The role of indigenous activism on climate change in Africa

Discussions on the global climate crisis tend to ignore the role that Africans are playing at the leading edge in the fight against climate change.

Walking for water in Sierra Leone. Image credit Eduardo Fonseca Arraes via Flickr.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has again made it clear: unless drastic action is taken, the world is headed towards catastrophic levels of climate change. The people most affected by this are likely to be the most marginalized. In Africa, this means both those people who depend on fragile ecosystems for their livelihood, as well as those who live in the slum areas of Africa’s many coastal cities. What is particularly unjust is that those who have contributed least to climate change are at the same time those most likely to be affected by the problem.

Africa is often overlooked in discussions about climate change and when it is not, the continent is seen as being at the receiving end. Here, as in so many other domains, Africans are seen as victims, rather than as agents for change. However, it is time to provide some nuance to that picture: Africans themselves are playing their part, both in fighting against new dirty energy projects and in helping people to cope with climate change as it occurs.

One example is the work of African member organizations of the Friends of the Earth International network. Friends of the Earth forms the world’s largest network of indigenous, grassroots environmental NGOs, with member organizations from 75 countries. These are all indigenous, autonomous groups that share a common analysis of the world’s most pressing environmental issues. On the basis of this shared analysis, they have chosen to work together and support each other. The highest organ in the network is the General Meeting, in which every member organization has an equal say.

In Africa, there are 14 Friends of the Earth member organizations, in as many countries. Some of them are called “Friends of the Earth,” others have different names, as shown on the video below.

All these groups are led by courageous activists and intellectuals. Their work at times is dangerous, but the fact of working together internationally in many cases offers a modest form of protection.

Here are a few recent examples of where Friends of the Earth groups have spoken out against dirty energy projects. One of these, Groundwork South Africa campaigns against plans for new fracking activities in the country and has spoken out against the myth of “clean coal.” Justicia Ambiental in Mozambique has spoken out against plans for large dams and against coal mining in the country. Les Amis de la Terre Togo is mobilizing against offshore oil exploration plans.

Friends of the Earth Ghana has spoken out against Chinese-funded plans for an LNG regasification terminal. Finally,  Environmental Rights Action Nigeria is one of the foremost groups trying to hold oil companies accountable for the destruction in the Niger Delta.

As is clear from this list, Friends of the Earth groups are not afraid of speaking out against the dominant economic interests in their countries.

In the area of climate change mitigation, several Friends of the Earth groups are active in agroforestry projects, helping local communities to fight erosion and desertification. A good example can be found in this video, showing the work of FoE Ghana in supporting and training local women’s group. In the words of Theo Anderson, director of FoE Ghana: “if you train a man, you train one person; but if you train a woman, you train the nation.”

In the area of oil, both strands—the support to local communities and the fight against dirty energy—come together. Thus, AdT Togo is working with community groups there to raise awareness about the possible impacts of oil. What this means for local communities can be found in this video.

These few examples show that in Africa, like in other parts of the world, there are activists and intellectuals who are playing their part in combating climate change and in combating new dirty energy schemes. The Friends of the Earth network offers a network of solidarity for these groups. However, they deserve to be more widely known and appreciated, also within Africa.

Further Reading

The water point 

The author returns to her home town, Cape Town, which may soon become the world’s first major city to run out of water. The crisis also exacerbates old divisions.

Look to Cuba

Cubans are far better prepared than most for public health and climate emergencies. African countries should emulate the island nation in this regard.