Patricia Kombo: Tree Planter and Environmental Activist

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Patricia Kombo is a 24-year-old environmental activist and tree planter from Kenya. She currently studies communication and journalism at Moi University, but her passion for the environment stemmed from a younger age as she grew up surrounded by nature in her small home village in Makueni. She is the founder and leader of the the PaTree Initiative in Kenya – an organisation that aims to revive environmental clubs in schools and also to help Kenya attain 10% forest cover. She also works with communities to educate on organic and sustainable agriculture, as well as setting up her own kitchen gardens to help improve food security within local communities.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia about her experiences as an activist as part of my long-blog interview series with youth environmental activist across the globe.

R: Was there a specific moment growing up that you realized you wanted to be an environmental activist?

P: When I was young the environmental was part of our daily routine because we used to do a lot of farming. But I can say in the school that I went, a village school, we used to have environmental clubs whereby we used to have small kitchen gardens. We used to raise seeds and seedlings, but as I grew up the environmental clubs died, and at some point I can say maybe I lost interest in nature. What really made me comeback to connect with nature and start my activism was last year in 2019 when I happened to visit Lodwar, in Turkana. It’s in the northern part of Kenya, which it’s an arid region. During that period in March last year, we had excessive drought in Lodwar and I was in the team that took relief food to them. I had never been in Lodwar in Turkana and what I saw was a land which was bare. I was interacting with helpless kids, vulnerable people, women. I could see the harsh effects of the climate crisis there – the sun was so scorching, there were no trees, the shrubs almost all dried. There was a real problem, and from there, the passion that I had for nature while I was young was reignited. I realised so many people need to know they need a better environment and I recalled what we used to do when we were young. From that visit to Lodwar, things really turned around for me because I saw a lot of people suffering and more so what really touched me was the innocent kids and the women in the community wanted to look for food in their the environment, but the environment was not well. Agriculture to them was a forgotten story. From there is where the fire that I felt for nature was really reignited, and from there is where I started my activism and the PaTree Initiative so that I can give voice to the young people and communities, like those in Lodwar.

R: Can you tell us a bit more about the PaTree Initiative and how your experiences growing up have influenced the initiative?  

P: The PaTree Initiative is an organisation that aims to revive environmental clubs in schools and also to help Kenya attain 10% forest cover. We are working to revive 4k clubs and introduce environmental education. I’ve seen environmental education work from when I was younger in my village school because we were taught set up nurseries and to create kitchen gardens. The other objective of PaTree is to ensure we help Kenya attain 10 percent forest cover, because if we fail to attain 10 percent forest cover, lots of places and things we love, like the northern parts of Kenya and our agriculture sector will not thrive because of the effects of climate change and the climate crisis. We are trying to bring nature into classroom, because you’ll find with the education system in Kenya, it is theory based. Lots of pupils just cram and cram to pass exams. We’re trying to break that chain and bring nature closer to the pupils in classrooms. When they break to attend to their nurseries, to collect garbage to recycle – they break the monotony of their studies. And if a child was stressed, you find this is a great method of releasing their stress. Also, as part of the PaTree initiative we are growing fruit trees in schools so as to ensure if a child comes from a poorer background and maybe they did not have something to eat, they can consume fruit at school. This helps to reduce poverty levels and also malnutrition. Overall, I can say we are based on environmental education, conservation and improving livelihoods through growing fruit trees and indigenous trees for ecosystem protection, but also to give children alternative ways to learn. We find children are agents of change in their communities. So, when we train them out to set up nurseries and how to recycle, they go back home they carry their conservation knowledge there with them. We find through children we are getting large numbers in communities involved with conservation, because the children pass their knowledge on back in their homes.

R: What sort of age of children do you work with? How do they find learning about conservation?

P:  I’m working with from 10 years to 18, that is upper primary and in secondary school and also universities. But majorly, I’ve dealt in the age bracket between 10 and 15. That is the primary schools, because you find in high school, there are agriculture school subjects. But in primary you find that there is nothing to do with agriculture or the environment. So majorly, I’ve been working with primary school pupils whereby during game time we allocated a time for our initiative. So, let me take you back. Patree, Pa means the mathematical meaning, per annum, per one, you know. So for us, it means every child plants one tree. That means if I visit a school and I start conservation with pupils who are in grade five, that is class five in Kenya. You find that a child is able to take care of their tree for four years, class five, six, seven and eight before they sit for their national exams. You’ll find after I’ve trained them during the day, they’ll go back and during the weekends to tend to their own tree. During the weekends they’re also able to collect like seeds and set up their own nurseries. I’ve also visited high schools and they have been successful visits too.

I can say, children, they enjoy so much working with nature and when they are learning these new things every day, you find that they are willing to do it every day – it’s only the curriculum that cannot allow it. I find children are very aggressive in learning and you’ll find they even come up with more and more innovative conservation methods beyond what you taught them because they find it interesting. And it breaks the monotony of, you know, sitting in class all day. Normally they are cramming for exams, but this they are doing for leisure. Because they know there’s not an exam, you find they do it perfectly, without tension and also thoughtfully and carefully.

R: One question I’m asking everybody at the minute is, has the work you’ve been doing with the initiative had to change because of the coronavirus?

P: I can say it has both positive and negative, you know, it has both positive and negative impact. First of all, negative because schools are closed. I work with communities, but majorly, I work with school pupils. Now, the schools are closed my environmental conservation programmes have halted. Usually I do visits to schools, we plant, we grow trees. I do random check-ups and also monitor their environmental club, which we create during their visit. So, I’ve not been able to visit some of schools where we planted the trees with the students.

But on the positive side, I can say it has really shown people the importance of nature. It is a time where people are wanting to value and connect with nature. Through that, I can say I’ve been able to talk with youth in my community and women in setting up nurseries. We have a 10,000 tree nursery, which we set up in July, which will be ready in October. And I created a tree nursery with youth in my community and some women in the community who volunteered to help me. I have also been able to door-to-door campaigns whereby I’ve been able to collect avocado seeds – because it was during avocado season in my community. I’ve been able to go house by house, collecting the seeds and also carrying their conservation campaign directly to the community. During all this, I can say people started learning and appreciating nature. Another thing on the positive side, I always had an idea of setting up kitchen gardens, and during these this period when we are on lockdown and children are home… the budget to buy food, it’s huge. So, we’ve started setting up kitchen gardens in the community and a lot of women have come out to learn. People are now growing their own vegetables and they have stopped relying on the rain for their agriculture, so they have something which is sustainable. They grow their food locally, they are doing organic farming and we are also training them on sustainable land use practices to ensure we protect our land. We are also training them in recycling and reusing plastics instead of throwing them. So, overall, I can say it has given me a chance to connect with communities and put them at the centre of implementation towards forest landscape restoration and also sustainable land use.

R: With the kitchen gardens, how important has it been for you to engage with local people and give them this training?

P: I can say that I’ve seen positive impact with the communities and what I’m trying to do. First of all, I realised we had a problem in my community, and the problem was attitude change. What I did was to educate them on why we need to do certain things. I realised people were doing, you know, what they thought to be normal, like waiting for the rains to come so that they can cultivate. I knew I had to change their attitude and show them by example that you can indeed, you know, farm when it’s sunny because we have a river, we have some streams. What we’ve been doing is giving them seedlings. If it’s young tomatoes, I’ve shown them out to reuse waste.  For example, you find that some tomatoes which are overripe and they cannot be eaten. So, we remove the seeds, we sun dry them, we put them in nurseries. This helps ensure their sustainability and also to reduce the expenses in buying food. The local women really like to be involved.  I’ve seen that they are very aggressive because in my culture, providing food, it’s perceived to be the woman’s job. I’ve been able to tap that opportunity and convince women because they want to provide food. Together we’ve been growing lots of vegetables from tomatoes, spinach, kale, fruits and also cabbages – which are usually very expensive to buy. I’ve also been training them to farm organically. People have that mentality of ‘you need a fertilizer’, ‘you need this’ so that you can grow maize. But I’ve told them that you can grow food organically, save some money and also use land sustainably. The main way that I convinced them to change to organic farming was to save money. There’s no need to buy fertilisers. There’s no need to buy this pesticide, you can use manure. We can sustainability while saving money and it’s also a way of preserving our land and mitigating climate by reducing our use of synthetic fertilisers.

R: What does climate justice or environmental justice mean to you?

P: OK, according to me, climate justice is demanding for transformation so as to ensure there is equity and fairness in what we do towards nature. Indeed, it is addressing climate crisis and also trying to put to protect humanity and environment by ensuring that what we do is fair to the environment and it’s also fair to humans. What we are trying to do and come together as activists for is to demand for our leaders, our government and all organisations to come up with policies which are climate friendly, like banning of fossil fuels. So it’s up to them to address climate crisis but with equity and fairness so as to ensure we all live sustainably.

R: What does being an environmental activist mean to you?

P: It’s by setting up an example and training people on what they should do to help the environment.  As an activist, my role is to set the example from what I what I wear, what I do, my day to day activities, how I consume and how I connect with nature. That is what it all means to be an activist. Setting an example for people to learn from.

R:  You’re setting a great example, I say.

P: Well my activism, it’s all about by protecting and restoring our forest landscape, increasing 10 percent forest cover and using our natural resources. But I realised, yes, as much as I stand, as much as I demand the government to take action. You know, there is so much more than just demanding. Activism should be as much as we demand, we should also give a solution. And the solution is by working with communities. If you want forest restoration, the restoration of forest landscape, I should set the example. This is what I’m doing. I’m setting up nurseries. I’m growing trees so that even as I demand, people can see what we are doing. Demanding without action, I say to me it’s just a waste of time, because after demanding, people need to see what’s the solution, what action do you need us to do? And when they see I’m setting up nurseries, when they see raising environmental awareness and giving environmental talks, you’ll find people resonate and connect with my activism because at least they can see what I’m doing. Apart from, you know, just striking and demanding.

R: What would you say your proudest kind of achievement has been or your most fulfilling part of your activism so far?

P: The most fulfilling part of my activism is seeing communities starting to grow trees and set up nurseries. I can tell you for sure I have about seven farmers who have set up nurseries at their homes. When people talk about avocados you find they are coming to our place or that they can bring me the seeds so I can put them in the nursery. People have started doing agroforestry and growing fruit trees in their farms. And also you find they ask me questions. “I need to do this“, you know, they consult me and they appreciate my work. So that has been my most fulfilling achievement so far – I’ve seen people changing their attitudes and starting to restore nature and biodiversity and connect with it. That has been the most fulfilling part of my activism, because I know people are trying to learn, and if we continue at the same pace, I’m sure we will have a better environment.

Another achievement I can say is being recognised as a land hero by United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. Another achievement I can say, though, it came earlier this year. I was amongst the top five in Kenya for a blog competition by World Bank, Kenya, whereby my article was based on the reason we have high numbers of teenage marriages is connected to the climate crisis. In my blog, I tried to argue if we act on the climate crisis and we try to come up policies which are climate friendly, we will reduce the number of the number of teen and early marriages. I saw the climate crisis as a major reason why people are being married off at an early age. When agriculture is failing, people feel so desperate and they try to look for alternative options so they can survive – like marriage. So, these are the 3 main achievements so far that I’ve enjoyed.

R: What’s been the hardest or most difficult thing or experience so far with the activism. And have you learnt anything from it?

P:  First of all, I can say, being an African. It’s a bit tough. Being black because you’ll find we do not have we do not have the same media publicity as our fellow activists in the European nations. You find we have a lot of discrimination when it comes to media. They do not highlight the crisis that we are facing. They do not give us equal opportunities like our fellow activists in in other countries have been given by the media.

Another hard part is when the government is not willing to implement nature friendly policies but are so willing to implement policies which have extreme impacts on nature. Last month, I participated in activism against the government building in the Nairobi National Park. I’ll give you a bit on Nairobi National Park. There’s a proposal where the government wants to build an ampitheatre and houses inside the park. And you see, this is grabbing land that is made for our livelihood. If the land is being taken to build houses, it will firstly cause a lot of noise pollution. We’ll also have issues with sewage because we already have issues with sewage in Nairobi City, and the new houses will be likely to have the same issues. It is also grabbing land that is for wildlife, and these plans mean that the space that is made for them for the national park will be small and will lead to strain on them finding new habitats. This could lead to wildlife straying to find new homes and they might destroy people’s farms. Trying to construct the houses there will just destroy the ecosystem, destroy nature, destroy everything. So, if the government is not willing to come up with some sustainable projects rather than unsustainable projects, it becomes difficult for us. We strike, we strike. And again, you know, the proposal is still on.

Another thing is we have lots of illegal logging in Kenya. So, it breaks my heart because I’m striking. I’m demanding for restoration of our forests cover, working towards 10 percent. But every day you realise there was illegal logging in this forest or that forest. Some forests have turned into heaps because of mass logging.

Another thing that is really hard for me is being a lady in the environmental sector. People look down upon us. They feel that, you know, being an activist – it’s supposed to be a male dominated field. So, when you are there trying to make demands and show people this is should be done, you’ll find people really look down upon you. Another difficult part is coming back to communities and people really find I’m too young, and maybe I lack the knowledge to train them a little because I’m a girl. Being a girl, they perceive you to be a weaker being than a male and they can look down upon you. But through that, I’ve been able to be strong. I’ve been able to not give up, but rather set an example. First of all, when I started this, people were like, “no, you’re not going to train us how to farm, we know how to farm”. It really broke me. But afterwards, I told myself, let me prove by example. So, I set up my kitchen. It is not that big, it’s on a quarter of an acre, but I grew cabbage, I grew spinach and I grew tomatoes, as I mentioned. And I can say they all really did well. People were coming to ask me, “huh, now train us to do that!”. So, from that by setting an example, you find people that looked down upon me at the start, they came to appreciate my work.

R: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an environmental or a climate activist?

P: OK, first of all, if you want to become an activist, you must know your area. What are you really demanding? Because you find some activists are, you know, demanding full wildlife rights or forest cover. Others are general climate and environment activists. Know your niche. And again, stand firm because we have a lot of setbacks, a lot of negativity. You must be willing to learn because you find every day, we have new advisors, new Bills, new proposals coming around in the environmental sector. So, you have to research the vast information about what is really happening around you. You must be able to lead by example because there there’s no way I’d be seen cutting down trees or using synthetic fertilisers. Telling people to go organic, you must be able to set up the example and be able to lead. Another thing that I’ve learnt in activism, you must stand firm. People come with sweet talking policies which will try to see how strong you are. They want to, you know, to drag you behind. If you are soft hearted, people will really drag you behind.

And the final thing, it’s social media, the use of social media. There was a lady and she was appointed to run Kenya’s Wildlife Service. But when she was young, there’s a tweet she wrote that I went said ‘I wonder why we still have the Kenya Wildlife Service in Kenya because it does not bring any economic benefits”. 10 years later she was appointed to be the director of Kenyan Wildlife Service but people saw what she tweeted 10 years ago, and at that point her nomination was cancelled. So, people should use their social media to promote peace, social justice, and also to educate and bring other Youths on board. It should not be a tool to abuse people is not to be a tool to bring discrimination. It should be a tool to connect with other activists, to be able to learn and to showcase to the world what you are doing.

R: I saw one of your tweets quite a few weeks ago now, but I thought it was great. So I thought I’d ask it at the end of the interview. If 2020 was a tree, what would it be?

P: (laughs) I do not have a specific tree, but it would be a dead tree. It will have no impact on us, it does not provide us with shelter…

R: I couldn’t agree more 2020 definitely is a very dead tree. It’s fallen over in the wind. Its roots are all out, it’s struggling (laughs) What kind of tree do you hope 2021 will be?

P: Ooh it would be the Casuarina (the whistling pine) because, you know, it blows. It brings the wind. It is tall. It whistles, so when you are bored it’s quite motivating. I wish 2020 would be a whistling pine to bring us sweet memories because, you know, everyone is like doomed.

A Whistling Pine Tree

R: I think that’s the perfect way to finish off the interview. Is there anything you want to mention before we wrap up?

P: Maybe a final comment of what really motivates me, despite the hardship, despite the negativity, I’m motivated by my greatest mentor, the late Professor Wangari Maathai who told the story of the hummingbird. She described a forest that was burning. And the hummingbird was fetching water – no matter how tiny it was – to help put out the fire. So every day in what I’m doing, I usually put her words in what I do, because I know no matter how small I am, no matter what I’m doing, in the end it will have a bigger impact. Also. I’m motivated by seeing many activists across the world echoed in the same voice. This gives me hope because they I’m not alone. And once we join our hearts, we are going to make the world a better place to be.

R: I couldn’t agree more. In the future, I’m sure somebody will be being interviewing about their activism and they’ll say, ‘oh, do you know who inspired me – my mentor, Patricia Kombo’. I can see that happening. Thank you so much for your time.

You can find Patricia on Twitter at @patriciakombo and @PaTreeInitiati1, or on Facebook here to keep up to date with her activism work in Kenya.

Keep an eye for future interviews with Youth Environmental Activists on the Blog and follow me at @law_rwilliams!

This interview was completed in August 2020