“Do you like to breathe?” The question, put to the audience by one of the young activists sitting on stage at the UN in Geneva, sinks like a rock in the ocean.
There’s a pause. Titouan Bernicot, the 22 year-old founder of Coral Gardeners, an ocean conservation organisation working to restore dying reefs in the French Polynesian Islands and beyond, continues:
“More than half of the oxygen that we breathe, wherever we are, is coming from the oceans with healthy coral reefs. But over the last three decades, we have lost 25 per cent of the world’s reefs and they could be the first ecosystem to collapse on our planet.”
In short, no coral reefs, no oxygen.
His message, along with those of five young entrepreneurs selected as laureates of this year’s Young Activist Summit, is one of urgency. And they, along with the millions of youths that have sat out in the streets on Fridays over the last few years, are not waiting until they hit 18, or to be handed a degree or a promotion, to take action.
The youngest, Gitanjali Rao, turned 16 today, and has already come up with three inventions to help detect contaminated drinking water, prevent opioid addiction and to tackle cyberbullying. Rao’s app, Kindly, which she will be expanding in partnership with UNICEF, is a “spell check for cyberbullying” and will be able to tell whether your Whatsapp or Snapchat chat message is mean or not.
“The biggest issue is the fact that (cyberbullying) can happen to anyone and we can’t cure it, but this app is a step towards that,” she says.
Among the other activists there is 16 year-old Jose Quisocala, who founded a bank for children and the environment, at the age of seven; Kenyan entrepreneur Stacy Dina Adhiambo Owino, 21, who has developed an app that allows girls who are facing imminent female genital mutilation to alert the authorities by clicking a distress button on their mobile phone; and Lual Mayen, who at the grand old age of 26 is the oldest of the activists.
A refugee from South Sudan now living in the United States, Mayen has created a video game where players adopt the role of a refugee who must flee falling bombs and other life-threatening obstacles to find their way to safety. Revenues from game purchases go to NGOs helping refugees on the ground.
Peacebuilding is something that is built over time and not just when a ceasefire agreement is signed, he says. Solutions for conflict resolution and peacebuilding, or “peace intelligence” as he describes it, is something that needs to be passed on to children, as well as empathy, which he hopes to contribute to through his game.
Presenting their work during the one-day summit in Geneva, each of the activists hope their efforts will demonstrate to other young people, as well as people of all ages, that they can make a difference.
“The key message that I’m hoping to deliver is this idea that innovation is something that is involved in our daily lives, whether it's something small or something big. We're all problem solving. We're all innovating and it needs to be a part of our early education,” Rao says.
In the face of today’s pressing challenges, it’s an imperative that everyone gets involved, she adds. “One person can't do it alone. It's going to take a movement and that's what working with organisations like the UN does as well.”
With Cop26 now over and watered-down promises delivered that left many, including young people disappointed, it would be easy to feel frustrated.
“The truth is, those platforms and events (like Cop26) don't reflect the fact that there are so many of us around the world with smaller, larger initiatives as well, that actually have great impact on the ground within our communities and are changing lives,” says Louise Mabulo.
The 23-year old award-winning chef, farmer and entrepreneur from the Philippines is the founder of the Cacao Project, which provides farmers with cacao seedlings and teaches them more sustainable farming techniques to fend off natural disasters.
.@LouiseMabulo, 22 ans, a fondé The Cacao Project pour fournir aux agriculteurs des Philippines des plants de cacao et leur apprendre à cultiver de manière durable. Louise a également planté plus de 85 000 cacaoyers, plus résistants aux typhons 👏#YAS21 #ActionClimat pic.twitter.com/JWKoveMZHB— ONU Genève (@ONUGeneve) November 18, 2021
More than 200 farmers have been trained and 85,000 cocoa trees planted to help restore land and livelihoods battered by the country’s frequent typhoons.
Mabulo was part of the governance team at pre-Cop in Milan, which created a youth manifesto that was presented at the climate summit in Glasgow. Despite the disappointment that was voiced by youth, Mabulo says she sees real efforts being made to ensure that young people’s voices are heard.
“Of course considering that it is a UN system with all of these things and commitments from governments, there will be difficulties and Cop was extremely ambitious.” For the next summit in Egypt, food and agriculture needs to play a more prominent role, she says.
The six young activists represent different fields, from peacebuilding to conservation, but each one is interconnected and ultimately affected by climate change. They each stress the need not only to learn from their peers, but also to work with non-governmental actors, civil societies, businesses, as well as the UN to create a more sustainable future.
“In the Polynesian islands, there is a concept that is really deep-rooted that people, the ocean and the land are one. And I think it's a concept that we have lost a little bit in our modern day societies,” Bernicot says.
This is something he was very conscious of growing up in Mo’orea, Tahiti’s sister island, where the ocean forms part of people’s everyday lives and where residents fondly describe the bright array of coral reefs as their “garden”.
He was sixteen when he first witnessed corals near his home turning completely white, a sign that they are under stress as warming waters and pollution, among other factors, threaten their survival. Around a quarter of the world’s fish species depend on coral reefs. He decided he wanted to drop out of school and focus on coral restoration. Over the last four years, his organisation has planted over 15,700 corals.
His team is now working with scientists from across the world on new techniques, taking fragments of so-called super corals that have proven more resilient to heat, which they grow in dedicated nurseries until they are big enough to transplant onto damaged reefs.
Coral Gardeners’ latest project is an AI-powered platform that provides a real-time view of the corals on the ocean floor through cameras and sensors that collect data. By working with local fishermen, scientists and engaging the wider public, Bernicot hopes to bring greater awareness of the crisis facing one of the ocean’s vital “underwater rainforests”.
He acknowledges that replanting corals alone won’t save the reefs and his organisation’s efforts need to be part of a broader systemic shift towards greater protection of the planet.
“We need to reinvent the way we want to do economy, business, and [build] societies…We need blue economies, green economies, and we need to use what already exists like the power of the sun, the waves the water, and use those natural sources of energy to power the future societies,” Bernicot.
“I think it's really important that all together we learn from each other so that we can create synergies with young people and older people that already know a lot. It's a great challenge after pandemic to be able to invent and imagine a new type of future that is good for the planet and for us.”