December 7, 2021

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Uganda climate activist Nakate features on Time Magazine cover

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Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate justice activist, has featured on the cover of Time Magazine.

She started her activism in December 2018 after becoming concerned about the unusually high temperatures in her country.

Time is an American news magazine and news website published and based in New York City.

For nearly a century, it was published weekly, but by March 2020 it had switched to once every two weeks.

Except of Vanessa Nakate’s article published by Time Magazine:

October 2019, the Rotary Club of Bugolobi asked me to talk on the environment and climate change. I looked forward to the opportunity. It would be the first time as an activist that I’d be addressing Ugandan professionals, many of whom were my parents’ age (I’m 24). The audience would be civic-minded middle-class men and women who could raise awareness about the climate crisis and put pressure on the government and the private sector. Or they could do exactly the opposite: resist any change they perceived as slowing down what they considered “development” or “progress,” and dismiss the concerns of the younger generation.

My presentation took about 20 minutes, after which the audience asked many questions. They seemed surprised to hear this information from someone so young who wasn’t an expert, but were pleased I’d helped them understand the urgency of the problem. At one point, a man said how puzzled he was that the ongoing degradation of the Amazon rain forest was widely condemned, even in Africa, and yet no one was talking about the destruction of the Congo Basin rain forest. As the meeting came to an end, his statement lingered in my mind.

Why weren’t Ugandans talking about what was happening in the Congo Basin rain forest, especially since the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in which about 60% of the rain forest lies, borders our country to the west? I had no good answer to that question, and I had never been there myself. So I learned.

The Congo Basin rain forest ecosystem, sometimes called the world’s “second lung,” is, like the Amazon, rich in biodiversity. It’s also vital as a global carbon sink, sequestering 600 million metric tons more carbon per year than it emits—the same amount, says the World Economic Forum, as “one-third of the CO2 emissions from all U.S. transportation.”

The forest, which stretches into parts of six countries, is home to as many as 150 ethnic groups, including Indigenous peoples such as the Batwa, Bambuti and Ba’Aka. Humans have lived in the forest for more than 50,000 years, and 75 million people today depend on it to survive. The ecosystem contains 10,000 species of tropical plants—many of which may provide medicinal benefits—as well as a thousand species of birds, 700 species of fish and 400 species of mammals, including the black colobus monkey, which is vulnerable to extinction.

Also like the Amazon, the Congo Basin is being exploited for its resources. Between 2000 and 2014, an area of forest greater than the size of Bangladesh was cleared in the Congo Basin. And while the rates of deforestation in the Amazon and Southeast Asia are higher than in the Congo Basin, it’s facing similar ravages. Maddeningly, in 2020, deforestation rose globally by 12%, including in many countries in the Congo Basin region, despite COVID-19’s impact on the world’s economies.

Scientists have calculated that unless something shifts dramatically, all of the Congo’s forests may be gone by 2100.

The more I discovered what was happening to the Congo Basin, the more upset and angry I became. Why wasn’t I aware of this? Well, one reason is that the world’s financial resources, including the media, are concentrated in the Global North. The stories that are shown on television, published in print and online, and shared on social media are overwhelmingly ones that are already familiar to the developed world.

As the man at the Rotary Club had observed, we’re well informed about the deforestation in the Amazon, and often more aware of the biodiversity loss and threats to Indigenous populations there than we are of the biodiversity loss and threats to the original inhabitants of the Congo. A lost expanse of Congo rain forest is as destructive as one in the Amazon, yet one was making news headlines and the other wasn’t. If we couldn’t defend the largest forest in Africa, I thought, then how would we protect the smaller forests, including those in Uganda?

Uganda

A few days after the Bugolobi talk, I began my first strike for the Congo forest, urging others to join me with their placards, take photos and spread the message online about this vital ecosystem. My first results weren’t encouraging. I discovered that not only had few people heard about the environmental and human tragedy continuing in the Congo, but some weren’t even aware the forest existed.

The destruction of the Congo rain forest is only one of the many interconnected disasters that climate change is exacerbating in Africa.

In January 2018, Cape Town in South Africa came within 90 days of running out of water. In March and April 2019, cyclones Idai and Kenneth struck the coast of Mozambique in the southeast of Africa, resulting in 2.2 million people needing urgent aid because of flooding, this in a country where 815,000 people were already in dire straits because of drought. That August, flooding in Niger affected more than 200,000 people. In November, Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, recorded two years’ worth of rainfall in a single day. In May 2020, torrential rains washed away an entire town in Somalia.

It wasn’t only too much or too little water that overwhelmed the continent. In 2020, locusts destroyed 170,000 acres of crops across East Africa, putting millions of people who were already food-insecure at risk of famine—scientists have said this unprecedented phenomenon was in part due to changes in the local climate.

If these years weren’t hard enough, scientists are projecting that in the next several decades the extremes will become worse, as the global mean land temperature rises beyond its current 1.2°C (2.16°F) above pre-industrial levels. Between 1998 and 2018, all but one year was hotter than any previous year on record. And the temperature now considered to be “normal” is higher than ever.

So what would a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase mean for the African continent? In blunt terms, it would be devastating. Researchers estimate that it might cause there to be more than twice as many annual heat waves in Africa by 2050. According to one study, it would subject the city of Lagos to a heat-stress burden 1,000 times what it was in the recent past. That would mean more demand for electricity, more need for water and more deaths. And this in a country where 30% of the population already has no access to clean water.

Kaossara Sani, a climate activist who lives in Lomé, Togo, is very aware of the human and environmental consequences of the climate crisis for her city and country. Sani had been volunteering to help homeless children when she encountered a 9-year-old boy from the countryside in the marketplace. He was living alone on the street, collecting plastic packaging to earn money, and wasn’t in school.

“I thought to myself, This young boy’s life is destroyed: like that,” she told me. She couldn’t understand how or why parents were sending their children from their home villages to the cities to beg. Then she found out the answer. “I realized that in rural areas, the main activity is agricultural. People depend on nature, and with climate variability and with floods, they can’t support their family. They can’t have good crops at the end. So the only way they have is to send their own children to the city.”

For Sani, speaking out about the climate crisis became a matter of advocating for children like this little boy. “Climate change is stealing their lives,” she says. “Not their future—it’s already stealing their present.”

If these years weren’t hard enough, scientists are projecting that in the next several decades the extremes will become worse, as the global mean land temperature rises beyond its current 1.2°C (2.16°F) above pre-industrial levels. Between 1998 and 2018, all but one year was hotter than any previous year on record. And the temperature now considered to be “normal” is higher than ever.

So what would a 1.5°C (2.7°F) increase mean for the African continent? In blunt terms, it would be devastating. Researchers estimate that it might cause there to be more than twice as many annual heat waves in Africa by 2050. According to one study, it would subject the city of Lagos to a heat-stress burden 1,000 times what it was in the recent past. That would mean more demand for electricity, more need for water and more deaths. And this in a country where 30% of the population already has no access to clean water.

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