Can the disabled become climate 'change agents'?

by Kathryn Werntz | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 1 May 2015 21:49 GMT

A view of a Kenyan mural on the importance of protecting forests. TRF/Kathryn Werntz

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Programme aims to curb deforestation by giving disabled people an alternative to cutting trees to earn cash

Ester Wangari Maina is a woman, and disabled. Among some development experts, this may get her labeled twice over as a “vulnerable” person.

Participants at the 9th Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change are trying to change that. They refer to women like Maina as a “change agent.”

The 38-year-old lives in Kenya, the country hosting this year’s conference, and in a landscape where climate change is resulting in more irregular rainfall. As crops struggle, that can drive people in tough economic conditions to cut trees to survive.

The loss of trees further reduces rainfall and leads to soil erosion, making the lives of people like Maina, who lives in Nyeri, even harder.

“We can either ignore these people, or we can recognise that they need to eat, to clothe themselves, to send their kids to school,” says Lincoln Mwaniki, director of the United Disability Empowerment in Kenya (UDEK) organisation.

UDEK aims to empower women like Maina by providing them with ways to earn an income that are environmentally and economically sustainable.

For someone with a mobility challenge, bringing in funds by allowing trees to be cut on one’s land is a practical way to earn money. People with other types of physical disabilities such sight or hearing deficiencies, also have limited access to education and work, and sometimes resort to cutting trees to earn cash.

But “even if you don’t have legs, you can mold clay to make a cookstove,” says Mwaniki. That’s what Maina and others have learned as part of UDEK’s activities. The organisation also provides disabled people with solar energy systems that allow them to earn an income by from people who pay to charge their phones and other electronic devices.

In return for the assistance, the beneficiaries of UDEK promise to educate at least the 10 households nearest to them about climate change – and the importance of preserving trees and of using solar energy and efficient cookstoves that cut the need for firewood.


Kenya’s constitution has an article specifically protecting the rights of people with disabilities. There is also a Disability Act of Kenya, passed by parliament, which is designed to enforce the constitutional article.

“It helped that our last president came into office right after a bad accident,” explains Mwaniki, “so being physically disabled himself, he quickly passed the Disability Act.”

Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s former president, was injured in a car accident shortly before taking office, and was sworn in while still in a wheelchair.

Now “the government is trying to mainstream people with disabilities,” Mwaniki says, “and inclusion is the way to empowerment, and empowerment is the way out of dependency.”

UDEK, he said, helps able-bodied people learn sign language and other keys to working with disabled people, as a way of promoting inclusion.

UDEK’s efforts have a doubly positive effect: “vulnerable” and dependent people have an opportunity to become empowered community members, and communities become less dependent on cutting their forests.

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