Just weeks after Philippine security forces allegedly killed her friend and fellow human rights defender Melvin Dasigao and eight other campaigners, environmental advocate Mitzi Jonelle Tan was back on the streets protesting.
“Stop funding our destruction,” the 23-year-old shouted outside a branch office of British bank Standard Chartered at a demonstration against the financing of coal plants in Manila last month.
As critical UN climate negotiations loom, young advocates from countries already feeling the effects 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 in 2019 murdered, making that year the deadliest on record for such advocates, watchdog group Global Witness said in report in July last year.
However, galvanized from their experiences on the front line of climate change, 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 [sic] things could happen,” Tan, a full-time activist, told reporters in an interview by videoconference.
The Philippines is the second-most dangerous country in the world for defenders after Colombia, Global Witness said in its yearly report.
The UN said it was “appalled” by the apparent arbitrary March 9 killing of the nine advocates 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 said.
However, 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 last year, the streets of Marikina City, where Tan lives, were severely flooded.
The 2015 Paris climate agreement, signed by virtually all the world’s nations, calls for capping global warming at “well below” 2°C compared to preindustrial levels.
Since then, the world has seen its five hottest years on record.
Bolivia, the home of 18-year-old environmental advocate Michel Villarreal, is particularly vulnerable to effects 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 last year.
However, in Bolivia, climate activists are equated with troublemakers, Villareal said.
When she and her friends hung carefully crafted placards in trees in La Paz during a march for World Children’s Day in November last year, police ripped them up and accused them of vandalism.
“It was really sad. We just wanted people to see them and realize the situation we are living in,” the first-year law student told reporters by WhatsApp.
“We don’t succeed in having an impact, because we are always stopped and threatened,” she said.
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 carbon emissions, according to Web site Worldometer based partly on European Commission data.
However, Kenya is affected by 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 County in June 2019, part of the house of environmental advocate Kevin Mtai’s grandmother, as well as her cows and chickens, were swept away, he said.
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.
In July last year, Mtai was part of a campaign to stop a hotel being built in Nairobi National Park that advocates said would endanger local wildlife.
After a Kenyan top official called the campaigners “noisemakers” on television — since seen in a video recording by Agence France Presse — Mtai and a fellow advocates have 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 reporters via WhatsApp.
Human Rights Watch last year said in a report that the lack of accountability for serious human rights abuses 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’s COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland. It was pushed back from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has also often made it difficult for young advocates to carry out events.
In the Philippines, Tan has co-organized a week-long camp for Aboriginal leaders and students to exchange knowledge and experiences of climate change.
However, 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 on-ground strikes,” Tan told reporters, adding that she believed that health guidelines had sometimes been used to prevent protests.
The uneven rollout of COVID-19 vaccine campaigns across the world also risks preventing advocates in low-income countries from attending the Glasgow summit.
Environmental advocate Greta Thunberg — who inspired millions with her school strikes for the climate — has said that 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,” environmental advocate Kelo Uchendu told reporters in a Zoom interview.
Uchendu said that being a part of global summits or school strikes was invigorating as initiating 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.
As a top oil producer and Africa’s largest economy, Uchendu said that Nigeria had a crucial role to play in battling the destruction of nature.
To raise awareness, the engineering student organizes essay competitions and hackathons on climate change at his university.
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, Villarreal said that global leaders have a historic opportunity to embrace a sustainable way of life in their economic recovery plans following the pandemic.
Piling pressure on leaders with other youth advocates is her No. 1 priority, because Glasgow is “our last chance,” she said.
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