"I am only a child," 12-year-old Severn Suzuki told delegates at the UN Earth Summit in 1992, "and I don't have all the solutions. I want you to realise that neither do you." She continued her impassioned plea for the delegates to act to save the environment, "If you don't know how to fix it, please, stop breaking it." Her speech earned her a standing ovation and later became a YouTube sensation, dubbed "The girl who silenced the world for five minutes".
Suzuki showed impressive self-confidence and oratory skills, and is clearly an extraordinary young girl. But, with encouragement and guidance, most children present an enormous potential for change. Their optimism and enthusiasm could be exactly what is needed to alter the way we use the earth's resources and relate to each other. We have our fair share of junior local heroes here in the UAE. Earlier this year, eight-year-old Abdul Mugeeth from Abu Dhabi made the news for his innovative solution to the widespread use of plastic bags that often end up littering our deserts and harming wildlife. As an alternative to plastic, Mugeeth made bags out of old newspapers and delivered 150 of them to grocery stores in his neighbourhood.
When Cameron Oliver, then aged 12, discovered during a school project that large numbers of camels were dying from eating litter left in the desert, he launched his own campaign to raise awareness. "I contacted Dr Uli Wernery [the scientific director at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory] and realised how serious a problem it is and I wanted to take it on as a full campaign," he explains. "I wanted to get awareness out, so I contacted newspapers, Radio 1 and Radio 2". That same year, in 2008, he became the youngest recipient of an Abu Dhabi Award from Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in recognition of his campaign.
Two years on, and Cameron is still as passionate about his cause. "The situation has got much worse. There is much more litter. I want to talk to more schools, get some sponsorship, make bumper stickers, go into malls." His message for other would-be activists is clear: "Don't just let all the adults do it; kids also have the power to take on responsibility. We can also make a difference." Volunteering for charities is another great way for children to get involved. Two years ago, having visited an animal shelter in her native Poland, Ewa Sepiolo, then aged 11, was moved to act. "I saw these poor cats and dogs from the streets and I felt so sorry for them, I asked if I could become a volunteer," she says.
Shortly after, Ewa moved with her family to Abu Dhabi and when she read an article about Strays of Abu Dhabi (Sad), she was able to revive her dream of helping animals. As a volunteer for Sad, Ewa, accompanied by her mother, Anna, would visit the American Veterinary Clinic several times a week and take dogs from their kennels out for a walk. Occasionally, she takes a dog home with her for the weekend.
Ewa is now trying to launch a campaign at her school, the American International School in Abu Dhabi, to raise money for Sad. "I made a speech for my class about Sad; what it does and what we can do for animals. I encouraged people to volunteer." It is not only the dogs that have benefited, Ewa's mother believes. "I think it is important to give children this freedom to do things on their own. It is good to build self-esteem and self-confidence. She does it all by herself, e-mailing Sad or the director of her school. It makes her very strong."
Aimed squarely at children and acknowledging children's potential to initiate change in society by influencing their friends and family, the Heroes of the UAE campaign was launched by the Emirates Wildlife Society in association with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (EWS-WWF), and the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi in early 2009. The campaign encourages children to be the "heroes" who help to preserve natural resources through simple, but effective, lifestyle-changing tactics, such as turning off the tap while brushing your teeth.
"We wanted to talk to households, governments, schools, to everyone in the UAE," explains Ida Tillisch of EWS-WWF. "What is one of the elements that connects us? Children. They are a symbol of the future and why we really have to be concerned about the environment." As Rashmi de Roy of EWS-WWF, explains, a big part of the campaign was getting schools involved. "Schools were challenged to reduce their water and electricity over a three-month period, compared to the same three-month period in the previous year. It worked extremely well. One school, the Al Zawra Government Girls School in Ajman, saved as much as 67 per cent per capita over the three months on their combined consumption of energy and water."
Helping children to see issues from a different perspective, and to give voice to their own opinions, is something that the British School Al Khubairat is keen to do through its involvement with the Global Teen Summit in Seattle in the US. This October, a group of 12 students, aged 14 and 15 years old, will travel from Abu Dhabi to Seattle to take part in the summit alongside children from schools in China, Poland, Nigeria and South Korea. There will be guest speakers and discussion groups led by the students at which they will tackle a range of issues, from human rights to micro-lending and fair trade.
Louise Jenkins, the deputy head of the senior school at the British School Al Khubairat, says "The whole thing is about empowering teenagers, that they can, as individuals, make a difference in society, starting in their local community. It's not just about children being aware," she adds. "I think the children here are very aware, they read the news, but it's going beyond that and saying: 'I've got an opinion worth listening to and I should have an opinion and I can and should do something to make a difference.'"
Emirates Environmental Group www.eeg-uae.org Cameron's Camel Campaign www.cameronscamelcampaign.com Heroes of the UAE www.heroesoftheuae.ae Emirates Marine Environmental Group www.emeg.ae Strays of Abu Dhabi www.straysofabudhabi.com or call 050 130 7392.