When Tabi Joda of GreenAid returned from university to the rural Cameroon villages he knew as a child, he found some of them totally abandoned because the land had become too degraded to support villagers’ livelihoods. He was horrified and asked himself, “Why did I go to university, if not to make a difference?”
Many of us engage in environmental activism because of a sense of responsibility to today’s children and future generations. And we often bring young people into these efforts with the notion of instilling environmental values in them for later life. But, “it’s no longer about the future; it’s about today,” said Tangu Tumeo, a forestry officer in Malawi’s government. “And where I’m coming from, it’s not even a choice.”
In 2016, Malawi pledged to bring 4.5 million hectares of degraded and deforested land under restoration by 2030 – almost half its total land area. This pledge is part of the country-led AFR100 initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares across the African continent. Speaking in a side event on restoration opportunities for young people at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, on 1–2 December, Tumeo explained how restoration is necessary and urgent for food security in her country. The population is expanding, and youth under 24 currently comprise 64 percent. Without sustainable employment, “they’ll keep exploiting the remaining forests, making charcoal and the cycle [of degradation and poverty] will never end,” she said.
That’s why her ministry is implementing youth-focused forest landscape restoration (FLR) initiatives that incentivize restoration by providing decent wages for their young employees. And to meet the AFR100 commitments across the continent, these are the kinds of activities that need to be scaled up, said Mamadou Diakité of the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).
In terms of population, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with a median age of just 19. What’s more, African youth are among the most vulnerable to disasters, climate change and land degradation – and over 450 million young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed. Engaging youth in restoration across the continent and beyond could prove a win-win for employment and the environment, said Diakité.
A DEEPER CONNECTION
But it’s not just economics that will convince young people to engage in restoration at the pace and level that’s needed. Fostering connection with the environment is also crucial, said Claire Nasike in the conference’s Youth Plenary. Nasike was raised in a small village in western Kenya by her grandmother, who had a range of tree species in her compound and used them to treat villagers with medical complaints. Following her grandmother around and learning about the trees’ various uses, Nasike developed her own passion for the natural world. As a result, she later established the Hummingbird Foundation, which educates disadvantaged children in Nairobi on growing food and planting trees.
In the side event, Joda also observed that experiential learning is key to motivating young people: “When they grow seedlings themselves, they start understanding the connection between the health of the seedling and the health of the soil.” Paula Caballero of the World Bank noted the importance of targeting programs specifically to young people. Her organization is in the process of establishing youth-focused field schools for farmers in Burundi, “because they learn differently, they learn faster, and they ask different questions,” as compared to their older counterparts.
So how do we mobilize young people at wider scales? Fe Cortez, founder of Brazilian-based enterprise Menos 1 Lixo (One Less Trash), observed in the Youth Plenary how many sustainability initiatives don’t receive mainstream attention. Coming from the fashion industry, she worked hard on getting the right language for her initiative “to get the message to everybody, not just our bubble.” Her company inspires people to make small changes, such as refusing disposable cups and straws, and sells retractable, reusable cups. Sustainability, she holds, does not need to be exclusive with financial profitability.
Cortez added that while tech tools are mostly used to convince consumers to buy things they don’t need, “what I think is very powerful is when you hack the system and use the technology for something good… If we’re clever, we can leverage technology, gamification and data analysis tools to share a positive message.”
One upcoming example of this is from Felix Finkbeiner, who is overseeing the development of an app for his tree-planting organization Plant-for-the-Planet and its Trillion Trees Campaign, which will help young people access the land and finances they need for restoration.
But while technology seems an obvious part of any discussion on engaging young people, “there’s not a technological revolution that’s going to get us through this,” cautioned Sarah Dickson-Hoyle, a founding member of the GLF’s Youth in Landscapes initiative. “We need a human revolution as well as a technological revolution to move forward with some of these issues.”