'Ready to take up the challenges of our generation'
Salem Mihindeou Ayenan is a young climate and environmental advocate from Benin. In an interview ahead of the GEF Assembly, he shared what motivates him to convene and encourage young people to help protect nature.
How did you first get interested in environmental issues?
I come from a community where agriculture and livestock are the main livelihoods. As I was growing up, I noticed that production yields were no longer up to par, and as a result, several families complained. There were often conflicts between farmers and herders, which sometimes ended in death threats, and sometimes even people were killed. It was in 2016, after getting involved with a non-governmental organization, that I discovered that these problems were linked to climate change, and that we needed resilience and adaptation measures to survive.
I started by raising awareness in my community about the need for reforestation, because firewood was widely used for cooking and many trees were cut down to make charcoal. I also promised myself not to leave my younger brothers in the dark, and began to educate them about climate change so they would know to act positively for the health of our planet. This grew into community education initiatives. Over time, I came to realize that to make more of a difference I needed to engage in youth platforms at the international level to further advocate for children and vulnerable groups.
What are you most proud of in your environmental work to date?
I organized the first African Youth Environment Assembly in February 2022, with the support of UNEP. This Assembly brought together more than 1,000 young people from the continent for four days. It resulted in recommendations put forward in several bodies and occasions, particularly on the issue of climate education.
I am also proud of my work initiating the ECOL’ECOLO project, which has educated young people about climate action in Benin’s capital city, through talks, debates, poetry, singing, and waste management projects.
I was also happy to be delegated by the Youth Constituency to the UNFCCC (YOUNGO) as one of the eight young African members of the Focus Discussion Group - UNESCO on Climate Change Education. After participating along with nearly 17,500 young people from around the world, I presented the results of the work at COP27 in Egypt during a ministerial session. I am now working towards the official launch of the UNESCO Greening Curriculum at COP28 Dubai.
As Africa Focal Point of the Children and Youth Major Group of UNEP, I have the honor of being entrusted with the responsibility of mobilizing all African youth, and working to convey our aspirations for the sixth UN Environment Assembly.
What message do you have for today’s political and business leaders?
Decision-makers should recognize that we young people are ready to take up the challenges of our generation, and that we have a lot to give in terms of reflection, skills, and solutions to climate issues. They should actively involve us in the whole process.
I would ask them to appeal each time to their conscience, and to ask themselves during each negotiation, ‘what impacts could these decisions have on future generations?” I would ask them to consider the human dimension, to silence their ego, to seek to benefit the common interest for the well-being of all communities.
What are you looking forward to at the GEF Assembly?
The GEF Assembly is a real opportunity to prioritize the consideration of young people in environmental action, including the processes of development, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of projects and programs. I look forward to speaking with various partners about the need to facilitate young peoples’ access to environmental funds because too often, we have exceptional projects but it is very difficult to finance them.