Programme brings schoolkids closer to nature

Environment education camps provide schoolchildren from low-income communities with the opportunity to become environmental champions

Environment education camps provide schoolchildren from low-income communities with the opportunity to become environmental champions

Helen Whelan of the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust says the Conservation Leadership Programme, begun in 2013, was designed to have a more pronounced effect on the youth than once-off outdoor camps.

The programme targets children from low-income communities on the Cape Flats, offering them an alternative the prevalent drug and gang culture. Starting with grade six children and working with them for the duration of their high school years, the programme gives them access to broader life experience. It helps them grow their social and environmental skills and ultimately empowers them to become environmental champions.

Throughout the year there are over 22 activities that involve in-the-field studies, environmental education camps and Eco-Schools Programme community action projects, giving the children an enduring real-life experience of their natural environment.

“Through mentoring, environmental action, outdoor activities and trips to nature reserves outside of Cape Town we nurture and grow these children’s love for nature for the last seven years of their schooling,” says Whelan. “Through this process we are growing their passion for the natural environment and introducing them to ways they can be champions for nature. Their involvement in extra activities such as beach and river cleanups empowers them to make a direct difference in their communities.”

The older children also play a role in mentoring the younger kids and the knowledge they gain through the programme is taken back into the community. The children are also exposed to experts from a variety of nature-based disciplines and shown what job opportunities are available to them should they wish to pursue a career in the green economy. Due to the trust’s training and development initiatives, these children have many doors open to them once they finish their schooling. 

Melvin Booysen, a student who completed the training and development programme, says: “The learnership changed my life. All the experience I have today is because of it. I have a permanent job and I’m still studying hard to go where I want to be; I see myself as a manager, or higher than a manager one day. I’m really glad that I’m doing nature conservation to give back to the community with environmental education.”

Says Whelan: “While we hope to direct some of the children into the green economy through career guidance, we do not see this as an essential outcome. The vision is that we are creating youth who believe in the importance of environmental protection.”

Special mention: Rustenburg Girls’ High School

Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Rondebosch, Cape Town, is pioneering learner waste management. The school recycles all its waste material. Yes, you read that right — there is actually no municipal refuse collection service — every single item of waste generated at the school is recycled.

“We were sending 26 bins of waste to landfills a week,” says campus manager Myles Siebrits. “That was 1 400 bins annually, which equated to 350 cubic square metres of waste – enough to fill the school’s swimming pool.”

Solids are sorted and sent to recycling companies, while organic and food waste is processed into compost on campus. Sanitary and medical waste is incinerated and converted into turf grass feed.

Additionally, money received from the sale of compost is used to buy vegetable seedlings, which are grown out and harvested on campus and then taken home by the grounds and cleaning staff to feed their families.

The project started in 2011, and has had its share of struggles. But, says Siebrits, the challenges have been met and creative solutions sought out. It has not been an instant transition, but determination has won through.

Alongside these recycling initiatives, solar panels have been installed on the hostel roof and the campus manager’s lodgings. Monitors are stationed around the school, so that pupils can track power usage and how solar power is able to save money on monthly bills.

“Led by the top down, this is a revolutionary approach to learner responsibility,” says Siebrits. “The children are actively engaged with waste management and it’s become part of the everyday for them. This is something they can take home with them and carry forward throughout their lives.”

The school will also gladly assist any other school with advice on how to follow a similar programme and become completely waste free.