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Monday, December 3, 2012

Hope in Africa: Catholic youth work for sustainability

Allen Ottaro of Kenya is Executive Director of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. At 28, he’s traveled and done more than many twice his age. Allen (or Al, as his friends call him) is the face of the African continent’s future—a future of thriving economies and cultures as well as the preservation of its identity, its abundant natural, beautiful resources, and its soul. 

Al is a true Catholic ecologist. Because he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and experiences, I am delighted to share them with you.

[Update (December 4): The following interview takes on even more value given recent statements by Bishop Bernard Kasanda of Mbuji-Mayi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bishop Kasanda has condemned the international community for failing to react to unrest and invasions caused by factions seeking control of mineral and oil resources. Read here for more.]

Allen Ottaro
What have been some of your experiences in working to promote ecology in Africa?

During my time in primary school (1990-1997), we were often required, as pupils, to participate in an annual tree planting day. This was in line with the government policy at the time, which was summarized as “for every tree you cut, plant two.” Of course, as primary kids, we were not involved in tree cutting, but there was plenty of evidence around us of this activity. In my home town of Njoro, saw-mill business was booming and tractors pulling loads of logs could be seen on our roads every five to ten minutes heading to and from the forests.

While in high school, I did a great deal of farming, besides class work. Our school placed a great emphasis on food self-sufficiency. We grew our own vegetables and looked after dairy cows for our milk, chicken for our eggs and pigs for our pork. Agriculture was not only a subject on the school’s timetable, but a way of life.

After high school studies, I was admitted to Kenyatta University, to pursue a degree in Environmental Planning and Management. Environmental issues were only beginning to take a central place in national discourse. Still, there seemed to be little connection between my academic work and the concepts I was learning in class and the reality in Kenyan society. I then had an opportunity to do my field work with the Justice and Peace office of the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya (AOSK). It was a hands-on experience, which exposed me to concrete ecology projects and activities that were happening in and around Nairobi. I was asked to prepare an environmental exhibition for World Environment Day, 2007. We got in touch with other Church departments, parishes, government agencies, civil society organizations and schools, many of whom partnered with us to set-up the one day exhibition within the grounds of the Cathedral in Nairobi. The whole experience was intense, at times exhausting, but it left me with a deep sense of fulfillment and a desire to do more for the environment. Later, I worked as an intern for the National Environmental Management Authority, a government agency based in Nairobi. A key highlight during my work there, was participating in a two-week United Nations conference on biodiversity, organized by the Convention on Biological Diversity secretariat. It was interesting and occasionally disappointing to see how UN negotiations work, but I had a great opportunity to network and access material on the state of the world’s biodiversity.

Last year, I spent about 8 months as a volunteer for an ecological association in Torun, northwest Poland. The association runs a “forest school,” which provides ecological education to children and young people. With the assistance of a translator, I occasionally offered presentations about Africa and its physical features, flora and fauna, to groups of school elementary and high school children, who showed great interest in the subjects that they had only previously had sneak previews of on National Geographic channels. This experience greatly enhanced my understanding of the environmental issues facing both Africa and Europe, and of how education and awareness activities are conducted in other countries.

Soon after my return to Kenya, I got involved in a Kenyan Youth Strategy meeting that was supported by UN-Habitat. The meeting brought together representatives of Kenyan youth organizations, to prepare a position paper as input for the Rio+20 process. I was nominated by the youth department of my home diocese of Nakuru, and ended up as the only representative from a faith background, something which seemed to perplex some of the delegates. When I reported back to my colleagues about the outcome of the meeting, we saw a need to involve young Catholics in a deeper and stronger way, to promote ecology. While the initial idea was to set up a network in Kenya, we eventually decided to broaden it to include Africa, as the ecological issues are often trans-boundary and interrelated.

What do fellow young adults and teens in Africa consider as the best ways to encourage an ethic of environmental protection in their own communities and nations, and in the world?

Changing attitudes towards the environment is a key concern for many. In many African countries, young people find themselves confronting a culture where environmental protection is considered as a responsibility for local or national authorities. Education is therefore seen as a key intervention in helping both communities and individuals understand their rights and responsibilities towards the environment. Weak or non-enforcement of existing environmental regulations is a major challenge too. Some countries such as Rwanda have registered major accomplishments in areas such as waste management. The capital, Kigali, is certainly one of the cleanest cities in East and Central Africa. This can be attributed to the strict enforcement of laws on littering and a ban on plastic bags. For example, while traveling by bus from Nairobi to Kigali via Kampala, passengers undergo thorough inspection of their luggage at the Uganda-Rwanda border, to rid them off any plastic bags.

Young people across Africa view the lack of opportunities to earn a living in their countries as a setback to promoting an ethic of environmental protection in their countries. Africa is blessed with immense natural resources. Many communities depend directly on these resources for their livelihoods, as farmers, fishermen and women or as pastoralists. However, over the years, the pressure on these resources has continued to increase, necessitating the need for alternative income generating activities, and making the existing ones more sustainable, through practices such as organic farming and eco-tourism. For many youth struggling to get their communities out of poverty, green jobs can be the key to creating income generating opportunities, while promoting responsibility for the environment. An example is the use of solar technologies to provide energy while offering young people a chance to train and work as technicians in installation and maintenance of such technologies.

What seems to be of critical importance, is the example that is set by adults. While it is all well and good for adults to educate the young about environmental issues and the need to treat nature with respect, it is the example that they set that is bound to make a profound impact on how young people choose to act.

How can people in other nations help the African environmental movement?

Mining for Coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Photo: Flicker/by Responsible Sourcing Network
Learn about Africa: This seems to me to be the starting point for people looking to partner with and support the African environmental movement. During my visits in Europe, I was often surprised at how little Africa was covered in the media, except when famine or war broke out. Even in those exceptions, one hardly read about stories of hope. For any genuine partnerships to take shape, I feel that exchanging knowledge and a genuine desire to learn and be aware of the issues is of paramount importance. People in other nations can help by creating awareness in their communities about what is happening in Africa. For example, several reports have shown that the conflicts in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have claimed more than five million lives since 2000, are fueled by the sale of minerals such as coltan. Now, coltan is used in the manufacture of tantalum capacitors, used in electronic equipment, especially in mobile phones a device which many people in the modern world own. Other examples include the cut-flower industry in Kenya, which has caused serious environmental damage to Lake Naivasha in the rift-valley. Europe is the leading market for these flowers. There are many more examples in a globalized world, hence the need for awareness, as a first step to contributing to concrete change. (For more information on coltan, visit here, here, here, and here.)

How important is your Catholic faith in your work to protect the environment?

My Catholic faith is really at the core of my work to protect the environment, as it has helped me to realize and understand that creation is a gift from God, and that therefore, I have a responsibility towards caring for it. This is the basis and the motivation behind the setting up of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability for Africa. My Catholic faith is also continuously making me aware of the needs of those who suffer the most from the effects of environmental degradation, including climate change, and moves me to make a contribution towards improving the situation. More importantly, prayer and the support of a faith community, both locally and that of the Universal Church, gives me the strength to continue, knowing that I am only an instrument in the hands of Our Lord.

How has your local churches or dioceses helped the environmental movement?

Sunrise in Tanzania. Photo: Flicker/by JUAN-VIDAL
The Kenya Episcopal Conference published a pastoral letter in June 2012, in which it invited all Catholics to “prioritize their engagement with environmental care as a way of appreciating and advancing the creative mission of God whose image we bear.” In December 2011, a national consultative meeting to draw up a long-term plan on the environment, was held in the Diocese of Malindi, Kenya, for the Catholic Men and Catholic Women Associations. Some of the proposed project activities in the plan include; awareness and education on environmental stewardship based on Catholic social teaching; engagement of stakeholders and church-owned institutions/land: targeting shrines, diocese, parishes, Catholic schools, pastoral centres, retreat centres and church owned pieces of land; supporting the institutions to love and protect their living and working environment in a way that is consistent with their faith.

While environmental action seems to be a relatively new priority for the Catholic Church in Kenya, the new long-term plan will be implemented within the Church structure, from the Catholic family to the parish to the national level. The involvement of young people in my view, will contribute to the sustainability of such plans, and it is wonderful to note that schools and other institutions that serve the youth and which are run by the Church, are included in this long-term plan.

What else would you like readers to know?

There are certainly many complex challenges in Africa. However, as noted by the Synod of African Bishops in 2009, Africa is also a continent of hope. The Church is growing in Africa and provides many important social services, in some remote areas, being the only presence. The voice of the Church is widely respected on the continent and this witness presents a unique opportunity for making interventions with respect to environmental challenges both at home and abroad. This is the opportunity that CYNESA has seized and looks to build on-creating a network of young Catholics all across the continent to be a voice for change.

And as the Church is universal, we are also very open to networking and linking with others in parts of the world where the Church has made progress in promoting environmental stewardship.

May God bless Al and all those engaged in environmental awareness and protection in the nations of Africa! May Allen's example, and that of his colleagues, inspire us all to protect and preserve our own corners of creation so that we too can foster the great Christian virtue of hope!


  1. Allen, quite pragmatic, faith is not just sitting back but being proactive. Congratulations on your many achievements! Baraka na baraka.

  2. Allen, quite pragmatic, faith is not just sitting back but being proactive. Congratulations on your many achievements! Baraka na baraka.


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