By Khaled Diab, EEB
Anuna De Wever, dubbed the ‘Belgian Greta Thunberg’ by the media, tells META in an exclusive interview about what she learned on her sea voyage to South America, the environmental challenges lying ahead, and her cautious optimism that humanity can overcome them.
It was not so long ago that Anuna De Wever was an anonymous schoolgirl in Antwerp, Belgium. Then, inspired by the example of Greta Thunberg in Sweden, De Wever joined forces with students Kyra Gantois and Adélaïde Charlier to organise Belgium’s own School Strike for Climate movement, also known as Youth for Climate or Fridays for Future, which started holding regular strikes in Belgium in January 2019.
De Wever’s efforts to place the climate emergency in the public eye and to change the world have had the unintended consequence of placing her in the public eye and changing her world.
Not only has the young activist become a household name and face in Belgium with her regular media appearances, her activism has exposed her to severe criticism from conservatives and vicious attacks from the far right. In addition to harassment on social media, De Wever was pestered at the annual Pukkelpop music festival, where she had urine hurled at her and her tent was trashed.
“This has really become a left- and right-wing issue,” the climate activist told META. “I don’t understand it, because it’s super general, climate change.”
De Wever expressed exasperation about how many on the right are so hostile to climate action. “There have never been so many people who wanted change in Belgium on the climate. But we have a really right-wing government and, for some reason, Belgians think that right-wing doesn’t mean saving the climate,” she said.
Reflecting on the nascent youth movement, De Wever admitted to mixed emotions: pride at the success it has had in pushing the climate emergency to the top of the public and political debate; frustration at the limited concrete changes that this greater consciousness has delivered.
“I am more optimistic because we’ve seen the movement grow; we’ve seen people uniting. So many people want change and are fighting for it,” the youth activist told META. “On the other hand, things have only gotten worse. If we listen to the science, it’s only getting worse.”
Last October, Anuna De Wever, along with 35 other activists, not to mention the crew of the ship, set sail across the Atlantic to visit the Amazon rainforest and to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), which was originally slated to take place in Chile.
In this endeavour, she received support from Make Europe Sustainable for All (MESA), an EU-backed project which seeks to boost the awareness and implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated 2030 Agenda, and others.
“We sailed for six weeks, and that’s really, really intense, to be on a boat with 42 people the whole time, not seeing land,” she recalled.
But the voyage was also an educational one. “One of the SDGs is about life below water. Over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Today we are seeing 30% of the world’s fish stocks overexploited,” De Wever tweeted at the time. “We are learning a lot about these crucial problems on our sailing trip.”
The Amazon represents over half of the world’s remaining rainforests and is one of the most species-rich places on the planet, representing 10% of the world’s biodiversity. Anuna De Wever and her companions toured parts of the Amazon and met indigenous communities there to learn more about their situation.
“When we were in the Amazon forest, it was beautiful, but it was also really, really hard because a lot of people there are facing the direct consequences of climate change,” De Wever recalled. “You can really see how climate change is already affecting millions of people’s lives: the whole forest is drying out and the rivers are completely polluted.”
In addition to the deforestation caused by ranching and farming, De Wever refers to the devastation wrought on the Amazon and its indigenous communities by mining. “They’re building goldmines next to the river which are super polluting, and the pollution of the goldmines gets into the water,” she explains.
Gold mining – both illegal and legal – is turning vast swathes of the Amazon into a toxic wasteland, as are other forms of mining, not to mention oil and gas exploitation.
De Wever also points to the gigantic Belo Monte hydroelectric dam which, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas, involves the moving of more earth than the digging of the Panama Canal did and threatens to transform the world’s mightiest river into an “endless series of lifeless reservoirs”.
“A big part of the forest is completely dried out because all the water is gone from there, and the people living there also had to move,” describes De Wever. “Indigenous people who have been living there for generations and generations, now, they all have to move from there.”
Fire and fury
The recent forest fires in the Amazon, most of which are believed to have been deliberately lit to clear land for farming and cattle rearing, sparked public outrage around the world and galvanised opposition to the deforestation policies of Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro.
Although Bolsonaro is the villain of the moment, deforestation did not begin with him. In fact, nearly 800,000 km² of Amazonian rainforest has been cleared since 1970. The mind-boggling scale of this destruction has led scientists to fear that we may soon reach a tipping point when tree loss starts to feed on itself without the need for further human intervention, destroying much of the remaining fragile ecosystem.
A new study in Nature suggests that this tipping point may arrive decades sooner than previously feared. While the study focuses on how this will disrupt the role of rainforests as “carbon sinks”, the destruction of the Amazon spells disaster for life in one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. This loss of priceless nature will not just have a severe ecological impact but will also result in trillions of euros of economic damage, according to various estimates.
This makes action to protect the Amazon and other rainforests all the more urgent. And Europe is not powerless in this regard. The EU not only enjoys enormous economic leverage over Brazil and other Amazon countries which can be used to promote sustainability, it also imports billions of euros worth of products, such as meat and soymeal, that contribute to deforestation.
“There are trade agreements like the one with Mercosur that need to be rethought because it’s really, really devastating,” notes De Wever. “A lot of European leaders and leaders from all over the world need to start putting pressure on the Brazilian government to say, ‘You’re not getting away with this.’”
Rather than being punished, Brazil’s Bolsonaro is on the verge of being rewarded royally. At around the same time that large swathes of the Amazon were going up in smoke, the EU and the Southern Common Market or Mercosur (a trading bloc of South American nations) agreed on the principles of a free trade agreement with the bloc’s four founding members, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Environmentalists fear that, despite the new trade accord’s vaunted environmental credentials on paper, it will contribute to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the human rights violations that underpin it. Civil society was so alarmed by the implications of the trade deal that more than 340 organisations, including the EEB, sent out a joint letter in which they urged the EU to halt negotiations.
The EU-Mercosur trade deal is also unpopular with EU citizens. A recent YouGov poll found that nearly two-thirds (63%) of citizens in six EU countries want the deal to be scrapped, which rises to a staggering 82% amongst those who expressed a clear preference. A number of European governments have expressed their opposition to it.
The primary political goal of Anuna De Wever’s voyage across the Atlantic was to attend the UN’s 25th Climate Change Conference (COP25), which was scheduled to be held in Chile but was moved to Madrid at the last minute because the Chilean government pulled out amid popular unrest.
“It was really disappointing because we wanted to be there ourselves, especially because Belgian climate policy is really, really awful,” admitted De Wever. “We wanted to be at the COP25 ourselves to look our Belgian ministers in the eyes and say, you know, you cannot go through with this.” However, a Youth for Climate delegation made it to the conference in Madrid and they got the message across, De Wever added.
Despite the efforts of youth activists, campaigners and environmentalists, COP25 failed to deliver any concrete results. “It was really disappointing because nothing happened, obviously. And way more was expected,” reflected De Wever. “For COP26, the stakes are really, really high.”
COP26 is due to take place in November 2020 in Glasgow. Before then, the EU must assume a leading international role, De Wever suggests. “We need to have a European Climate Law by then that is actually ambitious. We really want the European Green Deal to succeed and we need to have the financial resources for that to happen,” she said.
This chimes with the EEB’s position. “The European Green Deal’s success will depend on an EU budget which is absolutely sustainability proof and fully aligned with the Green Deal, and on strong measures accompanying it, in particular, to reduce social inequalities across the Union and globally,” the EEB said in a statement. “The promised transformation can only come off if the European Green Deal is embedded in a long-term strategy for implementing the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals in and by the EU.”
The European factor
Anuna De Wever and fellow Belgian climate activist Adélaïde Charlier have both decided that the most promising way forward is to focus their efforts at the EU level. For that reason, they took up, alongside their activism, part-time internships at the European Parliament with the Green Party faction.
“We have big things which we can try to push and make real, like the Green Deal, like the Climate law,” De Wever explained. “It’s nothing yet but if you push it, if you make it ambitious, if you search for financing or resources, we can actually make it something.”
An example of this drive to make EU climate action more ambitious relates to the European Commission’s recent proposal for a Climate Law. Anuna De Wever co-signed a letter with 33 other climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, urging the EU to adopt binding emissions targets not just for 2050 but also for 2030, 2020 and all the years in between.
Despite this criticism, De Wever has faith that the EU can deliver and act like a responsible global citizen. “We wouldn’t be on the streets every week, if we thought it wasn’t possible. Obviously, we think we can but it is going to demand very drastic change,” she said. “It’s going to involve a whole system change. And this is not a negative thing because the foundations of our system are broken anyway… And we need to rethink our whole economy if we want to respect our planetary boundaries instead of destroying the home we are living in right now.”
De Wever believes, done right, this transition will be very good for the welfare and wellbeing of Europeans. “People say I don’t want to do anything for the climate because people are going to lose their jobs, people are going to be poor because we need to pay so much. But it’s not true. It could be completely just. It’s just an investment that we need to make,” she asserts. De Wever is also cautiously optimistic about the transformative potential of global cooperation. “Humanity has already done so much. We made the whole world run on technology, we ended world wars, we put men on the moon. Things that seemed impossible years ago, suddenly became a reality. I believe in humankind,” she concluded.