Susannah Birkwood: Welcome to Forces of Nature, the new podcast from WWF. We’re celebrating our 60th anniversary by bringing together trailblazing environmentalists from different generations, to discover how we can learn from the past and succeed in the future, I’m Susannah Birkwood.
This episode we’re bringing together Nkosilathi Nyathi and former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Mr Santos is a world leader with a self-professed passion for the environment. While in office, from 2010 to 2018, he increased the size of protected areas in Colombia and championed the United Nations’ sustainable development goals – all while working to end the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war, which saw him awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.
Nkosi is from Zimbabwe, and has been a keen advocate for the environment since he was 10, when he started noticing the impact of climate change on his home near the Victoria Falls. Now 18, he’s addressed world leaders at the 25th UN climate talks in Madrid, he’s also helped develop the first biogas plant where he lives, bringing sustainable energy to the community, and he is a youth Climate Advocate for global children’s charity UNICEF. We managed to connect with Nkosi in his principal's office at his school, so please excuse the not-quite-studio quality of the audio.
Former President Santos and Nkosi discuss why young people from all over the world need to be at the table when it comes to decision making around the environment; what Mr Santos learned, and his regrets, from his time in office, and what advice a world leader has for people who want to save the planet. I really hope you enjoy the episode and I’ll see you at the end.
Santos Hello Nkosi, it's a great pleasure. I congratulate you for all the work that you have been doing for what I think is the most important cause that humanity has in front of us.
Nkosilathi Well, it's a great pleasure to meet you sir, this is one of the days that I'm going to record in my diary.
Santos I wanted to start this conversation by asking you and I have been a journalist in some part of my life, so I like to ask a lot of questions. How was it that when you were 10 years old, you suddenly became engaged with the environmental cause? What happened? What triggered your motivation to assume that flag?
Nkosilathi Well, I started my advocacy at the age of ten. It was the fact that I was feeling heat waves in my own environment. When I was going to school, the sun was very hot; when I'm learning, the sun is very hot. How am I supposed to learn? How am I supposed to embrace whatever I'm learning? The heat is too much. So those are the kind of challenges which I faced in my own environment and that made me write and speak out for the environment to advocate for change.
Santos I was in your country many years ago. Back in the 80s, I was in Victoria Falls. It's a beautiful, beautiful country. But at that time I was not conscious of the importance of preserving the environment. I was a latecomer and it was a meeting that I had with the chiefs of the indigenous communities in a beautiful place up in the mountains. The day I was inaugurated as president, I went to them and asked them for their blessing, because I consider them our older brothers. They were in Colombia way, way before anybody else. And so they have certain authority. And when I sat with them, they said “we give you the blessing, but you have to do two things. One, make peace. Make peace, because we are a country at war. But second, make peace with nature because we are also at war with nature. Nature has been very, very mistreated. Mother Nature is mad. And when she gets mad, she retaliates”.
And as you, around 10 years ago, had the worst drought in your country; when I got inaugurated we had the worst flooding, the Niña phenomenon. And that was predicted by the indigenous communities. And that flooding forced me to bring the most important people in terms of how to take care of flooding, but also how to understand what was happening. And I remember that Vice President Gore came to me and gave me a marvelous lesson. It was like in one day, four years of university about climate change, about what was happening. And from then on, I got engaged. And more, and more. The more I study, the more I understand how important it is to do the work that you are doing and how important it is for humanity to take consciousness of what we have to do in order to avoid a planetary disaster,
Nkosilathi You know, to the point where you get to consult the indigenous people, I think that's a concept which should be adopted by the world leaders. World leaders need to consult those in those remote areas, because those are the people who are feeling climate change. As a person with significant power, or political power. What advice would you give to activists or citizens wanting to influence government policy?
Santos [As you know, thoughts become words, words become action. But to take action, you need the political will and how is this forced into the leaders to have the political will to take bold decisions? That's where people like you come into the scenario. Leaders and politicians and the people who take decisions have to see it and have to be pressed by public opinion. You can go against public opinion for a certain amount of time. Many times you have to go against public opinion to do the correct thing. But in the long run it is the will of the people who, in a way, forces the leader to take decisions. So what I say to the activist is not only maintain your work, but multiply it. The more people are demanding bold action to preserve the environment, to preserve our biodiversity, to take decisions that sometimes could be unpopular with certain sectors of the communities or of the society, but that in the long run are the correct decisions, like, for example, the transfer from fossil fuels to clean energy in countries like mine that depend so much on coal, on oil, on fossil energy. Those types of decisions meet resistance, but you have to persevere and do the correct thing. So the short term in popularity, sometimes you have to address it. But when you know that you're doing the correct thing, you have to preserve. And that needs the enthusiasm and the support of the people. So the activists are crucial in this crusade. And my message to them is multiply your work and persevere.
Nkosilathi Thank you very much. I think that’s a very important lesson that I'm going to take back.
Santos Zimbabwe and Colombia have many things in common and many challenges in common - you have a lot of poverty, we have a lot of poverty - how do you think that young people and activists in general can try to promote the thesis that poverty and the preservation of the environment should go hand in hand? Fighting poverty and fighting climate change, that they complement each other, that they need each other and that's why the Sustainable Development Goals are an appropriate guide to developing plans all around the world. Do you see people understanding that in your country and in Africa in general and engaging in this crusade to attack poverty and attack climate change at the same time?
Nkosilathi Well, I must say that we are all contributing to the changing climate, no matter the differences of the quantities we contribute, but we are all contributing to the changing climate. However, there are some who face the hard times because someone is polluting a lot. Some of these communities depend on the environment for survival. As we are saying that poverty also goes hand in hand with this issue, I must say that the key issue in making our environment more sustainable is still providing funding. Now, the key issue to making this a success, to making our planet a sustainable paradise is through funding. World leaders should find a convergence of funding, or should converge and plan, locating those areas which are most affected. Now, the other thing is other thing is educating those people, developing a book which is going to be read by those people in their own language. I can appreciate the fact that not everyone is literate, but we can have workshops where we can speak and understand each other. And those people in those rainforests must be on the table, must be in those forums, must be on those workshops.
Santos I will share with you an experience that has been a marvelous experience in that respect. With the war ending, the former guerrillas, many of them, because they lived in the jungle, because they lived in the mountains, were very appreciative of Mother Nature and preserving Mother Nature and so many of them have become preservers of the environment. And they are doing, for example, eco tourism to take people to beautiful places that had been sort of forbidden because of the war, but preserving the environment and at the same time, we are bringing people in.
I have a foundation that I created with the Nobel Prize money and we bring leaders from very remote areas. We bring them to the best university in the capital city and give them a crash course in leadership, take them back to their communities. But we teach them two things. One, how to resolve problems without violence, because they have been living other lives in very violent environments, but also the importance of preserving the environment, of connecting with nature. And the feedback from them, especially on the second aspect, on preserving the environment has been extraordinary, and that is how you also create a momentum for the whole of the society, for the whole of the population to be engaged in this challenge that we have.
And, I am hopeful that this pandemic that we're going through is teaching us something that will be used in this challenge to stop global warming and to stop climate change. Because in this pandemic we are learning that no country can do anything by itself, that we as people live in one house, which is our planet Earth; and we as people are one race, the human race. The virus doesn't make any distinctions, doesn't know any frontiers, nor does climate change. So we need to work together, cooperate, create synergies. And you in Zimbabwe, me in Colombia and soldiers of the environment all around the world, we must work together.
And I will ask you one question. How do you think we can make people and leaders more conscious of the urgency to act? Because many times this type of phenomenon (we think) “oh well, time will take care of it”. But time will not take care of it. On the contrary, if we don't act now, we will get to the point of no return. There's a clock ticking, for example in South Korea, that says how many minutes are left for the point of no return and it's less than seven years and that's very short. How can we teach the people and make them conscious of the urgency of acting? What would be your advice?
Nkosilathi [00:15:27] Well, I must say that as young people, currently considering the fact that we've got thousands of young people on the streets talking about climate change, advocating for climate policies, the only way that we can make our planet a sustainable paradise is by listening to the young people and acting. Because it’s not about listening only, but it's about taking action into the ground. I remember addressing some world leaders at the African Regional Forum on Sustainable Development. What I was expecting from the meeting was that soon afterwards, after addressing the world leaders, they will contribute on the dot, try to go to their offices and try to change. But now I understand that change is gradual. However, I must, I must, I must advise that listen to those young people, after listening to them go and implement those actions. The only time we have is now, we must utilize it. If you got another time in office, what would you do different in the environment? Anything you're going to upgrade, any new innovations that you're going to introduce if you had another chance in power?
Santos Every president, every prime minister, when you look back, you feel a bit frustrated because you see, you understand that you could have done a lot more. That's a normal sense, a normal frustration that every president and every prime minister has. And looking back, I am very proud, for example, Nkosi I don't know if you're aware, that it was Colombia, my government, who was the one who proposed to the world the Sustainable Development Goals.
Back in 2011, I was in my office and two young girls, young ladies that worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “President Santos, we have an idea for you to propose to the world that will be very important. The Millennium Goals will end in 2015. Why don't we propose to the world some new goals, which would have two additional ingredients besides the social and economic aspects. One is that the developed countries should also take responsibility for the future of the world, not only the developing countries, but second and most important, the environmental component. We need to introduce the environmental component into the new goals”. And I thought it was a great idea. I told them to write a memo of three pages long and they knew that I would like memos three pages long, that same day, they had prepared it. And then I went to Brazil in 2012 and made the proposal, the official proposal.
We started some very fascinating diplomatic negotiations and in the year 2015, the United Nations adopted by unanimity in the General Assembly, the SDGs, and that for me was one of the happiest days. That, and when I signed peace with the guerillas after 50 years of war.
And in the process of strengthening our environmental policies, we did some very bold actions. We took decisions like, I increased the protected areas and today 20 percent of Colombia is protected. I protected some special ecosystems that we only have in South America, and Colombia has 50 percent of these ecosystems that are three thousand two hundred meters above sea level, that are water, that are factories of water. 75 percent of our rivers come from these ecosystems very high in the mountains so I protected them because they were being destroyed by agriculture and by mining. And we gave the indigenous communities a lot more autonomy to protect the tropical forests. They are the best protectors because they are the ones who appreciate the most how important it is to preserve nature.
But I could have done a lot more. I could have protected instead of 20 percent, I could have protected 40 percent. So the frustration is the normal frustration that any president or any leader has after being in office and looking back. But we need to continue. And right now, I'm retired, I'm not a politician. I'm dedicated to work for the cause that you are working for. So we are partners in this cause, in this fight.
Nkosilathi How do you explain some of the inconsistencies in your approach to the environment during your time in office? You brought in positive things, but then you also issued mining licenses and deforestation continued.
Santos That's a good question because I myself suffered a metamorphosis, like a change. As I said before, I was not very conscious of the importance of the environment. It was the hard facts that taught me to see the environment with other eyes and I became an environmentalist, I say with great pride that I became green. But in the meantime, I was an economist with the traditional theories of growth, and my country is very rich in mining. And that was the most important source of income and taxation and fiscal revenues. I didn't see it as incompatible with the preservation of the environment and I tried as much as possible to give licenses for mining that was responsible with the environment. I did tremendous changes in the procedures to accept mining in certain areas, and I prohibited mining in many areas. And deforestation, for example, which is one of the things that I regret that I did not do more. We have a big problem also of drug trafficking, and the drug traffickers are one of the worst enemies of the environ because they use the forest, to burn the forest and plant coca plants or the marijuana plants and in the fight against drug trafficking, well, this is a phenomenon when I look back, I wished I could have done more.
So, yes, you always have these type of contradictions. But I was more and more conscious of putting the environment as a priority, the preservation of the environment and slowly changing the regulations and changing the laws and changing the way we see our own development. We need to introduce the environment as one of the variables that are important in measuring the success of a country. No more only “how much have you grown the GNP?” Now, we should introduce in measuring the success of a country “How much are you preserving the environment?” This would be a change in the way the whole development theory is looked at and I think it would be a very positive change.
You tell me, how would you like today's leaders to engage with the young people, to empower the young people in order to work together? What advice would you give the leaders of today in order to be much more proactive and to be much more engaged with the young people in order to be more effective? What would be your suggestion?
Nkosilathi I myself, I take young people as the agents of change. World leaders should actually devise plans of reaching out to their own countries, into their own regions with their own remotest areas and get those people on the ground. We need people from the deep forest of Colombia and we need people from the deep forest of my country on the decision table. My advice is - include the young people. By so doing you're going to get fresh ideas, sustainable ideas for a sustainable future because we are coming. We are the younger generation. We are here. We are smart. We have the solutions.
Thank you very much sir. I appreciate this moment with you. This has been a pleasure and I'm going to share this with my peers. And thank you very much.
Santos And again, I finish with what I started. Congratulations. Because what you are doing - and I've been following your career, your life, your interventions - this is what the people, the people in the world need. It's what we all need. So keep your enthusiasm, persevere. And I hope that we will meet again, because this is going to be a long struggle, but a fascinating struggle and never let anybody sort of let you down. You have to maintain the enthusiasm. All the best.
Susannah Birkwood: Thanks so much to Nkosi Nyathi and former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos for giving us their time and for such candid reflections on the past and advice for the future. Super interesting to learn that Mr Santos wasn’t actually always an avid environmentalist but that he became that way due to the experiences and conversations that he had during his time in office.
If you enjoyed the episode, make sure you subscribe, and don’t forget to drop us a review or rating on your podcast app. For more conservation conversations check out panda.org/forcesofnature and keep in touch with WWF on Twitter for more info on future podcasts. This was a Fresh Air production for WWF International. Thank you very much for listening and see you next time.