Nathan Bryant l Palladium - Oct 21 2021
The Legacy of Thomas Sankara and How His Early Environmental Work Can Inspire Us Today

Thirty-four years ago, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara was assassinated in a coup which saw his friend Blaise Campaore come to power. A Pan-African, socialist, feminist, and environmentalist, Sankara and his policies were ahead of his time and his accomplishments left a lasting legacy with an impact still relevant to this day.

Despite only serving for four years between 1983-1987, Sankara’s government accomplished impressive feats, even by today’s standards. Under his leadership, the government banned female genital mutilation and forced marriage; literacy rates were raised from 13 percent in 1983 to 73 percent in 1987; over 2.5 million children were vaccinated against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever in just two weeks; 7,460 government primary health posts were built (almost one per village); and under his leadership, Burkina Faso was the first country in Africa to acknowledge the HIV/AIDs epidemic.

An Early Environmentalist

Despite Sankara’s and others’ efforts, Burkina Faso is one of the most severely affected by desertification, the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas as a result of human activities, climatic variations and other factors.

Heavily reliant on agriculture, desertification was a significant issue in Burkina Faso and impacted food security among other things. The country’s struggle with those effects gave Sankara insight into environmental degradation far ahead of his time, and he became one of the forerunners of the environmentalist movement.

In order to combat the encroaching desert, Sankara initiated a tree-planting program where 10.5 million trees were planted in 15 months. To this day, tree planting is a part of Burkinabe culture and is often part of a day of celebration such as birthdays and weddings.

Additionally, he banned the practice of random logging and roaming cattle, each of which are major contributors to desertification. Sankara’s government restored the land enough so that the country’s food supply could become completely independent and no longer reliant on food imports from other countries.

Burkina Faso Today

Unfortunately, after his assassination, much of the gains the Sankara government made socially, environmentally, economically, and politically were quickly reversed.

During a visit to the country in 2017, I interviewed community elders in the Oubritenga province on climate change’s effects on their lives. Worryingly, they spoke of higher temperatures and less rain, leading to fewer crops, which also meant less varied diets. The elders observed higher occurrences of malnutrition, more illnesses and even some cases of early blindness.

Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that Burkina Faso is currently losing 360,000 hectares of land per year to desertification and that 9 million hectares of productive land has already been degraded. This is more devastating given that the agricultural sector employs around 90 percent of the country’s workforce and accounts 80 percent of all jobs and one-third of the country’s GDP.


Burkina Faso isn’t a unique case, as the ‘global south’ generally is disproportionately affected by climate change. This is despite the ‘global north’ being responsible for 92 percent of excess global CO2 emissions.
It’s estimated that by 2050, more than 143 million people are set to become climate migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Yet, global talks on the climate crisis such as COP26 have been criticised as being northern centric, as representatives from the global south are traditionally underrepresented.

Recently, ahead of COP26, the UK prime minister emphasised the importance of meeting the USD 100 billion goal to address climate change and support sustainable development. Whilst the initiative is a positive one, solely raising large sums of money without the input from civil society groups, youth, and representatives from the global south is not enough.

For example, COP26 fellow Jessica Omukuti notes that investments from the largest global fund dedicated to climate change, the Green Climate Fund, are not reaching areas that are critical to helping low-income urban households and poor rural communities within these countries. Yet, representatives from the global south continue to face financial barriers when trying to access climate talks like COP26, only exacerbated this year by COVID-19.

Thomas Sankara was a champion of the poor and oppressed people of the world and fought for a new order that would do away with the old one that excluded and marginalised the global south.

As long as these talks continue to be led, facilitated, and managed solely by representatives from countries in the global north, without equal representation for those from the ‘south’, we will not find any meaningful solutions in our joint effort to combat climate change.

Nathan is an analyst that works in Palladium's Europe Middle East and Africa Governance department. He is currently working as an Associate for the Support to the Jogorku Kenesh (S2JK) project which aims to facilitate Government and non-state actors towards inclusive economic growth through selected policy reform and legislative initiatives.

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