Elizabeth Wathuti is a Kenyan environment and climate activist and founder of the Green Generation Initiative, which nurtures young people to be environmentally conscious and has planted 30,000 tree seedlings in Kenya.
She grew up in Nyeri County, which has the highest forest cover in Kenya, planting her first tree at the age of seven and establishing an environmental club in her high school. She was part of the leadership of Kenyatta University Environmental Club (KUNEC) where she led tree plantings, clean ups and environmental education and education on climate change.
She is a recipient of a Wangari Maathai Scholarship award for her outstanding passion and commitment to environmental conservation. She is also a full member of the Green Belt Movement, which was founded by the late Professor Wangari Maathai who is Wathuti’s role model and a big inspiration and influence.
In 2019, Wathuti was awarded the Africa Green Person of the Year Award by the Eleven Eleven Twelve Foundation, and named as one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans by the Africa Youth Awards. She has also been featured on the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust website.
Green Generation Initiative
The Great Green Wall (2019)
Michael Liebreich: Before we start, if you're enjoying these conversations, please make sure that you like or subscribe to Cleaning Up, it really helps other people to find us. Cleaning Up is brought to you by the Liebreich Foundation and the Gilardini Foundation. Hello, I'm Michael Liebreich, and this is Cleaning Up. My guest today is Elizabeth Wathuti. She planted her first tree age seven. She's now planted over 30,000 trees as part of the NGO which she founded called the Green Generation Initiative, working with children in Kenya. Please welcome Elizabeth Wathuti to Cleaning Up. So, Elizabeth, welcome very much to Cleaning Up.
Elizabeth Wathuti: Thank you, Michael.
ML: Describe to us where are you joining us from today. You're in Nairobi, but is that a forest behind you? Or is that a picture?
EW: Yes, so I'm joining in from Nairobi. And that's my favorite forest. It's called Karura Forest. And it's so famous because Wangari Maathai fought for it. So, every time I walk in there, I tell myself that she really fought for a gem. And that's why I love having that picture back there as my background every time.
ML: Oh, thank you for clarifying. It is only a picture. It's not that…
EW: That's actual the actual forest that looks like yes.
ML: And how often would you get to go and visit that forest?
EW: I go there almost every weekend. And I take walks or cycle, walk to the waterfalls, seeing the huge trees as well. And it's just a wonderful experience that I love to experience every other day.
ML: So that charges your spiritual batteries.
ML: Now, you mentioned Wangari Maathai. I met her once in 2010. Actually, just shortly before she passed away in 2011, did you get to meet her?
EW: I did not get to physically meet her one-on-one. But it was one of my childhood dreams. Because when I planted my first tree, I also got to discover a lot about the work that she was doing. And I remember, I asked a lot about her especially for my grandmother. And she always told me that if you ever wanted to meet her in person, you need to study hard, just like she did. I mean, she was the first woman in Eastern Central Africa to earn a doctorate. So, she was really powerful. And that was one of my driving forces in school to study hard, meet her and plant a tree with her. And I remember when I was in high school, that's when she passed on. And it felt as though dreams have been shattered. You know, when you tell your child that when they study hard, you buy them something, and then possibly that thing never comes to pass, it feels so bad. So that was the experience that I had. But really, I continue to draw so much inspiration from her books, my favourite is called ‘Unbowed.’ And she's really written so much about herself, that keeps me going every day.
ML: So I have a very different experience my relationship or my contact with her because I really didn't know very much about her at all. And I suddenly found myself meeting her. I was in New York in 2010, Clinton Global Initiative. And she came to make a commitment to plant, I can't remember it was a million trees or another million or 10 million, a huge numbers of trees. And of course, it was only it was only then that I really started to learn about her life and the fact that she had this Nobel Prize in 2004 and how she had been the first woman to get a doctorate from Eastern Central Africa and I became, you know, very inspired as well. And was very, of course very, very sorry, very upset that she passed away because I was hoping to see her again at later events and to be a little bit better prepared and to understand a little bit more about the struggles that in which she had participated. But now you won the scholarship from the Wangari Maathai Foundation. So, talk to me about how did that happen? What was your background? You started planting trees age seven, how and when did you get that scholarship?
EW: Actually at this age seven, I didn't mention that at the same time Wangari Maathai was the Member of Parliament in my home region. So I actually come from the Central Highlands of Kenya and in a county called Nyeri that is the most forested in Kenya. And so as a child I got so much time to spend in nature out in clean streams and all of this connection made me love nature at a tender age. And that is why in the process, I also got the chance to plant my plant whilst still young. So it was it was passion that was cultivated by being close to nature and getting that opportunity to love nature and experience the beauty that comes with nature. And along the way, unfortunately, I also experienced ecological grief because I remember, at some point, when I was continuing to understand about conservation, I wanted to go back to the place I planted these trees in primary school to find out how they were doing. And they were in a beautiful hill that I would see every time when I would look out of the classroom windows, it was so beautiful, and it made the place feel so cool. So, when I went to that place that day, I was so excited, like I was going to see how our trees are all grown. They're so huge. But when I got there, I found tree stumps and logs just close to the entrance of the forest. And I felt so sad, I felt so angry, I felt so heartbroken, I couldn't understand why anyone would destroy such a beautiful ecosystem, such a beautiful forest that I loved seeing and, you know, running into as a child. So, I thought to myself, I needed to do something about such challenges. And to me, I say that anger, give me a hunger to want to do something about problems like deforestation and all that. So that's what the turning point for me. So I decided to do.
ML: How old were you? So you had planted the trees at seven, and you went back and how old were you at that point when you felt that anger?
EW: So at that point, I was in high school, because then I was beginning to get more conscious about the environment, you know, getting to understand that there's something about planting a tree and making sure it grows. So, I want to know, how is my tree doing. But really the aspects and the idea that somebody might have cut that tree down did not come into my mind at that time. So, it was a shock to just walk in there and find the forest is in bad shape, not how it used to be back then. So, I think this is what triggered the environmentalist in me and the climate activists in me to do more for the planet, to do more to reverse such challenges like deforestation. And I remember this is how now the Wangari Maathai scholarship award came in, because in the process, I began to grow trees with schoolchildren, just to also make them have that natural design, that natural call to action, because for me, I think I would just call it a natural call to action. And it's just something from deep within that is calling you to take action for nature. So I wanted the same for many other children and I began to plant trees with them in schools, to green their schools to educate them about deforestation and climate change. And in the process of when I was in my second year in the university, I got the scholarship. And by the way, when I got the scholarship, I was studying environmental studies and community development still out of passion. I really wanted to be an environmentalist by profession as well. So that is how I ended up getting the scholarship and my tuition was catered for. And I also got some little seed funding to continue with my project. So, in the process, I kept reaching out to more schools and more children.
ML: And which University was this, remind us?
EW: This is Kenyatta University. And by the way, this scholarship was given by the Green Belt Movement, the <inaudible> foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. And it's in memory of Wangari Maathai to honor women who are committed and also leading in environmental conservation and somehow following into her footsteps.
ML: And she was the founder of the Green Belt movement, right?
EW: Yes, she was.
ML: What was her vision for the Green Belt Movement?
EW: So for the Green Belt Movement, she had a vision to number one, help the women in her community because she told her story of when she would walk in the community and found so many women who had to walk for long distances, looking for firewood and looking for water and for food to feed their families. And she learned that that tree would be something that will help these women get out of these challenges and in the process, help conserve the environment. So, she had a vision of planting millions of trees through the movement. And yes, she did it. She did over 50 million trees. And right now the movement is still growing. And she was able to help women, empower women. And I remember I was a child, but I remember in my community in my village, women were establishing tree nurseries. And then she would come with big cars and carry their seedlings, and then they would get some pay. So you see they were able to at the end of the day, earn something that would fill their families and also they were able to contribute to conservation. So, she really empowered women at her time and giving them a voice in society as well. Because by the way, she was a leader at a time when an African woman was not even allowed to speak or challenge government. But here she was, she stood up, and she was courageous and she really inspired all of us and I can just tell how much she inspires me every day, just reading her stories every other time and just listening to speeches yeah.
ML: There's a lovely quote, but it's also a very sad quote on Wikipedia on her page, because it cost her very dearly personally, she split up with her husband in the late 70s. And the quote was, apparently that he, his problem was that he felt he couldn't control her.
ML: And so it's a kind of memorable quote. But it's terribly sad, isn't it? That that really, there was no compatibility because she was so driven to do things to help the environment and to help communities and the women in the communities that the relationship was no longer tenable.
EW: Yeah, very true. I think it was really sad. And this is all because she decided to stand up for the right things, you know, she did not do… She always said that she did not do it because of any other thing. She did it because it was the right thing to do. And I think that really is what keeps, you know, that fire on going every time that doing it, because it's the right thing to do.
ML: You know, that's a tremendous person to draw inspiration from, it must be a great help for you. And so you then having had that scholarship at the Kenyatta University, you graduated, and you dedicate yourself full time now to your own initiative?
EW: Yes, I graduated. And even before I graduated, I was still running the different programmes and the initiative. And along the way, also, after getting the scholarship, I met Wangari Maathai’s daughter, who also continues to inspire me and mentor me a lot in different ways up to date. And I'm actually right now working for the Wangari Maathai Foundation. And it's a legacy foundation that was created to now instill Wangari Maathai <inaudible> into young people. So there's a lot of work going on right now to make sure that her legacy still continues to live on, especially in young people. So, this is the part of the work that I've been doing beyond, you know, beyond the initiative as well, and trying to incorporate different aspects that… always insisted on, you know, the aspects of governance and peace, she was on the front line to talk about all of these things. And so, we are trying to also see how we can reach more and more young people and make sure that she continues to inspire them, you know, through her words of inspiration and through the different things and changes that she made. And that's part of what I've been doing. And I know right now, there's been a lot around climate change and COP. So it's more full time into environment and climate activism right now for me.
ML: And you is your intention then to continue to do the Wangari Maathai foundation with her daughter, whom I've also met, by the way, yes, it's another wonderful person. But it's your intention to do that, or are you going to go and study some more and branch out in your own directions again?
EW: So not really branching out, I've been with the foundation since last year. Yeah, since last year. And there's been so much great work moving. And along the way, I'm also getting a lot of mentorship. Wanjira is a person that really believes a lot in young people and the power of young people to go out there and be the change that they want to see. So, it's a really great platform, also for me to continue growing and you know, learning new things, meeting more new people and continuing to champion for what I believe in, because it's a platform that allows me to actually speak up for the right things.
ML: Now, this business of planting trees, right, which started with, with Professor Wangari, but you also kind of felt this need, it has become now just such a big part of climate action. And every politician now says I'm going to do a billion and somebody else says a trillion and Donald Trump says another trillion, whatever it is, I mean, how do you how do you do you feel… Are you happy that this cause has been picked up? Or are you concerned that it's kind of not being done properly? How do you feel when you see these big commitments, very institutionalized, very politicized commitments?
EW: So it's great to see so many countries and governments also making the commitments. But I always say that commitments are not enough if they are not reflected in what is happening and changing today. You know, I don't want to hear commitments of what we want to do in 2030 and 2050, for example, with the net zero commitments that we're hearing from different countries, but really the commitments failed to reflect what is changing in the government's right now you know, I want to see change right now, tomorrow, on Monday. So, it has to be something that is happening with you know, with immediate effect, not waiting until several years to begin making changes because the climate crisis is already affecting millions of people all around the world. And we cannot ignore the fact that it's a reality. And you know, it's affecting so many of us. But really, I have seen so many great initiatives from young people, women groups, communities who are on the frontline, you know, they're not only the most affected, but they're also the ones who are on the frontline, trying to restore the ecosystems that have been degraded over years. And what has been most important for me is not to just see countries, governments and individuals, planting millions and millions of trees are committing to do so. But to really see people actually growing trees. That's the whole aspect that people need to begin doing right now. Because it is one thing to plant billions of trees, but it's another to make sure that those billions of trees actually gets to grow up to maturity. And that has been my main focus.
ML: Well, as you've seen, you can plant age seven, go back age 14, 15, and it's been cut down. So, this has to become much more of a living initiative. But okay, so then the question is this, you know, you have these, for instance, that whether it's countries or now also oil companies, or airlines, and they all say, okay, we don't know how to stop emitting. So, we're going to plant umpteen millions of tonnes of carbon we're going to capture through planting trees. How do you close the gap between those commitments and those vast amounts of money? Because I mean, those players have got billions. And then how do you close the gap between that, and the community groups that are going to adopt the forest, they're going to plant the forest, they're going to live around it, they're going to look after it, they're going to harvest what you can from it. And that's going to really transform their local communities. How do you get you know, I'm sitting here, I'm a few miles from the head offices of BP and Shell, and they're all going to put this many billions. How do you bring those two together? Or do you?
EW: Yeah, I would say tree planting is great, especially even if it's done by corporates or the big institutions and corporations, but it should not be used as a way to divert us from the real problem. And I think the main highlight here is the three things that we need to do right now. And I always say that, in addition to stopping investments in fossil fuels, we have to regenerate nature. And also make sure that all our remaining natural ecosystems continue to stay intact. So if we are not doing these three things at the same time, then we're just doing some creative PR, you know, it's just kind of showing off that we are doing something when in the real sense we are not doing anything for the planet. So, I think what big operations to do right now is to first take responsibility of the problem at hand, and then begin to make big changes at the end of the day. Because we as individuals, as young people you have mentioned, for example, what I'm doing with schoolchildren and planting trees, so many other young people in my country, in Africa, are doing the same. They're trying to do the best that they can to help the planet. But we also know that there are people who are in power, in bigger positions, they can be able to do much, much more within a shorter period of time than we ourselves can do. So, our plea is always: why don't we all continue to take responsibility and do what is expected of us, because that's what is going to help us see change at the end of the day. Because it can't just be a few people who are doing the action on the ground in a bigger population making commitments, so it is not going to help us. So, it has to be all of us doing action on the ground, and not just committing but actually, you know, walking the talk, because that's what is lacking right now. We are not really walking the talk. But there's all these beautiful pledges commitments coming from every angle. And it's one thing that I'm really hoping not to see at the COP, you know, we are beyond the stage of making commitments and pledges that we never fulfil. So it should be let us know what is changing right now. And I think the urgency right now calls for that, call for us to really show what we are doing not what we want to do.
ML: Who is in the front line, that kind of plea to act? Is it governments? Is it the fossil fuel producers? Is it the fossil fuel in like, in a sense, the middlemen like the airlines or the car companies? Or is it really us as consumers, because we're sending very mixed signals as consumers that on the one hand, we're being active, we're making commitments personally, we make big statements where we, you know, a lot of us, not all of us go on marches. I don't but others do. But on the other hand, we continue to consume, we consume plastics, we consume fossil fuels, we consume products with palm oil, we do all sorts of things as individuals, so who really needs to take action here?
EW: I would say action here is two way. We need both the system change and individual responsibility at the same time. And we should not separate any of them by saying, maybe, if we approach the CEO of one of the most polluting companies, asking them why they are not doing anything, and then they tell us individuals to go and change our ways, it is not going to make sense as long as you are still doing what you're doing. So, it's not supposed to be a question of who is supposed to be doing what but it's a question about, everyone has to be doing something right now, it's everyone's responsibility, because at the end of the day, even the small actions contribute, positively or negatively. So, we cannot say that it's just a few people who should be doing this work. And we cannot just say that this work should be left to the activists or environmentalists to champion for new things that they're doing. It has to be everyone's responsibility. Because at the end of the day, even when we get these impacts, the floods, the landslides, the cyclones, all these things affect all of us, it doesn't just affect a few people and leave others out. It's only that some are affected the most as compared to others. But we have to agree that there are those that need to do more, because they have contributed the most to this mess. And I'll give a good example of Africa's contribution to the greenhouse gas emissions, it's less than 5%. But yet, Africa is the most affected by the impacts of the climate crisis. So the fair deal here would be a solidarity package for countries, for example, like mine in Africa, to make sure that people have a higher capacity to adapt to the crisis, because we are making, you know, we're making promises and commitments, yet the people that have least contributed are continuing to suffer the most. So the best thing to agree with is that, yes, everyone needs to do something. But there are people that need to agree to the fact that they need to do more, you know, we need like, for example, climate finance, for the, for the countries that are the most affected, we need to make sure that the loss and damage issue is talked about, and they support for people that are actually experiencing the loss and damage from this crisis. So for me, that's the angle that we should be taking, making sure that everyone understands what's their position, how much more is expected of me, and what have I done so far. So and the reason why we keep saying that, yes, we are not seeing any action from our leaders is because maybe whatever is being done, is not what we expect, because they are in, in big positions, you know, with all resources that they may need to even make changes as early as today. But we keep seeing more talk and not commitments, you know, we keep seeing people who are being affected by the crisis, the numbers are rising every day yet, we don't see the action from the people that have the capacity to do much, much more. So that should be it. And I'll just give an example as an individual, there are changes that I've also decided to make in my life because, like I mentioned, this is a natural call to action, you know, I'm not doing it because it's a duty imposed upon me, I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do, it's going to you know, impact my planet or myself in way or another because I do not expect to tell people to, you know, grow trees, but I'm the one who is cutting down trees. So and it's the same example that I always expect to see from our leaders you know, if you're leading the people you know, in conservation or leading people in a country as a president, people need to see you for the right leader, you know, you need to lead people in the right direction and let people know that you're doing this for humanity because at the end of the day, this is about our survival. So, this has been my thoughts around this issue that it has to be both the system change and the individual responsibility. So I'll just give a good example, I stopped using plastic bottles, I have to go with my own bottle everywhere I'm going and if you offer me one, I just use my own my own biodegradable bottles that I use every other day. So, it just shows you an example but I'm only one. So, what would happen if millions of us continue to do the same and take small actions will also end up making a difference. But we cannot be on our own without our leaders who have a capacity to do much more for the planet.
ML: Now on the bottles, I was very privileged to spend a bit of time in a place on an island where there were no plastic bottles, it was all glass and refilled and I was there for a week and when I went back, and I went back into the sort of wide world and I suddenly saw these plastic bottles being offered being discarded being as in it actually felt physically uncomfortable to see the waste of these plastic bottles. It is not something we should take for granted that there should be plastic bottles and single use plastics everywhere. Some of the things that you raise there are they're very, they're very tough issues because Okay, you want climate finance. And, you know, understood. But also there are those who say, well, you know, particularly Africa has contributed so little, that if we've got natural gas, if we've got oil, we should be allowed to develop it and generate the capital ourselves. So we don't have to have climate finance or aid or, or funding from anybody else, why can't we do exactly what the rest of the world has done, exploit our resources, get rich, and then, you know, deal with the consequences.
EW:I don't think Africa wants to take that direction, because we're seeing the impacts of actually going through, you know, the western way of exploiting the resources, and then at the end of the day, ending up having to face the worst impacts. So, Africa has one of the most intact resources right now, they are still intact, but people are still suffering from the crisis. So, what would happen if the only remaining <inaudible> systems in Africa begin to get exploited as well? We will not be talking about our future here, or the monetary survival in any case, because the challenge is only going to escalate at the end of the day. So I think the real bit here, right now, Africa, at the end of the day also has got a huge opportunity to develop in a clean way, as well, it has the most strongest renewable energy sources, even in Kenya, as we speak, solar, these are opportunities that we can tap into, and really continue to keep our natural ecosystems intact, but still develop in the right way, you know, with clean development mechanisms and dry and develop in a way that we actually turning into renewable energy sources, because it's possible, and Africa has got all these resources. But where is the finance going to, you know, at the end of the day it’s about making sure that Africa, Africa's capacity to adapt to the crisis increases. And this is made possible if you begin to invest in the right things, you know, in the right projects in the right opportunities, that can help the people that are the most affected to also continue improving their livelihoods at the same time. So, I think what we have not experienced as the world is that we have not begun to view Africa for the solutions that Africa has right now, towards this crisis. It doesn't have to be the old ways. No, it can still be our resources have remained intact, and Africa gets to a position where it's supposed to be. And I think the most important thing right now is to begin seeing Africa for the solutions and not for the problem. Because I think that's the picture but it's still not out there. And even when you get to these forums, the right stories of Africa, Africa's restoration, they're not being amplified as much as projects or, you know, people in Western countries, you know, we don't always get here much, for example, the Great Green Wall, people that are trying to stop a desert in Africa. So, these are powerful, positive projects that are happening in Africa, that tells you that we don't have to go back to the old Western ways. We can, you know, do great things for our planet for Africa, for everyone, by doing the right thing.
ML: I was going to ask you about the Great Green Wall, because when I, when I first heard about it, and this is a plan to, originally it was a plan to re-green the southern Sahara region, from coast to coast, right across Africa. And when I first heard of it, I thought, I mean, this is just a fantasy. This is crazy. This is you know, it's crazy talk, how could that possibly happen? But of course, 20 years later, or 15 years later, there's been some really big wins. And it is actually a really big and inspiring vision, which has now expanded to I think it's 35 countries in Africa that are participating. And it's all about remediating and restoring and using natural solutions to some of the biggest environmental and social problems, isn't it?
EW: Yes, absolutely.
ML: Are you involved in it?
EW: No, I'm not I'm not directly involved. I mean, it’s Africa and but I really have had so much great stories about the Great Green Wall. And I remember this point in time when I was part of a documentary that has been done for the Great Green Wall about what people have been doing in that region. And what really made me understand the great things about this project is that it's about the community. You know, these are people that have come together, they have so many challenges, but they've come together and decided that we are going to rebuild this place, you know, we are going to rebuild and, you know, bring back the nature that is supposed to be in this place. So, it's a whole lot of stories of resilience, you know, it's beyond the trees that are being planted. It's about the people that are doing this, you know, people who have come together and decided that we are not going to continue fixing these problems when we can make these ecosystems also benefit at of end of the day. So they have come together and decided to put their challenges behind and focus on this one thing, you know, the natural solutions. And I think, I mean, if anyone has a chance to watch that documentary on the Great Green Wall, it's really inspiring and, and tells you how much communities in Africa really coming up together to do much more for the planet.
ML: And we'll put links to the documentary that you mentioned, we'll get the link from you. And we'll put it into the show notes along with, of course, links to other things you're doing. Let me come back to this question about Africa's development, and the provision of finance, because we're at a very unique time in some of the energy system or transportation system development where everybody's talking about hydrogen, and they'll want to make cheap hydrogen and where do you make cheap hydrogen, you make it where it's sunny and windy. And where is it sunny and windy? Well, in we know North Africa, Morocco, but also in your own country. In Kenya, there's the Lake Turkana region with huge amounts of wind. And of course, there's sun, you know, sun everywhere in Africa, at least, that's the stereotype that we have. But is there a concern about this kind of industrialization, and in a sense, a new type of colonialism? Because all of these Western countries, Germany is saying, oh, we can't make enough renewable energy within Germany, we need to import it, oh, look, we'll go to Africa we’ll exploit their natural resources we’ll impose our priorities onto Africa? Is that a concern for you? And of course, then, potentially, it could be wind farms and solar farms. And, you know, oh, let's chop down these inconvenient trees, because they're getting in the way of this fabulous new wealth that can be generated from Africa?
EW: Yes, it's a huge concern. And it's a huge concern for many other African countries. And I'll give an example with what is happening in my own city, Nairobi. And this is mostly projects that are being led by China. So, and it's mostly around development, you know, road expansions and expressways. And I remember from early last year, we began this campaign to kind of challenge the manner in which the Nairobi express was going to affect the environment, because you know, so many trees are going to go down. At some point we had that it was going to hive off parts of rural Uhuru Park and it’s a historical park that also <inaudible> fought for.
ML: So you have this very historic trees, I can't remember how many 60 or so trees that became a real flashpoint, didn't it?
EW: Yes. So it was a challenge to just imagine that what has really been historical, you know, all the efforts that went into protecting that forest in that park will go down the drain. So, we really wanted to have some public participation, you know, people who are also really going to be affected by that problem to be listened to. And I think it's been challenging. We've lost hundreds of trees in Nairobi already. And we used to call it the green city under the sun. But right now, people are saying it's almost turning into a concrete jungle, because we just, you know, putting down trees and bringing up concrete, and it's not impressing anymore. So, I think it's also an issue about foreign direct investments, where we are seeing Western countries coming into African countries and investing into, you know, projects that are not actually safe for the environment, you know, projects that end up harming the environment, that end up clearing our forests, and the only few green spaces that we have left. So, I think this is a huge problem. Yes, I agree with you. It's a concern that should actually be addressed right now, to see to it that we are not exploiting Africa as well, you know, the resources in Africa need to also remain intact right now. Because we don't want to also increase the volume and magnitude of the impacts and challenges that we are already facing from the impacts of the crisis.
ML: Okay, so now COP 26 is nearly on us. We're talking about early November in Glasgow. And preparations are very advanced. Are you going to be in COP 26? Will you be attending?
EW: I hope to attend if there's not going to be an issue with the vaccination. I know my country's still in the Red List in the UK. So hopefully we get to know how we will attend even those of us who are in the red list and I know vaccination has also been a challenge to most African countries. A good example I think my country we only have like 2% of the population vaccinated when I think countries in the Global North have over 80%. So, it's also another challenge, you know, most of the challenges that we're talking about, you know, we're in the same storm, but different boats.
ML: So on the on the overall vaccination, there's, it's as a tragic difference between the Global South and the North, as you say, in terms of the vaccination specifically for COP, I know that the Foreign Office has been sending out teams and resources to get potential delegates vaccinated. So hopefully, you can benefit from that.
EW: Yeah, I actually have the first one already. But hopefully that by the time I'm getting the second jab we will have, because that's another problem. You might sorry, like when your second jab, and maybe they're not enough. So you'll have to wait for the next batch to come in. So I hopefully I'll get it done.
ML: I very much hope that you do. And we'll be running a lot of activities. I've actually rented a big place outside just outside Glasgow, for 12 days of discussions, and you'll be very welcome to join our days on nature-based solutions, and also adjust transition and Africa and the Global South. So, I hope you can make it. But even if you can't, what is the message? Because my worry is even if we get, you know, the delegates from the Global South, that their voices are not central, in these negotiations or in these discussions. It's kind of a, you know, the key axis is US, EU, UK, Japan, the big countries. And the big concern is how to deal with China and bring them in, and India, of course, you know, is a big concern. But then Africa and some of the other countries get kind of left out of the discussions and are just expected to kind of assume that these other countries are looking after their interests. Is that a fair? Is that how it feels to you? And if so, what do we do about it?
EW: That is definitely not fair to do. Because at the end of the day, we cannot discuss or talk about solutions for people who are not even at the table. You know, we cannot talk about Africa, without Africans in the room, we cannot talk about solving challenges for a community that is not in the room. It has to be the people themselves speaking for themselves, because Africa has a voice. And you know, people who are the most affected by the crisis also have a voice. It's only that we make them voiceless, by not giving them opportunities to speak for themselves. And I think this exactly is the problem. I mean, it's usually sometimes I’d say even annoying to see a panel, for example, that it's talking about the African climate crisis without an African in the panel, and it has like 10 people in the panel. So it doesn't paint any good picture, because we are discussing about Africa and the climate crisis, we need the people that are on the front line, the people that are facing the challenges that we talk about every day, we need them in the room to paint the real picture what is happening on the ground, because most of the times you find that people are not doing anything, because they feel as though just because the climate crisis is not happening where they are, then it's not happening at all. And this is because you've chosen to sideline the people that are facing the impacts each and every day. Because there's nothing you knew we discuss all of these things about the challenges and impacts, the solution. When there are people who are facing the impacts. And there are people who are acting on the solutions every day, we need to hear these stories, the stories on the ground, we need to hear real stories of action on the ground of action of communities that are faced the impacts and challenges for too long, and decided that they're not going to you know, continue suffering, that they're going to come together and do something about the problem. We need to hear these stories in this room. And I think that would be the only fair way to continue acting on this crisis. And I think that would be one of my expectations, from COP 26, to leave no one behind, and make sure that every voice is fully represented. And also, when it comes to young people, we don't want to just see young people being put in sessions to tick the boxes. No, we want to see a kind of genuine and meaningful youth engagement for the young people. I want to know what happens to my voice at COP 26 after COP 26 and during COP 26 because sometimes we raise so really important issues that end up not even being used in making the decisions. And so, we ask ourselves, where then is our voices? We have only been heard but are not being listened to. So that would be one of my other expectations from COP 26 to really make sure that we are not just being heard but we are being listened to and that whatever it is we are asking is being done by the leaders. And the other thing, of course, because we all know what is supposed to be done, you know, from different countries, we've made all these pledges and commitments before, it is time to, you know, turn all these commitments into action, and then tell us, this is what is changing right now, and not what is going to change or what we are going to do. It's about what we are doing right now.
ML: I think that's a very valid criticism of these big events. I mean, we've now seen, particularly, of course, Greta Thunberg, you know, they give her the microphone, and she does her thing, and she's very angry, and it's all great television. And then it's like, a big standing ovation applause. And then you sort of feel like, what did that change? What's that? Is that like a box ticked? Or is that when everybody feels better? And I can see exactly, exactly the concern there, I suppose in the defense of us, old people, and sort of older, and I'm a white guy from the Global North. Actually, there is a lot being done. You know, the, the kind of the easy, sort of soundbite is, it's all just talk and there is no action, but actually, I'm looking at it, and I spend my time with people who actually I myself, you know, get up every day trying to innovate and try to act and in fact, we have really pretty much reached peak emissions. This is not much talked about, that we've actually got, I mean, setting aside the pandemic, we've actually still got growth in jobs, growth in human wellbeing, hopefully, we'll return to very quickly after the pandemic, but emissions have actually been almost flat now for eight years or so. So, we kind of are making progress, I would plea in our in the defense of those who are working on it around the world. But of course, we've got we all know we have so much more to do. So, we're not even, you know, there's no complacency at all. But it just sometimes feels a little bit unfair to be told we're doing nothing. When so many people I work with are busting their sinews trying to do as much as possible, but not enough.
EW: Yeah, I think that's the whole point. Like it's not enough. And I think also, the bigger problem here is our leaders who are failing us in this whole issue, because, like I mentioned, these are the people who are in bigger positions of power, able to do and make changes even as early as right now if they want to. So our question is, what is stopping us what is stopping about leaders from, you know, doing all these things that we promised that we will do, you know, we want to hear promises and commitments here, but they are not enough. And they don't mean anything if they do not translate into real action on the ground. And that's the whole point, why we really want to see, you know, when the pandemic happened, the Covid-19 pandemic, and I think we've picked so much lessons from the Covid-19 pandemic, that we can actually act if we want to, because we had a pandemic last year, in 2020. And there was all these measures, the lockdowns and social distancing masks that I had never seen masks in my country, and no one is having a mask. So like, so many measures were made instantly, you know, with immediate effect, it was an emergency and a pandemic that had to be contained. And we saw every country doing the same. So, our question is, if we have done this for the Covid-19, you know, crisis, we need to treat all every other crisis, like a crisis, you know, the climate crisis, the same. And like I mentioned, for the climate crisis, as well, we may be in the same storm, but in different boats now there are those that have a better and wider capacity to adapt, and more resources to adapt to the impacts. But there are those that are not able to. So, if we treat this as an emergency, and like the emergency it is, then it means that we will be making changes that are actually being seen, you know, real changes that we can actually see and say we are making progress. And I think also, it's still alarming from the latest IPCC report that, you know, we have really wasted so much time so far that would have been used to take real action. And right now, it's become so challenging, but there is still a chance for us to continue, you know, making the changes that we need to be making right now. But it has to be urgent and you have to take we have to take the climate crisis seriously. That's the whole point.
ML: Elizabeth, it's a great pleasure talking to you. We're going to be running out of time very shortly. I want to finish with just one kind of big picture question. Are you optimistic, or are you pessimistic? Because you seem an optimistic person but also some of the things you say indicate that you're really not that optimistic. So, which is it?
EW: I am optimistic right now. And the only reason I'm optimistic is because I know that I'm not in this fight alone. There are so many other millions of young people and citizens who are concerned about the future of this planet. And they are stepping up to take either individual responsibility or to put pressure on their governments and leaders to take more urgent action. So, this is what gives me hope, even in the middle of what the challenges that we're facing right now. And, you know, so many alarming things that happened, the planet, and so many alarming news as well from the IPCC report. But I'm optimistic because there are people who are fighting and I think we can only be stronger together. And that's what continues to give me hope every day.
ML: Well, it's not just that you have hope, but you've also given hope to a lot of people, inspired by the great professor Wangari Maathai, who's inspired both of us. Hopefully, we can take a little bit of that urgency and that sense of purpose out into the broader world and try to infect some others as we go about our daily work. I'd like to really thank you for joining me today from Nairobi. And I wish you all the best getting your vaccination so hopefully we'll be able to meet and talk about these things further, with some very influential groups that we can bring together at COP 26 in Glasgow.
EW: So great, Michael, and thank you so much for the wonderful opportunity to share with you today.
ML: It's entirely my pleasure. Thank you. Bye, bye.
EW: Bye. Thank you.
ML: So that was Elizabeth Wathuti, I think you will agree an extraordinary young woman planter already have over 30,000 trees and a powerful voice for trees, the environment and action on climate change. Another powerful voice for action and investment around climate change joins us next week. It's the Right Honorable William Russell, Lord Mayor of London. Please join me this time next week for another episode of Cleaning Up