Photograph by François Schaer, Rolex Awards
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Maritza Morales Casanova is pictured with students at Ceiba Penandra, the Mexican environmental education park she launched in Merida, the Yucatán capital.

Photograph by François Schaer, Rolex Awards

Why Children Make the Best Environmentalists

Maritza Morales Casanova, an environmentalist at ten, believes kids are best at teaching others.

Environmentalist Maritza Morales Casanova's mantra?

Get ‘em while they’re young.

Morales Casanova should know. As a ten-year-old living in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, she started Humanity United to Nature in Harmony for Beauty, Welfare, and Goodness (HUNAB) after seeing neighborhood children vandalize trees, harm their own pets, and hurt other kids.

She instilled a new respect for nature by teaching kids how to grow plants and care for animals. “It encouraged me to spread the idea of harmonic coexistence between living things—that each living being has a place in the world that must be respected,’’ Morales Casanova says.

By 13, she was asking Mexico’s president to create a protected area to train kids about environmental issues. "My biggest challenge was gaining credibility," Morales Casanova says. "Although I had been developing solutions for years, authorities and business leaders only looked at my age, not my experience."

Maritza Morales Casanova's "Classroom" Is an Environmental Theme Park

Eventually, Mexico donated land to open the Ceiba Pentandra Park, an environmental education park in Yucatán’s capital, Merida. She hopes to educate 64,000 children at the facility every year, empowering kids with conservation knowledge as well as leadership skills to become activists and change agents.

HUNAB continues to be run by children, some as young as eight. Morales Casanova, now 32, says their perspective and peer-to-peer training is essential.

"I know children have great capacity to be leaders because I have lived that experience,'' says Morales Casanova, a Rolex Laureate and National Geographic emerging explorer. “When we are children, we have a closer relationship with nature and are also more disposed to create and participate with honest commitment.’’

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Morales Casanova trains kids in snail acqualture in Nuevo Tesoco, Mexico.

Ceiba Pentandra's focus is on climate change, wetlands conservation, and wildlife protection, providing the environmental education that traditional Mexican schools lack.“It’s a big problem here,’’ Morales Casanova says. Still, less than half of the facility she envisions is complete.

Morales Casanova hopes to raise funds to eventually build an environmental library, learning laboratory, aquaculture training center, and dormitories to house students from other areas.

"Education is the most powerful tool we have for solving environmental problems,” says Morales Casanova. “Empower children with information, leadership skills, and confidence, and they will change the world."

National Geographic produced this content as part of a partnership with the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.