With the world experiencing dramatic changes in the environment due to global warming, experts say that the lives of animals, plants and people are at stake. This calls for more global efforts to tackle real and potential risks.
The New Times’ Julius Bizimungu spoke to Joyce Msuya, the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on what countries should be doing to reverse the deteriorating situation.
Msuya was in Rwanda last week to attend the Kigali Global Dialogue.
You met with the leadership of Rwanda, including the Foreign Affairs Minister. What were the conversations about?
This is a long overdue first visit to Rwanda. I am here for the Kigali Global Dialogue meeting but I am taking advantage of those conversations to have bilateral meetings since it is my first meeting.
I have met Ambassador Richard Sezibera, Environment Minister Vincent Biruta and the Head of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) and other officials. The conversation with Government officials has been threefold.
One was trying to find out from the environment perspective what are the challenges or opportunities and the priorities of the Government and how can the UN Environment support them.
Linked to that was to get feedback. Where we have worked in the past, how are we doing because we serve member states and Rwanda is part of that?
Two is learning from Rwanda. Globally, the issues of co-existence of nature and the people is at the cornerstone. What we are trying to learn from Rwanda is the success story around the gorillas and how the Government has taken it up to preserve nature, but at the same time build communities around it in the spirit of co-existence.
Lastly, was to talk to Rwandese nationals. At the Kigali Global Dialogue, I have been engaging the youth, women trying to understand from citizen perspective what is in their minds vis-a-vis environmental issues.
Globally, youth have become the champions and advocates of climate change.
You came here after attending the Africa Wildlife Economy Summit – the first of its kind – which took place in Zimbabwe. How important was the meeting given the scale of changes seen today?
It was an extremely timely and relevant meeting. Let me start with the context first; I have lived in many parts of the world, but what I have come to constantly appreciate is how rich the [African] continent and countries are when it comes to nature – whether it is the oceans, the mountains, etc.
The meeting was important because it was the first meeting to be held in Africa to talk about wildlife economy; not just wildlife but wildlife in the context of economic development as well as creating wealth for Africans and reducing poverty in Africa.
It had the highest political representation and active participation. There were four heads of states (Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana) and they were there four two days. There were also 14 ministers from Africa. It basically showed the highest political will.
Third was the fact that communities were at the centre of the conversations. There were traditional leaders and heads of communities taking part in the conversation, and this is because wildlife is all about people.
Lastly, thanks to the Government of Zimbabwe that took us to Victoria Falls to show us the impact of climate change on the volume of water, but also how does Victoria Falls act as a cornerstone for fishing industry – economic aspect of nature.
The focus of the meeting – shifting dynamics of the continent’s wildlife economy to place communities at the centre and encourage public-private partnerships to earn more revenues for countries, is something President Paul Kagame has been championing. Would you say Africa is on the right track?
I would say Africa has made progress but there is more to be done. We should not forget that Africa has 54 countries and they are diverse. I come from Tanzania where there are 126 different tribes, different regions with different levels of development.
When I say public-private partnerships is making progress, and you look at tourism industry in Rwanda and in Kenya, clearly there is a role for the Government to set the policies that attract investments.
Rwanda is a classic example. If you address corruption, the foreign direct investments come in much easier, but also jobs creation, tourism companies are mostly private and they follow good investment climate.
Most African Governments are open to partnering with private sector, but it is also fair to say that there is more work to be done, for example, in improving our governance and investment climate to attract more private sector.
If you look at statistics, Africa has an asset of youth population and that is a huge asset for potential jobs in nature, environment. In some of the countries there are Governments that are working to convert trash into treasure by creating jobs for youth.
There is still more work to be done on youth, of pulling in women, of addressing regulatory challenges that are facing some of these segments of the population, but also compliance and enforcement of these regulations.
Currently, there seems to be much talk about biodiversity economy. Has the continent really understood the economic importance of protecting its wildlife?
I think countries are increasingly understanding, for example yesterday I was having a conversation with your people talking about how to provide data for wildlife – basically, putting monetary value on our nature as part of the entire planning.
We (at UNEP) are working on natural wealth accounting mechanisms with a number of countries in Africa, to basically say this is how much you are economy will benefit if you protect and value your nature.
The world is experiencing environmental trends like loss of biodiversity, loss of water resources, and loss of fertile soils, among others. What are other top trends the earth’s system is facing?
In terms of themes, there are about four. One is indigenous species. There is a recently launched report by IBPS (Intergovernmental panel), which articulated one million species are in danger of going extinct and most of those species are located on this continent.
Two is climate change. My first visit when I arrived in Nairobi was to Zanzibar and saw how as an island they were suffering. This is true for many African countries.
Three is air pollution. 600,000 people die per year because of the impact of air pollution. Most of it comes from fossil fuels but also transport and this is because Africa is urbanising very fast. The other one is energy. When I go back to my village in Kilimanjaro I still see my relatives do charcoal and that involves cutting trees.
The last theme is waste. Because of urbanisation, trash, plastics are on the rise.
It is good to see countries including Rwanda taking leadership in banning plastic bags. Before I came here everybody told me Rwanda is very clean but that is not the norm in other African countries. How do we manage our waste? How do we actually capitalise on circular economy? But also reducing the amount of waste we generate.
How many of these environmental trends are human-made?
Most of them, I would say, are man-made or influenced. Climate change is one, cutting trees, air pollution is a result of the types of choices we make like through cars, and energy sector is another one.
But what that means frankly is an opportunity for us as humans to make different choices – instead of buying plastics, for instance, we buy something else.
What are the most important steps to stop the negative trends?
It varies from one country to another. If you look at the island states, clearly climate change is on top, and what that means is to take advantage of mangroves or other innovations to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
If you look at nature, Government has a role to play to institute the right policies. Gorilla conservation is an example of that – charging for more to limit the number of people that goes to national parks.
On ocean pollution, a number of governments are looking into banning plastics and some have already banned plastics. Again, reducing plastics that end up in oceans and have an impact on fish life and consequently affects the overall health of people is important.
On energy, there is need for transition to renewable energy – moving away from fossil fuels and moving away from cutting trees.
We can also take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution. Rwanda is using artificial intelligence to monitor the volumes of rains as part of finding out the impact of climate change.
You mentioned plastics as one of the issues, but the ban of single-use plastics have seen businesses raise more concerns. How can we reconcile them and what alternatives are there for them?
When it comes to banning plastics, we need to recognise that Africa has taken leadership. We have Rwanda, Kenya, Eritrea, and Tanzania has just joined. You don’t see that globally.
Evidence has shown, however, that banning plastics is a process. You have to look at jobs, do a thorough assessment. It is a process that requires analysis, finding alternatives, and or retraining workers who are working in plastics factories into other types of skill-sets.
In other countries, governments have provided transitional subsidies to help them transition into a new economy.
On the other hand, what has helped is to show the cost of inaction; if you don’t ban plastics, what it the potential cost on the health budget if people get sick or develop cancer? There you see a lot of movement when it comes to policy.
There has been debate around financing most environmental initiatives given how costly they are. What are some of the sustainable financing models that Africa should adopt?