Activism in the Global South: Unrecognized Climate Voices?

COP26 is being hosted in Glasgow this November: will the perspectives and voices of the Global South as well as indigenous groups be valued and listened to in important negotiations?

The climate crisis is the most pertinent issue confronting the whole of humanity. Yet, a small, select few are dominating the movement demanding action. Political science and international law researchers at the universities of Ghana, Nebraska-Lincoln and Chicago Loyola argue that activists in the Global South, especially women, are left out of climate research and mainstream news. This is despite the fact that the Global South is more likely to face the most devastating effects of global warming: for example, altering precipitation trends in Africa are making “human health and safety, food and water security and socio-economic development” uncertain.

Climate Climate change risks reversing decades of progress on the continent and inhibiting the possibility of successfully implementing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

While receiving pale coverage in contrast to summit agreements like the Paris Agreement, activists in the Global South have made a gargantuan impact in the fight against climate change. Employing knowledge accentuated over generations has led to creative strategies that focus on mitigating the effects of climate change. The UN has encouraged the implementation of Quezungal farming techniques used by local villagers in Honduras to adapt to climate change and protect watersheds and inland deltas. Critics maintain that if the people of the Global South have a fundamental role in negotiations, good practice can be shared and tried and tested sustainability concepts can be integrated into the wider climate action framework.

‘Colonialism of the movement’

Athian Akec—a black climate activist and the youth representative for Camden—penned an eye-opening piece calling on Extinction Rebellion, a major pressure group, to recognise how its “lack of diversity, middle-class image and glamorisation of arrest” dissuaded young people of colour from taking to the streets. He emphasized the need to recognize and engage more deeply with the Global South. Aken noted that an important observation of the 2019 protests by those in minority groups and the Global South: “all […they] saw was white faces.”

Some commentators have noted that climate activists in the Global North, and specifically Europe and North America, attract the most attention – and no one more so than Greta Thunberg. Alast Najafi brands this as the Greta effect”, and claims that it is a strong indicator of institutional racism and discrimination. Her heroine image, she argues, has given her a seat at UN discussions and Nobel Peace Prize nominations. Upon review, the most prominent climate voices are mostly white and middle-class and the broader movement lacks diversity.  

Aditya Mukarji, a young Indian activist who persuaded dozens of eateries in his community to switch from plastic to paper straws, and several others, made tremendous achievements akin to Thunberg before her Swedish parliament strikes. Nevertheless, they have not been awarded due recognition. Thus, critics highlight a systemic erasure of memory of the contribution of these heroes to the movement: a new form of colonialism, controlling the movement across the world, and exploiting the ideas and innovations of those in the Global South without credit.

Global South voices are properly recognized – we just do not want to realise it

While not dismissing the need for progressive Global South voices, some commentators say that activists from these countries have been awarded for their efforts and formally commended by the very institutions that seemingly hold a structural bias against them. Hence, it is an individual’s own prejudices that lead them—intentionally or not—to forget about the contributions of people in the Global South and indigenous groups, and listen more carefully to voices from familiar, Western backgrounds. This allows those in positions of power to remain in power. Some point to Autumn Peltier, a clean water activist since 2012 from Wiikwemkoong First Nation in Canada, who has been invited to speak at the UN headquarters in Manhattan twice and has been nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize a total of three times. Her indigenous traditions and upbringing have instilled in her an appreciation and respect for the sacredness of water. In 2004, Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan climate activist, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental influence.

This is the consensus of those on both sides of this argument: that when politicians act alone on climate change through market-based agreements, they are mostly unsuccessful, and that those marginalized by climate change should not be marginalized by fellow climate activists.

It could potentially be argued that it is difficult to include many African people in the wider movement, considering their situation in remote, rural landscapes and lack of Internet access to allow organizers and researchers to contact them. Meanwhile, Thunberg has not only the wind in her sails literally in her yacht journeys across the Atlantic to conferences in the US and Chile, but also social media, enabling huge global audiences to be reached instantaneously.

What next?

It is for you to decide whether climate activists in the Global South truly do go uncelebrated. Nevertheless, evidence shows that climate change and racial, gender and economic inequality are interconnected, and inequality is entangled within the climate movement itself. To tackle climate change, members of civil society in the Global South, as well as indigenous groups, need to have a permanent seat at the negotiating table in key international institutions. This is the consensus of those on both sides of this argument: that when politicians act alone on climate change through market-based agreements, they are mostly unsuccessful, and that those marginalized by climate change should not be marginalized by fellow climate activists.

From ensuring people of colour have a platform (and are not cropped out of summit photographs like youth activist Vanessa Nakate at the 2020 Davos World Economic Forum meeting); to learning from the team of forty-five women in Benin who use a solar-powered irrigation system to reduce the number of water collection journeys; to commending the Nigerian children building toys from recycled plastic; one thing is clear, applause (previously awarded or not) is well-deserved for those in the Global South who give us so much hope.

Art by Darcey Joyce

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