3 youth climate activists on how COVID-19 has shaped their work

Perspectives from a young journalist, organizational head and NGO worker

A young climate activist protests in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a "just and green recovery" from COVID-19. Friends of the Earth Scotland
8 December 2020
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8 December 2020
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Earlier this year, on a Friday morning in Curitiba, Brazil, 28-year old journalist Rafael Forsetto sat in his office, mulling over his workplan. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, his next project was to document the work of the Indigenous communities of the Xingu River Basin, whose lands are under threat due to the deforestation, illegal logging and small-scale “garimpo” mining. But Brazilian Indigenous populations have been decimated by the virus, so Rafael decided that for the health safety of others and of himself, he would find other stories to pursue. 

Despite the political and environmental stability of our world facing a terrifying question mark, youth activists like Rafael – flexible, adaptable, willing to reconsider priorities – are keeping hope for the future alive. 

Rafael is the co-founder of Human Voices, a social communications company that documents the lived experiences of marginalized communities in Latin America, and particularly those most vulnerable to climate change. Rafael found his voice through on-the-ground reporting and visual storytelling, having written stories about agroecology and Indigenous resilience during the Amazonian forest fires for Mongabay, the Latin America News Dispatch, and the North American Congress on Latin America

A pivotal moment in his young career came in 2020, when after the rise in Amazonian forest fires, he traveled to Piaraçu village, deep in the Amazon, where Indigenous activist Chief Raoni had called a meeting of more than 45 tribes. “It was the largest meeting of Brazilian Indigenous tribes to occur in a village, and I had the chance to watch and document as the tribes discussed,” he recalls.

During the pandemic, he has shifted to focus on stories in his home state of Paraná, to minimize travel and health risks, but his passion for his work has not lessened. “There are so many stories of people that are on the frontlines of climate change that are not getting told,” he says. “No matter the medium, I am set in my mission: making these voices heard on the issues that matter most.”

Rafael interviewing the late Indigenous Chief Paulinho Paiakan at the meeting of the 45 tribes. Courtesy of Rafael Forsetto
Rafael interviewing the late Indigenous Chief Paulinho Paiakan at the meeting of the 45 tribes. Courtesy of Rafael Forsetto

For others, climate action adopts an organizational apparatus. Thirty-seven-year-old Mardha Tillah is the executive director of Rimbawan Muda Indonesia (RMI) in Bogor, Indonesia, where she organizes community projects, conducts research, and carries out campaigns and village-, regional- and national-level policy work to recognize secure territorial rights for Indonesian Indigenous communities, reduce land-grabbing and protect environmental defenders. 

The work of Rimbawan Muda, which means “young forester” in the Indonesian language, often covers disputed areas such as customary forests or territories and agricultural landscapes. This requires her to work with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, Indigenous groups, civil society – and youth. Mardha regularly runs youth trainings and equips youth with the facilitation and leadership skills to become environmental leaders on sustainable land management practices, which she believes serve as an entry point to addressing climate change. 

Mardha’s initial passion for climate action and environmental rights dates back to 2004, when she served as a volunteer in one of Indonesia’s most renowned environmental NGOs, the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI). Mardha’s mother inculcated in her the idea of protecting and safeguarding the environment since she was a young child, which has grown into her mission: to spread awareness about environmental protection to other Indonesians, specifically using her platform at RMI to reach younger generations with inspiration to join the climate justice movement. 

In her past 12 years of working with RMI, she says she has seen an immense transformation in the involvement of youth who are engaged and consulted on environmental justice work in Indonesia. She hopes young Indonesians will continue to join the global movement for environmental restoration and climate action.

Mardha, right, attending a gender equality leadership event in Indonesia. Mayumi Sato
Mardha, right, attending a gender equality leadership event in Indonesia. Mayumi Sato

COVID has made it difficult for her to mobilize trainings and run consultations in the field, and most of her work is now focused on policy work through virtual meetings. However, she says the digitization of her work has opened up diverse participation in climate discussions, including more youth across Indonesia. “In regards to advocacy work, there are tremendous changes that we have had to make. We have to do all press conferences virtually and organize discussions with the coalitions virtually,” she says. “However, by doing this, more people and organizations can join from all places in Indonesia.” 

Thousands of kilometers away in Washington D.C., another young woman is taking a similar approach to Mardha. Rebeca Cipollitti, 25, helps manage an international partnership with the World Economic Forum for the Climate Reality Project, an NGO focused on climate change education and advocacy. Through a youth-for-youth approach, she assists young people around the world to help them make climate change a priority within their volunteer, personal and professional work and helps them execute their climate projects. 

Over the past year, Rebeca worked with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, a network of young people working for social change, and specifically helping connect the “Shapers” with climate project grants for their projects. This meant assisting Shapers to create detailed proposals for grants, including how their projects – which range from food waste to city cycling programs in countries from Nigeria to Belgium to Ecuador – tie into their country’s NDCs. 

“We didn’t want to just throw money to Shapers and let them figure it out,” she says. “We wanted to ensure that these projects were going to be long-lasting, sustainable[(through funding and/or community partnerships] and create measurable impact on climate.”

Rebeca, right, demonstrating for youth climate justice in D.C. Couresty of Rebeca Cipollitti
Rebeca, right, demonstrating for youth climate justice in D.C. Couresty of Rebeca Cipollitti

“I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with youth across the globe who either are deeply entrenched in climate work, or who barely know the basic science but find a way to make a positive impact that is right for them,” she says.

But what enables youth in bringing their activism and fight for climate justice to full fruition?

Rebeca, Rafael and Mardha’s individual journeys collectively show that there is no linear trajectory to tackling climate change – but they do share a certain level of creativity as well as a desire to give voice to the voiceless.

Rafael, for one, sees local and marginalized communities as best-equipped to develop solutions to the climate crisis. “I want to use the tools I have at hand to give the public insight into the reality faced by people who don’t have those luxuries [financial, linguistic, media access] – the people who have to implement traditional knowledge, sustainable means and nature-based solutions to combat the climate emergency that threatens the entire world.”

Despite all of the global youth’s efforts, though, ‘the voiceless’ still includes their own generation, and therefore part of their work involves lifting up one another.

“There are so many paths to take that are effective and necessary when it comes to climate action, especially as a young person,” says Rebeca. “But I have remained in this space since the beginning of my professional career because of the people I’ve met and worked with. I’ve found that coworkers, for example, are doing the work because they genuinely care… As youth, we understand that protecting our planet needs to be embedded in everything we do.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Youth in Landscapes Initiative.


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