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  • Writer's picturebird story agency

Uganda’s ‘birthday trees’ activist challenges global leaders on climate inaction

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

Leah Namugerwa, 18, did not mince her words when addressing COP27’s World Leaders Summit: no more rhetoric, it’s time to leave a positive legacy.

Kate Okorie, bird story agency

When Leah Namugerwa turned 15 in 2019, she planted 200 trees to celebrate her birthday. Her idea blossomed into something far bigger: by 2020, she’d planted 7500 trees and encouraged many others to mark their birthdays similarly. So it’s no wonder that an image of a smiling Namugerwa holding a plant was displayed on a giant LED screen as she stood to address the opening ceremony of COP27’s World Leaders Summit.

Leah Namugerwa, Uganda’s ‘birthday trees’ activist.

The 18-year-old Ugandan activist chided the leaders gathered in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, saying their inaction in the face of climate change had forced young people like her “to grow, to act, to think like adults”.

A year before her tree-planting work began, Namugerwa watched helplessly as fellow Ugandans died during landslides explicitly linked to climatic shifts: “These images have disturbed me and cannot allow me to rest until something is done about the changing climate.”

She and three other young activists formed the Ugandan chapter of the Fridays for Future movement, “a youth-led and -organised movement that began in August 2018, after 15- year-old Greta Thunberg and other young activists sat in front of the Swedish parliament every schoolday for three weeks, to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis”. Its mission resonated with the young Ugandans’ desire to draw their leaders’ attention to the disaster unfolding across the East African nation and the world.

Namugerwa did not mince her words when addressing world leaders, making it clear that she and other activists were growing tired of empty promises and rhetoric. “We are not sure whether we are heard when we speak or (if) we are just ignored.”

“Plants do not eat their own food; rivers do not drink their own water. I don’t see justice for young people when our rivers and lakes are polluted. I don’t see justice when the big polluters are untouchable. Is it justice for the world leaders to choose profit over lives?”

In the latter part of her speech, she challenged her audience to consider the actions taken towards environmental justice today as part of their legacy: “Politicians, when you stand up to talk, my generation requests that (you act) …. because this is the only planet where we are going to carry on your legacy as your children.”

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