Right outside the Monteverde cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica is a sign that proudly proclaims: “The Children’s Eternal Rainforest is conserved with the help from children and adults around the world”. In 1987, Swedish school children kicked off a global effort to send money to purchase rainforest land to protect this Costa Rican forest patch. Since then, children and grown-ups from 44 countries have pitched in to support the fragile ecosystem here. One such child, Jonathan McGalliard, has written a letter to the rainforest. “The rainforest is interesting because you can’t see the sky in the middle,” he writes in his letter, which is pinned up next to the sign. “I love animals. Why save it (sic) because I don’t want animals to lose their children and have no place to live.”
When it comes to driving social change, children are often an integral part of the constituency. Kids are inherently compassionate, and concerned about the world around them. Of course, they also have a fair bit of persuasive power, a fact that brands and advertising agencies clocked into much earlier — a reason why so many ad campaigns, from insurance schemes to cars, feature children prominently. It’s not surprising then that many not-for-profits have school contact programmes where they engage children on human rights, environment conservation, and animal welfare.
At a time when we are all trying to make sense of the social and political chaos around us, we can take a leaf from our children’s books. In 2015, 21 youths, between the ages of nine and 20, in the U.S.A. filed a constitutional climate lawsuit against the federal government in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. The premise of the case is that climate change threatens their fundamental constitutional right to life and liberty.
Similarly, in New Delhi last year, six children, represented by their legal guardians, filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to curb pollution and create green spaces in Mundka and Kirari areas. The NGT has sent notices to the Ministries of Environment and Urban Development, Delhi government, Delhi Development Authority and Central Pollution Control Board asking them to respond to the petition.
Have a conversation with children about social change, and they will most probably knock your socks off with what they know. Bengaluru-based website Nature inFocus invites a child to take over as guest editor as part of their Young Tusks section every month. The young guest editor assigns the team three stories about nature and writes a short editor’s note as well. “When we started it, it was for the sole purpose to educate; we didn’t anticipate the tremendous learning that would come our way through these inquisitive and startlingly intuitive minds,” said Sejal Mehta, editor-in-chief at Nature inFocus. “They’ve made us want to stop talking to adults entirely, really.”
Eight-year-old Sachit Anand wrote about a trip to Coorg that got him looking at bugs and insects more closely. “I loved this trip because there was so much fascinating wildlife everywhere,” he wrote. “I’ve never seen this much wildlife and greenery in my life. It made me think if I learned more about nature, I could become a nature expert and be famous one day.”
Tamanna M. Atreya, 10, wrote about observing the Indian Roller in a forest, and Vivaan Anand, 8, wrote about sharks. “We should protect sharks from the pollution and plastic in the ocean,” he wrote. “For that, we have to learn more about them, and how we can stop from dirtying our oceans.”
In my work with kids, I have met children who have declared their schools as plastic-free zones, fined their parents for carrying those offending plastic bags, written letters to ministers about captive animals, and got hundreds and thousands of signatures for a save the tiger petition. This is the vast reserve of optimism that we as adults can tap into: the power of kids.
Bittu Sahgal, the founder-editor of Sanctuary Asia, has a way of reminding children about their inherent kid power. He stands in a classroom, an auditorium, or a forest and points at his salt-and-pepper hair. For him, he says, there are only two parties in the world: the Bachha (children’s) Party and the Buddha (elders) Party. He then reminds the children that they can change the world. On one Facebook post this month he wrote, “I look forward to the day when the priorities of the Bachha Party over-ride the false ambition of the Buddha Party.”