London and Soweto youngsters will join the environmental debate during next week's Earth Summit. Karen MacGregor reports
Londoner Katie Surridge, 17, has three things to say to the Earth Summit next week : "All species have the right to be, to have a habitat and to have a role to play. If we apply those rights to everything, from rhinos to plants to people, the world will be a better place."
Katie's environmental ideals are born of a tough, but inspiring, experience. She has just returned from the wild and unspoilt beauty of the Umfolozi game reserve on South Africa's east coast. She was one of seven London schoolgirls chosen by the British organisation Envision to join seven students from Soweto in discovering the wonders of the wilderness, and to draw up an environmental vision for the future.
Back at the Wilderness Leadership School in Durban, the sixth-form pupil from the independent Notting Hill and Ealing high school said she was badly in need of a shower, but that roughing it in the bush was "the most incredible experience of my life".
Soweto's Corlett Modingoane, 20, said: "Our guide, Mandla Buthelezi, had a wise saying: 'you must take what you need, not what you want'. We must stop being greedy and use only the things that sustain our lives, or we will take from the next generation."
Their views will be heard at the Children's Earth Summit, that is part of the People's Earth Summit, a huge global forum running parallel to the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The summit runs from August 26 to September 4.
Some 60,000 people and most of the world's leaders are descending on Johannesburg to attend the follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. They will discuss ways of preserving the environment while promoting economic growth and helping the poor.
After the wilderness trail, British pupils joined others from Soweto, Ethiopia and India in the Drakensberg mountains for a week to draft presentations to be made at the children's summit. Official letters will then be drafted to the world's governments encouraging them to adopt a more sustainable way of living.
"The goal of the trip was to foster cross-cultural understanding, for youngsters to experience the wilderness like never before and hopefully to use that experience to promote sustainable development," said Tom Doust of London-based Envision, which enables pupils to grapple firsthand with environmental issues.
Pupils selected are already involved in environmental projects in their schools. Katie helped to get "fair trade food" into her school, as well as assessing the environmentral impact of producing it. Corlett helped turn his school's rubbish-strewn grounds into gardens for local families to grow vegetables.
The UK and South African groups went on separate five-day trails then came together for five days in a Zulu camp.
"I felt so lucky to be there," said Katie. "Everybody should have the chance to experience the wilderness. I feel now that I've got to do things to help protect it, I can't just let it go. We will ask the summit to make environment studies compulsory. We need those values bred into us."
Corlett remembered "wonderful stories about animals, and how the San (bushmen) lived in harmony with nature".
"We are going to the summit with the message that all young people should experience the wilderness," he said. "We all need to learn that sustaining the environment is our absolute priority."