For the population of Cameroon, climate change is not a distant worry but an everyday reality.
It has brought more erratic weather patterns, increases in rainfall and flooding in the south, and rising temperatures, drought and desertification in the north.
For many households living in the Lake Chad region, migration is the only option.
But how much do the communities in Cameroon know about the impacts of climate change they are experiencing?
According to Jean Paul Affana, the answer is not enough. His youth NGO, Vital Actions for Sustainable Development aims to boost awareness of climate change in the hope of creating a country, and eventually an Africa, filled with eco-citizens.
What is your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?
We are a young group of people working on addressing education for sustainable development and training young people and children to be agents of change.
We also focus on climate change and human rights because we think that access to a clean and healthy environment is a right for children. We want to provide them with the skills so that they understand sustainable development and can act as agents of change.
We have three levels of intervention. One is at the national level, one is at the regional level across Africa and the other one is across the international level.
At the national level for example in November 2009 we launched a joint competition asking for children and youth to submit drawings addressing the theme ‘What do you do for your planet?’
We had more than 100 entries and were able to see from what they had submitted how they understand their role as agents of change to protect our environment. Also how they understand their role as mobilisers, how they can mobilise the people around them – their families and their communities – to protect the environment.
At the end we organised an award ceremony and invited many people; our partners, the winners, the participants, local NGOs and also the general public. We also organised an exhibition at the end of the ceremony so we were able to showcase the work for a period of time.
In 2010, one of the key projects we had was the ‘I Vote for Climate’ campaign. We had a presidential election in Cameroon, in October 2011 and we wanted to raise awareness among the people about how we should care about the environment and sustainable development and fighting against climate change.
We had many people who were interested in the topic. The campaign encouraged people not only to vote for the candidate they liked but also to vote for the candidate that is raising important policy issues and strong activities on climate – the person who if elected would raise the role of the citizen in addressing environmental issues.
We set out a petition, asking people to sign and to really encourage all of the candidates to support environmental policies and strong policies on addressing climate change issues in Cameroon.
We had more than 6000 signatures from around the country and many people inviting us to talk about the campaign and propose and present our objectives. We also raised awareness through the media.
This campaign was really successful because even if the candidates didn’t really sign our petition or did not commit to improve the way they would address environmental issues if they were elected as president of the Republic, we raised a lot of awareness among the people.
Participation was very high and we had our volunteers going around the country in their teams meeting with people and encouraging them to sign the petition. This was also about building a movement because we didn’t do the campaign alone, we had many NGOs involved and we all did it together.
One of the projects that we are still running at the moment is about how we can celebrate the year for access to clean energy for all, which is being organised by the UN.
We joined up with the French Embassy in Cameroon, we got support from them, and then we mobilised partners, like universities, the IUCN, artists and a foundation called Good Planet.
What we did with this project is launch another drawing competition about how young people and children understand what we can do to address the lack of access to sustainable energy.
We selected the winners – we had 50 shortlisted and then 20 winners – and with their drawings we started to put together an exhibition, which is going to be inaugurated on January 16 in Cameroon next year. It is going to travel around the country with the exhibition to show people what children and youth think about access to clean energy for all and how they see their role.
What results have you seen from your work so far?
The first result we have seen is that we have been able to promote volunteering in Cameroon. It is not easy for people to see that they can commit their time, energy and resources to do something if they don’t gain something directly back, like money or materials, for their commitment. Volunteering in Cameroon is something very difficult to promote but through our actions we have been able to mobilise local volunteers.
All of our team members are working on a voluntary basis. What we do, is not only work as a small team, but bring in many people to join us and work with us including children, youth and adults and our family members as well.
This is one of our key achievements so far.
Another result we have seen is that we have been able to become well known by the people because they saw that we are able to implement active and concrete projects.
For example the ‘I Vote for Climate’ campaign was very visible and people were able to follow a specific campaign organised by a youth NGO and relate it to the presidential election. That is not common in Cameroon.
When the elections are happening people are so afraid of what could happen in the event that the results are not accepted by the people that they don’t focus on anything else in between. For us the election was a key opportunity to really raise awareness about issues that matter for the people.
That is why we were able to achieve a lot by having 6000 people signing one petition in Cameroon, this is not common, and is not easy. But we were able to achieve it and able to present the results one month after the elections at the COP17 conference of the UNFCCC in Durban last year.
We presented our results there. Greenpeace supported us to implement this campaign and they helped us to show it to other partners as an example of what we can do in raising awareness among people who care about these issues and who can encourage their political leaders to do what they believe is good for the people.
Another result we have seen is education. Education for sustainable development is also something not very common for us because people are more concerned about how they can succeed in their own lives and how they can help their family, how they can have enough money for their living costs.
But we have brought up the question of educating people on how we can manage our resources in a more sustainable way.
Our strategy is to use children and young people’s creativity and their passion. That is why we organise a lot of competitions because we think that using non-formal approaches to raise awareness is very successful. Using dance, music, drawing, theatre and drama, is something that can really raise awareness amongst the people.
They will see your drawing or they will watch your small music video and at the same time they will also improve the knowledge they have or they want to have about the topic you have raised.
We have been able to educate people and to see the results because some of the children or the young people involved in our programmes, when they are back in their families they are really able to raise awareness and mobilise more people to care about the topic.
Another result is being able to build partnerships with NGOs. When we started our first project we only had our team and then we were mobilising the resources by ourselves. At the moment now we have external partners supporting us and this is wonderful because if you don’t start with your own links and your own resources then people will not see the good you are doing.
When you start doing something and people see that what you are doing has an impact, they will start to support you.
That is why we also have international volunteers supporting us. Last year we had someone from the UK and Poland. This year we have someone from the US and we have also had volunteers from Germany and from France. That shows how successful we are and how we have been able to mobilise more people to support our work.
What are the challenges you have faced in your work?
The first challenge is that it is very difficult to mobilise local volunteers. Young people, some of them have the skills to do something for their community but they do not want to do it because for them it doesn’t make sense to commit your time, your energy and your resources doing something for your community.
We still try to raise more awareness of this need for young people to volunteer and join organisations that are doing something so that the impact is bigger. For us it is changing. We try to explain and to get them involved in our programmes, but for them they only want to get involved if they gain something and for us it does not make sense that someone is volunteering if they expect to get something material in return.
Another challenge is trying to connect our local world with the international community. At the beginning it was very difficult for us because we didn’t understand the importance of connecting the dots.
When we were running some of our first campaigns, we were not connecting them with what other people were doing. For example the very first activity we had was related to water management and how people can get access to clean water. We did it was just before the National Day of Water and we didn’t make the connection between the local and the international campaigns.
One of the challenges we still have at the moment is capacity building. Our members are very well skilled in some activities but some of them still need to be more empowered to be more effective.
We couldn’t manage people very well in the beginning and couldn’t give more skills to our members. We have tried and we still try but it is still a challenge at the moment.
How can we make it so that our members are more empowered to deliver the results we want and how can we show them that we provide our volunteers with specific skills that they need to be able to deliver the tasks at the same time.
We try to address it and to improve but it is not easy.
What support have you seen for your work?
In terms of local support, we have many networks at the national level, like the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC). We belong to the national chapter network in Cameroon.
We also have the network for African Youth for Central African Forests that we joined some years ago and through this network we are able to connect with other organisations and to work together.
That is why for the ‘I Vote for Climate Change’ campaign we were able to have more people and more support because we were not working alone but with other NGOs.
We are also trying to get institutional support, which has been a challenge. Having support from our governments is not very easy. We have tried to connect with them many times and we still try but the problem is that our government is not open all of the time to collaborate with NGOs and civil society.
We are lucky because we are able to connect with the Ministry for the Protection of the Natural Environment and we have worked with them in terms of policy and also the implementation of specific projects. It is still difficult.
We do have support from international organisations based here. The embassy of France in Cameroon has supported us a lot and has provided us with funding to deliver on our on going projects.
We have some development partners supporting our work, mostly coming from other civil society organisations.
What impacts are you seeing locally from climate change?
We have seen disruption of our access to food. Some years ago getting food was so easy for people, the food was very cheap and people were able to buy food and improve their living conditions because it was not that expensive.
But because of the impact of climate change at the moment, the price of food is increasing so much that people have to use more money to buy food and this is very difficult because people do not have enough resources. For them it is very difficult.
Another impact now is migration. People living in the regions where climate change impacts are most visible like the northern parts of Cameroon are migrating to the southern parts of the country.
In the north of the country we have deserts so desertification is affecting people and they are not able to survive and have to migrate. Then we have more and more people coming from the north who are moving to the south and it is very difficult for the authorities and the local governments to mange these floods of people.
It is also difficult because some of them when they arrive in new cities they do not have jobs, they can not afford their living costs and the only solution for them for example is to practice crime. Crime is very high now and it is difficult for the government to address it.
People sometimes are ignorant to the fact that all of this is related to climate change impacts. They do not see this link with climate change and just see that there is more crime.
One of the impacts that is also visible at the moment is the impact on education. The education is destabilised because when those people are migrating from one region to another they also move their families. If they have children they are not able to follow their education curricula because they are moving with their parents.
It can be very confusing to them. Changing one school or three schools during one year is not very easy for children.
We have many people who are not educated and the parents are not able to stay in the same region because they want to move away from the climate change impacts.
Another impact is how the seasons are changing. In the south there are not the same seasons now than previously.
We have confusion about what is going on, with the dry seasons and the rainy seasons, and this is also affecting agriculture because people are not able to practice agriculture if they are not able to master how the seasons are changing. This is affecting food security.
What would be your vision for 2050? How do we get there?
We have one vision that is also our motive since the beginning when we were created is that we want every single citizen in this world to become an eco-citizen. Because eco-citizenship is the solution if we want to address climate change and sustainable development.
People are very concerned with how institutions and governments can protect their rights, but sometimes do not think about how they can contribute.
Having access to a healthy and sustainable environment is one of the rights that people are really concerned about but they don’t care about how they can contribute to this themselves. If they were to become eco-citizens then they could seriously contribute.
They would be the main actors and if they are the main actors they will be contributing to the solution. Eco-citizenship for all is our main aim at all levels, national, local and grassroots.
For this we need to increase access to education first. This needs to include basic education, professional training, school education on climate change and also on sustainable development. If we do not make more time to make sure people know about those topics then that means there is a problem somewhere.
We can not teach people about how to be a citizen and then wait some years to teach them to be an eco-citizen. But if we combine both at the same time then we provide them with the information they need to be eco-citizens and can achieve this vision.
It is all about education. If people are not educated then they don’t care about what is going on in their community. But if you are able to get that information to them – they need that information to act – then we can achieve our vision.
In order to bring education to people our government needs to re-think the way they work and the way they address education. If you want to achieve this vision we need to have the means to achieve the vision and the means to educate people.
That is why training people now to be the trainers of the future, educating people now to be educators of tomorrow is one way we can also achieve this vision.
One final point is the role of families. We often neglect the role families can bring, but for us we really believe that if family members are empowered and also given the resources to educate the next generation they will be able to provide their children with the exact information they need. All of this will contribute to achieving that vision.
What would help your group move forward in its work?
We need more skills. We have the people; we all want to achieve something and we all want to work together but sometimes we lack specific skills to be able to achieve our vision. If we were able to receive external training and external capacity building for our members, I am sure we would be able to have more people we could empower.
At the same time if you have the people and the capacity but you do not have the resources it is difficult. We believe that having access to enough funding is also what we need to have more impact because the resources we have at the moment do not enable us to focus on all 10 regions of Cameroon and the 20 million people that live here.
If we had more resources to do so then our impact would be more visible and we would have more of an impact than now. Also we want to have more volunteers supporting our work. I think people who are available and committed to work with you on what you want to do is the best and most amazing resource ever.
You can have the people but if they don’t want to work with you because they do not believe in what you are doing it is not going to work.
So we think capacity building, more resources, both technical and financial and committed volunteers would all help us to achieve our vision in the best way.
Why did you get involved with the group? What do you think young people bring to the climate debate?
I am one of the founders of the group. In December 2008 we had the idea of putting together this group because we were able to see how people in our communities didn’t care, and still don’t care many of them, about the environment.
When you meet people and see how they react on environmental issues then you see that there is a problem. When you see around you that nothing is done to address the issues that we are facing because people are not educated enough about saving and protecting our environment then you believe that you have to do something.
When you understand that you have to do something and that you can do something, you need to mobilise people. That is how I started to be aware of the role I could play in protecting my environment.
Take a very simple example to show the role of young people. Since we began we have organised two drawing competitions about environmental topics. Through these drawings we have been able to educate others.
Young people have creativity and if we can use that creativity to raise awareness it will make it more interesting and fun for people and allow them to learn while enjoying themselves.
Having access to non-formal education is something that young people do very well. It is not only about being educated, it is also about being motivated. We really understand that young people are able to do that because they like protesting, they like doing non-formal actions and they like bringing about change that is needed through their creativity.
Even in Cameroon this is something we are able to see and we want to use it as a key contribution of young people to achieve our vision of eco-citizenship all around the world.
Young people can also educate people, children can educate their families, young people their communities – they are in contact with other people and through this contact they can raise awareness. We believe this is also a key contribution young people can make.
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