Sharing conservation concerns. Youth study balance of development, environment

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Walid Muhammad helped the people of Nazalt Elashtar - a rural community 45 minutes outside Cairo - to get regular garbage collection for the first time ever. Now he and others are working to improve water quality for the town's 8,000 residents. Andrew Simmons has organized recycling and environmental education programs for five communities on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Now, with the Ministry of Education for St. Vincent, Mr. Simmons is expanding his programs nationwide.

Christiana Prekezes is planning an conference in Athens to discuss the effects of tourism on the environment.

Georges Buzaglo says with another two months' work in his native Israel, he can have all four of them - and dozens of others - linked by an environmental computer network.

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In developing nations where environmental concerns are slow to grab widespread public interest, these young people - all of them age 30 or younger - are seeking and starting to win attention for the environmental problems facing their countries. They and others in 10 nations have been organized since 1985 as Youths for Environment and Service (YES).

While the specific environmental challenges facing their countries may differ, a common theme runs through their work: finding some way to settle the increasingly pervasive conflict between industrial development and protection of the environment.

``What we're trying to do is look at successful approaches to sustainable development,'' says Ira Kaufman, executive director of Legacy International, the Arlington, Va.-based sponsor of YES.

``Sustainable development, as defined by the final report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in April 1987, is ``... development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'' - a concept that YES members say is the foundation for the programs in each of their countries.

It's a matter of ``seeing the problem in a holistic approach,'' Mr. Buzaglo says, ``holistic in the sense of cooperation between countries, cooperation between sectors in society, cooperation between ages, cooperation between women and men.''

``Sustainable development should not be just another `ism,''' says J.E. Rash, president and founder of Legacy International. ``With changes in attitude, institutions can change.''

``We must put aside our local differences and find common solutions to global economic and environmental problems,'' says Mr. Muhammad, who heads YES Egypt.

But barriers to even the most modest local action programs still seem formidable.

Muhammad says in training volunteers for a beach cleanup campaign in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, the trainers had to instruct volunteer leaders exactly how to speak to their groups of high school students and to beachgoers. ``It's not common in Egypt to collect garbage, especially on the beach in Alexandria. For some people it is shameful to do cleanup.''

Volunteers encouraged local merchants to help in the cleanup by providing them with garbage cans and plastic bags to place near their businesses.

Simmons, who is also the United Nations Environment Program Youth coordinator for the Caribbean, says on the island of St. Vincent a literacy program has been a prerequisite to environmental action.

``How can we tell a poor woman not to cut down the forest when the very existence of her family depends on the food that is being bought with the logs? How can we tell the farmer not to use DDT to kill locusts and so on, when he is convinced over years that that alone will improve the quality of his product and he will be able to make more money - to educate his children and to provide food? We have to make our people literate so that they themselves will become ambassadors themselves within the field.''

Developing a model by which local YES groups can bring government, industry, environmental, and community leaders together (from one or more countries) to protect the environment is a top agenda item for YES members. At a recent two-week ``Sister Seas'' conference in Virginia and Maryland sponsored by YES, 20 young professionals from 11 countries studied the regional effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. ``It's very easy to bring [leaders from] Maryland and Virginia together - very easy compared to bringing Egypt and Israel together,'' Buzaglo says.

There are YES groups in Egypt, France, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey and YES representatives in Greece, Lebanon, and Yugoslavia. Mr. Kaufman says he expects a YES group to be organized in the US in the next six months.

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