by Janine Chow:
We met for dinner in Jonathan Edwards College. As the rest of us started in on the chicken marsala and roasted sweet potatoes, Negusu Aklilu pushed aside his plate and began to tell us about his life. In his brief introduction, we learned that Mr. Aklilu was trained in biology, beginning with spider systematics then veering towards environmental diplomacy. He has spent the last fifteen years as an environmental campaigner, working with various NGOS, the United Nations Environmental Protocol, the African Union, and his own Ethiopia-based organization Forum for Environment.
Master Laurans was curious about what brought Negusu to Yale. As a World Fellow, Aklilu was one of sixteen mid-career professionals chosen to spend a semester at Yale—out of a pool of some 4,000 applicants from around the world. In addition to engaging with the Yale community, Aklilu is taking a variety of seminars and classes at Yale, trying to optimize time at Yale as much as possible. “I’ve enjoyed my stay so far.”
Students started in on questions about environmental advocacy in Ethiopia and in Africa as a whole, making for an economics and politics oriented conversation. Aklilu bespoke the importance of introducing sustainability into development. “Poverty is a jail” and it cannot be broken without sustainability, he said, citing the ravaged environment in developing countries like China.
But Negusu Aklilu really came alive—spoke strongly, forcefully, passionately—on two topics: spiders and the protection of the weak. He seemed to glow when talking about spiders. “They are the most beautiful creatures,” he described, “with amazing colors.” Master Laurans laughed: “you were affiliated with exactly the right college”—and, indeed, J.E.’s proud mascot is the spider. One student professed slight arachnophobia. “No, let me tell story so that you like spiders,” he protested earnestly before launching in on a story of how spiders can act as biological control agents against pests. “A world without spiders is just a big, big…” here Aklilu trailed off, leaving the horror of a spider-less world unspoken.
Aklilu, though, has chosen a career in environmental advocacy over the “addictive” spider systematics. It was a choice, he said, between following what was “much needed in my country, or following my personal interest. I’m glad that I did [make the choice].”
And so Aklilu explained how his organization, Forum for Environment, works towards promoting good environmental practices and confronting governments and businesses about “unacceptable” actions against sustainablity. When I asked him to relate a story about which he was most proud, his expression lit up in a smile. “A story which I’m really proud of…” He told us of a remote place in Ethiopia, to which big investors came and persuaded farmers to grow biofuel crops in place of food crops. After a year, the farmers earned ten times less from the biofuel than they would have for food crops. It was a serious matter: “These rural communities don’t have any other means…[they] just depend on income from farms.” Aklilu’s organization, on discovering the issue, invited the company, the government, the community, and the media together in an open discussion of it. One woman Aklilu recalled clearly: “I can still feel the pain…” The woman, financially crippled by the biofuel crop, would not be able to send her children to school the next year.
But then, Aklilu’s voice rose, “the government took action and confronted the company.” The company left the place, he said. And ultimately resulted in a level playing field between the poor farmers and the company.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Aklilu said. “But I am very happy that we saved those people.”