“We Are Trying to Speak Up Because We Know What is Happening in Our Countries”
An Interview on Youth Participation During Pre-COP26
Climate activist, founder, Youth Delegate. Elizabeth Wathuti is 26 years old and committed to the fight against climate change. Her organisation, Green Generation Initiative, planted over 30,000 tree seedlings and trained 20,000 students in Kenya. She was awarded the Wangari Maathai Scholarship Award, named after the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for her environmental activism, and she is also the Head of Campaigns at Wangari Maathai Foundation. Greenpeace features her as one of the climate activists in Africa “trying to save the world”. As one of the almost 400 Youth Delegates from 186 States, Elizabeth Wathuti attended the Pre-COP26 in Milan last September as Youth Delegate of Kenya. The event “Youth4Climate 2021: Driving Ambition” was organised under the partnership of Italy and the United Kingdom. The latter hosts the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, starting this Sunday. The meeting of the Youth Delegates in Milan forms part of a bigger effort to include young people in the UNFCCC system. Read here whether attending also meant participating, and whether listening was followed by action.
You were a Youth Delegate at the “Youth4Climate 2021: Driving Ambition” meeting at the Pre-COP26. Before going to Milan, what were you aims and how did you want to achieve them?
I had expectations around how the world is tackling and treating the climate crisis. One of my key expectations was to really begin to see more action instead of going to these forums and hearing talks, talks, talks for the next years. My thought was, COP26 is coming up, and to me this translates into 26 years of inaction. We spent the last 26 years talking and negotiating about things that are actually affecting lives and livelihoods right now. So, one of my key expectations was that we begin to see more action and less commitments, promises, and pledges. Right now is the time that we need to be really focussing on how we can help the most vulnerable. I also had the expectation that we begin to put nature at the centre of climate conversations. I have always wanted to have a situation in which the world will begin to treat nature as a solution to the climate crisis. This would mean making sure that we are massively increasing nature regeneration and also making sure that all our natural ecosystems remain to stay intact.
You have made some tremendous efforts in Kenya in this regard, but did you receive any training, for instance in diplomatic negotiations, before the conference? Or did you have any chance to connect and collaborate with other Youth Delegates attending the Pre-COP26?
Yes, we had online capacity building sessions before the Pre-COP. Through these sessions we were able to meet with other Youth Delegates of the Pre-COP. The other thing is, I also had training in environmental conservation matters but this was purely because of my passion. I have been passionate about the environment since childhood and along the way I really wanted to understand how I can deal with challenges like deforestation, pollution, climate change which I experienced first-hand. I took a course in Environmental Studies and Community Development at Kenyatta University here in Kenya. Through this course I also have been able to get a deeper understanding of some of these issues that we are facing, and what I as a young person can do to deal with these challenges.
You planted your first tree with seven years, you founded your organisation, the Green Generation Initiative, with 20 years. Was that perhaps education enough to attend the Pre-COP?
I would not say that attending the Pre-COP was about education. It is about young people who are really concerned about what the planet is going to look like for them and the next generations. And it is really also about using our passion to drive change, to bring about collective action. I think this is why I really got involved in this. Being passionate about the environment for me is what makes me want to protect nature and be on the frontline to conserve nature. I think that is what everybody needs to share, even beyond the education. There are people who have the knowledge about the climate crisis right now, there are people who understood this for the last years but who did nothing about it. There are now people who are deeply connected, enrooted to nature and they are trying their very best to do something about what is happening to the world today. So, it is clearly about that passion and about what drives us. It is about the kind of world you want to live in.
If I may draw on three points. You gave many interviews and delivered many speeches, urging about the droughts in Kenya, stressing that 2.1 million Kenyans are at risk of starvation. In one instance, a moderator relegated your plea to “a breath of fresh air”. Vanessa Nakate, climate activist from Uganda, was, as many remember, cropped from a picture showing her at the World Economic Forum in Davos alongside Luisa Neubauer from Germany, Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Isabelle Axelsson from Sweden, and Loukina Tille from Switzerland. Global South Youth Studies researchers criticize that despite the fact that “youth from Africa, Asia, and developing countries in Latin America make up 90 percent of the total Global youth population” the focus on youth in Europe, North America, and Australia remains most prevalent. Against this background, would you say that people, especially those from the Global North, were listening to you in Milan?
We felt so many times as though we were being ignored or not being listened to at all. Because if we do were being listened to, then we would be fully represented in this global climate conversation. We would not be fighting or struggling to get represented in the forums, or even struggling to get our voices heard. I feel as though we are still not taken seriously. Talking about 2.1 million people facing starvation – and at some point, I even gave the figure of ten million people in addition to countries like Somalia for example – these are figures enough to make the whole world begin to take urgent action. This a matter of life, of livelihood, people are losing their lives. We are trying to speak up because we know what is happening in our countries. Yet, we are still not taking seriously, we are still struggling to be represented in forums, and we are not even having our voices heard. Our messages are not even getting as much attention as the messages from the activist from the Global North. It has been a struggle, but I really hope as we continue to use our voices to speak up for our countries, for our people, the world will begin to pay attention. The more the world continues to not pay attention to what we are saying then the more the damages and losses continue to escalate. It is properly going to be too late until it is realised that what we are saying ought to be taken seriously.
So, would you say that there is perhaps a threefold challenge for you, being young, being a woman, being from the Global South?
Yes, it has been a challenge every time. Right now, there are still so many young people from the Global South who are trying to get badges or funding to attend COP26. Yet, they are the people that need to be in these places, to be heard, and listened to the most. They are the ones that understand what the climate crisis means. It is no longer theory; we are facing it every day. We need these platforms to tell the world what is happening.
Of course, any form of participation, especially youth participation, raises the question of tokenism. How would you respond to that question in context of the “Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition” meeting? Some of your fellow Youth Delegates seemed as if the issues of climate change and youth participation were already won, tweeting: “[W]e never been so close to stopping the #climate change as we are now, there is the world before #Youth4Climate,&the world after it The event was the center of the world” or “A new world is shaped right now by a peaceful hands and visionary minds”. Others spoke of a “prestigious event”, thereby seeming rather pleased and humble than demanding and critical. Can we really be that content?
The only time I will be content is when the proposals we raised to the world leaders at the Pre-COP26 will reflect at COP26 and beyond. Otherwise, it is just going to be another box-ticking event that youth are being involved and being engaged. I cannot really judge in terms of tokenism or meaningful and genuine engagement for the event until I begin to see the solutions and proposals that we made are actually being implemented. That is what will be satisfying for me.
There are plenty of modes of youth participation. There are more established programmes like the Youth Delegate Programme to the UN General Assembly, there are Youth Observers at the Commission on the Status of Women, there was even a Global Youth Tourism Summit this year, organised by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Is there any risk that youth participation gets fragmented, decaying to a state in which Youth Delegates are unaware of their many colleagues, in which Youth Delegates are not speaking with one voice for the people they are representing but pushing for competing claims and aims?
In terms of fragmentation, I would just say it begins at the national level. If governments are not able to bring Youth Delegates together, then it can happen at an international event that you as a Youth Delegate do not even know that another Youth Delegate is coming. Yet, you are coming from the same country, and you are at the event to push the same agenda. I will give you a good example. We were three Youth Delegates at the Pre-COP from Kenya. What we did before going to Milan was to find out who in Kenya is going to Milan. We organised a meeting with the Ministry for Environment and Forestry – we actually met the cabinet secretary – to align on what it is we were going to take to Milan as Kenyan Youth Delegates. This really helped us in Milan. I think, if there is not a national collaboration, countries will face a risk. For COP26, Kenyan Youth Delegates are trying to come together, trying to find out who needs help, who does not have a badge, whether everyone got their visa. It is youth collaboration, working together, that will make it easier to speak with one voice and to support each other. At the end of the day, it is about solidarity and how we support each other well.
All in all, in your opinion, how effective was your commitment in Milan? Did the Pre-COP26 deliver, are there any concrete outcomes? Were you left frustrated or optimistic, especially taking a young perspective from Kenya?
One of the things that happened at the Pre-COP was a Q&A session with ministers. At the beginning I felt as though we were moving round in circles, when the ministers were reading speeches, instead of telling us what they want to do about our proposals. We did not get much commitment really, I would say. I was not satisfied with the responses, personally. I am just really hoping that maybe at the Pre-COP they made some commitments and perhaps we will get to see them at COP26.
Was there not also the idea to have a declaration at the end of Pre-COP26?
Yes, there was that idea and I remember one of the key commitments that were made. My minister from Kenya for environment and forestry, Keriako Tobiko, he is the only minister who stood up and actually began to make commitments for young people. I remember one of the things he insisted on was institutionalising youth participation and engagement. We do not just want to attend events, being put in panels and conferences. That is not engagement. Engagement is beyond that. It is about institutionalising, making sure there is a process of us being involved in the decision-making. So, Minister Tobiko made this commitment and I really hope that Kenya continues to push that on a national level to make sure that it is actually implemented. There was another minister as well who talked about making sure that youth get accredited by the UNFCCC to then attend COP, listening to the negotiations. Otherwise, young people are given government badges to go to COP, and then you would not have your voice as an activist, you are there as a party. We really hope it gets going because it is about seeing these things actually happening.
If you allow one last question, there are many young people who want to get involved in decision-making, who want to have a seat at the table. Do you have any advice or any thoughts for young people trying to translate their ambition and voice into action on a local and a global level?
My advice would be: Just go for it. The biggest problem has always been how we turn our reaction into action. I have been angry before, when I witnessed deforestation, my forest that I love the most being cleared, rivers that I used to drink from becoming like a stream of poison full of plastic. That made me so angry as a young person. But then I found a way of turning that anger into a hunger to do something about these problems. So, I think the very first thing for every young person is to identify with the challenge and the problem they want to solve. Listen to how you feel about it. It is really important to just acknowledge those feelings and emotions. You also need to find out how you turn your feelings into an energy to do something about a problem. I think that will be a natural call to action, it just comes. You do not need anyone who asks you to do it. You just find yourself doing it.
Thank you very much for taking your time for the interview.