Aïssatou, thank you for taking some time off to speak to Climate Justice Central. Perhaps we should start by talking about the alternative Conference of the Parties (COP) that you helped organise last year. What are the main climate impacts that you are facing in your region?

Thank you for having me. Well, Senegal is confronted by many climate emergencies on so many different fronts. Firstly, the country is becoming hotter and drier in general. And then there is salinisation. Coastal communities are reporting an increase in coastal erosion, saltwater encroachment and increased salinisation of rice paddies in St. Louis, Casamance, Bargny and down the entire coastline of the country. There are many other problems related to health, energy availability, health and agriculture. In the Sahel in general, drought is growing and agricultural production is declining. The combined effect of all this is migration to higher ground or other communities in Africa and elsewhere in the world. 

Senegalese activist Aissatou Keita: Photo: Roland Ngam

Why did you decide to organise an alternative COP?

We organised the alternative COP during COP26 because we realised that there are people who are not even aware that there is an activity like COP26. They do not know what is being discussed in COP processes. At the same time, we know that we have only one planet. We are not going to wait for COP to get it right because they have been talking about the same things in different cities and continents for a long time – and they have burned up billions of dollars doing that too. That is why we decided to organise a local COP where every community can come and talk freely about their climate-related challenges and, more importantly, about solutions. We also realised that we have immediate challenges that cannot wait until COP gets its act together. Our problems require solutions NOW, not later.

Fish traders wait for fishermen to return with their catch. Climate change threatens this activity. Photo: Roland Ngam

Moreover, the problems that we have also exist in other parts of the world. Talking helps identify the solutions that are already being rolled out in other parts of Africa, Asia, Europe, etc. 

If you are organising an alternative COP, and you just said that the UN COP has just become another talk shop, should we even continue bothering about the main COP? Shouldn’t we just shut it down? 

My answer is yes and no. Yes because like I said earlier – there are no ecological borders. When there are climate impacts, such events do not limit themselves to a specific country, and so it is important for international governance mechanisms to convene and adopt better rules and behaviours that can mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. We all have a right to a clean environment, and that in itself calls for a main, governments-led COP. 

We all have a right to a clean environment. Photo: Roland Ngam

At the same time, I have a problem with the COP process because there is an incredible amount of talking and negotiation going on there – with very little tangible results. 

The sea is shaving off coastlines and they keep talking. There are more bush fires everywhere, but they keep talking. There are droughts and communities that are more exposed to famine due to this and yet they keep talking. Rich countries are polluting and they keep talking. While we negotiate, people are dying and time is not waiting. 

Coastal erosion is a real problem in Senegal. Photo: Roland Ngam

If the main COP was really an efficient instrument, we would not have more and more subsidiary bodies and negotiation rounds every year. The process keeps ballooning, getting bigger and bigger. We keep talking and talking. China says that it will not reduce its emissions. Africa says that it also wants to develop and so it needs to invest in fossil fuels. We are running in circles. 

What did you learn from the alternative COP that you organised?

Alternative COPs are so important because the communities directly take the floor and express their pain, their suffering, and their experiences. You do not get that in a main COP. Government officials go there and they just talk a whole bunch of technical stuff without anchoring it on the lives struggles of communities that are already affected by climate change.

Senegalese fisherfolk are worried about dwindling stocks. Fish stocks are dwindling due to climate change and overfishing by Chinese/European trawlers. Photo: Roland Ngam

At COP, some of the civil servants who go there know very little about climate change shocks. What left the biggest impression on us was the lived experiences of the communities. The people in Bargny and St Louis spoke a lot about coastal erosion. Casamance spoke about coastal erosions as well as salinisation of rice paddies. This means that they are already losing their entire livelihoods. Climate change is already having real consequences here.

Fishing is the most important socioeconomic activity for many Senegalse. Photo: Roland Ngam

After the successful organisation of our event, which garnered attention from organisations all over the world, our priority now is to create synergies with other environmental networks and alternative COPS. Maybe that way, we can end up having even more impact than the main COP. 

Fish from Senegal is sold across the entire African continent. Photo: Roland Ngam

What are your expectations for COP27

We are all conscious today that the first cause of global warming is fossil fuels. Whatever we develop in COP, if we do not use COP to get major polluters to reduce their emissions, then we are just wasting our time. Whenever we talk about Nationally Determined Contributions, whenever we talk adaptation and mitigation, it is always to the advantage of the big players. It is always to their advantage.  

COP27 President H.E. Sameh Hassan Shoukry was in Bonn, Germany on June 9 2022 to officially take over the organisation process. Egypt has promised to deliver a world-class COP, but there are already murmurs about prohibitively-high hotel room prices. Photo: Roland Ngam

At COP27, we need to do a number of things. Firstly, we need to put loss and damage front and centre. The countries that did not play a significant role in global temperature rise should receive compensation for loss and damage. This entails reparations.

Secondly, the global North should end its hypocrisy on fossil energy use. We must keep oil and gas in the ground, build more solar PVs and wind projects instead. The Senegalese government which has just announced important finds of oil & gas near Sangomar should take note of this. It must keep oil in the ground, but the international community must also help the government to preserve indigenous communities' heritage, the true source of its wealth.

Finally, we must start valuing indigenous knowledge and the rights of indigenous communities. 

At the same time, we are going to continue organising alternative COPs because that seems to be the best way to get communities to express their pain and their needs. We also need to use these platforms to create a global synergy that can have serious impact. We need to become a global force. Only that way can we create the change we want.

Thank you!