almost everywhere. Seeing this change in my young life and with my own eyes has also made me realise that the problem is bigger than the trees or the forest. The real elephant in the room is climate change and how to tackle it.’

©UGent, Mirco Buyls

 

Green solutions should make life better

What can I do? What can we do? What solutions are there? These are the questions that always recur in the stories Elizabeth Wathuti tells. When nature is sacrificed for the energy needs of local communities, she looks for ways to produce biogas within those same communities to meet the energy demand with an alternative that is good for both people and nature. ‘The central question today is: what does it take to encourage local communities to become preservers of nature, rather than destroyers? And the answer is always in part that alternatives need to provide more and better income.’

‘Climate and environmental policy is almost always a matter of collective action.’

It’s not that Wathuti feels she has to figure out the solutions and explain them to local communities. ‘People are incredibly resilient and communities are resilient, even in the face of big problems like climate change. They take initiatives, they work on solutions.  But in doing so, they deserve support and incentives.’

Then the question, of course, is: does the government provide that much-needed support for local action, and does it sufficiently assumes its own responsibility? To that first question, Elizabeth Wathuti answers positively: ‘In Kenya, the new government recently announced a plan to plant 15 billion trees. That can only happen if the broad population is convinced, mobilised and involved.’ Climate and environmental policy is almost always a matter of collective action, otherwise you won’t get an impact, says Wathuti.

Every tree counts, especially in the city

That vision also drives Wathuti now that she has become one of the global voices in the climate debate. ‘Are we listening to grassroots stories?’ she wonders. ‘The whole struggle is ultimately about improving their lives and giving them a future. Then they should really be given a voice in the debate.’

For her, the “grassroots” that is the touchstone in any climate or environmental measure is often the village or rural community. Yet she increasingly sees interest among the growing urban population, of which she has since become a part herself. Her studies in environmental science and community development took her to Nairobi, a metropolis of nearly 3.5 million people. ‘There I learnt the importance of green spaces in the city, and of fighting all kinds of pollution,’ says Wathuti.

‘Live close to trees, then you can also learn to understand them.’

In no time, Elizabeth Wathuti is back on familiar ground, because even in the city, she says, ‘we have to fight to protect trees.’ For city planners, trees often get in the way, of a new building or a street to be built. It is important that they too learn to see trees as an asset and as part of the local community. We have already managed to protect quite a few trees, often because they are fig trees. These traditionally have a status of sacred inviolability and we can invoke this in cities as well. After all, such a fig tree stands for much more than shade and biodiversity, it also stands for culture and history. Every tree counts!’

I tell Wathuti about a recent survey in Flanders that showed everyone likes trees, as long as they are not in front of the door or in the neighbour’s garden. Because people increasingly have a problem handling falling leaves or flying blossoms. ‘High time to stop seeing trees as a thing, and instead treat them as the pillars of our survival system,’ is the message she has for leaf-blowing Belgians. Plus: ‘Learn to love trees, then you can learn from them too. Live close to trees, then you can also learn to understand them.’

The pain for a marked tree

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‘It is often said that small actions get big consequences when a lot of people do them. However, this does not only apply to what we do to save the planet, it also applies to the damage we do. When very many people cut down a tree, a large forest disappears, which we need to combat climate change.’ So it really and deeply affects her, she says, every time she sees trees in a forest or along a street marked to be felled. ‘It hurts me, because it is life that is disappearing. Because the basis of our own, human life then disappears.’

Wathuti adds a quote from American-Canadian filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, an Abenaki native: ‘When the last tree is felled, the last fish is eaten and the last water is poisoned, only then will we realise that you cannot eat money.’ Wathuti: ‘We need clean air to live, but we keep defiling it. We need nature to live, and yet we continue to take without giving back, pushing the entire system that sustains us to a breaking point that threatens us and the entire animal and plant kingdom.’ We are digging our own grave, but we don’t see it, she adds.

A new generation of leaders

To avert the whole demise of humanity and planet, she founded the Green Generation Initiative. Does she feel that her generation is truly green, or did she choose that name because she is convinced that her generation must be green, if it is to have a future? Wathuti: ‘Right now, there is a lack of ecological awareness. Even people who recognise the challenges often choose to do nothing. I wanted to stand up to that. Offer an attitude focused on solutions. What can I contribute? And by extension, what can we, young people, contribute?’

‘This generation has already become today’s leaders through actions and everything we do’

Her generation, she says, shows that real leadership is in taking responsibility rather than pursuing power or titles or high positions. The main question is: how do you use power or position to really do something about the problems you see? And young people are taking up that responsibility, she is convinced. ‘This generation can no longer be described as the leaders of tomorrow. Through actions and everything we do, young people have already become today’s leaders. We are showing that it is possible to do something today about tomorrow’s problems. We need to, because there is no time to wait until we can take real positions of power.’

That sounds very assertive, and it is certainly justified. But doesn’t she fear that her generation is already past its prime by now? In 2019, climate youth were front-page news everywhere, setting the agenda, worldwide. Little of that seems to remain after the covid crisis. Wathuti does not quite agree. ‘The climate youth are still being heard and they are still putting pressure on the more formal negotiations on global climate policy. That those actions are less visible today, especially outside Europe, also has to do with youth safety. In Europe it is not a problem to take to the streets en masse, for example, but that is much less the case in many African countries.’

Moreover, she stresses again, it is not just about demonstrations, it is mainly about solutions at the local level, for real communities. That is where the priority lies, not on the streets or in the media.

©UGent, Mirco Buyls

 

Empathy is what we need

The real challenge, she adds, is to make the connection between that local action and international policy. ‘People provide better drinking water supplies in their own communities, but what do those in positions of power do to ensure the well-being of those same people?’ Wathuti constantly insists on this: ‘What stops people in positions of power from making the right choices? They have everything they need to make a difference — power, money, resources — and yet they don’t. How can that be?’

Elsewhere, she answered that pressing question: ‘The world prefers profit over people and planet.’ To do something about that, real systemic change is needed. How to do that, she does not have all the answers, she responds. But she does think she knows the root of that evil: ‘The world lacks empathy. We lack a deep compassion for both other people and the whole environment in which we exist and of which we are a part. This leads to selfish and therefore destructive behaviour. More empathy, more honesty and more accountability: these are crucial choices that can lead to the systemic change we need.’

Tackle perpetrators, not victims

Elizabeth Wathuti connects that ethical statement in the same breath with a very concrete example. ‘At the COP in Egypt, we fought for a loss&damage fund, which would allow countries that have contributed little to climate change but are severely affected by it to get resources to repair the damage and better prepare for all that is to come. The fact that it was still so difficult to get this principle recognised shows the lack of honesty from world leaders. They know the reality, but they refuse to acknowledge it.’ Moreover, she knows that the climate finance that is available, often does not end up where she wants to see it prioritised: with local communities.

‘World leaders know the reality, but they refuse to acknowledge it.’

‘To use scarce resources effectively,’ says Wathuti, ‘the international financial system needs to be reformed and rethought. What we need is an approach that starts from the needs and capabilities of local communities. That means making it easier to find and obtain those resources, because every additional bureaucratic requirement creates an additional barrier.’ That is, she clarifies, ‘if we are truly concerned about what climate change is doing to the most vulnerable people, then we need to turn the financial system upside down.’

‘Climate change is also causing more and more “natural disasters” like devastating hurricanes and prolonged droughts. For many countries in the Global South, the bill for these is becoming unaffordable, pushing them into deeper and deeper debt. It is high time the international community put a stop to this. Especially since, again, the victims are those who have least contributed to creating the problem. Tackle the perpetrators, instead of making the victims pay.’

The right to life

This too is a human rights issue, says Wathuti. But that link is broader: ‘You cannot realise human rights in a world from which life disappears. And vice versa: any action to preserve nature is essentially a human rights action, because it assures people of the right to sufficient and healthy food, the right to a clean and healthy environment, the right to health, the right to dignified housing, …’

And for this very reason, she stresses, the time to act is now. The knowledge exists, the solutions exist, now we need to do what it takes to nurture life, restore nature, realise human rights.

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