By Alexander Huls, deputy editor, YFile
On Oct. 13, at the Fall Convocation ceremony for York University’s Faculty of Education, Faculty of Environmental & Urban Change, Glendon College, Lassonde School of Engineering and the Faclulty of Science, environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey shared his life story and words of encouragement with graduands.
During her opening remarks, Vice-Chancellor and President Rhonda Lenton urged graduands to consider a critical question as they move forward in their lives and careers. “It’s … imperative that we ask ourselves, ‘How do we function in … society?'” Lenton would go on to introduce Bassey as an example of someone who has been guided by that question for decades, praising him as “a dedicated advocate for the environment … whose gift to future generations is contributing to a more sustainable world.”
During his address to graduands, Bassey recounted his journey to becoming an advocate, driven by the mission to leave society with a more sustainable future. Born in Nigeria, he spoke of growing up during the Nigerian-Biafran war, a time he described as “disruptive and traumatic,” leading him to be exposed to human rights abuses, hunger, disease and more. Those experiences, as well as living under the oppression of a series of military authoritarian dictatorships, led Bassey to develop a desire to change the world around him. “As a young adult, I could not escape being a part of the human rights and anti-dictatorship movement,” he said.
Inspired over time by anti-colonial leaders throughout the Global South, he came to adopt a cause. He felt that protesting dictatorships was not the zenith of standing against injustice, but rather protesting something else he saw at work under the radar.
“The wheels of oppression at home were crude oil and extractivism activities. Capital trumped concerns for the health of Mother Earth and her children … and complaints against the destruction of the ecosystems and livelihoods were met with brute force while communities were crushed,” he said. “The judicial models and assault on communities were the red lines that dictatorships crossed, and that set me on a lifelong journey of standing for environmental rights as the key basis for the enjoyment of the right to life.”
Over the course of his career, Bassey has become one of Africa’s leading advocates and campaigners for the environment and human rights. He founded Nigeria’s first environmental rights organization in the early 1990s, proceeding to inspire activists to stand up against the malpractices of multinational corporations, which eventually led to the formation of Oil Watch International in 1996, a network resisting fossil fuel expansion in the Global South. Later, he founded the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an environmental justice organization.
He has also received several accolades, including the distinguished Right Livelihood Award, the Rafto Prize and he was named one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009.
Despite a lifetime of accomplishments, Bassey spoke of the vital work still left at this critical moment for his work and the world. “It is clear we cannot afford linear growth on a finite planet,” he said. “While record temperatures, wildfires, floods and other stressors raged across the world, leaders are engrossed in xenophobic nationalism, building barriers against climate refugees, and promoting fictional, false and risky climate solutions.”
Despite the challenges, he expressed hope: “The milestones in my journey and the successes in the midst of continual battles have come by the resilience of the peoples and communities. We see expanding movements, readiness of communities to certify conveniences today for the sake of building a safe future for those yet unborn. I have seen the power of traditional wisdom and cultural production in building hope and strengthening alliances against oppression.”
Bassey extended that hope to graduands, urging them to action. “This is a time to stand together to demand justice in all circumstances, to call for an end to genocide, to build solidarity, and not walls, and to restore hope in our time.”