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Tackling plastic pollution in Nigeria [interview]

Kiran from the Tearfund Action team speaks with Nigerian environmental activist Ulan Garba Matta about justice, plastic pollution, and how she's helping to make change happen.

Tearfund | 14 Apr 2020

Plastic waste (Tearfund)

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One of the joys of my role is hearing from inspiring people around the world who are making change happen in their communities. I took some time to speak with Ulan Garba Matta, an environmental activist in Nigeria.

Environmental activist in Nigeria, Ulan (Tearfund)
Ulan Garba Matta, Nigeria

Ulan works with one of Tearfund’s partners, the Jos Green Centre, a youth-led hub of activists. They recently won a Green Heart Hero Award from The Climate Coalition for their innovative E-Waste Solar Project – a notable and well-deserved achievement.

If you listened to the recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth about our latest report, The Burning Question, you would have heard Ulan speak about plastic pollution in her hometown. I wanted to find out more about her experience of plastic pollution, and what needs to be done about it.

Kiran: What sparked your interest in environmental activism?

Ulan: As a writer and film-maker, I was already interested in exploring the complex layers of humanity, and living in a way that’s beneficial not only to ourselves, but to our communities. About five or six years ago, my friend invited me to a Micah Challenge Live Justly study, organised by Tearfund Nigeria. For the first time I encountered justice in a way that I had never thought about. Before that, I’d only heard it in a legal sense, or talking about getting revenge. But by going through the Micah Challenge study, we could peel back the layers and learn that justice was far more than that.

I knew of Ben Osawe [Tearfund’s Advocacy Officer in Nigeria] from other projects I had been part of, and it was encouraging to see him there. For many of us, he was a major inspiration. We thought: ‘If he’s over 50 and he’s this passionate about justice, what excuse do we have?’

Kiran: And a lot has happened since then. Congratulations on the Green Heart Hero Award!

Ulan: Thank you! That really wasn’t something that we were expecting. We were shocked when we found out we won. And we’ve realised that as we work to improve our communities, and make life better for people around us, we’re deeply blessed in the process.

Kiran: So how is plastic waste affecting people in Nigeria?

Ulan: It’s a justice issue, because plastic ends up being dumped in low-income areas. So imagine: the people in that area did not generate the plastic waste, and have no waste management to clean it up. They have no choice but to find a way to dispose of it as best as they can, which is usually burning. We’re just coming out of the dry season, and people think that it’s the perfect time for burning. They feel the wind just carries the smoke away,  but they don’t know it’s settling in their lungs. 

Now that the rains are about to come, people will dump the plastic in the waterways. You see people literally rushing out of their houses to dump waste in the gutters and streams, because they expect the rain to wash it away. But where is it washing to? There are actually places now where it’s just a sea of waste – it’s taken over the water.

Kiran: Are people in these areas aware that it’s affecting their health? 

Ulan: Many of them are not aware, but we’re trying to raise awareness about it. There has been an increase in respiratory illnesses and other outbreaks, so there is no more ignoring that waste is a problem. And because of the waste in the waterways, we’ve had flooding and a lot of flood-related deaths, so now even the government can't deny that this is a problem.

Kiran: So plastic waste can have an ongoing impact on people’s health, but they may not necessarily know about it?

Yes, for example, my neighbours think they are being considerate by burning their waste in the night, because everyone is indoors. But I wake up from my sleep choking on the fumes. I can feel my chest is irritated – you know when you’re coughing for days? So there are things like that, and you can relate with other people with the same symptoms.

The companies who make these products have a huge responsibility. Thankfully I’m old enough to know a time when there was no plastic. I remember when you could go to the shop and return your empty glass bottle for a full one. You’d pay for the liquid content only. And the companies would take the crates of empty glass bottles and refill them. With the ease, comfort and status of the plastic bottle, things changed. But what’s stopping them from doing that now? They could organise a system and it could still work. Let’s be honest, the money is the bottom line for them. But first of all, they need to stop creating all of this plastic waste.

Kiran: What’s the message you want to get across to the companies? 

Ulan: There are alternatives that can work, so stop producing this plastic. You’ve done it before, and you can do it again. We believe in you!

Kiran: Is there anything you’d want to say to people in the UK who have been involved in the Rubbish Campaign, or are thinking about it?

Ulan: Yeah, I’d encourage everyone to be involved in the Rubbish Campaign. We’re all connected, so even if you can’t see the effects of plastic waste, find the people in these parts of the world who are talking about things like this and learn more from them. That way, when you are raising your voice, you can say, ‘My brothers and sisters in Nigeria are going through this, and I would like to add my voice to theirs and say it's not right for this to be happening.’

Nigeria is increasingly becoming a young country. Jos Green Centre is a youth-driven initiative, and because of social media, our young people get a lot of inspiration from the West. Not to be copy-cats, but it can be powerful to see people, especially young people, from the UK rejecting consumerism, making zero-waste cool and speaking up about not using plastic.

So modelling the lifestyle and being visible and vocal is really helpful, and has a wider impact. 

Kiran: This is an unprecedented time with the Covid-19 pandemic and everyone having to make adjustments to their lifestyles. How do you see the role of environmental campaigning and activism now?

Ulan: I think it's important to keep going, because this is actually giving us insight into the effects of a global crisis. It has affected life as we know it for everyone. While we will hopefully get a vaccine for coronavirus, there’s no vaccine for climate change. We have to make the choices that will mitigate this over a period of time. It's not a one-day thing. So how much damage do we need to do to the planet before we do something about it? We need change to happen now if we want to see results that affect the bigger picture in two, five or ten years’ time. 

Kiran: Lastly, what are some specific things we can pray about for you?

Ulan: We’re still learning to be more effective about how we give our message. Please pray for wisdom, knowledge and insight. We need that a lot because we have the numbers to be effective, but if there are no hands, what do we do? And please pray that we will not burn out; pray for strength from God.

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