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Vanessa Nakate
courtesy of Instagram (@vanessanakate1)

Cropped-out climate activist Vanessa Nakate on changing the eco narrative

The Ugandan campaigner, who was cropped out of a photo with Greta Thunberg and other white activists at Davos, discusses the importance of Global South voices in the climate crisis conversation

As the first conversations of 2020 stayed firmly on the climate crisis, Vanessa Nakate, a 23-year-old climate activist from Uganda, was cropped out of a photo taken at a youth climate science event at the World Economic Forum in Davos. While the Associated Press, which posted the picture, has since apologised and claimed “no ill intent”, the image was called out as an example of racism and Nakate’s subsequent video statement went viral.

Fellow activist and climate striker Greta Thunberg – who was also in the picture – spoke out in solidarity, saying: “This is totally unacceptable in so many ways.” Many others rallied behind the accusation that Nakate herself levelled at the news agency: “You didn't just erase a photo. You erased a continent.”

Nakate hopes there’s a silver lining to the ordeal, as it highlights the plight of underrepresented activists in the current eco narrative, potentially giving them a greater platform to share their ideas about the climate crisis and its uniquely damaging effects on their lives and environments.

Below, we talk to Nakate about Davos, her activism, and the hope for a wider and more inclusive climate activist conversation.

Can you tell me about your journey to Davos?

Vanessa Nakate: I was invited to Davos by the Arctic Basecamp. It’s a research centre where we learnt about science and how it relates to climate, and we spoke to some scientists who are trying to collect data from the Arctic. We were learning all these things about science and speaking to some kids in the Davos school, it was a really lovely experience. I got to see snow, something I’ve never seen in my life. I got to see incredible activists. 

(The camping) was a decision that was fully taken by us, as a form of demonstration to our government leaders, to try and tell them that we’ve left the beds, because you know how comfortable the beds are. So we’ve left our beds, we’ve left our comfortable stuff and we’re here, sleeping out in the cold. We’re trying to make this statement that it’s time to leave your comfort zones and do the uncomfortable things, because it's the uncomfortable things that will help us save the planet. 

What was your mission in bringing Africa’s plight to a world platform?

Vanessa Nakate: African voices deserve a platform on the world stage. It is important for African activists to be listened to, to be heard, because they have stories to tell, they have suffering and pain as victims of the climate crisis that they need to tell the world about, that people are suffering deep down in the villages. It’s the activists who know about the suffering of these people so it is important for the African voice to be given a platform on the world stage. Every voice matters and every voice is important in the fight against the climate crisis.

What was it like seeing yourself cropped out of the photo?

Vanessa Nakate: When I saw the photo at first I thought that the picture wasn’t whole because it had been shared on Twitter, so I decided to read the article. When I opened the article I was surprised to find that the photo had actually been cropped and only part of my jacket was visible in that photo. Of course it was very hurting at first sight. I felt so sad seeing it and it was so frustrating. 

I decided to retweet with a comment to ask AP why I had been cropped out of the photo, a comment that was shared by many people and it kind of went viral. I had decided to make that video immediately but I was scared of making it because I was scared of breaking down. So I decided to do the video a few minutes later. Unfortunately when I did the video statement, all the pain and hurt just came back and I just couldn't control it. It was so sad.

Since then, your name has been erased in the media – you’re not immediately referred to as Vanessa, but as an “African activist”. What has that been like?

Vanessa Nakate: That also has been a sad message to me. Of course I’m proud to be Ugandan and I’m proud to be an African activist, but I am an African activist with a name, that is Vanessa Nakate, and it'’ annoying when people keep referring to me as ‘the African activist who was cropped out’ in various parts of the media, without even mentioning my name. I have an identity, besides being an African. I also have a name: Vanessa Nakate.

What do you make of the public reaction to your video statement?

Vanessa Nakate: The public has been very supportive after that incident, and many people have spoken against the treatment towards not just me but different climate activists. Some climate activists have come out to say that this has been happening for a while and it just needed to be addressed by someone. Actually some activists came into my inbox telling me the same thing has happened to them: they have been cropped out of photos before, and that they did not have the strength and courage to confront the people who did that, and were pleased that I had.

What do you make of Greta Thunberg speaking out?

Vanessa Nakate: It was lovely for Greta to speak out against that event and what the media did. She was very supportive. She didn't just speak up, she made a statement as well, trying to tell me this is something she has been doing for a long time, to try as much as possible to cover stories from various parts of the world. But after this incident I hope the media has finally listened.

What would you like to see come from this experience, specifically with how the media treats marginalised voices?

Vanessa Nakate: I hope to see change in the way activists from Africa, and generally from the Global South, are given a platform to speak up and tell their stories, to give their solutions and to have a say in this fight against climate change. I do not of course expect any other activists to go through the same thing that I went through and I believe that, after that incident, the media is going to be so careful on what it reports and how it treats activists from the Global South. 

I would like this to change the story of climate activism in Africa and generally for the people of the Global South because many people are suffering, many people are going through hell, many people are facing disasters of the climate crisis and they need help, as soon as possible.

We have time and time again seen activists and communities of marginalised people – Native Americans, indigenous people –who face very direct effects of the climate crisis that have been ignored. In recent times, have you seen this change at all for the better, and the platform widening?

Vanessa Nakate: Many people spoke up (after I was cut out of the photo) and said that this has been going on for a while, and activists from marginalised communities like the Native Americans  or Indigenous people have not got space, not been given a platform, not been given a chance to speak, not been listened to. They've been trying as hard as possible to pass on their message and this has been going on for a while. But I believe that after this incident the world has finally set eyes on these people and it is time for change. I believe that the story of these people has changed and they are going to receive more of a platform. 

Can you tell me about your work to save the Congo Rainforest?

Vanessa Nakate: I started the Congo Rainforest strike in order to create awareness about the destruction that was going on. The Congo Rainforest is the second largest rainforest in the world and it is the largest in Africa. It is a home to millions of people and it is home to various species of animals and plants. It has the okapi, and this giraffe is only found in the Congo rainforest – I mean if it is destroyed that means we will face extinction of this species. It is important for us to save this forest and try as much as possible to protect it because it is also the largest carbon sink we have in Africa and our existence depends on its existence.

Where is our attention most needed right now?

Vanessa Nakate: The Global South needs attention of the world. They need the ears of the world because a lot is going on in these countries and the lives of the people. They need platforms, they need to be given a voice or a chance to speak up because they have a lot to say. I would like to see every activist from the Global South fully represented when it comes to tackling the climate crisis because their voices are so important in the climate movement.