Climate Action

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate provides a voice for the Global South

Around the world, youth activists are striking for climate action. Most notably, 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has drawn international attention and media coverage with her climate strikes and Fridays for Future movement.

But that’s only one part of the story. Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, 23, has also been advocating for climate action. In January, she attended the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with Thunberg and others. 

Though eager to spread her message to a broader audience, Nakate was cropped out of a photo with Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson by the Associated Press. That crop sparked a fierce debate over race and media representation. 

“You didn’t just erase a photo,” Nakate tweeted after the incident. “You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever.”

The lack of diversity in the environmental movement is not a new concern, and Nakate recognizes that.

“I think that there is an issue of white privilege,” Nakate told Earth Day Network. “Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Media loves news that is a hot piece of cake for them, news that will sell… I believe that if they cover news from activists from the Global South, they think it would not cause as much impact.” 

Nakate has been striking for just over a year. Over the last decade, Uganda has experienced unusually high temperatures, as well as increased floods and landslides. But only recently did she connect these events to climate change.

“I wanted to do something that could enact change in the lives of the people in my country, so I started researching,” Nakate, who lives in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, said. “Climate change really caught my eye because… in school, it is taught as something that we don’t have to worry about, something that is coming in the far future or that happened in the far past.”

African nations are some of the most vulnerable to and least prepared for climate change. Approximately 300,000 people are already affected by more frequent droughts, floods and landslides, and an estimated 65,000 people have been displaced, according to a government report

In East Africa, where Nakate lives, communities are experiencing the worst invasion of desert locusts in 25 years. This is why she and other activists from the Global South are speaking out. 

Nakate wanted to spread awareness so young people could connect disasters and rising temperatures to climate change earlier than she had. In January 2019, she staged a solitary strike outside of Uganda’s Parliament, an idea that came from Thunberg. 

You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever.

Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan Climate Activist

“Honestly, I didn’t know how I was going to spread awareness for it, so I decided to read more,” she said. “That is how I found out about the Fridays for Future climate strikes, and I decided to start striking.” 

Since then, Nakate has participated in nearly 60 Fridays for Future protests and founded Youth for Future Africa, which later transformed into the Rise Up Movement. She has also campaigned for the Congo forests.

“It is important to listen to the activists from the Global South because they’re representing different communities,” Nakate said. “[The Rise Up Movement’s] main goal is to help tell the stories of these activists in Africa who are striking every Friday, who are doing different activities to demand climate action.”

The AP incident has only motivated her and strengthened her platform. She received an outpouring of support from activists across the globe, and her Twitter account became verified. 

“Despite the fact that this incident was so hurtful and painful, it has changed the story for different activists in the Global South,” she said. 

Like the first Earth Day in 1970, youth are the foundation of today’s environmental movement. To mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 2020, Earth Day Network created EARTHRISE to build the world’s largest, most diverse mobilization of activists. Join the movement.

“The climate issue is a life issue,” Nakate said. “We have to keep fighting until we see the action that we are demanding. Above all, I want people to stop dying as a result of climate change.”