Sierra Leone

Inspiring 'green work' - How Sierra Leone teenagers are tackling deforestation and climate change

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A group of teenage boys are sitting in their classroom having a lively conversation about climate change: how local weather patterns are shifting, disrupting the planting and gathering of crops, and all that this means for their community. They are concerned but they are also articulate, confident and knowledgeable.

The boys, like several thousands of other children in the West African state of Sierra Leone, are participants in a novel educational programme. Funded by DFID and delivered by Plan UK - the child-focused community development organisation - the programme aims to prepare young people for climate change and give them practical skills and small amounts of funding to combat it.

Watch Plan UK's video about climate change in Sierra Leone

Unlike much of Africa - the continent least responsible for climate change but most threatened by it - Sierra Leone's special vulnerabilities to climate change are mainly man-made. Tropical, with habitats ranging from savannahs through to rainforests, it suffers from serious - and accelerating - deforestation. This is the result of three decades of logging, mining, and land conversion (such as for cattle grazing) topped off by the slash and burn tactics it suffered during the searing civil war of the 1990s.

Deforestation, in turn, is a major cause of global warming. As this month's Copenhagen summit on climate change will hear, it is responsible for about a fifth of global greenhouse emissions.

The problem that first engaged the group of Sierra Leone boys was their school building and the heavy storms bearing down on it each rainy season.

"Every year, we were afraid that our school was under serious threat of losing its roof," explains Lansana Saffa, a pupil at the Ahmadiyya Secondary School in Kailahun town in the east of the country. "We used the [USD 300] amount [from Plan UK] to nurse acacia trees and later planted them around our school so that when they grew they trapped the wind and the roof could no longer be blown off in heavy storms."

In other parts of the country, the programme has backed the planting of trees for shade, to protect water sources and vegetation, and has also trained children to build energy saving stoves in their kitchens, to help reduce consumption of firewood and thus stem the further depletion of forests.

In total in Sierra Leone, some 32 children's groups (with an average of 25 children per group) and 51 schools (with more than 28,000 pupils in total), are set to benefit from the programme, which also includes climate change workshops and the development of a related teaching manual.

Central to the programme - which is part of a wider Plan UK project encompassing the Philippines, El Salvador, Bangladesh, China and Cambodia amongst other countries - is the belief that children and young people should be actively involved in reducing the risk of climate-related disasters and that there should be greater international recognition of their role.

As Marie Staunton, chief executive of Plan UK, said earlier this year:

"Children are economic actors in their own right. The role of children in taking action against climate change needs to be more widely recognised. Climate change will be of greater consequence in their lives than ours. Children are powerful advocates, agents of change and 'early adapters'. Children, who form 50-60 per cent of population and will inherit the planet we leave them, should not be disenfranchised."

The experience of Lansana Saffa and his fellow pupils demonstrates this: they have been inspired to continue their 'green work' elsewhere in their community.

"Since that experience [with the school building], we have been involved in nursing and planting trees to help protect more structures in our environment,"says Lansana. "My involvement in this tree planting exercise has helped me to develop an interest in protecting my environment and I see that we can solve problems of disaster in our communities ourselves. We will ensure that more people and other children know about this so that we can protect our town."

Facts and stats

- DFID is providing more than £2 million to Plan UK to deliver the Children and Young People at the Centre of Disaster Risk Reduction project, which will indirectly benefit around 2.18 million people. The project began in January 2006 and is due to finish in December 2010.

- Deforestation is responsible for 19% of global emissions - more than the entire global transport sector.

- More than half the deaths resulting from natural disasters occur in low human development countries, even though only 11% of the people exposed to hazards live in them (IDRC World Disaster Report, 2002).

- 375 million people may be affected by climate-related disasters by 2015 ("Suffering the Science: climate change, people and poverty" - Oxfam, July 2009).