When Ayisha Siddiqa talks about poetry, her face lights up. For the 24-year-old Pakistani human rights and climate defender, poetry represents hope—a way to bring humanity back into the staid, high-level conversations that increasingly occupy her time. At the annual U.N. Climate Conference in Egypt in November, she shared an original poem titled “So much about your sustainability, my people are dying” as an unvarnished rebuke of leaders’ failure to act on climate change.
Siddiqa felt the effects of this lack of action viscerally last year as she witnessed from afar the life-altering impacts of Pakistan’s floods, likely made more extreme by global warming. She channeled those feelings into poetry as a form of protest. “It’s an effort to preserve what I have left, while I still have the time, in written form,” she says. “Art makes life worth living, and in my opinion, it’s what makes humans worth the fight. Like all of the things that we leave behind, all the creations, wouldn’t it be so unfortunate if there’s nobody on the other side to witness and observe them?”
Her mission is deeply personal. At 14, Siddiqa realized how unsafe the environment can be after witnessing the illness and death—including of her grandparents—that came from her community’s polluted river water. At 16, she experienced another awakening as she became aware of the link between human rights and climate change. Access to resources was, for some people, worth killing for, she learned. For many, demanding clean air and water meant risking their lives. Growing up in a matriarchal, tribal community in eastern Pakistan helped shape her outlook. “The wounded world is so beautiful, because she keeps producing life,” she says. “And my work is in defense of life. By default, its defense of the rights of women. Therefore, it’s also by default human rights.”
These realities and values are what motivate Siddiqa to use her voice to uplift the vulnerable and hold polluters to account. “I was raised with the idea that the earth is a living being, that she gives life to you and in return, you have a responsibility,” she says. “And I think we, collectively, have come to a point where we are ignoring the cries of earth mother.”
In 2020, Siddiqa co-founded Polluters Out, a global youth activist coalition, and helped launch the Fossil Free University, an activism training course. Now, she’s working to help set up a youth climate justice fund to correct the imbalance of resources activists have compared to the fossil fuel industry—when it comes to climate action lobbying, the fossil fuel industry out-spends activists and the renewable energy sector by a factor of 10:1, according to a 2018 study. Siddiqa’s work with the nascent fund aims to better distribute philanthropic funding to grassroots activists around the world. And as a research fellow for the Climate Litigation Accelerator project at New York University’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, she’s helping to create a system of support that breaks down silos between intergovernmental leaders and local activists, as well as pushing to integrate the rights of humans and nature alike into climate law.
“This work is definitely intergenerational,” she says. “I am young now. Tomorrow, I won’t be. I absolutely love working with people younger than me to pass on this knowledge so that the chain never breaks.”
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