Just weeks after security forces reportedly killed her friend and fellow human rights defender Melvin Dasigao and eight other activists, Filipino activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan was back in the streets to protest.
“Stop funding our destruction,” the 23-year-old shouted outside British bank Standard Chartered during a protest in Manila last month against funding for coal-fired power plants.
As critical UN climate talks loom, young activists from countries already feeling the impact of accelerating nature destruction are overtaking the challenges of living in remote areas – and even the threats to their lives. – to sound the alarm.
Organizing protests can lead to violent reprisals, imprisonment or even death in the poorest and least industrialized countries known as the south of the world, where the protection of individual rights may be weak.
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At least 212 environmental activists around the world were assassinated in 2019, making it the deadliest year on record for such activists, watchdog group Global Witness said in a July report.
With their experiences on the front lines of climate change, the young environmental activists, however, refuse to be intimidated.
“I’m willing to take this risk because this is the planet we live on and fight for. The worst things could happen,” said Tan, a full-time activist. AFP in a videoconference interview.
The Philippines is the second most dangerous country in the world for defenders after Colombia, Global Witness said in its annual report.
The United Nations has said it is “appalled” by the apparent arbitrary murder of nine militants in the Philippines on March 7, in raids targeting suspected 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 his future in a country already battered by typhoons and made more powerful by rising seas fuel his resolve.
When deadly Typhoon Vamco crushed the Philippines in November, the streets of Marikina City, where Tan lives, were severely flooded.
The 2015 Paris Climate Treaty, signed by virtually every nation in the world, calls for capping global warming at “well below” two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Since then, the world has had its hottest five years on record.
Bolivia, home of activist Michel Villarreal, 18, is particularly vulnerable to the impact of rising temperatures.
The Andean country is struggling to cope with an increase in forest fires, river flooding and melting glaciers that are creating 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 signs in trees in La Paz during a World Children’s Day march in November, police tore them up and charged them with vandalism.
“It was really sad. We just wanted people to see them and realize the situation we’re in,” said the freshman law student. AFP by WhatsApp.
“We are failing to have an impact because we are always arrested and threatened,” she added.
While low-emission countries contribute the least to climate change, they tend to be hit hardest by the consequences.
Kenya is responsible for less than 0.1% of global CO2 emissions, according to the Worldometer tracking website based in part on data from the European Commission.
But it suffers from locust invasions that destroy crops and irregular rainfall causing floods and droughts.
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Such disasters can cause hunger as many farmers are dependent on weather conditions.
When unusually heavy rains fell in Kenya’s western Baringo region in June 2019, activist Kevin Mtai said part of his grandmother’s house along with her cows and chickens was washed away.
Very 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.
In July, Mtai was part of a campaign to prevent the construction of a hotel in Nairobi National Park that activists say endangered local wildlife.
After a senior official called the activists “noise makers” on television – since seen in a video recording by AFP – Mtai and another activist received threats.
“I went into hiding because I didn’t want people to find me. Here in Kenya you can be killed and disappear,” said the 25-year-old. AFP via WhatsApp.
Human Rights Watch said in its 2020 Global Report that the lack of accountability for serious human rights violations remains “a major concern” in Kenya.
However, the bullying did not diminish Mtai’s activism.
In addition to helping shed light on the export of plastic waste to Kenya as part of the “Africa is not a garbage can” 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 to plant vegetables in a sustainable way.
In November, nations are expected to step up their plans to tackle global warming at the UN climate summit in the Scottish city of Glasgow, 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 co-hosted a weeklong camp for indigenous leaders and students to exchange knowledge and experiences on climate change.
But with the increase in Covid-19 cases, the meeting scheduled for the end of this month is likely to be canceled.
“We are still trying to figure out how to have some form of strike action on the ground,” Tan told AFP, adding that she believed the health guidelines had sometimes been used to prevent protests.
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The uneven rollout of immunization campaigns across the world also risks preventing activists in low-income countries from attending the Glasgow summit.
Greta Thunberg – who inspired millions with her school climate strikes – said she would not participate unless a more equitable vaccine rollout ensures that countries can participate on a level playing field.
“For someone my age and my social status living in Nigeria, I don’t think I have any hope of getting the vaccine anytime soon,” activist Kelo Uchendu said. AFP in a Zoom interview.
Uchendu said being part of world summits or school strikes was invigorating because launching a climate movement in Nigeria was difficult.
“People think it’s a problem for the north of the world, they believe we have other issues like corruption that need more attention than climate change,” said the 25-year-old, who lives in the southern town of Enugu.
But as Africa’s largest oil producer and largest economy, Uchendu said Nigeria has a crucial role to play in tackling the destruction of nature.
To raise awareness, the engineering student organizes essay contests and hackathons on climate change at his university.
And to involve the elderly, Uchendu helped set up the Nigerian branch of Parents For Future which promotes intergenerational solidarity within the climate strike movement.
Ahead of talks at the UN, Bolivian activist Villarreal says world leaders have a historic opportunity to embrace a sustainable lifestyle in their plans for economic recovery from the health crisis.
Building up pressure on the leaders with other young activists is her number one priority, she said, as Glasgow is “our last chance”.