Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze is a 26-year-old environmental activist from Burundi and the founder of Greening Burundi, a project for which he was listed among the Top 100 Young African Conservation Leaders. So far, his initiative allowed the planting of a million trees in his native Bubanza province. Growing up, Emmanuel has been confronted with forest destruction and witnessed the consequences of climate change from a young age. He generously accepted to be interviewed as a part of our column Young Voices to share his inspiring story and spread awareness on the impact humans have on the environment.
Africa’s Exposure to Climate Change
The African continent contributes the least to greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is the more exposed to global warming, mostly due to deforestation as confirmed by a UN report, which states African tree coverage loss rate is twice the world average. Burundi is no exception to the continent’s critical state, as it suffered a 40.5% loss of its forest coverage between 1990 and 2010. Commenting on this, Emmanuel explains: “It is roughly 80% of the Burundi population who depend on agriculture for a living. Thus, if there is massive deforestation, we notice soil erosion and it becomes infertile which leads to insufficient production. In this case, we see a direct correlation with the increase in the community’s poverty rate and diseases related to malnutrition. Here in Burundi, we recall 54% of children are malnourished. And all of this is due to climate changes.”
Greening Burundi’s Contribution
Emmanuel Niyoyabikoze was raised by environmentally-conscious parents; his father also planted trees to keep Burundi green. Inspired by him and other activists such as the Peace Nobelist Wangari Maathai who founded the Green Belt Movement which contributed to planting 30 million trees in Africa, Emmanuel started his own organisation in 2017. Starting reforestation activities in his natal province, the young man achieved his first goal to plant a million trees and is now expanding his ambitions to the bordering province, Cibitoke. Encouraged by the results, he decided that planting trees was not enough: “If we reforest land without changing the population’s mentality, because we are the ones destroying the forests, our efforts will be worthless. We need to spread information and educate people, and therefore I implemented educational programs.” The association organises educational activities in schools of Bubanza with the aim of teaching the importance of environmental protection and giving opportunities to young students to exchange information on the topic. Convinced that human contribution can go a long way, Emmanuel challenges Bubanza’s communities to plant at least 20 trees per household.
What the Future Holds
Originally intended to be a three-year project, I asked Emmanuel what he plans for the future of his organization. Full of enthusiasm and determination, he says: “Our objective was to successfully plant a million trees, which is achieved by now. Strong from this realization, we extended our goal to 50 million by the year 2040. Also, we want to pursue our educational programs in all schools of Bubanza to give young people a chance to learn to love and respect nature.” He did not have the opportunity himself to study nature at school, which enhanced his desire to spread the message to everyone. He tells me: “We are currently thinking about creating a mobile phone application that would convey climate change information to youth and would help us reach a wider population.”
Other projects animate the young activist’s passion, and he sees no limits to Greening Burundi. Since most of the population uses tree charcoal for cooking, Emmanuel started teaching communities how to use palm bark instead, reducing tree cutting and protecting the future of young plants. In addition, his team is working on the development of an organic coal made from domestic and agricultural waste that would help recycle waste as well. Greening Burundi still faces many challenges mostly because of the lack of financial resources but luckily its founder is creative enough to not let anything prevent the achievement of their goals. For instance, he once encountered a shortage of biodegradable bags in which to put the seeds and decided to make some himself, utilizing banana’s peels. He even taught the technique to children.
His perseverance is reinforced by the recognition others give him as he inspired many groups from Uganda, Liberia, and Bangladesh to follow his path by starting similar activities in their own regions. When I asked him if an individual alone can contribute to the global effort, he is unequivocal: “We say change comes first from within ourselves, and environment protection is everyone’s business. Students need to lead the way and take initiatives to create motivated communities of like-minded people.”