Often maligned as an ecological disaster, China has been honored by the United Nations Environment Program. The city of Chifeng in Inner Mongolia was honored for its success in slowing desertification, and Shenzhen in southern China was recognized for balancing environmental protection with rapid economic development.
Children sing about sustainable development in a primary school that preaches and practices green policies. Plants and trees cover the school grounds, while lessons focus on protecting the environment.
This scene is part of an environmental success story in one of China's most industrialized regions.
Situated just north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen became China's first economic free zone in 1980. Since then, the region has been transformed from a cluster of fishing villages to a booming industrial metropolis. While the city has its share of social problems, including a roaring drug trade and prostitution; maintaining environmental standards has always been high on the government's agenda.
Shenzhen this year is host to the United Nations Environmental Program, or UNEP, Global 500 forum. And it is one of the communities UNEP is honoring for protecting the environment.
Elisabeth Guilbaud-Cox, an executive at UNEP, says "grass root groups very often feel alone in their struggle for protection and the Global 500 award sometimes gives them the credibility that they might not otherwise have. Particularly in developing countries it means a great deal."
Other award recipients include the Princess Basma bint Ali of Jordan, a group in Kazakhstan, and a children's group from the Philippines, which won a youth award.
At this year's forum, representatives of green groups from around the world toured projects aimed at keeping Shenzhen's air and water clear.
Ye Yu Liang is the director of a mangrove park created to fight water pollution. "With the development of the city there will be more and more polluted water given off. So basically, the mangrove is a plant living in the wetland and its major cleaning function is that it can clean up those heavy metals in the waste waters," he says.
Mei Ng represents Friends of the Earth in neighboring Hong Kong. She says the mangrove park impresses her. "We know it has to take a lot on consensus building for government to really preserve that land. You know land sells, land can get money and in this part of the world, land has big value, but yet they are able to designate and conserve it. That is a great credit," she says.
Shenzhen boasts that its municipal council introduced strict environmental laws before it began to develop. The council has vetoed more than 3,000 projects that failed to meet standards.
Some groups at the forum say they wish their governments supported environment protection the way Shenzhen does. Some delegates say they must be careful not to upset officials in their countries.
Khadijah Abdul Rahman, the director of the Children's Heritage Foundation in Malaysia, says "we need to stay away from political issues and therefore our activities are basically non-confrontational. It's got to be thought provoking, because otherwise children will get bored and therefore the fun element for the youth is critical."
German Zulvaga heads a conservation group in Colombia. He says teaching younger generations to respect the environment is crucial. He says, however, the most important thing to learn is how to combine economic development and caring for the environment by applying planning and technology.
He adds that executing such an integrated approach remains a huge challenge for many countries, especially underdeveloped ones.