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Friday, May 3, 2002

Never too young to start making a difference

Fourth International Children's Conference on the Environment gives kids a voice

Staff writers

You don't have to wait until you're grown up to be counted. In fact, if you're between 10 and 12 years old, you're the perfect age to take part in the International Children's Conference on the Environment. And to start thinking of how to preserve and improve the world that you are living in.

Eleven-year-old Mika Abe is keen on recycling, for starters. Her enthusiasm was kindled by her social studies class at Ikko Primary School. Her teacher encouraged the children to collect discarded milk cartons and to make postcards from them.

At the fourth ICC this month, Mika's class project will inspire other children to think of ways to put everyday products to different uses, instead of just throwing them away.

Mika, from Fukagawa City, Hokkaido, is one of 15 children representing Japan at the conference, which is being held from May 21-25, at the University of Victoria, on Canada's Vancouver Island. Each conference is organized by the Kenya-based United Nations Environment Programme, in collaboration with local environmental groups, government officials and corporations from different countries. The first one was held in Eastbourne, England, in 1995.

In Japan, UNEP's local liason is the Tokyo-based Foundation for Global Peace and Environment. The FGPE registers the children for the conference, plans their itinerary and keeps them informed about planned events.

The conference will give about 800 children from more than 115 countries a chance to voice their concerns about the environment. And that is exactly what 12-year-old Daisuke Aoyama of Aichi Prefecture, will be doing.

"I went on a dolphin-watching trip and was so moved by a dolphin mother swimming in the ocean with her child," he says. "But I saw that the ocean water was very dirty. I want people to understand how hard it is for dolphins to live in such conditions." So Daisuke wrote an essay on how to protect the dolphins and the oceans from pollution.

Miki Kamiya, 12, also from Aichi Prefecture, worked on the same project. For her, the turning point was a holiday in the mountains with her family.

"When I saw the clear water of the lake and breathed the clean air, I understood what an unpolluted environment can be," Miki says. "I wondered why it can't always be this way."

Nine of this year's delegates were selected from essay-writing competitions, sponsored either by their local governments or by environmentally conscious companies. Their suggestions for protecting the environment won them not only a place at the conference but also free air travel and accomodation. The other children registered for the conference online.

For all of them, the conference is the chance of a lifetime. After those four days, they will be able to speak more confidently about environmental issues than most other children their age. On May 22, the first day of the conference, the kids will talk about how to use water -- essential to all life -- more sensibly. On Day Two, they'll discover how they can play a part in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Day Three's discussions will cover the lifestyles of healthy communities. And on Day Four, they'll be challenged to think about how human beings can conserve Earth's resources.

Yuka Matsumoto, a 10-year-old from Chiba City, looks forward to the fourth day because her project on resource conservation ties up with the theme. "I'm going to listen carefully and take lots of notes and bring them back with me," she says.

All the children attending will spend their mornings learning from the other participants and presenting their own projects. Smaller "friendship groups" will meet after these sessions to come up with "challenges," or concrete proposals to save the environment.

In the late afternoon, the children will set out on field trips, to explore the natural beauty of British Columbia and to learn about eco-friendly technologies from local environmental groups.

"This is what I look forward to the most," says Miki. "I want to experience the beautiful mountains and plants of Canada."

Registration is closed for this year's conference, but that's no reason to feel left out. There's another conference next year, in New London, Conn., in the United States. And in 2005, the sixth ICC will be held right here in Japan, in Aichi Prefecture.

When Yuka, Miki and the rest of the Japanese delegation return from Canada, they'll have exciting stories to tell of all the things they've seen and learned -- how international agreements are the result of an intricate process of expressing your opinions, considering the opinions of others and arriving at a consensus; how children have a stake in the health of the planet and need to be involved from an early age; how changing the world begins with changing yourself.

On the final day, the children will formulate a joint declaration of challenges, and two of them will be selected to present the declaration at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, this September. They will stand before world leaders and make a strong case for treating the Earth with more respect.

Even if you're not attending the conference, you can play your part by becoming more environmentally aware. Small actions can inspire great movements. Children, and not just governments, can be powerful agents of environmental reform. People often forget this and don't take children seriously enough. But by speaking up, you can help change that.

For more information on future conferences, e-mail UNEP at Theodore.Oben@unep.org or call the Foundation for Global Peace and Environment at (03) 5442-3161

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