Some nonprofit organizations within the environmentalist and conservation spaces have a legacy of maintaining neo-colonialist frameworks and control over Indigenous and local communities’ land, water, and energy resources. European settler-colonial states have a legacy of militarized conservation in Africa and Asia in order to maintain control over former colonial entities, the people living in these areas, and (most importantly to international corporations) natural resources.
In a historical context, the Charter of Indian Forestry (1855) offered a model for imperial environmentalism under the British empire in Africa in which colonial governments were bestowed the power to seize land that was not otherwise privately owned. (Kashwan, 2021, p. 5-6) This toxic relationship between the Global North and Global South persists today through our globalized economy. For example, Ghana is the largest gold producer on a continent that supplies 40% of the world’s gold. (Al Jazeera, 2022) At the same time, Global Justice Now has reported that African countries in 2015 received $162 billion in foreign aid while $203 billion was extracted from the continent, either directly from multinational corporations or by costs necessary for climate change adaptation (McVeigh, 2017).
Extractive economies that reinforce these oppressive systems of command and control have been imprinted into the head spaces of the ruling financial and political elite as the end-all, be-all solution to improving quality of life for humanity. Due to these cultural setbacks, youth leaders and advocates around the world are frustrated about the lack of action their governments are taking on climate change. One such group in Ghana has been incredibly active in terms of transitioning local and regional economies and communities to more sustainable mechanisms and relationships between people and the planet.
Founded in 2014, Green Africa Youth Organization (GAYO) pursues a holistic path to mobilize and engage youth voices in Ghana in order to challenge climate change and introduce a circular economy to the region. I had a conversation with Betty Osei Bonsu, who is a project coordinator based in Accra, about the work she does with GAYO. Their vision is to achieve environmental and economic sustainability through youth empowerment, skills development, and public education. GAYO champions several initiatives that follow these thematic areas including Climate Change Disaster Risk Reduction and Circular Economy. In tandem with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, these initiatives encourage a multi-pronged approach to climate action and normalization of sustainability in local and regional economies. GAYO refers to itself as a gender-balanced organization, in alignment with Goal 10: Reduce Inequality Within and Among Countries. GAYO not only pushes for women leadership in environmental spaces, but also seeks to enhance inclusion within waste recovery and management.
The Sustainable Community Project (SCP) is meant to establish a zero-waste model for waste management led by community members within Ghana. Established in Accra, Cape Coast, Abuakwa, and pioneered from the Ashanti Region, Edubiase in 2016, this project focuses on several waste-to-value initiatives including: composting, recycling arts, and charcoal briquette. Composting is important to a sustainable community because it provides organic fertilizers within towns that can be sold to people within the community for better organic crop yield. Meanwhile, recycling arts offer training to create items that can be sold and be reused for the creator or their family. Additionally, charcoal briquettes are a biofuel meant to be a sustainable transitional energy source that is substituted for firewood. This work started as a pilot program in Cape Coast, but expanded into a full initiative in the Adansi South District of Ghana. These three areas of value addition are meant to establish circular communities by working with media outlets, activists, and local organizations/assemblies to implement this project throughout Ghana and beyond. The main objectives for the Sustainable Community project are to divert waste from landfills, support the works of waste pickers while building community capacity, and promote revenue generation through upcyling what would otherwise be thrown out. Ms. Bonsu mentioned that the initiative offers other opportunities such as the creation of green jobs and green jobs training for alternative livelihood while maximizing resource recovery so that small-scale waste can be re-purposed and sold as sustainably-sourced products. Waste pickers play a major role in the SCP as they recover most of the waste. Thus, GAYO supports them by advocating for their rights, integrating them to work in coordination with the Assembly, and providing them with necessary resources.
Furthermore, the Circular Economy Project is also focused on training youth, and fostering development so they can act as ambassadors for various GAYO initiatives. Following this, they have organized over 300 youth individuals within universities through the GAYO Ecoclub chapters. This is a student-led movement envisioned to raise future climate leaders and young ecopreneurs, create awareness on environmental protection, and increase the employability of youth through professional working experiences. GAYO is also building the capacity of these students by pushing for the creation of environmental courses and initiatives through partnership with other institutions and community engagement activities. As a result, students and emerging professionals are able to learn more about climate change and the circular economy while making an impact in their communities.
Meanwhile, The Youth Climate Council provides a platform for youth-led individuals and organizations to gather actionable suggestions and to come together as a centralized power to pitch concerns they have to the government. The Youth Climate Council was established by Green Africa Youth Organization and its independent partner, Youth Climate Lab (YCL), and with institutional backing from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). I found this project particularly compelling after learning from Ms. Bonsu that, in her own words, “[people] in the Global South…are faced with a situation where youth do not have voices in decision making, are not being represented in government [and] are not included in the formation of climate policies.” A significant part of GAYO’s mission is to empower and engage youth throughout the country and the world around comprehensive climate action, environmental education, and community-centric programs.
The Youth Climate Council is a unified climate youth movement which amplifies youth voices and creates opportunities for young climate activists in Ghana. The Council is embedded within the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology, and Innovation, working hand-in-hand with the Environmental Protection Agency ensuring a direct connection between youth and government, and vice versa. The Youth Climate Council's priority is to provide services to strengthen activism and the impact of its members.
Betty went on to say that, “because of this platform, we were able to attend COP26 in order to highlight GAYO and other youth experiences in Ghana '' around climate action and environmental awareness. Following this year's COP 26, the Ghana Government Pavilion was utilized by GAYO and its partners to host capacity-building webinars and events for youth, while sharing initiatives and climate interventions carried out by youth climate activists, organizations, and institutions in the nation. Government institutions providing platforms, and the autonomy to decide what actions should be taken, center the perspectives of youth leaders rather than perpetuate archaic systems that are damaging to people and the planet.
Climate action demands intersectional, multi-generational collective action. Even though the majority of GHG emissions and environmental degradation has been caused by the generations before us, it is up to youth voices, organizations, and movements to strive for a more sustainable and ethical future. GAYO is one such organization achieving this feat in real time, with Betty Osei Bonsu representing Ghana and GAYO at COP26 calling the world to action. Global North countries and institutions, and its respective government entities, need to pass the microphone to leaders such as Betty that are already transforming our relationship to the environment while also finding economic opportunities in alignment with environmental justice and sustainability.
Al Jazeera Staff. 2022. Mapping Africa’s natural resources. Al Jazeera.
Bonsu, Betty Osei. (2021, November) Personal communication [Personal interview].
Kashwan, Prakash, et. Al. 2021. From Racialized Neocolonial Global Conservation to an Inclusive and Regenerative Conservation. Environment. 63:4, 5-6.
McVeigh, Karen. 2017. World is plundering Africa's wealth of 'billions of dollars a year'. The Guardian.