IIED at 50: how can we harness youth’s energy to drive positive change?

In this interview, young conservationist Bupe Banda discusses how to get the energy of young people behind efforts to protect our planet and explains why we need intergenerational dialogue to nurture the leaders of tomorrow.

Article, 22 June 2022

Bupe BandaAs part of a series of articles marking IIED’s 50th year, young conservation leader and environmentalist Bupe Banda shares her ideas on how to attract young people to the causes that will shape their futures, and describes how to set youth on a path towards sustainable leadership.

Q: What does it take to get young people motivated to drive change when there are so many competing interests?

BB: It can take a lot to motivate young people. You have to understand the challenges they’re facing. Young people are looking out for their futures, they are trying to work out how they are going to survive on their own.

So to motivate them and get them interested in being part of work that is going to drive change, you have to talk to them about employment opportunities.

Q: And are there employment opportunities for young people within conservation?

BB: Taking my own case, I studied environmental education at the University of Zambia. But getting into employment was tough. And I was lucky – there were plenty of other students who did the same university programme as me but are still not employed.

But the issue is not the jobs, because there are plenty of conservation organisations in Zambia. The issue is that most jobs being advertised require many years of experience – experience that a graduate fresh from university does not have.

The location of conservation work – typically in villages − also presents a barrier for young people. Village life doesn’t appeal to young people. They feel the pull of the city, they are attracted by the vibrancy of urban living. And it’s true; most conservation work is in communities in rural areas.

So it’s a case of showing young people the value of this work – showing them the positive change it can bring to the rural communities, and how it supports the wider conservation cause. You have to sell it to them a bit.

Q: What needs to happen to turn young people into future leaders?

BB: It’s about making a space for young people. Young people increasingly hear expressions such as “you are leaders of the future”. But what spaces have been created for us to move into leadership roles? Are we getting space at decision-making tables to contribute to ongoing debates?

Youth must be brought on board; we need guidance from experts to prepare us. For me, this is about proper mentorship – in conservation, being guided by the gurus who have been doing conservation work for many years. We need to learn from their experience and the best way is through deliberate, intergenerational dialogue – whether at national level, regional level or international decision-making events such as IUCN’s CITES.

We need these dialogues so young people can learn from the experiences of older generations, while bringing in their fresh ideas.

But if we join in these dialogues, our inputs must be taken seriously, and our contributions must be recognised. It’s all very well inviting young people to speak on panels at high-profile global events – but we want to see the action we are calling for featured in the outcome documents or whatever resolution the event arrives at.

Unless we see our contributions included in outcomes, we are wasting our time. It sends out the message that the world is not ready to listen to us.

A young person holds up a sign, saying "There is no planet B" among a march

"There is no planet B" says a sign on this protest in Durban, South Africa (Photo: Speak Your Mind/Julian Koschorke, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Q: You mention mentoring, how would you see that working?

BB: Mentoring has to be something that the mentors and mentees do together. It’s no good having an experienced conservation policymaker say to me: “Bupe, you will be leading conservation in Zambia in the next 10 years: prepare yourself.” I want their guidance! I need their support on that journey.

I want to work alongside them, join them during key meetings, be part of the panel they are speaking on, discuss dialogue outcomes together. So it’s not a case of saying to us “prepare yourself” but by working collaboratively so we young people are prepared to take the helm.

Q: We have seen how instrumental young people have been in driving climate action. Is conservation also on the radar of young people? And are young people making the links between climate change and conservation?

BB: Youth are active and vibrant in both camps. Certainly, we have seen a surge in youth action on climate change, but there’s a growing movement, too, demanding action around conservation issues.

That said, the link between the two is not clear enough and it’s rare that both camps get together to talk. There are some organisations, such as WWF, that are pushing ahead with initiatives that bring the two dialogues together. But we need to do much more to create links between conservation and climate change.

And then we need to push hard to build awareness around the links. We need to do much more research on the links between climate change and conservation, and that research needs to be presented in an accessible way that can engage young people.

Q: In your view, what are the biggest issues for the future?

BB: Generous donations from international organisations for conservation are both crucial and valuable. But in the long run, the focus needs to be on local ownership. This will support sustainable use of natural resources in forestry, fisheries, agriculture and wildlife.

Conservation must be profitable so young people can find more jobs in the sector, ultimately enhancing conservation outcomes and providing fresh solutions to global environmental problems.