«OK, the excursions were the attraction.» Despina did not hide the reason that caused her to sign up for the ecological group at her school. The teacher had told the class that the topic would be the last wetlands of Attica and that, in order to make comparisons, they would be traveling to Lake Kekirni. And the pupils were keen to grab any opportunity to escape their heavy schedules of tuition college and private lessons. «We set out for one thing but discovered something else. We couldn’t sleep after seeing what destruction was taking place practically next door to us. We all felt the need to take it more seriously. We realized it is our heritage that is disappearing,» said Despina. Like most residents of Athens, the 35 pupils from the Second Senior High School of Nea Ionia had no idea that Attica possessed such a significant wetland as the one formed by the estuary of the Asopos River and the Oropos lagoon. Little did they know that just a few kilometers from the capital they would encounter flamingos, herons, cormorants and hawks. When they visited the area, they were impressed by the landscape and its seemingly exotic inhabitants. «We also realized that it is true what they say about the climate being different here and how that helps the climate of the Attica basin in general,» said Ioanna, who is in the third year of senior high. But they could not help also seeing the rubble and garbage that has been dumped there, the illegal buildings and houses that have been brazenly planted in the heart of the wetland. «We were struck by the fact that the state had not fenced the area off so nobody could trespass on it,» said Tassos, a second-year high school pupil, while another Ioanna, in the same year, added, «And why are there cartridge shells from hunting rifles all over the place in an area with so many rare birds and where hunting is supposedly prohibited?» The pupils set to work at once: Using gloves and trash bags, they cleared the beach of rubbish. But their satisfaction at improving the appearance of the area gave way to dissatisfaction upon their return to school when they saw the results of the tests on the water samples they had collected. What they discovered was later confirmed by representatives of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Hellenic Ornithological Society – household waste is being discharged into the Oropos wetland, as is industrial waste from factories at Oinofyta, which flows into the lagoon via the Oropos River. The pupils were shocked by official indifference to the protection of such an important ecosystem. «It was a real shock. To be honest, most of us had had no idea that this place even existed, then, just as we got to know it, we learned that it was disappearing,» said the children. Their anxiety to save the Oropos wetland, one of the few left in Attica, permeates their 70-page paper on the subject (which they completed during the summer) as well as the letter they sent to the mayor of Oropos, asking for his input. Their conclusion states it clearly: «Greece is not only the Acropolis, the palace of Knossos, the citadel of Mystras… It is the water lilies of Kerkini, the silver pelicans of Prespes, the reed beds of the Amvrachikos Gulf, the pine forest of Schinias. We must protect the natural beauty of Greece in its entirety.» «We hope our voices will be heard,» said Tassos, «but even if nothing changes, what is certain is that we ourselves have changed.» Is it just a coincidence that apart from the pupils who graduated, all the rest have again signed on with the school’s environmental group? Mathematics teacher Alexandros Angelelis, who coordinates the environmental program, was not surprised that the pupils had become committed to the project. «It has been the same since 2000, when we started running the program. They come for the excursions, but in the process they get deeply involved in the issues. Eventually they advise their fellow-pupils to join in. It is not by chance that the number of members in the group increases every year. We started out with 10 children and this year we’ll have 40; and don’t forget that these are senior high school pupils with very demanding schedules.» The initiative for the program came from the teachers. «I’ve always loved nature,» said Angelelis, «but I saw how constructive these projects were when I saw a colleague run them when I was first appointed to a provincial school. Not only do the children become aware of environmental issues but they use the knowledge they get from the project in school; they practice critical thinking and observation, and they learn how to cooperate.» For the past two years, the Nea Ionia school has received funding for the program from the Education Ministry and the European Union. This article originally appeared in Kathimerini’s Eco magazine on October 8.