“I am a Sierra Leonean myself and I personally never knew what climate change was until the floods last September when I saw the impact on the farmers and their crops.”
Africa is known to the world as a developing continent, rich with natural resources – among them diamonds, salt, iron and copper. It is also home to the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, after the Amazon, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite this, the continent is also plagued with poverty, a strong illegal ivory trade, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and, in recent times, problems arising from climate change.
Millions of lives have been disrupted by seasonal droughts, thunderstorms, landslides, heat waves, floods and altered rainfall patterns throughout the continent. The strongest El Niño ever recorded brought severe droughts to southern parts of Africa, which were harsh enough to empty an entire water supply dam in Senekal, South Africa. The other side of climate change was seen in the west of Africa through heavy rainfall and severe flooding.
Philip Joel Mandewa-Cole, fondly known as PJ Cole, is the National Executive Director of Lifeline Nehemiah Projects (LNP) in Sierra Leone and has been working to tackle the challenges arising from climate change. LNP was founded by Rev. Richard Cole and his wife Yeakah in 1996 as an organic response to the brutal conflict ravaging Sierra Leone, the organisation set about rebuilding the lives of ex-child soldiers and young people affected by war. The organisation currently operates several projects throughout Sierra Leone including: formal education, vocational skill training, agricultural development, various social enterprises and a care home for young people.
After the severe floods in September 2015, LNP began to work even more closely with the farmers in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
“We were already working with farmers but speaking to the farmers post the floods we found doubts amongst them as to what to expect”
Ebola Virus Disease contributed to agricultural depletion
While the September floods made planting conditions difficult for farmers, the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) struck the backbone of Sierra Leone’s agricultural economy: its workforce.
The country is home to just over 6 million people and it’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) depends heavily on agricultural activity. In 2014 the EVD hit the western coast of Africa, with Sierra Leone at its epicentre.
At least 80% of the population work in the agriculture sector, accounting for two thirds of Sierra Leoneans being involved in subsistence agriculture – self-sufficiency farming for farmers and their families.
The crisis spread rapidly through the country, surrounding regions, and overseas. Research conducted by Adam Smith International in July 2015 revealed how the Ebola crisis directly affected the workforce in the agricultural sector, leaving harvest teams short and crops left to rot in the fields. Those producing cocoa and coffee were particularly affected during the early days of the Ebola epidemic.
As the EVD spread across the country, vegetable growers, rice farmers and cattle herders in the north slowed down production to deal with the closure of markets, which in turn slowed the entire economic process.
It was then that LNP established the Ebola Community Care Clinic with Lifeline Network International and Medair, an emergency clinic in Freetown, which treated more than 270 patients affected by the virus.
LNP offered food and counseling support to a total of 12,000 people isolated from their homes. They also provided lifesaving Ebola education to over 80,000 people.
PJ Cole also mentioned how on top of the growing Ebola crisis, the floods that followed damaged the roads that the farmers were dependent on.
The floods in Sierra Leone have left many citizens including survivors, homeless. Our hearts go out those affected. pic.twitter.com/Xv1lHryqgf
— #ISurvivedEbola (@SurvivedEbola) September 29, 2015
Lack of political will and education
The adverse climate conditions were not made easier by Sierra Leone’s traditional agricultural techniques. Most Sierra Leonean farmers with low income use a “slash-and-burn” technique, which consists of burning the land in order to clear a new farm plot. Although the method is cheaper and quicker, it has devastating impacts on the environment. The use of wood for fuel, as well as the accompanying illegal timber trade, also damages the country’s natural environment.
These techniques, mainly used in poorer countries, are unsustainable and accelerate climate change. However, PJ Cole explaind that most Sierra Leoneans aren’t aware of the impact these practices can have on climate change, or the impact that climate change can have on their lives.
“We don’t fully get what climate change is, so there is a delay in the improvement.”
He added: “I am a Sierra Leonean myself and I personally never knew what climate change was until the floods last September when I saw the impact on the farmers and their crops on the city of Freetown. This is simply how I was pulled into it and I had to educate myself.”
Most political policies focus on economic growth and poverty reduction, which many believe have no direct correlation with climate change.
Despite noticeable weather changes during the monsoon, the Sierra Leone government, along with the general population, aren’t phased by it. However, PJ Cole stressed that a country that is heavily dependent on agricultural production would only see the situation worsen if climate change is not addressed actively.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), by 2020 between 75 and 250 million people will be exposed to increased water stress caused by climate change. Water stress in Sierra Leone could lead to even bigger economical and social disasters.
— BRAC (@BRACworld) September 21, 2015
A need for climate change awareness and participation
Although September’s floods killed at least four people in Freetown and displaced more than 24,000 people throughout the country, media coverage only lasted whilst the floods lasted. PJ Cole highlighted the need for climate education on a national level and raised questions about the lack of awareness and media attention on the issue.
PJ Cole explaind that there is a lack of awareness and ongoing motivation regarding climate change among people in Sierra Leone, and that’s a pressing issue. However, he noted that this wasn’t just the public’s fault and called for more awareness on the topic. He said: “One must understand in order to improve.”
“A lot of young people responded to the floods, including artists and musicians. They supported the floods victims, but now nothing is happening.”
In many countries environmental issues are being challenged at a local level through active public demonstrations, like the Global Climate Change March that took place in over 160 countries. However, PJ Cole said that unification isn’t as prominent in Sierra Leone and that there’s a major need to improve participation.
He said: “Most of the Sierra Leoneans don’t have access to the Internet and so the mentality in the country is still very traditional.”
“Economically the farmers who run on self sufficiency can’t afford to send all their kids to school so they send the boys and not the girls, that is the mindset in Sierra Leone. It’s very traditional.”
However, through his organisation, PJ also hopes to solve one of the “country’s biggest problems” – the lack of education, especially for girls. He explained that women “are the power house” of rural areas and while the men officially own it, it is the women who look after nearly everything from their families and the farms, to the produce and the selling of crops.
“Women are the strongest in the society. In order to develop the community we should educate the community on women’s rights, enabling the girls to use their potential.”
— PJ Mandewa-Cole (@MandewaCole) March 8, 2016
PJ Cole emphasised the importance on the role a young person should play in today’s society. He believes that the youth should be proactive and aware of environmental issues worldwide, because it is the future generations who will be the ones directly affected by climate change.
“Change is happening, we know that. Now we should be looking ahead and take decisions in order to be ready for the future changes.”
The Lifeline Nehemiah Project continues to provide farmers with the tools, skills and knowledge to farm their lands sustainably – for subsistence and to generate an income to send their children to school.
Philip Joel Mandewa-Cole won the Queen’s Young Leader Award in 2013, set up by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to mark her 60 years on the throne. PJ was a Delegate Speaker for the 2015 Peace and Security Plenary Session at One Young World. His late father, Rev. Richard Cole founded the Lifeline Nehemiah Project in 1996, and took in a total of 800 child soldiers, some of whom were affected by the conflict between Sierra Leone and Liberia 1991 and 2002. Eighty per cent of the Senior Management Team at the Lifeline Nehemiah Project are former child soldiers or war affected children who PJ grew up with.
Find out more about Lifeline Nehemiah Projects by visiting their website.