Six environmental activists you need to know about

When you think of courageous environmental leaders, your thoughts may automatically turn to Greta Thunberg.

The determined Swedish schoolgirl has without doubt helped make the climate crisis headline news around the world.

But there are hundreds of black, Asian and indigenous environmental activists, many from the developing world, who are just as inspiring and have been protesting against climate breakdown for years. 

In no particular order, here’s six who are currently fighting, or who have fought in their lifetime, to keep climate change centre stage.

Wangari Muta Maathai 

Wangari Maathai was renowned as a fearless Kenyan environmentalist who fought against corrupt regimes for years in the name of sustainable development, democracy and peace. 

She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which mobilized poor women to plant tens of millions of trees to protect water sources and crops in the face of environmental degradation. 

Her agenda widened as she joined the struggle against the corrupt and repressive regime of Daniel arap Moi and tried to stop powerful politicians seizing land, especially forests.

Her efforts brought her into conflict with the authorities, and she was arrested and beaten numerous times. 

“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system.

“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. 

Wangari Maathai 

“Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come”, she said.

Born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya in 1940, Wangari was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree before going on to teach veterinary anatomy. 

Her bravery and defiance  made her a hero in Kenya with her reforestation methods, widely adopted by other countries.

She died at the age of 71 in 2011 after becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize in 2004.

Autumn Peltier

An internationally recognised Canadian water activist, Autumn is a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation, and has been been fighting for water rights since she was eight years old.

As the Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation, she represents more than 40 First Nations in Ontario, many of whom lack clean drinking water. 

The teenager urged world leaders to use their power to ensure people around the world have access to safe drinking water in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 2018.

“No one should have to worry if the water is clean or if they will run out of water.

“No child should grow up not knowing what clean water is, or never know what running water is.”

Autumn Peltier

Autumn, who has thousands of social media followers at the age of 15, first caught media attention when she confronted Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2016. 

At the winter meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, Peltier told Trudeau: “I am very unhappy with the choices you’ve made.” she told him, referring to his failure to provide clean water to First Nation communities and his decision to greenlight controversial pipeline projects.

Autumn is reportedly inspired by her great aunt Josephine Mandamin, who passionately advocated for the protection of the Great Lakes until her death earlier this year. 

Leah Namugerwa

A Ugandan teenager, Leah has been striking every Friday for greater action on climate change, plastic pollution, and more since February 2019. 

The 14-year-old, who is demanding the Ugandan government to ban plastic bags, regularly draws attention to environmental social justice on her Twitter page, highlighting the fact the global south will be most affected by climate breakdown.

in a recent post on her Twitter account she said:

“4,500 children in Uganda die every year due to polluted water. How many more must die for d world to wake up & do justice to us?”

Leah Namugera

Leah was inspired to protest after watching news reports of drought and landslides in Eastern Uganda that claimed many lives and was further motivated by Greta Thunberg’s Friday’s for Future protests. 

She told “My first day as a climate striker looked weird to many people, including my family.

“Passersby kept on shaking their heads wondering what had happened to me. Many people were and are still opposed to my strikes. 

“They argue that at my age I should not be missing any day of school.

“My Friday has greatly changed since I started striking. Friday used to be ordinary, but now it is the busiest day of the week.”

Leah told there were many environmental issues happening in Uganda, such as unpredictable rainy seasons and mosquitos spreading faster than before, but she barely saw them reported on. 

She said the Ugandan government’s response to strikers sometimes gave her fear. 

“Our first main protest was blocked on May 15 and on another occasion my fellow Striker Bob Matovu was chased from striking outside parliament and his placard was confiscated,” she said.

Ridhima Pandey

Eleven-year-old Ridhima Pandey was just nine in 2017 when she filed a lawsuit against the Indian government for failing to take serious steps against climate change. 

Two years later she was among the young activists, including Greta Thunberg, who criticized Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina, and Turkey for failing to uphold their obligations to young people under the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Her fervent belief in changes stem from direct experience of climate breakdown: her whole family was displaced by the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, which claimed hundreds of lives and she has grown up on the Ganges River, which is largely polluted.

“The government said they cleaned it but it’s not true,” she told the Associated Press.

“We say the Ganga is mata (mother), that Ganga is a goddess for us, and we just pollute it.”

Pandey’s mother is a forestry guard and her father an environmental activist.

She said people often tell her she is too young to be an activist, but she doesn’t think she is wrong because other children from other countries are “asking for the same”.

Nina Gualinga

Ecuadorian Amazonian and mother-of-one Nina Gualinga has been a climate justice and indigenous rights activist from the age of eight.

As a female leader of the Kichwa community of Sarayaku, the 24-year-old has spent most of her childhood advocating for stronger protection of the Ecuadorian Amazon and the wildlife and people who depend on it.

She regularly protests for her cause, most recently in Quito, Ecuador, this September, when hundreds of indigenous women from six different nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon gathered to demand the government to stop the destruction of indigenous territories and violence against indigenous leaders. 

Writing on her Instagram account, she said: “Together we put together a document called Mandato de las Mujeres Amazónicas with 22 demands, that we handed over to the president of Ecuador and all the ministers. 

“I am full of emotions and feelings. I am sad to see how these women have to fight every day for basic human rights. Inspired by their strength and fearlessness. How they never give up. How they fight hundreds of battles and seem to carry the power of Mama Earth herself. I am still learning. “

“Until the day of today, no action has been taken from the government to meet our demands. But as the women say: ‘United we are stronger. Never give up!’.”

At age 18, Nina represented Sarayaku youth at the final hearing before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights in Costa Rica, winning a historic case against the Ecuadorian government for violating Sarayaku rights and territory for oil drilling.

Today, she calls for indigenous rights, a fossil fuel free economy and shines a light on deforestation and exploitation of the Amazon.

“My inspiration comes from the earth itself, all the beauty of life expressed in so many ways.”

“My motivation comes from the people around me who are fighting every day to protect their families and their home, the Amazonian rainforest”, she told WWF after receiving the 2018 International President’s Youth award.

Mari Copeny

Mari Copeny might be better known by her nickname Little Miss Flint, because of her advocacy work, drawing attention to the devastating contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

When she was just eight years old, she wrote to President Barack Obama asking if he would come to meet with her and others in her community, who were affected by the poisoned water. The meeting resulted in $100 million in grants to repair the water system.

Now 12 years old she regularly tweets to raise awareness of water pollution and the links between climate breakdown and social justice around the world.

She tweeted recently about the global climate strikes : “No, our fight to save the planet didn’t start today with the #ClimateStrike and it doesn’t end today either.

“Many of us have been putting in the work for years to save our planet. Don’t just amplify our voices today, but every day and support our solutions to save us.”

Since 2016, Mari has worked with the nonprofit organization Pack Your Back to help over 25,000 children with donations for everything from school supplies to clean water. 

Who do you think is worth celebrating in this list? Let me know in the comments below, or if you’d like to nominate someone share your story here.


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