CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Guillaume Kalonji, a youth climate activist and founder of Rise Up Movement DRC.
Rise Up Movement DRC is a citizen movement founded and led by young people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It aims to help communities combat climate change and adapt to its effects. It amplifies the voices and experiences of young activists in the Global South, provides climate education in schools and communities and promotes sustainable land use and the development and use of renewable energies.
Why did you become a climate activist?
I graduated in general biology and trained as a teacher. I soon realised I would be unable to practise my biology skills on a dead planet or teach starving people.
The DRC is a country in the throes of war, especially in the eastern region. It is also undergoing a huge economic and food crisis. People are hungry and spend much of their time looking for food. As a result, they have no time to think about the climate, even though they are severely affected by the effects of climate change caused by the countries of the global north. A lot of what they are suffering is climate related.
So I decided to organise and mobilise against climate change. I realised I needed to be ready to play my part at every level, from my local community to international forums. That’s why I taught myself English – my mother tongue is French – within a year of realising that COP climate summits and other major international climate conferences are held in English.
What environmental issues do you work on?
Upon realising that so many people are unaware of the root causes of the problems they face, I started focusing on environmental education. I visit schools and universities to raise awareness amongst young people, in the hope that they’ll join me in one way or another in demanding those who have caused climate change to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to stop causing harm, and pay reparations for the harm they have already caused.
The DRC is a direct victim of the disruption of the seasons and the rainfall cycle that characterises climate change. This is what’s at the root of the drop in agricultural production, a major source of the food insecurity that currently affects more than 25 million Congolese people.
In addition, I host the Vash Green School Project, which installs clean cooking stoves in schools to reduce deforestation caused by excessive use of wood as an energy source, as well as to improve cooking conditions in schools.
Have you faced any restrictions or reprisals for the work you do?
In the DRC, and in most of Africa more generally, defending the environment means becoming the target of certain politicians and businesspeople, because we challenge their interests. Behind every acre of forest illegally cut down by Chinese or European corporations hides a Congolese politician. When I started my activism, I received threatening messages warning me not to look for trouble by meddling with politicians. Friends and members of my extended family put a lot of pressure on me when I started protesting against oil exploitation in the Congo rainforest. But I can’t stop defending the environment, because I think if I remain silent in the face of a crime I would become an accomplice.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
It wasn’t easy, but it happened fairly quickly. When I realised that expressing revolt against climate change and the destruction of nature was a real possibility, I wanted to make my voice heard. The problem was that when I expressed myself in French, my voice didn’t go far; it stayed close by, only creating insecurity for myself and others.
But thanks to Twitter, I discovered Uganda’s Rise up movement team led by Vanessa Nakate, who became my friend. They are very active in Africa and around the world. In order to join them and speak up for the Congolese people I decided to learn English – and given the right incentives, I was able to do it very quickly. I downloaded Vanessa´s speeches and listened to them every day, so that I learned more about climate change at the same time as I learned English. The more I tweeted in English, the more followers and new connections I got. Today I have over 3,000 followers and connections on every continent. I’m succeeding in becoming a voice of French-speaking Africans crying out for help in adapting to the effects of climate change.
What priority issues do you want to see addressed at COP28?
COP28 must be the one to take a clear decision on fossil fuels worldwide, because this is the main cause of the climate change we are experiencing. In my country, the rainforest is in imminent danger. It is going to be sacrificed for the sake of oil exploitation, choosing to ignore the fact that this forest stores a level of CO2 equivalent to more than 10 years of global emissions.
The phaseout of fossil fuels must be accompanied by provisions for a just transition, so that costs do not fall on those who have done the least to cause the problem we are now in.
COP28 should also come back to the issue of loss and damage, by deciding to make those who have polluted the most pay, now and not in the future, so that victimised countries can survive.
Another big issue that should be addressed is that of migration. Those who are responding to climate disaster by taking the route of migration must regain their right to life, which they currently don’t effectively have. The countries of the global north have turned the Mediterranean and the Tunisian desert into cemeteries in which they are burying migrants by the thousands.
Because these issues need to be urgently addressed, it’s vital to involve civil society at COP28. Civil society is made up of members of forgotten communities, the real victims of climate change. A COP to which only presidents and ministers are invited won’t work, because they are the kind of people who will cope with rising temperatures by turning on their air conditioners and will be able to import food when there are local shortages, all while ordinary people starve because their land receives no rain. Only victims can bring in the reality of climate change, explain what it really looks like in their communities.
Civic space in the DRC is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.