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Climate leaders of the Global South: the scientists, politicians and activists tackling the crisis at home

  • Written by  Matt Maynard
  • Published in Climate
Rapa nui Rapa nui
04 Nov
The Global South has contributed very little to the world climate crisis but is already exposed to some of its most catastrophic effects. We asked six climate leaders from different backgrounds in civil and political society what problems they see in their own territories and what can be done to ensure that their nations lead their own change


Population: Chile: 19,116,000; Easter Island: 7,750
Gini index: 44.4 (2017 – Chile) 
T CO2eq: 109,590,000 (Chile) 
Share of world emissions: 0.24% (Chile)

Pedro Edmunds Paoa – Mayor of Rapa Nui (Easter Island):

‘We’ve been talking about climate change on Rapa Nui for 20 years. Tranquility was broken in 2021 with the arrival of the Aedes aegypti mosquito,’ Pedro Edmunds Poa begins. An outbreak of dengue fever ensued and a study showed that changes in rainfall and temperature may have made Rapa Nui a viable new home for the insect. The Rapa Nui community, located 3,600 kilometres from the Chilean mainland, recognised this climate-change-linked plague. ‘The bug had come to stay.’

Climate impacts had begun decades earlier. ‘During the 1980s and ’90s, the island had an average of 140–150 centimetres of rainfall per year,’ the long-serving mayor continues. ‘Today, if we are lucky we get just 50 centimetres.’ Tidal surges are a problem, too. ‘In the past 15 years, we have been receiving increasingly bigger waves on our shore.’ But adaptation solutions aren’t easy, partly due to the island’s UNESCO status. ‘We need to design an appropriate tidal-surge barrier in conjunction with environmental architects.

‘The people who plan for climate change in Chile have a narrow mindset, like their country,’ Edmunds says. Chile was due to host the COP25 meeting in Santiago in December 2019, but widespread protests and clashes with police over socioeconomic inequality led to the event being cancelled. The government has since ratcheted up its Paris Agreement contribution, committing to a limit of 95 million T CO2eq emissions by 2030, with attempts being made to close coal power plants near densely populated ‘sacrifice zones’.

Yet Edmunds says his island is a special case. ‘We don’t identify with the national climate change plan. We are a sub-tropical island rich in stone,’ he says, in reference to the island’s moai statues and the tourists they attract. He contrasts the Chilean mainland’s ‘warm desertic north; the central valleys with the wine production and fruit; and the cold south with its snow and rain and forest. None of these three areas resembles Rapa Nui.’ The IPCC’s sixth assessment report agreed, finding that ‘small islands do not have uniform climate change risks’ and that ‘this diversity in potential response has not always been adequately integrated in adaptation planning’.

The pandemic has helped to focus minds on developing new more sustainable economies on Rapa Nui. ‘We have a plan called AMOR,’ Edmunds explains. ‘It’s a 20-year plan based on improving personal well-being by promoting self-sufficiency and optimising resources.’ Despite the fact that this remotest of islands hasn’t suffered a Covid-19 outbreak for more than a year, Rapa Nui was without its tourism lifeblood for 17 months due to the Chilean government’s border closure. By way of compensation, each Rapa Nui family has been receiving a basic half-day salary in order to develop their own vegetable gardens, supported by a newly implemented agricultural science programme.

Rapa Nui was once famously held up as an example of a society that collapsed as a result of resource depletion. More recent evidence suggests that this narrative is false. According to Knowledge for Governance, ‘the constraints and local conditions faced by populations living on Rapa Nui give an example of resilient and adaptive governance at its finest’. None of the island’s elder generation will be sent to COP26 in Glasgow, the mayor says. Instead ‘we will be sending our children; our people who will be most affected’. And while Edmunds despairs of the Chilean government’s climate strategy, ‘we identify more with the global plan’ – a reference to the Paris Agreement. ‘We want to help develop its response.’

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East Timor2A rice field in Maliana, East Timor. The majority of citizens in the country rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Image: IKE-70


Population: 1,318,440
Gini index: 28.7 (2014)
T CO2eq: 6,190,000 (2010)
Share of world emissions: 0.01%

Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho – Minister of environment and previous Goldman Prize winner

When it comes to discussing climate change, Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho first shares a Hindu fable. ‘There once was a goose with two necks. One short and one long,’ he says. ‘The head with the long neck easily picked at the fresh and the best food while the head with the short neck could only scrape around for rotten food left by the long neck. Eventually, the goose was poisoned and died.’ The wisdom of this story applies to our world today, he adds. ‘If the rich nations grab all the wealth and resources, allowing poor nations to survive on the scraps, the Earth will one day perish, just like the goose.’ 

De Carvalho told this fable in his 2004 acceptance speech for the Goldman Prize, also known as the ‘Green Nobel’. He stood at the lectern as a 37-year-old environmentalist and head of Haburas, the first environmental NGO in his homeland. In his youth, he had been a youth resistance leader, fighting for the territory’s liberation from Indonesian occupation; East Timor successfully achieved statehood in 2002. Today, speaking as the nation’s minister for the environment, his cautionary tale seems prescient and his conviction just as strong.

Climate impacts are being experienced in East Timor. ‘For the last two decades, people living in rural areas have been complaining about the disappearance of water. There has been a seasonal change in the planting season for crops and many heavy rain events. Just recently, flooding affected 33,000, and 42 people were killed by a climate-induced disaster,’ de Carvalho says, referring to the unprecedented Cyclone Seroja in April 2021.

‘I interact with the community, and they have some information from the media about the impacts of climate change,’ he continues. ‘But we [the government] need to work more to educate our people about our vulnerability.’ The exresistance leader seems keen for citizens to shape his mandate. ‘I believe that environmental activism can be successful and have influence when the government is seen not as an opposition but as a partner – one that can be advised on how to better serve our environment and Mother Earth.’

The democratic process is still nascent in this new country, which lost not only some 250,000 people during the Indonesian occupation, but also great swathes of forest to napalm. The ensuing economic hardship led to further forest loss as citizens cleared more trees to sell for firewood. ‘Ninety-eight per cent of East Timorese people still rely on firewood for cooking,’ de Carvalho says. He cites an increasing population, pressure from grazing activity and the traditional slash-and-burn farming system as the reasons for the continued reduction of forest cover in this island nation by about 1.1 per cent a year.

There are plans in motion to change this dynamic. ‘To reduce the demand on firewood, very soon we will distribute 200,000 cookstoves,’ de Carvalho says. ‘These will still use wood, but are more efficient.’ Additionally, they will help to reduce deaths from indoor air pollution. De Carvalho has also helped spearhead the President of East Timor’s ‘One citizen one tree programme’, which seeks to mobilise environmental brigades comprised of schoolchildren to plant a million trees throughout the country, including fruit-tree plantations. Additionally, de Carvalho is overseeing a project to bring climate-resilient infrastructure to 15 per cent of the population with 38 new water-supply systems, 25 irrigation schemes, 216 kilometres of rural roads and 20 examples of flood-protection infrastructure. US$22.9 million of the necessary funding is being provided by the Green Climate Fund – a global platform established by 194 governments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries – but the government of East Timor is paying the greater share of US$36.7 million.

‘We small island nations are responsible for our limited resources and our living conditions. If we agree that the northern countries should come to recuperate our environment,’ de Carvalho concludes, in a bleak revision of his goose analogy, ‘we will be too late.’

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DRC 2Women sell produce at a food market in Matadi, DRC


Population: 89,561,000
Gini index: 42.1 (2012)
T CO2eq: 58,700,000
Share of world emissions: 0.13%

Georges-Noel Longandjo – Rainfall climate scientist and contributor to the IPCC's sixth assessment report

‘The DRC is so complex. On the streets, people are preoccupied by day-to-day living – how to eat, to pay the rent, school fees and medical expenses, and where to get charcoal for cooking. In short, how to survive poverty,’ says Georges-Noel Longandjo. ‘Consequently, people do not talk about climate change, although they are strongly impacted by it. Central Africa, and the DRC in particular, is one of the most poorly studied land regions in the world, climatologically speaking. It is characterised by political turmoil and civil wars, which are not conducive to science. This situation has led to sporadic and sparse data sets.’

Despite the lack of data, Longandjo predicts catastrophic climate impacts in the DRC. ‘More than 80 million people rely on food-production systems heavily impacted by rain-fed agriculture [farming that relies on rainfall]. Flood conditions, due to extreme weather, are expected during the rainy season, as well as drought conditions due to the extension of the dry season.’ Longandjo highlights a recent incident in Kasai province where ‘two villages began lethal fighting for caterpillars’, in a desperate struggle to supplement failing food resources.

Poor technical capacity and education are two interlinked problems that are thwarting climate action. Longandjo explains that a culture of nepotism often leads to disinterested and unqualified officials deciding national climate policies. He is one of very few scientists able to carry out field research thanks to his employment by the University of Cape Town. ‘We try to manage,’ he says of the small national scientific community, ‘and we lecture some students so that we can have more people who really understand the national climate.’

Waste, energy, transport and, in particular, deforestation-related emissions are the key areas the national government seeks to address, Longandjo explains. ‘All this is going to cost almost US$50 billion, with the government willing to pay only two per cent,’ he says. ‘To meet these costs, the DRC has to count on financial or technical support from third parties such as the World Bank, the IMF, the UN Environment Program and the UN Development Programs, as well as bilateral cooperation with European countries, the USA and Japan. International financial mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund are also an option.’

Virunga – Africa’s oldest protected national park – located in eastern DRC, is emblematic of many of the tensions and ironies that emerge when historically low-polluting nations feel obliged to engage with the Paris Agreement. Plans by the UK oil company Soco to begin oil operations in Virunga National Park, which is home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, have currently been shelved after successful lobbying by WWF. ‘As a scientist,’ Longandjo says of the oil project, ‘I would say let us all lower our emissions, but as a citizen, I would like my countrymen to be able to get the job.’

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MadagascarA long road leads to Bishop’s Hat mountain in Madagascar’s arid desert region


Population: 27,691,000 
Gini index: 42.6 (2012) 
T CO2eq: 30,570,000 
Share of world emissions: 0.07% 

‘We have very limited evidence of climate change in Madagascar,’ says Rondrotiana Barimalala. ‘The reason is that there have been very few studies until the last year or so. Research in the past showed inconsistent trends or lack of observations or a lack of literature.’ Yet as she speaks in early September, most areas in the southern Grande Sur region of her country are facing a ‘nutritional emergency’, its people on the brink of climate-induced famine, according to the UN. National bureaucracy around urban and rural designations is also stopping aid reaching those most affected.

According to Barimalala, modelled projections for warming in Madagascar suggest that the frequency of drought will increase with each rise in global temperature. Scientific confidence around this phenomenon in Madagascar has risen since the previous IPCC assessment report was published in 2014, she says, as more research has been conducted on the world’s third-largest island and more studies published. When it does rain, heavier events are expected across the country. The frequency of heat waves and tropical cyclones are also expected to rise. Yet the data still aren’t nuanced and localised enough. Barimalala notes that the IPCC sixth assessment report, published in August, is divided into 45 global regions. ‘Africa is separated into nine regions and one of them is Madagascar, so the report is not really about what is going on throughout Madagascar, but the country as a whole.’

The climate impacts creating near-famine conditions in Grande Sur currently include drought and associated crop failures and sandstorms. ‘More than 90 per cent of nationals are dependent on rain-fed agriculture,’ Barimalala says. ‘There is a big gap between the output of our research and the agriculture practices implemented. In other countries, there are entities saying, “There’s been a change in the agricultural season and we are going to implement a late cultivation season that starts in this specific month,” but I don’t think we have reached that point yet.

‘We don’t really have good water management in Madagascar,’ she continues. ‘In South Africa, they have a system of small dams, so when it rains, they are able to store the water; there is quite a lot of built infrastructure. But I do not see a lot of water-related infrastructure here. We could do a lot better. We know we will have an increase in heavy precipitation. Maybe we can try to store this water and then try to distribute it.

‘We need a lot of effort on raising awareness of what is going on around us and how climate change is affecting the country. A solution would be to go down to the grassroots level and increase awareness,’ she concludes, pointing to the need to disseminate new best-practice methods in agriculture in the face of mounting climate impacts.

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Geo November 2021 cover v3 copyCOP26 is set to be the most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. With live reporting from Glasgow every day of the conference and plenty of extra analysis, get all the COP content you need from Geographical.


BrazilThe Amazon rainforest faces unprecedented threats while Bolsonaro remains in power. Image: BRAMSMITS


Population: 212,559,000 
Gini index: 53.4 (2019) 
T CO2eq: 1,032,000,000 + 968,055,554 from deforestation (2019) 
Share of world emissions: 2.2% (excluding deforestation)

Marcio Astrini – Executive secretary of the Brzilian Climate Observatory

‘The most important message about how to bring back Brazil to a climate agenda is replacing Bolsonaro with anyone that is not Bolsonaro. With Bolsonaro, there is no hope for climate, the Amazon or the human rights agenda in Brazil,’ says Marcio Astrini, who speaks for 71 Brazilian civil society organisations, NGOs and indigenous groups working in the national climate space. ‘Before the Bolsonaro period, access to the government was commonplace through the environment minister.’ He references the federal-government-backed 2006 soy moratorium as a success story. Led by Observatory member Greenpeace Brazil, it saw global companies agree to boycott traders who sourced soy from farmers who clear the rainforest, use slave labour or threaten indigenous lands. Today, however, deforestation is spiking again in the Amazon Basin. The root of the problem: ‘A government that denies climate change.’

Climate impacts are real and visible in Brazil, characterised by an increase in the intensity and frequency of hot extremes, and a decrease in the intensity and frequency of cold extremes, according to the latest IPCC assessment report. ‘Awareness of climate change is rising in Brazil,’ Astrini says. ‘We are currently facing a drought crisis. Most electricity in Brazil is created by hydro, so the drought season has a direct relation to the power markets.’ Yet inequality issues in Brazil take more public and press attention. ‘It is easy to care about climate change in a country such as Germany,’ Astrini says, but ‘Brazilians are more concerned with issues such as education, health care, employment, poverty and Covid-19.’

The Amazon Basin is increasingly central to the Brazilian climate debate, according to Astrini, but not necessarily always in regard to its protection and power to sequester carbon. ‘This is the first time we have a president who gains politically from promoting environmental destruction in Brazil. For Bolsonaro’s supporters, environmental legislation in Brazil was created by people who came to Brazil to halt economic development. It’s a conspiracy theory,’ Astrini says. ‘Bolsonaro is feeding it. To his supporters, when he rolls back environmental legislation, it means he is defending Brazil.’

Astrini lists some of Bolsonaro’s numerous environmentally destructive actions, including freezing the Amazon Fund, stopping field operations against environmental criminals, facilitating illegal logging and gifting territory to land grabbers. Covid did nothing to halt deforestation; the Climate Observatory estimates that 10,851 square kilometres of Amazon forest was lost in 2020 – an area larger than Cyprus. In the decade from 2009 to 2018, the average annual deforestation rate was just 6,400 square kilometres. This June alone, an estimated 1,062 square kilometres was destroyed – the highest figure since high-resolution forest records began in 2016. Brazil’s original contribution to the Paris Agreement – a promise to reduce emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005, was weakened under Bolsonaro when data for the baseline emissions were retroactively inflated.

Besides voting out Bolsonaro, Astrini believes a solution to slowing Amazon destruction may lie in ‘scandalising’ him internationally. ‘Pressure is absolutely important to halt his agenda,’ he says, describing the ways in which the Climate Observatory’s political and media contacts have harried Brazilian diplomats with climate and deforestation questions when they are overseas. One result of this was a guarantee by Lower House president Rodrigo Maia on his return from a European trip that he would block voting in Congress on regressive environmental policies. Uncoupling the widespread Brazilian misconception that deforestation is necessary for economic growth, Astrini notes, is one of the biggest remaining challenges.

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BoliviaBolivia is threatened by fast-melting glaciers. The unstable lakes left behind can cause devastating floods in nearby settlements


Population: 11,673,000 
Gini index: 41.6 (2019) 
T CO2eq: 56,870,000 
Share of world emissions: 0.12%

Kiyomi Nagumo – Activist and member of the eco-feminist collective Salvagina

For the past five years, the activist and pressure group Salvagina (a portmanteau of ‘wild’ and ‘vagina’) has been organising Bolivians and other activists throughout the Southern Cone around issues of water, deforestation and fracking. ‘The need today to talk about climate justice is an indication of how the patriarchal, colonial and capitalistic powers have disproportionately affected women and vulnerable peoples,’ Kiyomi Nagumo explains. ‘A central concern of our work is to make this visible. We’re looking for a change to the traditional economic and development models.’

The Bolivian government appears to be on board with the Salvagina message, stating in its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, that: ‘The structural cause that has triggered the climate crisis is the failed capitalist system. [It] privatises the common good, commodifies life, exploits human beings, plunders natural resources and destroys the material and spiritual wealth of the people.’ The nation submitted wide-ranging commitments to the Paris Agreement in 2016, including increasing renewable energy to meet 79 per cent of national demand by 2030 and eradicating illegal deforestation by 2020. Yet Nagumo says that there’s a big difference between international statements made by the government and actual practice.

‘Bolivia is nowhere near prepared to confront climate change,’ she says. ‘There’s a commonly held national belief that we should base our economic model around extractivism. This activity is, however, responsible for a lot of our greenhouse gas emissions, as well as impacting communities. These impacts are not taken into account. Nor is Bolivia ready to reduce emissions due to our high rates of deforestation to accommodate monocultures and industry.’

Climate impacts in Bolivia, according to the IPCC’s sixth assessment report, include projections of some of the most significant warming on the South American continent, with increases in the frequency of intense cyclones a result. Bolivia’s tropical glaciers have also been losing volume. Their continuing shrinkage will cause ‘important reductions in river flow and potentially high-magnitude glacial lake outburst floods’, likely affecting water security. Nagumo also cites a lack of nationally produced scientific data as impeding Salvagina’s struggle to fully understand the ‘rights and power we have’ to hold polluters to account. ‘Bolivia’s climate policy is characterised by false solutions. “Let’s do clean hydro,” says the government, but that’s going to have an abysmal deforestation and carbon and methane emission cost to set it up.’ Weather events such as flooding have been unaccompanied by any clear or timely response by authorities to attribute its cause to climate change. ‘We only need to look to the pandemic to see how nations can come together quickly to take decisive and swift action.’

Climate solutions can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach, Nagumo concludes, in a country that is so rich in culture and diversity. ‘Instead, there needs to be an intersectional approach, where societal privilege and its associated opportunities or discrimination are taken into account when working in distinct territories,’ she says. ‘Our biggest goal as an organisation is creating confidence among communities and environmental defenders to help them understand their human rights and their rights to nature.’

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Geo November 2021 cover v3 copyCOP26 is set to be the most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. With live reporting from Glasgow every day of the conference and plenty of extra analysis, get all the COP content you need from Geographical.


IndonesiaWet peatlands such as this one in Pulang Pisau Regency, Central Kalimantan, can reduce the risk of forest fires. Dams are being built to control the level of moisture


Population: 273,523,000 
Gini index: 38.2 (2019) 
T CO2eq: 968,580,000 (excluding deforestation) 
Share of world emissions: 2.1%

‘Indonesia is one of the top countries for climate denial; but at the same time, we have recently seen protests inspired by Extinction Rebellion,’ says Tjokorda Samadhi, who leads the work of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Indonesia, supporting the government, business and civil society leaders to sustainably realise the nation’s environmental and economic potential through the management of forestry, land-use, energy, cities and ocean sectors. ‘Climate change,’ he says about the world’s tenth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, ‘is, unlike more visible air pollution, still not easily digested in Indonesia. There is a distance between what we, the scientific community, have produced and the public at large. We need to build a bridge to inform the public so they can make informed decisions when voting.’

On the ground in Indonesia, local agricultural knowledge is failing in the wake of climate change. Traditional farming systems rely on weather signals such as rain for planting, Samadhi explains, ‘but for the last five years, people have not been able to use these. Usually, farmers would be able to have three to four cycles of rice planting, but now it’s two or three times only. But they are not talking about this as an impact of climate change. They just see it as nature no longer being predictable. “This is the will of the gods,” they say.’

Indonesian climate messaging at the international level is also fraught with problems, according to Samadhi. Under the Paris Agreement, the nation has committed to reducing business-as-usual annual emissions by 29 per cent in 2030, from 2.87 billion to 2.03 billion T CO2eq. Indonesia includes deforestation in this figure and the WRI has just produced data showing that a staggering 8.31 billion T CO2eq will be released in the province of Papua alone in the coming years from already permitted and planned reduction of forest cover. ‘It is important for us to stop issuing licences to deforest, or to revoke the licence if that is possible,’ Samadhi notes. ‘Maintaining standing forest is crucial if we would like to meet our NDC target.’

One solution in the current political climate, according to Samadhi, is to frame the conversation in economic language. ‘There is currently no calculation on missing capital,’ he says, referring to the failure of economic growth models to take the degradation of environmental services into account. However, the negative costs of extractivist activities are now being built into the government’s long-term national planning, says Samadhi. Policy implementation that pushes new palm oil plantations towards already-degraded land instead of recently deforested land is tentative evidence of this approach being put into practice. ‘Our models show that when you go to a low-carbon pathway (with reduced deforestation and preserved capital resources), we can sustain growth for longer.'

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Geo November 2021 cover v3 copyCOP26 is set to be the most important climate conference since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. With live reporting from Glasgow every day of the conference and plenty of extra analysis, get all the COP content you need from Geographical.


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