In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.
CIVICUS speaks with Theophile Hatagekimana, Executive Secretary of Rwanda Environment Awareness Organisation (REAO), a Rwandan civil society organisation that works to create awareness about climate change and environmental issues and to promote sound environmental management policies.
What’s the key environmental issue in your community that you’re working on?
We work on climate change resilience and mitigation with respect for human rights. In recent years we have started collaborating with government efforts to reduce the amount of fuel used for cooking at the household level. We have joined forces with the Rwandan government in this and other initiatives because they are being very proactive in the area of climate change mitigation.
Within this project, we teach vulnerable people, including young women, poor women, adolescent single mothers, and victims of sexual abuse, how to use improved cooking methods such as stoves instead of firewood, which not only saves trees and reduces their exposure to toxic emissions in their homes, but also saves them a lot of time. We encourage them to allocate the time saved in the process to self-development activities including education and social interaction, as well as to engage in income-generating activities.
We also plant trees to restore forests and we plant and distribute agroforestry trees, which make the soil more resilient and able to tackle extreme climatic events such as drought and torrential rain, as well as providing food, forage, industrial raw materials, lumber, fuel, and mulch, helping diversify diets and income. One of our projects focuses on purchasing seeds and planting them in schools, within the framework of a programme that includes ecological literacy, the demonstration of environmental principles by developing green practices on a day-to-day basis, and the development of environmental ethics.
Though it might seem that we work only on environment protection, we are in fact very concerned with the human rights dimension of environmental protection, so we oppose the practice of displacing people without proper compensation. We raise awareness among the public about their rights as provided in law and support them to claim them when necessary. A case in point is that of the Batwa Indigenous people who are often expelled from their land, so we provide them the tools so that they will know their rights as provided in international and Rwandan law.
How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?
Many activists, including myself, maintain personal connections with international organisations and peers around the world. But also at the organisational level, we try to connect with other groups that have a similar mission to ours and take part in climate and environmental networks and coalitions. REAO is a member of the Rwanda Climate Change and Development Network, a national association of environment defenders’ organisations. At the international level, we network with other organisations that work on climate change protection and mitigation, and we have worked in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Development Programme, among others.
What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make any progress in climate change mitigation?
We welcome all international efforts aimed at making coordinated decisions to protect the environment and improve the wellbeing of communities, and we are hopeful that COP26 will result in the adoption of concrete measures to address climate change and environmental degradation. At the discursive level, of course, all that national leaders say on the global stage is exactly what we want to hear; none of it goes against our mission, vision and values. We hope that at COP26 those words will translate into commitments that will result in positive change in their countries’ behaviour on climate issues.
What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?
On the global level, we want to see action by the countries that are the biggest polluters aimed at reducing it substantially. Countries like China, India, the USA and others should take clear decisions and act on climate change issues or we will all face the consequences of their inaction. We hope that big polluters will pay for climate solutions and the bill will be settled.
At the local level, we hope to see the living conditions of less advantaged communities improve and adapt to climate change with the support of government policies and funding.