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Both Saalumarada Thimmakka and Greta Thunberg well known for environmental work

A meme was shared on Facebook in South Africa in September 2019 and tagged as potentially false by Facebook’s fact-checking system. It shows two photos side by side.

On the left is a photo of an older woman. Text above the photo claims that the woman is called Saalumarada Thimmakka. Below the photo it says that she “planted 8,000 trees at her own expense” and “is a labourer” with “no formal education”. Below this is it says, in capitals: “You’ve never heard of her.”

On the right is a photo of a young woman. Text identifies her as Greta Thunberg, and claims she is a “global celebrity” for saying “How Dare You”. 

Are the claims in the post about Saalumarada Thimmakka’s and Greta Thunberg’s actions true? And is Thunberg world famous, while Thimmakka remains unknown?

Indian ‘mother of trees’

Saalumarada Thimmakka is a 107-year-old Indian environmentalist who lives in rural Karnataka, a state in southern India. She has no formal education and worked as a labourer.    

After Thimmakka and her husband realised that they could not have children, they started planting hundreds of banyan trees. Apparently they saw “planting trees as a great service to the environment, country and humanity.” 

She has reportedly been planting trees for over 80 years, planting over 8,000 trees, according to the Indian press. 

She has been called the world’s oldest environmentalist

Thimmakka is recognised and known for her work

In 2016, Thimmakka was included on the BBC 100 Women list of inspirational and influential women, who called her the “mother of trees”.

Her work has been acknowledged internationally and she was awarded the Padma Shri for distinguished service in 2019. These are prestigious honours awarded by the Indian government. 

She has reportedly received around 50 other awards in recognition of her environmental work. 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden. 

In 2018 she started skipping school and protesting every Friday in front of the Swedish parliament, for stronger actions against climate change. This gained her international attention and recognition. 

Thunberg soon became the face for climate change activism and launched the worldwide climate-action movement Fridays for Future, which has seen school children all over the world go on school strikes in protest, like Thunberg.

Thunberg has received a great deal of recognition from the media and people in power. 

In February 2019, 224 British academics signed an open letter, saying they were inspired by the actions of Thunberg and the striking school children. 

In April 2019, the British environment secretary Michael Gove responded to a speech by Thunberg by saying: “Your voice – still, calm and clear – is like the voice of our conscience.”

Beside other awards, Thunberg was also among the four winners of the international Right Livelihood Award in 2019, known as the “alternative Nobel Prize”. She was recognised for “inspiring and amplifying political demands for urgent climate action reflecting scientific facts”.

She also rejected the Nordic Council Environment Prize for 2019. 

Thunberg’s speech in front of the United Nations climate action summit

The phrase “How dare you” is part of a longer speech Greta Thunberg made before the United Nations climate action summit on 23 September 2019. She repeated it four times during her emotional address.

She, in part, said: "I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”

Thunberg was pressing world leaders and governments to put stronger measures in place to fight climate change.

Nigeria’s environment minister, Mohammad Mahmood Abubakar, emphasised his support for Thunberg at the summit. He said: “I was just so moved by [Thunberg’s] statement and I agree in totality with what she has said.” 

Comparing two female environmentalists

Indian environmentalist Saalumarada Thimmakka is nationally and internationally praised for her tree-planting efforts. She is not unknown, even if she has not received as much media attention as Swedish Greta Thunberg, particularly not in 2019. 

But before giving speeches in front of world leaders, and scolding them with “How dare you!”, Thunberg initiated a global climate action movement. This was what made her famous, internationally. 

It is misleading to claim that all Thunberg has done is say “How dare you”, or that Thimmakka has not been recognised for her work. – Eileen Jahn

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