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Green envoys galvanized to action
By Xu Xiaodan (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-01-12 10:07

Lessons learnt by a group of university undergraduates who joined an international symposium in Germany have been the inspiration behind a raft of environmental projects.

Organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the gathering brought together 80 young people - environmental envoys - from 11 nations.

And the knowledge and understanding they gained from the programme will be put to invaluable use during the upcoming Spring Festival holidays.

Among the planned environmental protection schemes are the giving of lectures to the elderly in communities back in their hometowns, volunteer work with local environmental agencies and conducting environmental appraisals on local rivers.

Aside from the six Chinese envoys, most of the other participants were from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific.

In his presentation to the young environmental activists, Surendra Shrestha, regional director and representative of UNEP Asia Pacific said it is imperative to spread "knowledge and awareness of environment protection" within each community.

What most attracted them to apply to join the programme, as Bayer board member in charge of innovation, technology and environment, Udo Oels, explains is: "The programme will enhance their knowledge of the environment and help involve more young people around the world in environmental matters."

Thereafter, they will "play a role in promoting common responsibility for the environment by spreading the idea of environmental protection in their home countries," said Oels.

China's envoys, students from Tsinghua, North Jiaotong, Nankai, Fudan, Zhejiang universities and East China University of Politics and Law, were selected from more than 200 mainland applicants.

Wang Lei, who chairs the Green Group, Nankai University's Environmental Protection Association was one of the six.

During the tightly scheduled week-long visit last November Wang Lei and his colleagues listened to a dozen presentations and lectures from officials of UNEP and Bayer, engineers, experts, and representatives from local municipal and state environmental departments.

They visited a number of Bayer's waste treatment facilities, a couple of institutes of crop science, a municipal waste management site and the river Rhine's water quality control laboratory boat.

During the visits, the young envoys quizzed experts and employees on a range of topics, from how to leverage company profit-making and care for the environment to air pollution control.

They also had valuable exchanges with envoys from the other countries.

One project initiated by Wang Lei and taken up by his university involving bird protection was the subject of a power-point display and discussion.

Active participation

Each of the six Chinese envoys has his or her own particular stories to tell on environmental protection.

Annette Wiedenbach, a Bayer communications staffer and a member of the selection panel explained to China Daily that envoys are chosen after evaluation of their previous participation in environment protection and determination to impact the environment through their activities.

Wang Lei's group has been involved in environmental projects on campus and in his home city of Tianjin.

His interest in environmental protection was first aroused when he read about the plight of the Tibetan antelope.

"I attended several societies when I first went to the college, and gradually found environment protection is a high priority and a big concern for me."

Wang's commitment and enthusiasm led to his being chosen to chair the Green Group when he was in his second year of college.

He spends almost all of his spare time promoting and organizing activities related to environmental protection.

"We have activities almost every week, such as garbage collecting, tree-planting, lectures and promotion of environmental issues. Sometimes, we organize activities and give lectures in communities," he said.

The group is well known among environmental groups in Tianjin universities for its successful organization of several large scale projects.

Although innately shy, Wang's passion for environmental issues has emboldened him.

He once went to Beijing to try and win sponsorship from a US foundation.

After long and exhausted conversations he finally persuade officials to come up with the necessary funding for a bird protection scheme.

That success spurred him on and on the train back to Tianjin, he became convinced he could make a real difference.

"The number of our members is growing. Now we have about 200 members, many of them were newly recruited at the beginning of the term. I know quite a number of them might quit at the end, but at least we have affected them in various ways," he said.

Unlike Wang's persistence, another envoy Dong Xiaotong gave up her volunteer work in environment protection, which dated back as early as her junior middle school, after she started graduate studies in International Relations at Fudan University last year.

Dong is currently focusing on incorporating environmental issues into her field of study.

"International Relations are not only about politics. The environment is also one subject of the study, though minor, and I will be more engaged in this field."

Caring for the environment

"I was first influenced by an enthusiastic teacher," explained Dong, whose old school in Shanghai had a tradition of nurturing environment awareness among pupils.

In senior high school, she initiated a project to find what amount of duckweed is needed to help maintain good water quality in a park lake, it earned her first prize in a national contest.

Dong was an active environmental volunteer during her first four years at university.

She beat 50 other students from her department to secure a place on the UNEP young envoy programme.

Yu Kuai, studying environmental engineering at Beijing's Tsinghua University, is an active social worker on her campus. Among her many titles is board member of the environmental association.

She jointly launched a project to reduce the number of plastic bags used by on-campus supermarkets with the slogan of "Green U, Green Life."

It called for thousands of students to use fewer plastic bags or stop using them altogether when shopping.

Instead students are encouraged to put small items into their schoolbags or bring their own shopping bags.

"We provide a certain amount of cotton bags to supermarkets as alternatives. Those cotton bags can be collected in certain places and cleaned for recycling," said Yu.

It was not only inspiration the six gained from their brief time in Germany.

It made them even more aware of the daunting task that faces not only nations, but the world.

But it will take more than just a few committed activists to bring about real change.

Environmental protection in the country needs the concerted efforts of the whole society, said Wang.

But each individual can affect those around him, a ripple that touches others, who in turn create their own.

"I will influence people around to care more about the environment, but legislation and enforcement is absolutely crucial for protecting nature," said Dong.

Although she and her fellow envoys discussed the best way to balance economic development with environment protection on their way home to China, they struggled for an answer.

"Public education on the environment is important, but urging higher government departments to take measures might be more compelling," she concluded.

Back in his dormitory Wang has a tangible reminder of some of the answers and questions he learnt in Germany.

It is a 20-inch high iron glass lantern.

He "rescued" the beautiful item during a visit to a rubbish dump in Leverkusen. Its former owner was about to throw it away.

"Waste is raw material placed at wrong places," said Wang quoting Ulrich Bornewasser from Bayer industry services.

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