Each year grassroots environmental heroes are feted under the auspices of The Goldman Environmental Prize, which is often referred to as the Green Nobel Prize. The Prize which commenced in 1990 awards one recipient from each of the world’s six inhabited continental regions and recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.
The Prize views “grassroots” leaders as those involved in local efforts where positive change is created through community or citizen participation. Through recognizing these individual leaders, the Prize seeks to inspire other ordinary people to take extraordinary actions to protect the natural world. Since its commencement, a total of 32 Africans have emerged as proud winners, including Michael Werikhe (Kenya), Wangari Muta Maathai (Kenya), Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria), Makoma Lekalakala and Liz McDaid (South Africa).
Chibeze Ezekiel, co-founder of 350 Ghana Reducing Our Carbon and a Board Member of 350.org, joins this illustrious list as the 2020 Prize Winner, making him the second Ghanaian to win this award after Rudolf Amenga-Etego some 16 years ago. The Prize honored Chibeze for his courage in leading a grassroots movement to vigorously campaign against the government of Ghana’s intention to build a coal-plant, while promoting renewables as better alternatives. He is currently mobilizing and building the capacity of young people as “Green Champions” and climate activists with a commitment to protecting the environment and safeguarding the integrity of nature. This award is thus a great motivation for young people in Ghana and in Africa to take ambitious actions towards protecting their environment.
The rise of grassroots movements and their fight for the planet
Climate change is the most significant environmental occurrence of our time and continues to adversely impact the lives of the poor and vulnerable particularly in under-developed and developing countries. Its raging impact has the potential to derail efforts being made towards the attainment of global development goals. Even though there are a number of international and national conventions, protocols, policies, strategies and plans to tackle climate change, the expected “action-oriented” commitments such as providing climate financing, transfer of appropriate technologies and enforcement of regulations are not being realized.
This inaction by governments and lack of political will has led to a significant rise of movements at national, regional and global levels. These movements include Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future which initiated the Global Climate Strike in September 2019, People's Climate Movement, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Fuel Divestment and AfrikaVuka.
In Ghana, the Strategic Youth Network for Development (SYND) led by Chibeze is actively mobilizing young people to hold the government accountable through the Youth in Renewable Energy Movement, Youth in Climate Action and Children for Climate Action (C4C) initiatives.
These grassroots movements have been instrumental in bringing focus to the urgency of the climate crisis, pushing for greater accountability from respective governments and duty bearers while “forcing” them to show serious commitment to the fight against climate change. Grassroots groups challenging coal projects across the continent
Despite the several challenges they are facing, grassroots movements have been able to get their voices and demands heard. Refusing to see themselves as victims of decisions made in the capital cities or by multinationals, they are rising up and protesting against projects and initiatives imposed on them. This is particularly true in the environmental and social justice spheres where years of education to raise awareness and build advocacy capacity coupled with participatory democracy are now paying off.
Concerned about the environmental impacts resulting from the construction of new coal power plants in most cases, community groups from South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast raised public awareness through rallies and various mobilisations, and even challenged the legal standing of the coal deals in court.
Frontline communities bear the brunt of the negligent practices of oil, gas and coal companies; grassroots struggles against the fossil fuel industry contain the potential to shape history, especially the fight for real climate action and against energy poverty. Iconic leaders such as Ken Saro Wiwa or Wangari Mathai, both former Goldman Prize laureates, continue to be seen as inspiring champions and defenders of community rights against the oppression and marginalisation from abusive powers, exploitation and extractivism. Such leaders went the extra mile at the price of their lives to ensure that constitutional rights of their fellow citizens are fully protected and respected.
For some time, the issues related to climate change were considered to be the preserve of scientists, academicians and other elites. But thanks to years of civic and environmental education, awareness raising and mobilisation, grassroots movements have been able to demystify these issues, making them accessible to the public helping citizens make the necessary connections between climate, agriculture, water and energy for example.
Access to clean energy: a right for all
While some countries in the southern parts of the continent are still recovering from the impacts of cyclones Idai and Kenneth and those in western parts from the terrible floods that occurred in September, we are reminded again of the increasing warming conditions we are in and the extreme vulnerability of Africa to climate impacts despite the fact that its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is rather insignificant.
Despite this gloomy picture, renewable energy is slowly becoming a reality in various parts of the continent thanks to continued efforts led by civil society and grassroots movements to urgently address the nexus of the climate crisis and energy access.
Let us be clear - the shift to renewable energy as an alternative cleaner source of energy is not a panacea. However, it is stopping the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and thus preventing the continent from becoming trapped in the fossil fuels addiction. Renewables are improving the living conditions of populations while allowing access to a clean energy source on a continent where more than 5 out of 10 people still do not have access to electricity. Renewables are already projected to become a leading employment provider, a big plus for Africa’s youthful population.
The road for climate justice remains long. Grassroots movements and young people have to continue raising their voices in the push for ambitious climate action. Their engagement with passion, consistency, innovation and determination to ensure a fossil free planet and a sustainable future will definitely bear fruits. As concerned citizens we need governments that treat the climate emergency as the most urgent global threat to people’s health, safety and future. We are not yet there, that’s why we cannot rest.
*Chibeze Ezekiel is the recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize 2020 and currently serves as the Executive Coordinator of the Strategic Youth Network for Development (SYND) while Landry Ninteretse is the Africa Team Leader of 350.org