Meet Vanessa Nakate, the climate activist speaking up for Africa

Young Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate has become a spokesperson for the African people who are suffering most because of the climate crisis.

Article published on 25th January 2020 and updated on 27th October 2021.

Rather than as a climate activist, Vanessa Nakate would rather be known as “a fighter for the climate and a better future for everyone”. Born in Uganda in 1996, her fight has been one of street protests and speeches filled with meaning and passion, which have brought her to some of the most important occasions for climate debate, such as Milan’s Youth4Climate and the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Who is Vanessa Nakate?

Born on 15th November 1996 in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Vanessa Nakate has a degree in business management from her city’s university. At age 21, she started learning about the issue of climate change, which was almost entirely absent from school curriculums in her country, a fact Nakate mentions in an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire. Her interest in the issue is how she first came into contact with the Fridays for Future movement. Vanessa Nakate started striking by herself, carrying a placard that read “Green Love, Green Peace”.

Undeterred by her coursemates’ mocking attitude, Vanessa Nakate joined forces with other environmentalists, Friday after Friday, culminating in the foundation of the Youth for Future Africa movement, which subsequently became the Rise Up movement. She was able to bring forth her concerns during prestigious events like COP25 in Madrid, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture. In 2020, the BBC added her to its list of the world’s 100 most inspiring and influential women, alongside – among others – US actor Jane Fonda and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. In autumn 2021, Vanessa Nakate’s book was published, with the title A Bigger Picture: My fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis.

The alleged racist incident at the 2020 World Economic Forum

At the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Nakate ended up at the centre of an alleged incident of racism. On 24th January 2020, she was part of a press conference on the issue of climate alongside Swedish activists Greta Thunberg and Isabelle Axelsson, Luis Neubauer from Germany, and Loukina Tille from Switzerland. However, in one of the first photographs circulated by the leading international press agency AP, the group was not complete. Vanessa Nakate, the only Black activist, had been cut out. “I have now learned the definition of racism,” the young woman responded in a Facebook post, after having shared a video denouncing the incident that went viral within a few hours.

Was Nakate’s exclusion a conscious decision or an accident? It’s impossible to say. Following the heavy criticism it received, AP changed the photo gallery on the news piece. In an interview with Buzzfeed News, a spokesperson attempted to justify the agency’s actions: “There was no ill intent. AP routinely publishes photos as they come in and when we received additional images from the field, we updated the story. AP has published a number of images of Vanessa Nakate”. Meanwhile, the activist was flooded with messages of support.

A guardian of Congo’s rainforest

One of the causes that Vanessa Nakate is helping us to understand better is that of the rainforest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In recent years, western media have focused greatly on deforestation in the Amazon and the wildfires that devastated Australia and California, but it’s much rarer to hear anything about Congo’s rainforest. In the summer of 2019, forests in central Africa were also hit by dozens of wildfires, mostly set by farmers to prepare fields before the rainy season.

This questionable agricultural technique is just one of the threats hanging over the world’s second green lung, a Mongabay study has found. If we also consider the road networks under construction, oil and gas drilling projects, the goals of agribusiness, and ever-increasing droughts, it’s easy to see why the rate of deforestation in Congo is much higher than anywhere else on Earth.

congo, forests
Virunga National Park, in DRC © Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Vanessa Nakate’s speech at Youth4Climate

In 2019, there were wildfires in Central Africa, drought in Zimbabwe, and flooding in a part of Niger that is usually a desert. In 2020, there was an invasion of locusts. In 2021, the scorching summer in Algeria saw temperatures reach 49 degrees centigrade, hundreds of hectares of forest were reduced to ash in Morocco and Tunisia, and Madagascar suffered a famine. The list of catastrophic manifestations of the climate crisis in Africa is already too long, and it’s set to keep growing. For example, at this rate, not a single glacier will remain on the continent by 2040.

“This is absurd given that Africa is the lowest emitter of CO2 of all continents, except for Antarctica,” noted Vanessa Nakate on the stage at Youth4Climate: Driving Ambition, an event dedicated to young activists that was held in Milan between 28th and 30th September 2021, as part of the build-up to COP26. Nakate’s moving speech won the hearts of the audience and made it to the front pages of newspapers, being a precious direct account that’s also full of compelling scientific evidence.

“Who is going to pay for the thousands of species that fall off the [IUCN] Red List and into oblivion? […] How long shall children be given up for marriage because their families have lost everything to the climate crisis? How long will children sleep hungry because their farms have been washed away, because their crops have been dried up, because of the extreme weather conditions?” asked Nakate, before ending with a strong appeal to world leaders: “You cannot adapt to lost cultures. You cannot adapt to lost traditions. You cannot adapt to lost history. You cannot adapt to starvation. And you cannot adapt to extinction”.

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