The “clubs” are organised at the local, regional, national and international level, with members who range from 12 to 25 years of age and who participate equally in their group’s decision-making processes.
The aim is to encourage and enable young people to become responsible citizens and get involved in issues that affect their environment and community. To achieve this goal they work together with other civil society organisations.
“We try to promote change in our communities through action, and form environmentally-aware citizens,” said Liliana Freta, the 23-year-old president of Ecoclubes Argentina, who spoke with IPS from her home in the northwest province of Jujuy, which borders with Bolivia.
Ecoclub members receive training and design and carry out awareness-raising campaigns on a wide range of issues, including climate change, waste recycling and dengue fever prevention. The campaigns target both schools and neighbourhoods, where they use a “door-to-door” methodology to bring their message to members of the community.
The Ecoclub initiative originated in 1992, when agricultural engineer Ricardo Bertolino encouraged middle-school students from the city of Firmat, in the eastern province of Santa Fe, to organise and work with their community in a household waste sorting effort.
The students formed squads that went from house to house explaining the proposal to their neighbours. The initiative was quickly taken up by other towns in the area and eventually developed into today’s ecoclubs. In each town, a group of young people works on the most pressing environmental and social problems affecting their area.
“They provide spaces for young people to develop their leadership capacity, and I would even say that we are participating in environmental politics; in fact, some of our earlier members are currently involved in government as councilpersons or legislators,” said Freta, who studies law.
The initial ecoclubs quickly spread throughout Argentina, forming a loosely structured network with some 1,500 teenagers and young people actively involved in over one hundred ecoclubs distributed in five regions that cover all of Argentina.
In less than a decade the experience had been replicated in 33 countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, in addition to some European and African countries.
An International Network of Ecoclubs coordinates the activities of the various groups, through a governing council in which the founder, Bertolino, participates as an active member. Representatives from each country meet once a year to share their experiences with each other.
“In Argentina, the most pressing issues are water, urban solid waste, deforestation, climate change, and health problems such as dengue. But we’re also launching a new programme that reflects a growing concern for social issues among young people,” Freta told IPS.
One of the most socially involved ecoclubs is the one organised in the city of Clorinda, some 1,200 km north of Buenos Aires, in the province of Formosa, bordering Paraguay. “We work with disadvantaged children and teenagers in community-based soup kitchens,” Juan Ortiz of the Clorinda Ecoclub told IPS.
The organisation has approximately 30 active members and receives volunteers from different countries, who come to Clorinda for a few months to take part in the ecoclub’s community work. “We organise fun activities for children and try to teach them to care for the environment,” he said.
Ortiz, who is studying for a degree in business administration, explained that they work together with other social organisations in the soup kitchens and carry out cultural projects for Clorinda’s children and teenagers.
One such cultural project is the “Expresarte” initiative financed by the Culture Ministry, which brings theatre, choir and guitar teachers to Ecoclub Clorinda to give free lessons to children in the community. IPS