Story | 12 Jul, 2023

No voice is too small

Activist Vanessa Nakate talks to Tom Ireland about her fight to ensure people on the front line of climate change are heard around the world

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Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate justice activist. Her work highlights the fact that climate change is not just a concern for the future, but is already causing death and destruction in her home country and in communities across Africa.

Her activism began with a small protest on the streets of Kampala to draw attention to the climate emergency and destruction of the Congo Rainforest. As her message spread across Uganda and beyond, she founded the Rise Up Movement, to amplify the voices of activists from across Africa.

At just 26, she has spoken at the UN Climate Change Conference, been appointed as a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, and has written a book on activism, A Bigger Picture.

In 2020, Vanessa was cropped out of a major news photo in which she appeared alongside Greta Thunberg and other white climate activists, causing her to comment that the news agency “erased an entire continent” from its coverage. She regularly speaks about the importance of listening to African voices, especially children and those in marginalised communities.


There is a certain strength I get when talking about climate crisis

Can you tell us what you are working on at the moment?

I’m working on the Vash Green Schools Project, which I started in 2019, to install solar panels and clean cooking stoves in Ugandan schools. So far, we’ve done 39 installations, impacting about 13,000 children. Tomorrow we start another phase of installation in six schools in Kayunga. And I’m working on various online campaigns with other activists.

When did you start to realise the impact climate change was having on where you grew up in Kampala?

In 2018 I had been researching some of the challenges that people in Uganda were facing, and learnt a lot about climate change and how its impacts were already unfolding. In some parts of Uganda, for example in the east, there has been disastrous flooding and landslides linked to climate change, causing destruction and the loss of lives for many people. These disasters affect the basic necessities of life – food, access to water, access to health facilities and shelter.

Uganda also relies heavily on agriculture. Climate change is bringing unpredictable weather patterns for farmers in the rural areas. Food insecurity pushes more people into extreme poverty, leading children to drop out of school. Learning this made me decide to join the climate movement.

For others who want to make their voices heard, tell us about your journey from that small protest to becoming an activist with global reach.

I was a terribly shy person. I only found the strength and courage to make a sign and stand on the street in 2019. My siblings and cousins joined me. I held my ground, and every Friday I went back and continued to do it and do it. It’s about doing whatever you can, realising that no voice is too small to make a difference, and no actions are too small to transform the world.

It’s hard to put into words what it has been like, standing in front of so many people. There is a certain strength and a certain confidence I get when I’m talking about the realities of the climate crisis and what needs to be done. I won’t say that it’s been easy, but I built confidence with every audience I spoke to.

What are some of the actions you would like to see to help mitigate against the problems caused by a warming climate in Uganda and the wider region?

The conclusions of the most recent IPCC report were nothing new: it told us we need to reduce emissions, now. Every fraction of a degree matters to people on the front lines and they need help already.

We need the wealthier countries, that are mostly responsible for the rise in emissions, to become more serious. They need to stop new fossil fuel projects and invest in clean energy, and they need to help the Global South to do the same.

We saw the establishment of a loss and damage fund at COP27, but this is still an empty bucket. We need countries to put money in the fund to help people that are suffering right now.

Tell us a bit about the Congo Rainforest and your message to IUCN Members about its importance. 

I was once asked a question at a meeting about why the world focuses on the Amazon and other rainforests, but not the Congo Rainforest. I didn’t know it’s the second largest rainforest in the world and the largest in Africa. As well as the thousands of species of animals and plants within it, over 70 million people depend on the existence of this forest.

It’s possible it could be lost completely by 2100. Learning that triggered me to start raising awareness about the Congo Rainforest and why we need to talk about it.

How do you stay positive and energised to keep doing what you do and fight for the environment?

Activism can be challenging, especially when you’re not seeing the actions we need, and when disasters continue to impact the lives of so many people. But you are not just working alone. You’re with millions of different people across the world who also believe in the world you envision. Being part of a movement, and that sense of friendship, community and working together – that gives me hope.

I recently spent a few days in Turkana County, northern Kenya, meeting people and communities suffering from the historic drought there. Those experiences are hard, but seeing how climate change is threatening people’s present and their survival, pushes me a lot.

Many people know I’m a Born Again Christian. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. My faith gives me the strength and the hope to know that another world is not only necessary for all of us, but is actually possible.