Prior to 2007, life in Constance Okollet’s small Ugandan village was tranquil. It was, as she told a gathering at SXSW ECO in Austin on Tuesday, an “easy” life. “We had a lot of food. Our bodies were healthy. We used to eat wild food,” she said.
But in 2007, torrential rains and the resulting floods literally swept her village away.
People had never seen anything like it.
“That was our first time to see floods. We didn’t know what floods were,” she said. “We didn’t take anything with us because the water was swallowing people.”
Drought followed. Then another hard storm. Food became hard to find. Her community’s previous social cohesion began to fray as children dropped out of school, domestic violence became a new reality, and waves of illness further devastated the surviving families.
Similar events visited Nigeria in 2012, where some coastal communities experienced the worst flooding they had seen in decades.
“We had never seen anything like this before,” said Ngozika Onuzo.
The African climate, they both would come to understand, was changing – not because God was angry, as Okollet said she and her neighbors initially feared – but because the planet’s atmosphere was being overloaded with industrially produced heat-trapping gases.
Assisted by Climate Wise Women, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting women rising into leadership roles in the climate movement, they gained a deeper understanding of climate change and soon began educating others.
(For more on how climate change is already impacting Africa, consider this BBC story from 2006: “Climate change is already affecting people across Africa and will wipe out efforts to tackle poverty there unless urgent action is taken, a report says.”)
“We started moving around, telling our stories about the floods and droughts to so many people,” said Okollet.
“Moving around” is putting it mildly. Wise Women like Okollet have literally traveled the world — including stops at the UN and COP17 in 2011 — urging swift, collaborative action addressing the climate change already disrupting their lives.
And they are growing sustainability-minded movements dedicated to empowering women in their home communities. Okollet is chairperson of the Osukura United Women Network and Onuzo is co-founder of the Young Women United for Community Change.
“The power of storytelling is one of the strongest tools we have as women,” said Onuzo.
Another woman on the panel spoke of a community effort to relocate island villages in the Pacific Island region threatened by rising seas, while another brought the audience up to speed on the coup in the Maldives that has stalled all climate action there (including sharing several photos of the island state’s largest women’s demonstration demanding, in this case, fair elections).
Interestingly, just an hour earlier that morning, Daniel Katz, co-founder of the Rainforest Alliance and senior program director at The Overbrook Foundation, chastised the nation’s big environmental organizations for failing to get climate-change legislation passed.
“We’re not talking to the right people,” Katz said. “The big groups did not build in the grassroots groups. That is where the people are. If the organizations want to go it alone without building in people, we’re never going to win.”
The same could be said of international failures to create a concerted climate response where the most powerful nations have lacked urgency while those most impacted by climate change are cursed with the least representation.
Such a divide was on display at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen when the Pacific Island nations faced with the tangible risk of being submerged by the seas demanded strict emission limits on the world’s wealthiest nations only to be brushed off in the end.
By supporting indigenous women rising into positions of power in their communities, Wise Women is a great example of an organization dedicated to changing that glaring inequality by working from the bottom up.
I would suggest that It is the responsibility of the big environmental organizations to not only broaden their bases by forging alliances with grassroots organizations in their own communities but to encourage and assist the development of indigenous grassroots organizations the world over.
To quote Katz once more: “We need to put ‘move’ back into movement.”
And these women on the front lines of climatic destruction are ready to go.