4 questions for a young climate leader

Ekai Nabenyo, founder of the Lorengelup Community Development Initiative. Photo by: John Wambugu

All eyes are on Paris as leaders and negotiators from over 200 countries gather to agree on a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help poorer countries deal with the impact of climate change.

But amid the sea of statements emerging from the Paris climate change conference, the voices of a less-heard but nevertheless important group may be drowned out: young climate advocates.

One young leader in Paris for the COP21 summit is Ekai Nabenyo, a member of the pastoralist community in Kenya’s Turkana County. His trip to Paris is sponsored by the Global Greengrants Fund, which, together with the Oak Foundation and other youth groups, has channeled more than $400,000 to support young leaders from grassroots environmental initiatives around the world.

Prone to droughts, Turkana is also one of Kenya’s poorest regions — a reflection of the impact of worsening environmental conditions on the residents’ livelihoods. The Lorengelup Community Development Initiative, the group that Nabenyo started, has been teaching the Turkana community how to cope with an increasingly inhospitable environment that is exacerbated by oil and gas exploration in the region.

“We organize youth empowerment summits in different parts of Turkana County, we educate the community on the concept of climate change, we advocate against charcoal burning, we carry out tree-planting in schools and many other capacity building initiatives,” Nabenyo told Devex.

Conventional thinking surrounding climate change, he lamented, seems to show that “[climate] mitigation has nothing to do with local communities.”

“Many indigenous people like my Turkana people suffer the effects of climate change yet they play very little or no role in causing climate change,” he said. “There should therefore be a mechanism through which they can be made part of the climate change advocacy process through a bottom-up approach.”

Devex caught up with Nabenyo him to learn more about his work and his hopes for the summit. Here are some highlights from that conversation:

You founded a group called Article 43. Is this the group from which the Lorengelup Community Development Initiative developed? Or are these two separate initiatives? If not, why did you decide on a name change?

The official name of our group is Lorengelup Community Development Initiative, commonly abbreviated as Locodein. This is the group that I founded in 2012 with the membership and the geographical area of work being confined to a small part of Turkana County called Lorengelup, which is my home village.

After implementing numerous community projects, including mobilizing resources for the construction of a $84,000-school in our community as well as receiving support from partners such as GGF, we decided to expand our work to the entire Turkana County so as to be able to impact more community members in 2013. As a result, we proposed to change the name of the group to Article 43 because it was no longer working in Lorengelup alone as earlier intended.

The name Article 43 is derived from Article 43 of the Constitution of Kenya, which states that every Kenyan has a right to adequate food supply, water, affordable health care, security and clean environment, among others. In our view, these rights which the law had provided for, were absent in Turkana and our group therefore will empower the local community to realize all these rights by launching a community development and capacity building program so that community members can advocate for their rights.

How did you become interested in environmental issues? Was there a specific situation that prompted you to pursue this path?

I became interested in environmental issues after being taught environmental law in the University of Nairobi. Through class lectures and interaction with my lecturer, I came to learn that the environmental degradation that I had witnessed being done by oil and gas exploration companies in my place was injurious to the present and future generations in my home county.

I then endeavored to cascade the information about environmental conservation down to my people in the village so that they too can get to learn about it and advocate for their rights to a clean environment in the face of oil and gas exploration. That is how I became interested in environmental issues. I then incorporated environmental conservation as a key thematic area in our advocacy and capacity building work as an organization.

What have you learned as a lawyer? And how are you using this knowledge in your advocacy?

As a lawyer, I have learned the rights and entitlements of local and indigenous communities like mine. I have learned that both Kenyan and international law envisaged a scenario where the rights of the people are respected — though in most cases this is not what happens, especially in oil and gas operations. As a law student in the University of Nairobi, learning about the Niger Delta story and how human rights violations were committed there opened my mind to the world.

The Kenyan constitution expressly provides that all people in Kenya have a right to a clean environment and the right to have their culture and economy respected. In our advocacy work as a group, we pass this knowledge to our community members during our community and youth empowerment summits so that they too can learn what we were taught and what the law provides. By empowering them through this information, we build a formidable group of young local activists who, despite not being educated, are willing to take on investors because they now know their rights.

What challenges are the Turkana pastoral community facing that people should know more about?

The Turkana people are a community that faces numerous challenges in the dry northern parts of Kenya. To begin with, the ongoing oil and gas exploration has had a number of negative impacts on the culture and the livelihoods of our people. Community forests have been cleared in oil and gas exploration, the pasture lands of the community that have been traditionally used for grazing our livestock have either been fenced for use by the oil companies or destroyed by the company trucks that move around Turkana County. There is massive land-grabbing by the elites and powerful politicians from other parts of Kenya who intend to take advantage of the oil and gas process.

One of the biggest challenges in Turkana now is the construction of Gibe Dams in Ethiopia that threatens to destroy Lake Turkana, the largest desert water lake in the world. This will harm the Turkana people even more, as some and their animals entirely depend on the lake for survival. Urgent action is needed.

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About the author

  • Anna Patricia Valerio

    Anna Patricia Valerio is a former Manila-based development analyst who focused on writing innovative, in-the-know content for senior executives in the international development community. Before joining Devex, Patricia wrote and edited business, technology and health stories for BusinessWorld, a Manila-based business newspaper.