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Young Ugandan climate activists join 'school strike' push

by Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 31 May 2019 14:04 GMT

Students take part in the global 'School Strike for Climate' in Kampala, Uganda on May 24, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alice McCool.

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A growing international movement of young protesters demanding action on climate threats is beginning to take root in countries known for their vulnerability to climate change

By Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool

KAMPALA, May 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Torrential rain delayed the start, leading to a smaller crowd of marchers than hoped.

But when the skies cleared, a band of placard-carrying climate activists set off, turning the heads of motorbike taxi drivers and passersby on this African capital's streets.

"Keep Mama Africa green" and "Our earth is on fire" read signs carried by the approximately 30 young climate strike marchers as they passed through the streets of one of Kampala's affluent suburbs this month.

A growing international movement of young protesters demanding action on climate change, launched by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg last year, has spread from Sweden across Europe, and to countries from the United States to Australia.

But it is also beginning to take root in countries known less for their need to cut emissions and more for their vulnerability to climate change impacts, including worsening droughts, floods, storms and sea level rise.

In Uganda - where heavy rain is unusual at this time of year - activists said the signs of a climate crisis are increasingly evident.

"There is a change in the rainfall patterns. There are increased temperatures," said Irene Kananura, 22, an organiser of the Fridays for Future Uganda march, as she looked to the sky.

"We no longer get enough food, the crops are drying out and the animals are not getting green pastures," she said.

That is a significant risk in a country where almost 75 percent of jobs and 85 percent of export earnings are linked to agriculture, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Deforestation, combined with more extreme and unpredictable rainfall, has led to deadly landslides in Uganda, including one in October that killed more than 40 people in eastern Uganda.

One of the youngest participants in the Kampala march, 7-year-old Diana, said she worried about deforestation and losses of forest animals.

"My picture is about people who cut trees in the forest. You find some wild animals there and this can cause them dangers," she said, pointing to her placard. "I like forests because there are monkeys there."

Pupil Diana prepares her sign ahead of the global 'School Strike for Climate' in Kampala, Uganda on May 23, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alice McCool

DRAWING THE LINK

But while many people in Uganda directly experience the effects of the growing climate crisis, a significant number do not understand the causes of what they are seeing, said Cicilly Atong, 23, another marcher.

"They don't know that some of them are dying and not having food because of climate change," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"I want people to see what this is all about," she said.

Besides the marches and school strikes, she said, more public talks and other outreach at schools and universities is needed to pass on better information about climate risks.

The activists said persuading marchers to join protests in Kampala can be challenging.

Police last August used teargas to disperse demonstrators protesting the detention of lawmakers critical of long-time President Yoweri Museveni.

Public protests are usually supervised by police officers, and authorities must be notified in advance of such events.

That means when passersby "see us holding placards up it may look political," Atong said. "People are like, ‘You will get caught by the police.'"

That can leave potential strikers and passersby wary of being associated with climate strikes - though the protesters were granted police permission for their march, explained Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, 22, one of the main organisers.

"People understand the (climate change) effects we are facing, but they don't want to come out and say it boldly," she said.

Still, the activists were able to present their demands to the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga on the day of the strike.

Those included better enforcement of environmental legislation - such as a plastic bag ban - and a commitment to reforestation in Uganda.

"She looked through our demands and accepted to help us," said 14-year-old Leah Namugerwa, the youngest of the march organisers. "This is a very big victory."

INSPIRED BY GRETA

Both Nakabuye and Namugerwa have been striking on Fridays since the beginning of this year, inspired by Thunberg.

"It's kind of difficult, because there are a lot people against you, saying ‘Why aren't you in school?'" said Namugerwa. "But then they aren't seeing how people are missing school due to climate effects."

Nakabuye, a university student, said one of her lecturers told her nothing can be done about the changes to Uganda's climate. "He said climate change is God's plan," Nakabuye recalled.

A lack of awareness about the need to cut climate-changing emissions may be justified in Uganda, which has low per capita carbon dioxide emissions - 37 times lower than the world average, according to World Bank data from 2014.

But much more needs to be done if the country is to grow cleanly and adapt to the growing impacts of high emissions from elsewhere, farmers, scientists and government officials say.

"We would like to see the countries that have the biggest effect on climate breakdown helping the countries that cannot cope with the costs of adaptation," said Sadrach Nirere, 24, the coordinator of Fridays for Future Uganda.

As the country's economy grows, Nirere hopes Uganda's nascent but growing climate movement will encourage the creation of a greener economy.

"We would like to see behavioural change," he said. "We are trying to show that people can live more sustainably in society, in the way you eat, and the way you use other resources like water."

The high proportion of female climate strikers in Uganda reflects the country's wider climate activist movement, activists say.

In recent years, women-led environmental groups in rural areas have begun running seed banks to preserve local biodiversity, and pushing for clean energy alternatives.

Because of their leading role in farming in Africa, and in caring for family members, women are often particularly strongly affected by climate threats to harvests and water supplies, as well as to extreme weather, climate scientists say.

As Uganda is home to one of the world's youngest populations, the marchers believe their collective voice can have a real impact in pushing climate action.

"Mostly young people are vibrant and they act so fast," said Atong.

(Reporting by Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

'Fridays for Future' coordinator Hilda Flavia Nakabuye holds a sign during the global 'School Strike for Climate' in Kampala, Uganda on May 24, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alice McCool

Still, the activists were able to present their demands to the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga on the day of the strike.

Those included better enforcement of environmental legislation - such as a plastic bag ban - and a commitment to reforestation in Uganda.

"She looked through our demands and accepted to help us," said 14-year-old Leah Namugerwa, the youngest of the march organisers. "This is a very big victory."

INSPIRED BY GRETA

Both Nakabuye and Namugerwa have been striking on Fridays since the beginning of this year, inspired by Thunberg.

"It's kind of difficult, because there are a lot people against you, saying ‘Why aren't you in school?'" said Namugerwa. "But then they aren't seeing how people are missing school due to climate effects."

Nakabuye, a university student, said one of her lecturers told her nothing can be done about the changes to Uganda's climate. "He said climate change is God's plan," Nakabuye recalled.

A lack of awareness about the need to cut climate-changing emissions may be justified in Uganda, which has low per capita carbon dioxide emissions - 37 times lower than the world average, according to World Bank data from 2014.

But much more needs to be done if the country is to grow cleanly and adapt to the growing impacts of high emissions from elsewhere, farmers, scientists and government officials say.

"We would like to see the countries that have the biggest effect on climate breakdown helping the countries that cannot cope with the costs of adaptation," said Sadrach Nirere, 24, the coordinator of Fridays for Future Uganda.

Pupil Dalton, 12, holds the sign that he prepared for the global 'School Strike for Climate' in Kampala, Uganda on May 23, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alice McCool

As the country's economy grows, Nirere hopes Uganda's nascent but growing climate movement will encourage the creation of a greener economy.

"We would like to see behavioural change," he said. "We are trying to show that people can live more sustainably in society, in the way you eat, and the way you use other resources like water."

The high proportion of female climate strikers in Uganda reflects the country's wider climate activist movement, activists say.

In recent years, women-led environmental groups in rural areas have begun running seed banks to preserve local biodiversity, and pushing for clean energy alternatives.

Because of their leading role in farming in Africa, and in caring for family members, women are often particularly strongly affected by climate threats to harvests and water supplies, as well as to extreme weather, climate scientists say.

As Uganda is home to one of the world's youngest populations, the marchers believe their collective voice can have a real impact in pushing climate action.

"Mostly young people are vibrant and they act so fast," said Atong.

(Reporting by Thomas Lewton and Alice McCool ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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