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In Ghana, two young men are changing what climate justice looks like in the Global South

A youth-led African climate advocacy group makes a case for climate reparations and recognition

A woman farmer in Ghana. Adam Öjdahl, IWM
29 July 2021
29 July 2021

On a Tuesday morning, the phone rings in the Accra office of the Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO). Its co-founders – Desmond Alugnoa, 30, and Joshua Amponsem, 29 – answer the call in what begins a busy day. On the other end of the line is GAYO’s partner LoveSpring, a Danish-based organization supporting humanitarian water projects, calling to discuss the possibilities of upscaling the construction of mechanized boreholes. By 11 a.m., the two men have wrapped up a productive two-hour meeting that identified the best sites for new boreholes to provide communities with potable drinking water and irrigation for farming.

After lunch, they sit down with the GAYO team to go over their strategic direction and five-year plan to expand their work to other countries in West Africa and build partnerships and fundraising with international donors. By the end of the day, they’ve scheduled an additional three meetings, with a local village head, potential international donor and youth volunteer group. This is just an ordinary day for Alugnoa and Amponsem, who have built GAYO to be one of the most influential youth-led landscape restoration efforts in West Africa.

Both Ghanaians have an emotional tie to the work they’re leading now. Alugnoa’s story began as a farmer in northern Ghana, where he grew up witnessing desertification and drought leading to drastic decreases in his village’s crop yield. “In the past 10 years, it’s been getting worse and worse,” says Alugnoa, who attributes his current passion to these experiences of his youth. He has now spent the past several years working in various climate spaces and attending international climate events as a Ghanaian representative. “As somebody who grew up in a farming community, and being a farmer myself, I studied environmental science because I needed to inform myself and other young people, so that we can kick against government inaction.”

Similarly, Amponsem’s relationship with climate activism began at a young age with planting trees and enhancing natural capital for climate-affected communities in Ghana, invigorating him to set his sights on the global stage. Amponsem has since served as an advisor to the UN Youth Envoy’s Office, helping plan and execute the first UN Youth Climate Summit. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Amponsem led a global youth consultation to produce the Global Youth Call to Action on Adaptation.

GAYO’s approach to solving the climate crisis is resultingly multi-faceted, while always prioritizing the improvement of local livelihoods and communities most vulnerable to climate change.

Throughout their work, overcoming the prevalence of injustice and achieving proper reparations is central: those who are least resourced are the ones most often put in positions to exhaust the minimal resources they have. And these struggles they witness in their local environment are increasingly tied to unpredictable weather and climate change, spurred by emissions from largely wealthy and industrialized nations. Alugnoa has seen children in his hometown unable to go to school due to lack of resources, or because of storms that have made roads and pathways dangerous with fallen trees.

“Look at the entire emissions profile of African countries; look at the entire emissions profile of these communities – but look at the impact that these people are facing,” he remarks.

“Climate change is driving injustice and inequalities globally,” corroborates Amponsem. “The droughts in the Sahara strip, cyclones in southern Africa and in South Asia, tropical storms in Latin America – these events are knocking people into poverty over and over again.”

It is for this reason that both young leaders raise the challenges faced by local communities at high-level political decision-making events. Otherwise, they stress, the necessary interventions to allow communities to build capacity and adapt to increasing desertification and droughts are often overlooked.

The leaders of GAYO, Joshua Amponsem (left) and Desmond Alugnoa (right). Courtesy of GAYO
The leaders of GAYO, Joshua Amponsem (left) and Desmond Alugnoa (right). Courtesy of GAYO

“I always say that if you are an African politician or you are a leader of an African country and you are seeking aid from Europe or the U.S., you should make sure that whatever support coming into Africa does not come to further destroy or weaken the capacity of these communities to adapt to climate change. We have to ensure that we are improving their capacity to cope,” Alugnoa says.

Most recently, Alugnoa led GAYO to develop a partnership with PeriodLink to produce reusable sanitary pads that relieve women from having to buy single-use sanitary pads, enabling more young women and girls to attend school regularly, particularly during financially-straining dry seasons. Meanwhile, Amponsem has been driving a separate initiative, the Sustainable Community Project, which is Ghana’s first community-led zero waste project, providing green jobs and applying circular economy principles to agriculture and food systems.

While Ghana’s updated NDCs have placed a strong emphasis on sustainable waste management, agriculture, sufficient energy and technology transfer, both express reservations around whether these ambitions will truly be operationalized through quantifiable indicators and policies that are appropriate and enforceable.

“The focus on mitigation over the past years has been tremendous. The Paris Agreement laid out strategies and plans for both mitigation and adaptation, but in reality, most of the efforts from the developed countries have focused on mitigation,” Amponsem says, reflecting that the need for adaptation is far more dire in the Global South, where the impacts of climate change are stronger than in the North.

The two GAYO leaders aren’t the only young people trying to spur adaptive measures – they note that young people all across the world are quick to help rebuild and recover from disasters. “But then the next year another natural event happens due to increased vulnerabilities, leading to more disasters,” says Amponsem, emphasizing that there needs to be much more global and multilateral support for these local efforts.

“This is our future,” says Alugnoa. “Whichever level, whatever your age, this is the time you actually lead. This is the time you actually take advantage of your youthful energy and shape the world, the way you want it to be.”


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