Rieko Kubota, who is 20 years old and a second-year student majoring in economics at Yokohama City University, is not your average Japanese university student.
At the beginning of September Kubota will present a “youth appeal” to an audience of 60 environment ministers gathered in Kitakyushu City for the Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific 2000, held under the auspices of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
“Our message will be about the importance of involving youth in the decision-making process,” Kubota says. “We have passion and energy, but we are also scared about the future because of the region’s many environmental problems.”
In preparation for the Kyushu conference, Kubota chaired a weeklong preparatory meeting held in June at the United Nations Environment Programme regional office in Bangkok. The meeting brought together young leaders from around Asia (Australia, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Singapore and Thailand) to examine environmental issues, share experiences and draft an appeal. By mirroring the process of consultation and review that precedes major U.N. events, the meeting was intended to educate and involve motivated young people from around the region.
“In Bangkok we came to see diversity and differences as a strength,” said Kubota. “Similarly, governments and all sectors of society will have to share knowledge and work together to find solutions that create healthier environments.”
Until very recently, Kubota never imagined herself as an environmental spokesperson for young people in Asia.
“Initially I was not that interested in environmental issues,” she said in a recent interview. “Rather, as an economics student, I was interested in development in developing countries.”
Kubota now understands that environment and development are inextricably linked. “There is always a conflict between development and environment,” she explained, “because in order to develop we inevitably harm the environment.”
Kubota’s interest in international activity began when she joined the Hiyoshi Branch (Tokyo) of the Model United Nations in the spring of 1999. Then, last autumn, she heard that a UNEP conference would be held in Singapore in December 1999 to develop a Youth Declaration and Regional Action Plan for Asia. She applied and was chosen, along with 35 other young people from across Asia.
Participants from 23 countries gathered in Singapore, selected based on their involvement in environmental and international activities in their home countries. After Singapore, Kubota and others were invited to take part in the UNEP Bangkok meeting to prepare a Youth Appeal for the Kyushu Ministerial Conference.
Kubota has already learned the difficulty of consensus building. Asked why governments don’t involve young people more in policy decisions, she replied, “One reason is it’s troublesome to get more people involved in decision-making. It’s easier to decide in a small group.”
Nevertheless, she added, governments no longer have a choice. They must become more inclusive in policymaking, specifically by working more closely with nongovernmental organizations.
“NGOs can play a big role, particularly because youth are often considered part of the NGO sector,” she said. “Young people need to become more involved in the decision-making process of NGOs, as well as directly involved in government decision making.”
A draft of the Ministerial Youth Appeal that Kubota and her peers have written urges ministers to give priority to environmental education in schools and increase funding for youth environmental organizations; organize environmental training workshops for youth; and work in partnership with environmental NGOs. The young people will also ask all the participating environmental ministries to set up youth sections that specifically deal with youth and environment.
Of particular importance, Kubota said, is that the ministers remember that their nations have ratified Agenda 21 (adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit), and therefore are committed to working with young people. She will call the ministers’ attention to Chapter 25, which states, “It is imperative that youth from all parts of the world participate actively in all relevant levels of decision-making processes because it affects our lives today and has implications for our future.” To date, she said, nations have taken little if any action to follow through on this commitment.
Kubota hopes the ministers will reaffirm their support for Chapter 25, and include in the Ministerial Declaration a statement of this commitment to work with youth.
No doubt the ministers will be gracious when Kubota speaks, but how many will genuinely hear the concerns of those destined to suffer today’s excesses tomorrow?
“We all share a dream. We have a dream for a future of clean air and water, of snow in winter and cherry blossoms in spring, of hearing the birds calling to each other and of swimming in unpolluted seas. Above all, we dream of living — not existing. Today, we appeal to you to help us fulfill this dream.” (From a draft of the Youth Appeal)
The ESCAP conference will take place in Kitakyushu, Aug. 31-Sept. 2. A Regional Youth Caucus, an NGO gathering and related events will also be held.
Other organizations working with UNEP to ensure young people’s participation in the ministerial conference are the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, the United Nations Development Program, the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the Kitakyushu City Government, the Aeon Group Environmental Foundation and Bayer Thai.