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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 December 2006, 08:25 GMT
Activist fights for better world
As part of a series on young environmentalists in the BBC's Generation Next season, Richard Allen Greene travels to Atlanta, Georgia to meet a 17-year-old relishing the challenge of holding corporations to account.

There must have been some puzzled looks when Illai Kenney stood up to ask a question at the Coca-Cola annual shareholders meeting last year.

She was 16 years old at the time, a black student from Atlanta, Georgia, in a room full of "old white guys" hearing a report about the value of their investments.

Illai Kenney at the World of Coke museum in Atlanta, Georgia, Nov 2006
Illai Kenney has targeted Coca-Cola and power companies
She had something else on her mind: what she called the drinks giant's "irresponsible and dangerous" use of water in India.

"Water is not a luxury; water is a human right," she said, demanding that Coca-Cola stop using Indian groundwater to make its beverages.

Speaking to the BBC 18 months later, she is still passionate about the issue.

"The idea that you're going to take water out of my backyard and sell it back to me for more than I can afford?" she demands.

"That would upset me."

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And Coke, she points out, is in her backyard - its corporate headquarters is in Atlanta, near where she lives.

Coca-Cola denies that it is responsible for decreasing levels of groundwater in the Indian state of Kerala.

It says the state's High Court determined that water tables have dropped due to below-average rainfall, not Coca-Cola's activities.

But the company has kept the Kerala plant shuttered since March 2004, in response to an earlier order from the court, Coca-Cola spokesman Pablo Largacha says.

'Voice of youth'

Illai Kenney considers that to be one of the most successful campaigns she has worked on.

She believes it would not have closed as quickly without the pressure from Indian environmental groups and their allies in the United States.

If it looks bad, and smells bad, it probably is bad - even a six-year-old can understand it
Illai Kenney

It was one of those allies, Corporate Accountability International, which recruited Illai to speak at the shareholders' event.

"She was the voice of youth at that meeting," says Gigi Kellett, the associate campaigns director of the activist group.

Ms Kellett knew Illai had been organising young people's activism on the issue in Atlanta, and wanted her to speak for them because "she is thoughtful and committed and dedicated to being a part of something that's going to have a real impact".

That quality may be why she is already a veteran environmental activist, although she is only 17 years old.

Simple science

She co-founded the Georgia state chapter of Kids Against Pollution when she was 12.

Coal-fired power plant (generic)
Coal-fired power was one of the first issues to catch Illai's attention
Soon after, she staged a press conference with other young people at the headquarters of a company that runs coal-fired power plants.

She had heard about the issue from her mother, who is also an environmental and community activist.

"We learned about carbon dioxide and mercury and its effects on animals and people," she says.

She admits that her understanding of the science may not have been sophisticated, but says the general principle is all too easy to grasp: "If it looks bad, and smells bad, it probably is bad. Even a six-year-old can understand it."

Youngest delegate

That press conference turned out to be the first step in a busy career as an activist.

In 2002, she was the youngest delegate at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

People in front of graffiti saying We'll be back in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina
Illai was struck by the resilience of people hit by Katrina
Seeing extremes of wealth and poverty there "made connections click" for her about global responsibility.

"On one side of the street it looked like suburban America, and on the other side, a shantytown would have been a step up - if you had running water, you were rich."

She says young people can be just as effective fighting for such causes as adults.

"People wonder how I can have any influence given that I can't vote. But I can go to elected officials with 300 signatures of people who can vote or will be able to the next time they're running for office."

And kids have buying power, too, she observes.

"We could get a lot of companies to look at us if we say we won't buy their products. That's how things were done in the civil rights movement."

'Whose problem is it?'

She is briefly taken aback by the question of why a teenager in the suburbs of Atlanta should spend her time fighting for people living in India, Mississippi or South Africa.

Then she replies with a question of her own.

"If it's not my problem, whose problem is it?

"I know kids who have never been out of the Atlanta area. I've been all over the world. I would feel like I am taking for granted what I have been given if I don't try to have an impact."




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