The World Conservation Congress wrapped up last week, setting up a new roadmap for the protection of nature. Of the thousands of experts, delegates and activists who travelled to Marseille for the key meeting, a number of them were young people eager to have their say on the conservation agenda.
Happening every four years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) congress is the biggest event on the conservation calendar, where its 1,500 members gather to discuss the most pressing issues for halting nature’s decline.
With one million plants and animals currently threatened with extinction and countless ecosystems at risk because of rising temperatures and pressure from human activities, conservation work is key to protecting the health of the planet.
Alexis Manuela Cañari, 29, and Diana Garlytska, 33, are both young professionals who took part in the conference for the first time. They are two out of 10 delegates from the IUCN’s youth summit, held parallel to the Congress to bring forward the main concerns of young people regarding conservation.
As young students, activists, farmers or start-up owners, seek to engage in such efforts, the complex world of conservation is a hard one to navigate.
“It's so difficult to do it on your own. I didn't have any background, no connections, no clue where to start,” says Garlytska, who works for coalition WILD, a global network seeking to empower young conservationists.
The Ukrainian environmentalist argues that there needs to be a strong support system for those who are just at the start of their green careers in order to make the process more effective and avoid “wasting time”.
“It’s strongly linked with educational systems and policies. There are many green careers that are still not taught today,” she adds. In her case, she was working in finance when she stumbled upon coalition WILD through a random Google search.
In the first years, mentorship is key, she says: “Nobody's born an expert, and nobody's born with the skill set and knowledge that is necessary to do the amazing things young people do.”
Misconceptions and stereotypes can also be hard to overcome, especially when it comes to the old guard. “They think we don’t have the technical knowledge,” says Cañari, who is part of the German section of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF).
On the contrary, she notes, young professionals are contributing to conservation efforts through countless initiatives, including through businesses. “Some don't want to follow a career in an international organisation. They want to develop their own businesses, and they want to be socially and environmentally responsible but they need these tools to start,” says the Peruvian environmentalist.
The disciplinary scope should also be broadened to include people from other fields, Cañari says, citing the example of environment and conflict. “I think there is much more to do to connect peacebuilding and conservation and not only to have, for example, clean water by itself but understand what it means for the safety of people.”
But wanting more job opportunities should not mean at whatever cost. In many places doing environment-related work means risking one’s life. “In Latin America, the number of defenders that are dying is always increasing and young people are in those numbers,” Cañari says.
“If young people don't see that [their elders] are not receiving protection, how can we have more young people wanting to protect nature and wildlife?” she adds, stressing the need to have protection mechanisms in place so that young people can work in safe conditions.
A seat at the table
Both Cañari and Garlytska feel positive about how young voices were included at IUCN’s congress, including the youth summit that was held alongside. However, they think the conference could have been more inclusive.
“It's great to have youth sessions, but it's even better if we have a mix,” Garlytska says, suggesting that all panels should have at least one member representing the youth perspective.
Cañari, whose mother tongue is Spanish, also underscores the need for these meetings to be more accessible for young people of all corners in the world, starting with breaking the language barrier.
“I've had these struggles before, I'm trying to overcome that. I see how sometimes people from indigenous communities or from countries where they don’t have access to learning a different language come and there are sessions that don't have interpretation. And they are just there, without the opportunity to say something or understand what others are saying,” she says.
“It is necessary to create more dialogue spaces in different languages to hear from different perspectives and to revalue traditional knowledge as a tool to tackle conservation and environmental challenges,” she adds.
Despite a long list of demands, both environmentalists are just as hard on themselves and their peers.
“I had the opportunity to sit with the French environmental minister, Barbara Pompili. And my question to her was ‘what is your advice on how to engage more effectively with politicians and decision makers?’,” Garlytska recalls.
“It's also on our part to be conscious of the opportunities and to be active in grasping them, to be prepared and properly represent the organisations that are behind us,” she adds.