Once in a while, you meet a person who really makes a strong impression on you, someone who changes the way you think about the world. Samson Katikiti, a 23-year old engineering student at the University of Zimbabwe, is one of those people for me.
Samson is the president of the Students for Environmental Action at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. When my friend Raj told me he was going to meet him, I asked if I could tag along. Being an environmental activist myself, I was interested to see what issues Zimbabwean environmentalists face. And, after spending time immersed in the nature of Zimbabwe, I wanted to know how I can help protect it.
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"Some people believe that the only way we (Zimbabwe) can survive is through the use of technology, which is polluting," he explained. Sometimes it is hard to get people to hear what he has to say, because the model of the 'developed' countries is so prevalent. "All we see tells us that it is 'good' to drive a limo," he says. Many people strive for that image of the "North" they see on television and at the movies.
Another challenge Samson faces is other people's perception that the environmental movement is a product of the "North" -- the developed countries like America and Western Europe. Since the "Northern" countries have strong economies, people think they are trying to keep the "South," such as Africa and Latin America, economically weak. "You guys went around polluting the world, and no one said anything. Now you're telling us, 'don't do that.' You can't talk to people about the environment when they don't have an economy."
Samson, however, tries not to buy into these misconceptions. "I don't believe in this measuring...that when we're 'developed' we'll be like the rest of the world...I see our current status as a chance for us to come up with a model that will be the envy of the world!"
Wow! For Samson, the fact that his country is less developed provides him with hope. "For you, there is no way to stop pollution without destroying your entire society. Your structure has developed in a way that is dependent on pollution, and I feel sorry for you. For me, it is easier. We still have the chance to create a perfect model, which you guys don't have. We can create a model society."
But, he reminds me, the biggest environmental concern of Zimbabwe and many less industrialized countries is not pollution. "We're suppliers of natural resources more than pollution," he explained. Timber, cotton, and tobacco, for example, are all cash crops that Zimbabwe exports for money. These cash crops, which are not native to Zimbabwe (even the tree farms grow Eucalyptus from Australia and pine trees), can be very environmentally damaging. Yet, many farmers feel they have no choice but to grow these crops. Even though these crops add to environmental degradation and are grown at the expense of food crops that would feed the community.
One reason for this is the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) imposed on Zimbabwe by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of Zimbabwe's staggering national debt. The ESAP requires the country to produce cash crops for foreign export over food crops for domestic consumption. Sounds like boring gibberish to me, too, but, unfortunately, it's a reality that affects millions of people around the globe. I will be writing more about ESAP in coming weeks. "Trade is linked to the environment,"Samson believes. That is why he helped organize the June 18th rally in Harare, at the same time that rallies happened in cities all over the globe, from New York to Johanannesburg, to New Delhi. These rallies coincided with the G8 summit, a meeting of all the most powerful industrial nations of the world. He also participated in a regional Model World Trade Organization (WTO), in order to better understand the complexities of international trade relations which affect his country-and yours! "The WTO has much more power than the UN, but most people have never heard of it," he told me.
Why get involved in such big issues? "The worst decision one can ever make is no decision," Samson believes. He used to be a volleyball player, and he lived, breathed, and dreamed about volleyball. Now he's an environmentalist. "I'm very intensive in all that I do...I've been working on environmental issues for the last 2 years....sometimes I work all night...Now that I know what I know, I can't just back off and say 'I want my life back' because I think I can make a difference." So, it is time to "Just Do it!" To learn more about Samson's group, and how you too can make a difference, check out this week's Making a Difference.
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