03 Oct 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Youth to power the decade on restoration

Young people came out in force at September’s Global Landscape Forum in New York City. They spoke with passion on critical landscape restoration, for a cleaner, more sustainable future with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, 2021-2030

In an address to delegates gathered at the world's largest knowledge-led platform for more resilient landscapes, fourteen-year-old Alexandria Villasenor, Founder of US Youth Climate Strike, said time is crucial.

As one of sixteen children from 12 countries, including Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, she has filed an official complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, to urge action.  

“Change needs to happen now if we are to avoid the worst consequences,” she said, noting that the petition cites lack of government action on the climate crisis, which may constitute a violation of child rights.

When children experience floods and wildfires that threaten their lives, then the rights of children are under threat, she said. Her vision includes a world where “humans live in harmony” with earth, for a zero-carbon future.

But the current political system is not built to deal with today’s challenges. She reminded delegates of the 315,000 students who shut down the financial district to demand more urgent action among bankers. 

Throughout the day, young people and youth advocates called for a paradigm shift and reform in every sector, from agriculture, conservation and financial markets to careers and more – to tackle the climate crisis.

Charlee McLean, an environmental intern at Te Ipukarea Society of the Pacific’s Cook Islands, in a video address to delegates, made a plea for a return to “better harmony with nature.” Why should we look for more, when nature already provides us with everything we need? she said.

Nature’s ability to provide was echoed by former tech entrepreneur-turned-farmer, Chris Newman, Co-founder, Sylvanaqua Farms. Today’s youth “come face to face with the reality of what farming is,” he said, noting that young people think farming today is for “crazy people,” or the incredibly privileged.

Farmers put in the hours and dedication of silicon valley entrepreneurs, but without the pay check. That will need to change if more young people are to make a viable living from the land “without freaking out our families.”

He called for urgent training, capital, access to land and better markets to make restorative farming an option, giving more money to farmers. But “investors will not bankroll two to three-year long-term projects needed for restorative agriculture,” he warned.

“The returns do not match up with capitalism,” he said, adding that food produced through “extractive” agricultural practices outperforms food produced in “regenerative” systems by a ratio of 400 to one at the market - an unsustainable model.  

"Fourteen-year-old Alexandria Villasenor, Founder of US Youth Climate Strike speaking at the Global Landscape Forum. Photo by UN Environment / Georgina Smith"

UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Young Champion of the Earth for Asia and the Pacific Louise Mabulo, echoed the need to return to community-based solutions for sustainable agriculture not just in Asia but globally.

“Climate change is affecting food security, and farmers are one of the most vulnerable groups in the Philippines,” she said. “We need to change our landscapes by integrating proper and sustainable practices into agriculture,” she said, starting with education for farmers. 

Thirty-year-old Molly Burhans, UNEP Young Champion of the Earth for North America, emphasized that there is also a moral dimension to protecting ecosystems in the long-term.

“The landscape is truly a multiplier of all other Sustainable Development Goals. By restoring our landscapes we are providing new avenues for economic development, health and wellbeing of communities.

“The youth presence have a special urgency at this meeting and for the up-coming decade on restoration because the landscape is a very long-term investment. These are not quick turn-around projects…

“The trees we plant today will be large by the time that the youth in the meeting are old. Landscapes are a long-term vision. And because of that, youth have a special role to play as stewards and maintainers of projects implemented as part of the decade on restoration.”

 But while the matter is urgent, there was also optimism. Felix Finkbeiner, twenty-one-year-old Founder of Plant for the Planet, said: “I was always kind of pessimistic about what youth could achieve [….] I assumed that climate change was too complex an issue to really mobilize millions and billions of youth people around the world. But this past year has totally changed my opinion on this, and I’m way more enthusiastic and way more positive about what youth can achieve,” he said.

“But I think what our generation needs to get a lot better at is not just talking about the issue of the climate crisis but also emphasizing the solutions. That climate change is a solvable problem and obviously nature based solutions are one of the main solutions. On top of that, I hope our generation with the technological literacy it has can contribute.”

Speaking during a lunch-time discussion for youth, Tim Christophersen, Coordinator of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030 at UNEP, echoed optimism that reforesting the planet is possible.

“This is your decade, and your actions will be very important to make this a success,” he said. It is still possible to turn this moment of crisis into a moment of hope. “A bit like in StarWars,” he said. “May the forest be with you!”

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme’s leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Burhans is one of seven winners announced this year. Stay tuned to apply in January.