A conversation with Allen Ottaro

April 20, 2020

Allen Ottaro. Courtesy Photo.

Allen Ottaro is the Executive Director of Catholic Youth Network for Environment Sustainability for Africa. This interview was conducted in November 2019.

CWS: Could you say a little bit about how your faith motivates you to be involved in climate advocacy?

AO: I work as founder and Executive Director of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, which is a platform that helps young Catholics on the African continent to respond to environmental issues, but from the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching. That for us is a key grounding that our work is centered upon. It is about helping young people to recognize that as people of faith, as Christians, it’s their responsibility, as part of their Christian vocation to care for Creation. My faith as a person really matured when I was a young adult – when I was 19 – 20 – I did not grow up Catholic, I did not really have any faith experience because my parents were not religious. I went to a Catholic High school, which shaped my outlook towards faith and social justice concerns. We had a farm there and we had to grow our own food. We had to work in the farm as well as tend to our academic studies. That for me helped create a good balance for me between knowledge and concrete actions, and to see how to sustain our livelihoods on the school campus. That helped shape my outlook and motivation to help young people discover their faith and how their faith compels them to respond to social justice concerns. I also have a background in environmental planning and management from Kenyata University. But it was only much later that I went able to move full time into environmental studies. After my studies I volunteered for a year and a half with the African Jesuit AIDS Network, which has an office in Nairobi and which coordinated the HIV AIDS ministries of the Jesuits in Africa.

After that I felt the need to go back to the environmental area. I found a 7-month internship in Poland with an ecological education association. They received children from the region. The center was in a forest, so the education was really hands-on. It received children from the region, the instructors would take the kids and go out with them to the forest. It was really a delight to see the kids’ eyes light up when they discovered a species of frog or plant. And seeing this – the beauty of young people’s contact with nature – to see how they appreciate it and seeing how it helps them to want to care and do something about protecting the environment. That was a key driver. When I went back to Kenya together with some colleagues, we decided to create this platform that would delve further into Catholic social teaching and to discover how it invites us to work on environmental issues. That was 2012; we did not formally become an organization until 2014.

CWS: How do you do your work?

AO: Currently, we are organized into national chapters. So far, we have 10 and still growing. Most of these chapters are in East and Southern Africa but this year and next we are focusing on West Africa. We are setting up the Nigerian and Ghanaian chapters. Hopefully, next year we will have more across West Africa.

The outreach happens at different levels. For example, in Kenya, we go primarily to dioceses and parish groups or youth movements and have formation sessions with them. We work to identify what key needs where they live, and environmental issues: deforestation, pollution from solid waste, or impact of climate change on agricultural production of local farmers. We sometimes work with national Catholic agencies. In Kenya last year, we were invited by Caritas Kenya which was launching the Catholic Environmental Campaign for the Catholic Church in Kenya. The idea was to have each of the 25 Catholic dioceses in Kenya to plant a million trees within a year as part of the national reforestation effort. Kenya has very low forest cover, just 7% of the total landmass, which falls below the 10% minimum standard recommended internationally. So, the government has a big campaign to get communities and organizations, and people involved in growing trees, especially during the rainy season. The church has identified land and facilities to contribute to this effort. Caritas Kenya invited us to help mobilize young people to get involved in this effort. They thought that the impact would be greater if we did that as a youth organization. We were happy to contribute to that because in the process it also helps to us grow the Kenya chapter of SINESA.

In Tanzania, the team is based in Daar Es Salaam. One of the high schools established a club named after our organization because they were excited and inspired about looking at environmental concerns from a faith perspective. Even though it is a Catholic school, they have students from different faith traditions. The members find creative ways of recycling plastic; every year they have different clubs days that showcase creative ways of managing waste, saving energy, water. This a model that we are thinking of replicating in other countries and schools. Our target group is young people, young adults, 18 and above, except in Tanzania where they come from secondary schools.

Courtesy photo.

CWS: How does the faith perspective encourage and inspire people to get involved in climate work?

AO: Many people are taken by surprise when they discover a connection between faith and environmental issues. For example, in 2015, my colleagues and I participated in the Catholic Climate global petition ahead of COP 21 in Paris. Some were also involved in starting the Global Catholic Environmental Movement. We helped to set up the Global Catholic Climate Movement and we collected signatures. We went to one of the churches parishes and set up a desk so people would sign a petition about COP 21 after church. After Mass, some would walk directly in front of us or ask for information, but one man was convinced that he wanted to sign the petition, and said “where is the petition? I would like to sign”. And I was curious to find out why he did not need an explanation. He explained that he was a member of the Kenya National Working Group and he went to that church, but he did not know it saw environment as a concern. So he had his professional life and his faith, but until that point there was no point of convergence between the two. We started talking. He seemed very surprised that there was this connection between Catholic social teaching and environmentalism, but when people discover it, they want to get involved – especially young people who have a special drive for social justice issues. They don’t just want to just come to church and sing hymns and then go home. They want to explore how they can respond to situations of injustice that they see. They see situations of poverty and injustice and they want to do something, but they feel they don’t have a channel through which they can respond. So when we go to a parish, they tells us yes “I have been having this idea but I did not know where to go to get support”. Our work captures their attention; it is also part of being something bigger and not wanting to work alone.

CWS: What do more do faith actors need to keep linking environmental and social justice with faith principles?

AO: The role of faith leaders is key, because they have the capacity and the leadership to get members of their congregations and communities to be engaged. What I hear is that some feel that they are not well equipped to speak about climate change, because they see it from a purely scientific perspective. When we go to communities, they calls us the “environmental guys”, but we respond by saying that we are young Catholics concerned about the environment, and everyone should be whether trained as an environmentalist or not.

One of our partners from South Africa ran a program called the Faith Leaders Environmental Advocacy training. The program was to give faith leaders environmental advocacy skills and helping them to understand these issues, communicate them and to bring them to the attention of policy makers. Faith leaders have access to policy makers. In Kenya, we have been having a debate about how faith leaders go to churches to make contributions and they can address issues of corruption and accountability. I think a similar approach can be applied to climate and environmental issues.

Faith leaders can use their moral standing to call leaders to account, but they need to be equipped to do that. When we speak to them, they say that they have so many needs – school fees, access to school, health care, education. People come to their church because they are sick or they don’t have the money to send their children to school. But we help them to see that these needs are linked to the environmental crisis because climate is not just a scientific issue; it is a complex issue that is also social and economic. If you trace the roots of these problems, it could be because the family had a farm in the country but had to move to the city because there is not enough rain and farming is not as productive as it used to be. There is a deeper cause to the environmental crisis; you need to address the immediate issue, but you also need to go deeper, otherwise you create dependency. Helping them to see the links between their priorities and root causes makes it easier for them to engage. But for many this is still a journey; we must build the confidence of our faith leaders so speak about these things. When people hear their faith leaders speak about these issues, they follow.

CWS: You mentioned water shortages, pollution, rain, farming not being productive. Are there other ways in you are seeing climate change?

AO: What I have seen is that the continent seems to be impacted in different ways depending on where you are. The west and the Southern parts of Africa are drying up fast. Cape Town was running out of water a few years ago; they were approaching Day Zero. I just read that the same thing is happening in another province. In Zimbabwe they are having to shut down their power because they rely depend on Kariba Dam for generating electricity. A lot of electricity in Africa is hydroelectric, relying on damns and availability of water from rivers from rainfall. Erratic weather patterns are making drought periods longer and more intense than they used to be, so these dams cannot produce energy in a consistent way. The energy shortages in a place like Zimbabwe where they already have serious economic problems, causes industry to shut down because they don’t have power to run. It perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty that is already there.

In Eastern parts of Africa there is increased precipitation. We have more flooding incidents. In Kenya we have two rainy seasons, the long rain season from March to May and the short rain season from October – November. Now every time in the rainy season we expect floods; that’s become new normal. The amount of rain that falls is just enormous. It has a lot of impact in terms of displacing people; people have to move to higher ground. It has a tremendous impact on health. There are places now in Kenya that are getting warmer, highland places and central parts that never experienced malaria. Malaria used to be found in communities near the coast and westerns parts which are warmer. But now malaria and water borne diseases are becoming a national issue; mosquitoes are breeding everywhere. We don’t have a proper wastewater treatment facility. So in a flooding situation it is total chaos because the water mixes with raw sewage and this impacts especially people in the informal settlements in Nairobi, because of the way that they have set up their structures, near to rivers and streams, usually in a very poor condition. Whenever there is a flood they are the first to be impacted, it’s their children who fall sick from the contamination of the water. One of the things we say is that there is water everywhere but there is no water in the taps! There is so much water that it sweeps away the infrastructure in the houses.

Food supply is also becoming problematic. Urban areas which rely on farms from rural areas, more and more because of failing rains from one season to the next, it has an impact on the price of food. The urban poor are most impacted because they cannot afford to purchase the food they need. The farmers are not getting the price for their efforts; they plant and sometimes there is crop failure because the rain suddenly disappeared. That has serious implications.

The Kenyan Government is coming up with insurance schemes to insure farmers and their crops, but that is an additional burden on governments that are already strained under the weight of many priorities. It is pushing national reforestation schemes because it sees the links between restoring forest cover, protecting water catchment areas, and the impact that has on food, energy, agricultural productivity. It has an integrated national Kenyan government climate change strategy.

CWS: How do you keep motivated to do this work?
AO: Pope Francis said in his Encyclical Laudato Si that rather than looking at this as a problem that to be solved, we should proceed from sense of embracing The Magnificence of All of Creation. That is something that as people of faith we can draw on. He also said that humans have the capacity to work together. When we go to these climate talks, they always seem to be falling apart! No one seems to be listening! But we have seen the possibility of people working together. We have seen agreements. I think that we can build on these small wins. We can tell stories about positive changes, even if they are small stories, in our communities. Because that can help us to advance the broader agenda.