By Halsey Payne and Matt Lefler
As Earth Day Network employees, we can solve a lot of problems from a desk. In a week, we can connect organizers in Yaoundé, Cameroon, support activists in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and empower students in Stuttgart, Germany.
But there’s no substitute for being on the ground. That’s why last month, we — Matt Lefler, Earth Day Network’s Africa campaign manager, and Halsey Payne, intern and volunteer coordinator — went to Nairobi, Kenya, in Eastern Africa to learn from our colleagues and discuss how to make Earth Day 2020 the largest, most diverse mobilization in history.
The African Wildlife Foundation hosted us, as well as a team of activists from around the continent, for a training. We covered the history of Earth Day, our various campaigns and our organizing tools. But our African colleagues trained us much more than we trained them.
In conference rooms, around dinner tables and along roadsides, we learned about climate change in Africa. We asked scientific questions: How did the last drought affect farmers? Regulatory questions: How do riverside factories get away with dumping their waste into the air and waters? Political questions: Which groups in your country lead the environmental discussion?
The answers were complicated. An understanding of one dirty factory takes an understanding of the community around it, the government meant to oversee it and the effects of pollution. Fortunately, our African teammates are taking the lead.
We met with some inspiring people from amazing organizations. One of which was Paulino Mugendi, a Kenyan who founded the nonprofit Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation in 2007. The conservation promotes reforestation and community-based agroforestry in Kenya and the Mount Kenya Forest. As a youth, Mugendi wanted to help his community as he noticed deforestation, decreased rainfall, food insecurity, and climate change become issues.
“Anything is possible,” Mugendi told us. “Any idea is like a seed. You sow it, nurture it, give it sun and water and it eventually becomes a tree.”
An idea to plant trees with his friends has turned into a full-scale operation: The conservation has planted almost half a million trees since its inception and roughly 60,000 trees in the current rainy season.
Mugendi and his team engage women, men and youth to spark community-led projects to replant native trees. The team also started a training program that helps community members develop orchards, fodder trees and nurseries.
Environmental education is big part of Mugendi’s work (he previously worked as a Peace Corps forestry volunteer trainer), and he routinely meets with local schools and communities to discuss environmental issues and the importance of conservation and planting trees.
We also met Roniance Adhiambo, who is completing her master’s degree in environmental policy at University of Nairobi and works as a field operations and communications officer for Ecofinder Kenya. Her work includes the restoration of the Lake Victoria Wetlands and the empowerment of community members as water and wetland stewards. The Lake Victoria Wetlands have great biodiversity but because of the pressures of poverty, overpopulation, under development, gender-based violence and climate change, human encroachment and destruction of the wetlands is at an all-time high.
At Ecofinder Kenya, Adhiambo and her team manage the challenges that the local communities face in their everyday lives and develop the time, resources, knowledge and skills to protect and conserve the natural resources that support their livelihoods.
“My work is important because it gives local community members the opportunity and power to take charge of their natural resources, enhance their livelihoods and become change makers in their own right,” said Adhiambo.
Both Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation and Ecofinder are partnering with Earth Day Network for Earth Day 2020. Using their platforms, they will continue to engage with their local communities.
Through it all, we were amazed by the energy and ambitions of these environmentalists. All of us represented environmentalism in practice across two continents, united by the common causes of a new climate, the stewardship of our surroundings and the legacy that we’ll leave for next generations. And we made plans for a global Earth Day that will demand a better future.
The trip created a feeling you can’t replicate behind a desk. Earth Day 2020 feels more real now because we both know how it will look in the hills and cities where our colleagues work.
But the plans we made for Earth Day will only work if people like our partners and like you sit down to make your own plans. With volunteer’s support, Earth Day can matter everywhere: local schools, city streets, capitol buildings. The team at Earth Day Network is here to help you.
Follow this link to set up your first planning meeting and bring the movement to your community.
Halsey Payne is the intern & volunteer coordinator for Earth Day Network; Matt Lefler is the Earth Day manager – Africa for Earth Day Network.