Young Eco-Heroes Tackle Environmental Problems

The extraordinary winners of Action For Nature's 2009 International Young Eco-Hero Award from ages 8 to 16 have conducted groundbreaking science experiments, changed legislation, written books, hobnobbed with leaders of the slow food movement and more.

Click here for the complete list of the 2009 winners.

The first place honorees in the 13- to 16-year-old category are Otana Jakpor of Riverside, Calif.; Adarsha Shivakumar and Apoorva Rangan of Pleasant Hill, Calif.; and Sam Levin of new Marlborough, Mass.

In the seventh grade, Otana Jakpor read an article in Consumer Reports about potentially harmful levels of ozone, or smog, emitted by common air purifiers. Over the next two years, she designed, coordinated, and implemented eight experiments to test the impact of these machines on human health. Her results were alarming. Some purifiers, she found, emitted levels equal to Stage 3 smog alerts.

When Otana shared her findings with the California Air Resources Board, they invited her to testify at a hearing that included lawyers from ozone generating manufacturers. When she finished her presentation, some of the people with opposing testimony withdrew. Regulations were put into place and California is now the first state to regulate ozone generators.

Otana went on to be awarded the President's Environmental Youth Award and has met with senators and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She is now a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association and will have her study published in the journal of the American Thoracic Society.

Adarsha Shivakumar and Apoorva Rangan are San Francisco Bay Area siblings and often go to visit their grandparents who live on a farm near Hunsur in southern India. Most villagers in the area grow tobacco and in order to cure the leaves, they must burn large quantities of wood to fire their kilns. Having little firewood, they turn to the agents who illegally sell them firewood by cutting down trees from the local National Park, a large and pristine wildlife sanctuary.

The two young people learned about a nongovernmental organization called Parivarthana that was working with the rural poor to teach them sustainable agriculture. They also discovered a plant biotechnology company in the region called Labland Biotech that was cultivating species like Jatropha curcas. This drought-resistant plant, native to Central America, can grow in an arid environment and produces seeds that are about 34 percent oil and that can be processed to create high-grade fuel.

Adarsha and Apoorva convinced the two organizations to collaborate on a pilot project, called Project Jatropha, to help the farmers convert to biofuel crops. The brother and sister now have farmers in two villages growing Jatropha and selling the seeds to Labland Biotech to be converted into biofuel.

As a high school freshman, Sam Levin and his friends prevailed with school officials and raised the money to transform 3,500 square feet into an open-air garden classroom. In its first year, it produced 1,000 pounds of organic produce, which was used in five trial school lunch programs and also distributed to needy families in the region. His long-term goal for what he calls Project Sprout is to provide all the vegetables for all of the school cafeterias in the district.

When Sam spoke in San Francisco at the closing ceremonies of Slow Food Nation, he was an instant sensation. Alice Waters told one reporter that Sam was the highlight of the gathering. In Italy, Sam took up that banner of youth leadership in Terra Madre when he addressed a crowd of 8,000, saying, "We will be the generation that will reconcile people and the land."

Applications and guidelines for the 2010 award will be available in August at the Web site,

Action For Nature is an environmental, education and advocacy non-profit that encourages young people to take personal action to nurture and protect a healthy environment on which all life depends.