How can we turn the African environment tragedy into an opportunity for good?


A man helps a woman cross a log bridge after the flash flood washed away a concrete bridge at Pentagon, in Freetown August 18, 2017. Source: Reuters.


Hannington Muyenje, a Senior Campaigner with Tearfund, reflects on how the climate tragedy can be turned into an opportunity.

Oscar Wilde, one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s said, ‘Behind every exquisite thing that happens, there was a tragedy.’ We have all heard about the pacifying clichés like, ‘bad things can lead to good’, ‘A blessing in disguise’ or ‘beauty from ashes’.

For people in low-income settings, the tragedy of poverty has been turned into a case of double jeopardy by climate change. It is as if people in poverty are being punished twice for the same crime: that they are poor and that due to their poverty, they are unable to address the effects of climate change. This double tragedy has shattered whole economies and forced many poor people into all forms of slavery. I regarded Tearfund’s annual international gathering that took place in June – a platform that brings together experienced and passionate leaders from over 30 poor countries – as an opportunity to grapple with ways of turning this climate tragedy into economic growth prospects. 

For me, poverty and climate change have had very personal terrible memories. I was born the tenth of 14 children in a small town in Uganda. My father worked a medium income job and my mum stayed home to look after us. When I was 14, my father unexpectedly got a stroke and died within one week. For all my childhood I knew only one meal a day. I saw poverty ruthlessly ravage my family like a lion tears apart its prey. Some of my siblings and childhood friends remain trapped in poverty. For most of my school days, I used kerosene lamps to do my homework. I have no good memories of the unpleasant smells, the coughs and lung infections we suffered from inhaling the smoke from these lamps – night after night.

What is even more dangerous are the generational effects of poverty. I have seen good-hearted, generous former classmates of mine turn into mean, selfish politicians and bureaucrats, who take community funds for themselves and their families because poverty has taught them that there aren’t enough resources for all of us to share. I look at sub-Saharan Africa and see economies that are trapped in corruption because poverty taught us to hold on to what we have, for tomorrow, we may not have it.

Where is the blessing out of this tragedy? Where is the good from it? Where is the beauty from these ashes? ‘There must be some exquisite outcome from this tragedy of poverty and climate change,’ I keep thinking to myself.

Our gathering helped me to reflect on these issues, especially since a whole day was dedicated to environmental and economic sustainability. For people like me and some Tearfund leaders, who were born and raised in poverty, and who have experienced the sting of poverty and yet managed to escape its grip, how can we help those still trapped? As stewards of God’s creation, how can we tap into the growing global momentum to build economies that are environmentally sustainable?

The Psalmist in chapter 11 verse three posed this question in a different way: ‘When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?’ We must answer that call by creation – now more than ever before. Nature’s gentle whispers are already turning into rude yells demonstrated by tsunamis, el-Ninos, floods and extended droughts.

How can countries in poverty be supported to develop outside the current model where the more the world succeeds economically, the more we fail on environmental sustainability? This model has stretched the earth’s life support systems to breaking point with catastrophic consequences for people in poverty who cannot afford to cope with the effects of climate change.

From the meetings, it became clear that our emphasis should be on the creation of climate smart jobs that make people more resilient to the effects of climate change. As more people grow in their appreciation of the environment as the hand that feeds them, they will most likely adopt lifestyles that protect and care for it. We will also begin to see more people speaking out against social practices and policies that degrade the environment.

At the end, we went away from our annual gathering with some good questions on how to turn this tragedy into a better economic growth model. How can we support those with interest in setting up green enterprises to access capital to finance their ideas, and to obtain markets to sell their products or services? How can organisations like Tearfund exploit their convening power to link local and national groups with manufacturers and distributors of renewable energy technologies? Could such strategic linkages be a means for large numbers of unemployed young people from the global south to benefit from subsidised renewable technologies and skills development? Green jobs, from producing and recycling solar panels and batteries could lead to cleaner and safer communities. For each poor country that takes this route, the world benefits as a potential addition to carbon dioxide is avoided.

The climate tragedy can indeed be turned into an economic opportunity.

This article originally appeared on Christianity Today


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