When 27-year-old Peter Moll was young, his grandmother told him tales of the landscape and animals. From the semi-nomadic Maasai indigenous community in Kenya, his upbringing was closely tied to the environment.
But then he learned about deforestation, poaching, resource extraction and pollution. With environmental conservation rooted in his heritage, he felt compelled to act.
He founded Stand Up Shout Out, engaging young people in forums such as the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in Geneva, Switzerland, which he will attend as a member of the Kenyan delegation. His work unites politicians and community members, to spearhead environmental protection.
This year, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People focuses on language. While indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the world's population, they constitute 15 per cent of the world’s poor.
Indigenous groups speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. Yet every two weeks, an indigenous language disappears.
Doreen Robinson, wildlife expert at the UN Environment Programme, said: “There is clear evidence that the world’s remaining natural areas have fared better when indigenous and local communities are involved in conservation and protection.
“But more needs to be done to ensure that their voices are heard and drive policy and decision-making. We need more people like Peter mobilizing the creativity, passion and energy of youth—that is how we will find a sustainable future for both people and nature on our planet.”
Indigenous communities are powerful environmental stewards. But they share common problems related to the protection of their rights. Their way of life and right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources too often is violated.
Siham Drissi, an expert in international cooperation at UN Environment, added:
“The traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities is not just valuable to those who depend on it for their daily lives, but to all of the partners working to address and confront modern environmental challenges, from biodiversity loss to deforestation to climate change.
“The survival of traditional knowledge systems cannot and should not be taken for granted. It is something that needs to be cultivated and passed on from one generation to the next, and most importantly, supported with rights such as the right to speak and transmit relevant knowledge in indigenous languages.”
We spoke with Moll about his heritage, and the role of language in environment protection.
What is the connection between indigenous language and conservation?
Language needs to be separated from just words. A language is a history of a people. Ubuntu is a South African word meaning “humanity,” but what it means is: “I am because we are.” This describes something bigger—that everyone, including our landscape, is interconnected. This concept is something I, and my organization, aim to embody. I remember my Masaai grandmother telling me about traditional customs, our landscape, and how our environment shapes us. I realize now that some of this language is being lost. Losing our habitat has implications for our own language and identity.
How has your heritage and upbringing influenced your work?
I grew up around the Ngong hills outside Nairobi, surrounded by nature and wildlife on our family farm. It was the story of elephants that captured me the most. They hold their babies, play, mourn their dead, nurse sick elephants back to good health. They are like us, yet they are threatened by us. One day, during a workshop in a rural part of Kenya, an elderly lady related a story about how elephants in her neighborhood started to disappear. Then she noticed the habitat changing, becoming less fertile. I realized the connection between our survival and that of our wildlife and habitat. This is not just about loving wildlife—it’s about protecting our whole ecosystem, and ultimately our future and humanity.
What inspired you to act and speak up for the environment?
My journey started with being uncomfortable—uncomfortable about how as young people we were not engaging our talent, ideas and time in doing enough to protect our habitat. I felt disconnected, and felt there are so many issues that my generation feels responsible for but that we didn’t create. I wanted to engage and do something about it, and to help others engage too. Without our wildlife, ecosystem and habitat, there will be no tomorrow for any of us. Securing the future of our flora and fauna will secure our futures too.
What do you think youth can bring to the conversation around conservation that would otherwise be lost?
When any idea is introduced as a solid, already formed strategy, people become less engaged. As young people, we make up the majority population in Africa. Yet when we are not engaged, we believe that implementing the Sustainable Development Goals—or any milestones—is not for us. If we’re not involved in creating this agenda—if we’re not in the room—we don’t own it. Progress becomes obstructed. There are specific solutions to a problem, and there are others that open a thousand different doors. By involving young people in every stage of the process to protect our environment—implementation, planning, brainstorming, solutions—we are opening a thousand doors. We have the energy, capacity and time to bring positive change.
What is your advice to other young people who want to act now to protect the environment?
We are more powerful together. Everyone’s energy and resources are required to tackle big challenges ahead. We need people from all sectors of society—including government—to influence policy change in our conservation work. It will take many small steps to make a change. The journey of a young conservationist is not for the faint-hearted. Many people give up along the way. Do not feel insignificant or that you are not making a difference. Every action is part of the bigger picture. When we come together, we secure a better tomorrow.
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. This year’s regional finalists have been shortlisted and the winners will be announced in September. Stay tuned!