In this interview with Stanley Ugagbe of TNC, founder of the Women Environmental Programme, Dr. Priscilla Mbarumum Achakpa, shared insight on environmental issues. She also talked about how she transitioned from the banking sector into environmental activism.
TNC: Thank you for accepting our interview invitation. Let me congratulate you for carving a niche for yourself as an Environmental Activist, particularly for being spotlighted by the Nobel Women’s Initiative as a prominent activist. You started in the Banking sector. Why and how did you make a move to environmental activism? Why did you choose to concentrate on climate change?
Achakpa: Thank you and welcome to the Women Environmental Programme office. WEP is now a regional organization. We have offices in Burkina Faso, Togo, Niger, Tunisia, and Nigeria is the head office. WEP started in 1997, and yes, I was a banker, but I was so much interested in environmental issues. As a young banker, I ventured out because I saw the way the environment was being degraded, especially with the activities of the textile companies then who were discharging their waste directly into the environment and when you go to River Kaduna, you will see that the water became black, and the women were using that water to wash, to cook and to do everything that needed to be done with water, and sooner or later, you’ll discover that their skin started becoming like that of a lizard, and they were attributing it to witchcraft. That was when I became very interested in what is happening in that area. So together with some journalists who were working with new Nigerian newspapers, we went there. I took samples of the water and the soil and we were able to get volunteers with the laboratories that did the tests, and we discovered that it was toxic and deadly. Then I was still in the bank, and so I and three other persons among the journalists decided to form an organization called Self Environment Action. That was where my activism started, but at the same time, on the street where I was living, most of the time refuse was dumped right in front of my house, and of course, you could see sanitary pads, you’ll see animals scavenging on it and everything is being scattered so I became worried with that. Every Saturday, with my children, we will do a cleanup and then we started moving from the street to sensitize the people, especially the women. So when the report from the laboratory came out and it was discovered that this thing was toxic and causing the skin diseases that the people of the community were having, we decided to take it up. If you go to our website, you will see our pillars of instruction – environment, governance, climate change, and peace and conflict resolution. Those are the things that we are addressing. It’s just that climate change has become integrated into all the other aspects. There’s no way you will address the issues of environment, governance, or peace and conflict transformation without bringing in climate change.
TNC: Thank you very much for that detailed response. Following up on what you said about the organization being focused on five pillars, can you tell us about some of the changes you have made in these areas?
Achakpa: Wow. WEP is over 20 years. We have touched millions of lives, directly and indirectly. What WEP has done across the world and Africa is huge. The latest one is that we got the National Action Plan on Gender and Climate Change, passed and approved by the Federal Executive Council of Nigeria. We worked with the Federal Ministry of Environment and I’m happy to say that the political will from the Minister of State for Environment, Sharon Ikeazor, helped a lot for that bill to be passed. And today, it has made Nigeria one of three or four countries in the whole of Africa that have gotten that national policy pact. We have done a lot of publications in trying to integrate gender into climate change, into governance and there are so many other publications that we have. We have also done a lot in terms of peace and conflict resolution. History was made in Benue, Nigeria precisely in the Agira community in Ado local government. In a community that was ravaged, the same people speaking the same language had been fighting for ages; we were able to resolve the issue. In terms of governance, WEP was one of the pioneer organizations when the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs had zonal political offices. We coordinated the north-east zonal political office and that was the time we were able to get almost 10 women at the national assembly, both senate and house of reps, and of course, there were some at the state level. Then, when you talk about the issues of the environment, that is our baby, climate change like I said, is integrated. On governance, we got the VAP (Violence Against Persons) bill passed in Benue, and we also got the criminal justice system bill passed. In Zamfara, we are working on a bill with them to make sure we get the quota system because gender issues in the state are huge, and we have recorded good success.
TNC: Permit me to quote you: “When I hear the voices of local women, grassroots women, women who are daily affected by the challenges of climate change and the challenges of how to take care of their families – they inspire me.” Does this mean the voices of local men don’t appeal to you?
Achakpa: The voices of local men appeal to me as well but the challenges that women face are more than that of the men. Women are more vulnerable when it comes to the environmental challenges that they face. Working in the communities, I have seen it, I have felt it, I have touched it, I have smelled it. I worked from the grassroots to the top. I might be in Abuja but I like to touch the lives of these women out there because when you touch the life of one woman, you have touched the lives of a whole family.
TNC: What is the role of gender in environmental justice?
Achakpa: You have to understand the terms gender, justice before you can talk about environmental justice. Gender is men and women, children, the physically challenged. Justice is: what affects me affects you; how I treat you is how I want you to treat me. We are talking about equity. In terms of gender issues, the environment cuts across all sectors of society. But in all these, when you are doing your policies, how does gender come into that? For instance, the transport system like we have in the country today, does it take into account the physically challenged, the elderly, pregnant women? If you go to developed countries, seats for the physically challenged and the elderly are marked inside the buses. Do we have such a transport system in our country? Are there vehicles that the physically challenged can just call and they will be at their disposal? Have we made provisions for pregnant women in our policies? Talking about environmental justice, we are looking at the root causes of these issues; we are looking at system change. If we can change the system, the climate will change naturally.
TNC: You said, “It’s important to mainstream gender into climate change adaptation strategies, while also working to improve resilience to its impacts”. What has your program done differently to achieve this?
Achakpa: We have done quite a lot to mainstream gender. We started by doing an assessment in the Northern part of Nigeria because unless you know how they are adapted, there is no way you can mainstream it into your policies. The second thing is how sensitive climate change integration initiatives are for livelihood, and there are so many things we have done. Right now, we have a project in organic farming, which is part of the adaption strategies we are looking at. Instead of using fertilizers, we are teaching them how to use organic fertilizer. We are working in every part of the country on how to address these issues such as perishable crops.
TNC: In your words, “Environmental changes are hard on their own, but they also amplify problems and inequalities that exist – including gender inequality.” What exactly do you mean by this?
Achakpa: The truth is that when you are working in the environment, a lot of people don’t see the changes. Why, because the environment is so broad and technical, a lot of people don’t even understand it. For instance, if you ask people on the street about climate change they will not be able to explain it to you. So the environment is very hard to understand. It’s very scientific and it’s not everybody that understands the scientific knowledge of the environment. And when you go deeper into the environment, people begin to ask you what it has got to do with gender.
TNC: There is a notion in the public that Nigerian activists are mostly into activism because of their personal interests. How would you react to this?
Achakpa: I admit that there are some persons, who are there for their personal gains, but I am here to serve and to be served. Apart from my NGO, I have over 250 children that I pay their school fees – from primary to secondary to university level. I don’t know them; I have not seen them. Those are some of the things I do with my resources.
TNC: What is your message for people out there?
Achakpa: People need to know that environment is an integrated area that cuts across all sectors, and as much as possible, in the designing of policies, they need to integrate the aspect of how to deal with environmental issues. Climate change does not know the face of a woman, man, rich, or even the poor. We need to take environmental issues seriously. We need to plant trees; we need to make policies that touch human beings; we need to stop burning our bushes. The issue of wildlife is very important because we need to coexist with our nature.