This week, we interview Chibeze Ezekiel, winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize – 2020, alongside five other environmental heroes across the globe. Chibeze is the leader of Strategic Youth Network for Development, an organization that leads climate change and clean energy advocacy in Ghana. SYND is also the ACCESS Regional Node for West Africa.
Chibeze is gracious, thanking the interviewer for the opportunity to tell his story.
- Tell us about the Goldman Prize and how you got to be considered for it.
It is an award that has been present for the last 30 years. The whole concept of the Goldman Prize is to appreciate environmental defenders; people who risk their lives to promote environmental sustainability. It is a way to encourage people working around the globe to preserve the environment. The way Goldman works, as a recipient, you do not nominate yourself – you have to be nominated by others. And you have to justify why you deserve the award. On their end, Goldman have internal investigative processes in-country, which include tracking people to verify your work.
The Prize is based on the work you do – and they assess if your work is worth appreciating. Usually, what happens is that the award nomination is a process. In December, you get notified of your nomination and between January and February, Goldman sends a film crew to do a documentary and interviews in your home country to stage your work so they can tell a story when they give you an award. The awards then take place in April of every year in both Washington and San Fransisco, USA. But in 2020, due to Covid-19 led restrictions, the ceremony was pushed to November 30, 2020.
I actually did not know about Goldman until about 2019. I was, however, told I had been nominated in 2017, 2018 and 2019 by different NGOs and that I made it to a finalist for the 2019 prize.
I got a call in December 2019 from Goldman telling me that I was a nominee for the 2020 Prize. It was a big surprise to me, though I must admit my colleagues at some point were behaving in a funny manner, like they were keeping something from me, and kept saying that something was about to happen!
- Great. You have given such a good background and it is now clear that it not easy to get the prize! I just want to understand the sustained four–year grassroots campaign that got you the Prize?
So, a lot of people did not know about our campaign thinking it took only a few months. It took four solid years to get to where we are today. The whole thing began in 2013. I had a chance to attend the Global Powershift Conference in Turkey, Istanbul organized by 350.org which brought 500 young people from across the globe to converge and be trained on climate change.
There were seven of us from Ghana and once back from the conference, we decided to form a group to sustain the momentum. This resulted in the formation of 350-GROC (Ghana Reducing Our Carbon). As the name connotes, it means that our campaign was geared towards carbon reduction, a major way to fight climate change. That was the advocacy we were doing. We also represented the local chapter of 350.org.
Prior to that I also had my NGO – Strategic Youth Network for Development – made up of individuals and organizations – which became part of 350-GROC where I led a team as National Coordinator.
In 2009 it was in the news that the government of Ghana was having conversations with a Chinese company about building a coal plant in Ghana. When we got that information, we began tracking this, and felt that it was important to ensure that the plant does not see the light of day. One of the things we did was to figure out the likely site of the plant. We found that it was an area in Ghana central region known as Kokonfi in the local language.
In 2014, through the support of other partners, we went to that community, to engage the chiefs and the elders, informing them about the adverse impacts of coal. The idea was to prepare them ahead of time so that during consultations on the project they would be more informed and could challenge the government. During that same period, we began to strengthen our engagement with stakeholders at the African and global levels. It was at that time that I got the opportunity to travel to South Africa to have a look at a coal plant – how it works and its effects on communities. The smell at the site of the coal plant was different from that in different localities. It became a reality to me. This visit was a way of preparing us adequately against such an eventuality in Ghana. We did the training and capacity building behind the scenes from 2014 throughout until December 2015 when the government of Ghana’s Volta River Authority, a State institution responsible for energy installation, came up with a scoping report on the coal plant. In January 2016, they published a scoping notice, which is a public participation requirement for environmental and social impact assessment before engaging in a project, and this was when we realized that this coal plan was not alleged news but serious business!
That triggered our campaign – and because we had done our homework between 2013 to 2016, this was not difficult. In 2016 we mounted a heavy campaign for about seven months until October of that year when the Minister of Environment, at a press conference, mentioned that Ghana would not build a coal plant with an excuse that it would go against the Paris Accord. That is the story behind our advocacy.
One thing we never forget to do in our advocacy, is to engage affected communities. For this particular project, we went to the community at the site of the proposed plant and spent three to four days with the locals to seek their thoughts. Some opened up on their fears and reservations, and at the time did not know who to talk to. Since we went, however, our presence gave us enough power to represent them. We used what I call a submarine approach, quiet and behind the scenes, allowing us to get a lot of behind-the-scenes information, justifiable facts and evidence based on consultation with communities and stakeholders. So that is how we began from 2013 all the way to 2016.
- At this point you have 350.org, 350 GROC and SYND. Other than these stakeholders, who else was involved and how were they involved?
We used our strategy (the submarine approach) when we went to the community and got their buy-in and consent to support what we wanted to do. Afterwards, we came back to the main city and reached out to NGOs working in the natural resources and environmental sectors. Advocacy sometimes is about numbers – the more people you have behind you, the more impact you are likely to have. We engaged an organization called CASA Initative in Ghana which coordinates all environmental NGOs and they created a platform for us to engage bigger CSOs and NGOs including Care Ghana to debrief them on all that transpired during our consultation with the community. It was a way to mobilize masses for our campaign. This was at national level, and by the way.
At regional level, we had serious support from 350 Africa and GroundWork in South Africa, among other players.
At the global level, we had International Coal Network, Friends of the Earth USA and the HQ of 350.org in the US.
At each level we had partners and networks that provided different support. We selected partners who were likely to provide very strategic support to this campaign.
- It is not easy to rally people towards a common cause. How did you convince these organizations to support you?
The good thing was that at the time there was a global campaign against fossil fuels – so advocates were talking about shutting down coal plants in other countries. It made sense to give all the support required to ensure the coal plant in Ghana was not put up. We targeted partners tackling fossil fuels and coal related issues.
We also had some partners who preferred to remain anonymous due to the kind of work they do. They track all Chinese foreign investment, and they flag any investment that goes against environmental principles and raise concern. They helped us in a lot of ways as the coal plant was to be built by the Chinese. We had different partners supporting us in that regard.
- You are very purposeful and believe in coalitions. What are your views on working with youth? On the one hand they have a lot of energy and pride in what they do, but on the other, they are jostling for space and finding their identity. What was their role and how did you bring them together to rally around this issue?
We had a number of young people individually involved in different environmental campaigns, and I felt like we could do more than what we were already doing. This campaign presented an opportunity for young people to showcase what they can do to contribute to national development. Many people view young people as aggressive, rowdy, ready to demonstrate and cause chaos and violence and we wanted to prove a point that young people can bring meaningful contribution to the table. That is why we were quite meticulous in our work. We spoke based on facts and not feelings or emotions. The youth did research. They were volunteering their time and were happy to see their views taken into consideration and shaping development processes. They bought into the idea to demonstrate who they were and what they stood for. This in turn motivated them.
I must thank them, as it was something they did selflessly with no reward.
- When you went to have consultations with the community, were the youth involved?
Yes. Actually, it was a community where we did not know anyone, but we found a youth leader who supported us. Where the plant was to be located, there were seven other fringe communities and the youth leader took us round to these communities where we met chiefs and elders. We felt that when it comes to the community, the elders and chief were the first port of call, which is also what our culture dictates.
- I think you talked about the approach for the community to get their views and buy-in. What is your view on “leaving no one behind”? How will the Prize fit into the leaving no one behind principle?
The principle of leaving no one behind has to be well considered. Almost every community in Africa talks about poverty reduction strategies, and there have in the past been workshops held on poverty reduction without the poor people in the room!
For us, our focus is on young people and we are aware of gender advocacy and disability as well which are both about representation. In line with this, we are saying youth must not be left behind!
For us, we pitch our camp very strongly that when it comes to climate change and energy related issues, youth must not be left behind. We showcase through our anti-coal campaign the youth played a role and can bring something to the table. We are pursuing this principle from the youth perspective and this has given us a chance to take part in the ongoing national adaptation plan processes as well as youth wing of our NDCs. This is evidence of youth being brought into the decision-making space.
- Did you always know you were an activist? Do you brand yourself an activist first of all & how did you get here?
Well, in a normal sense it is ok to call myself a climate activist but I prefer to call myself an advocate as activist sounds like a militant, a rebel leader kind of (laughs).
The seed of all this advocacy work was sown in me in 2009, thanks to the World Bank and British Council who put together a programme called Youth Master Trainers on Climate Change. They selected young people from different African countries to go to a two-week programme. The idea was that once they built our capacity, we would go back to our countries and build the capacity of other people including youth and communities. That was the first time I heard about the concept of climate change.
I developed an interest in the area and thankfully when I came back to Ghana, I went to the community and educated them on climate change, and how they can fight climate change and adapt to the increasing impact of climate change. I did the same work in schools and communities, creating awareness, and later had a chance to go to Istanbul for the Global Powershift conference in 2013. The conference consolidated the passion that I had. I met other young people and felt that this was a whole movement! These two meetings gave me that strong impression and since then I have been working consistently on climate change advocacy.
- What about when you were younger? Has there been an incident where you had to stand up for something? Did you know you would become an advocate later in life?
When I was growing up, my father already knew what he wanted me to be, and that was a business man. As far as I was concerned, I was being groomed to take over my father’s business. My father was among those who brought second hand clothes to Ghana – that was his business. Even when I went on vacation after school, he would take me to his office to understudy him. I did business courses in both secondary school and at tertiary level in readiness for this. I had no intention of being an advocate and had no idea of what it meant to be one.
It was when I was in school doing marketing that some friends of mine introduced me to volunteerism for youth development, and I began to develop interest. Through this process, I was chosen by World Bank for the training I told you about in 2009. It started with youth development and shifted to climate change.
- Your father must have been disappointed?
Yes! And the difficulty was that advocacy work is abstract – it is not tangible. My dad is a typical businessman, an Igbo man, who wants to see physical products. Doing policy papers just did not cut it. It was difficult trying to convince him at first, but eventually he said that if it was something that I was happy about, then I should go ahead.
- Advocacy is comparable to marketing in a sense, making goals that are attractive to people, getting buy-in from people, and all that. Even as you lead SYND I am sure these are the principles you adopt in your advocacy?
Oh yes. I mean, it helped a great deal. I even had to go back to school to study psychology and sociology because of the nature of the work. Because you are talking about human beings, you want to change human behaviour, human attitude, so for me I studied social sciences: psychology – what informs people’s behaviour, and sociology – how society is formed and behaves. Theories from these fields are shaping my work, so when I go to the community, I have a fair idea of what I should expect and how to pitch my message in order to get the attention I want. I can say that those educational lessons have been very successful.
One key experience I had, is when I came to Kenya and went to the Maasai community – who I had read about in my sociology textbooks. When I met them, I got to really appreciate them and fully understand how to carry our message to them due to having studied about them.
- Because of the Goldman Prize, SYND has benefited. How is that working out and what does that mean for the advocacy you intend to do in West Africa?
One of the things that is more of my personal philosophy, is I love to work more with a team. I do not always like the spotlight. Thankfully, I have a great team at SYND who I carry along in whatever I am doing to build their capacity and make more impact. I am leveraging on the staff strengths and potential so we can do more than we are now.
Prior to the award in November 2020, from July 2020 we began a campaign – Youth in Renewable Energy Movement in Ghana. My team, who have never done such work in their lifetime, ran the campaign. I gave them the opportunity to run it on their own, innovate and be creative – it was a way to get them involved. What they learned and did they had never done.
The Prize will help us be more impactful as we attract more young people – if they see their peers doing such work, it becomes a source of motivation to get involved in the work we do.
I might be boasting, but today, if you want to talk about young people working in climate change and energy, you cannot rule out SYND as we are visible. If you do not give youth the opportunity, you can never know what they can do. And for the next one or two years, I intend to give youth pressure and a chance to do more so I can take a step back. This is so that they can continue the work. I want more advocates.
- That’s great and it means that even for the other West African countries, you are going to look for youth advocates
- Does this give you much time for a family, personal life or fun life, as it sounds like a lot of work?
It is quite crazy to be honest. Ever since the announcement was made, I have never known peace, you know. I am receiving so many emails, if they cannot find me on email, they look for me on social media – on twitter and Instagram. In fact, from 1st December all the way to Christmas I had to make myself available for media interviews. There was so much pressure! Thankfully Christmas break came, and now we are back, and NGOs have taken over and are now inviting me to meetings. People want to be part of what we are doing and also want me to support them in what they are doing, so for us certainly it brings a lot of pressure. While many people are seeking our attention as SYND, we still have our own work to do. That was one reason I felt as if it was important to build a team and work with them – otherwise I would end up wearing myself out.