When I was recently invited to speak at the event “Change at next stop” in Bonn, organised by the Goethe-Institute, I was full of anticipation.
The event had been devised for environmental activists and educators from North African countries and the Middle East to meet each other and learn more about campaigning, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and educational work in Germany.
The day turned out to be very enriching for me indeed: meeting dedicated and courageous people mostly from countries that aren’t particularly democratic, people who want to change the world for the better – it all helped create an optimistic atmosphere of mutual understanding from which everyone could draw strength. The activists felt the same I’m sure – after all not every campaign is successful and one isn’t always appreciated, as I know well from my own experience. The challenge is as simple as it is vital: do not lose heart!
ACTION “FROM BELOW”
In any case, in Bonn everybody was welcome! The Goethe-Institute had organised the conference as part of an international project to promote the exchange of best practice examples in the field of environmental education. The organisers firmly believe that the goals of the Paris 2015 climate agreement can only be successfully completed if the efforts of governments and administrations are complemented by grassroots action “from below”. The key question at “Change at next stop” therefore was: how can grassroots initiatives effectively raise awareness for environmental issues?
PROTEST NEEDS POLITICS
The participants, from countries including Sudan, Algeria, the Palestinian Territories or Egypt, are already very active in their own countries. I told them many things about my own campaign work at Greenpeace, as well as about German politics and about ways to change things inside the system. I am aware that the democracy in Germany is a relatively easy environment for activists. At Greenpeace we were taught how to organise street protests, how different personalities are of different use in different situations or how to defuse dangerous situations. My bottom line at the seminar in Bonn was to always treat the activities on the streets and politics as one single entity: protesters need political contacts if they are to succeed.
Maybe I was able to provide the participants with some impulses. But, as I said, they are already very active in their own countries’ NGOs. One of the tales I was particularly impressed with was that of a man from Egypt, who collects garbage with his family to sell. The initial activity has successively branched out and the family now oversees the collection system for an entire district in Cairo – and one of their main complaints is about Tetra-Paks. The composite they’re made of has several inseparable layers of different materials, which the family says is very difficult to recycle.
To me, the most noteworthy aspect was that even those participants who come from semi-democratic countries are convinced that the wider population has to get involved in politics whereever possible. They know it can be dangerous, but they believe it’s the way forward. They have my respect – thank you very much for this day!