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Environmental Education through Eco-Clubs in Selected Schools in Three Districts of Tamil Nadu, India

Amirtham Alexander & S John Britto
Annai Genetic Garden, Inba Seva Sangam, Tamil Nadu, India.

Introduction

Inba Seva Sangam, a voluntary organisation, was established by the Belgian-born Mother Lea Provo in 1969 in Sevapur, Karur Dt, Tamil Nadu, South India. To acknowledge the 'green' work of Mother Lea Provo, we named the organisation the Lea Eco Club. The Club is involved in developing rural projects; one of these is the conservation of locally threatened flora and medicinal plants in a 5-acre conservation plot called the Annai Genetic Garden. We are working to involve the local community in the conservation of local biodiversity and the local area’s natural resources.

In 1993 we started collecting plants from the Ayyalur Reserve Forest range in the Eastern Ghats. These plants were then replanted in the Annai Genetic Garden. After a few months of collection we started to involve the schoolchildren and villagers of the area. In 1997–98 we launched 20 Eco Clubs in the Karur, Trichy and Dindigal district schools in the foothills forest region. After a few years of hard work, Eco Clubs had been set up in a further 20 schools in the Karur district. Groups of enthusiastic, environmentally concerned and socially committed students studying 6th-7th standard, aged between 11-15 years, are chosen to form an Eco Club.

For each new Club, 40-50 students are registered and become members, as well as interested teachers who have enrolled as Eco Club coordinators. The teachers are responsible for the Eco Clubs in their schools. They manage green activities, such as growing trees and medicinal plants, and cleaning-up activities such as collecting rubbish. About 40 Eco Clubs have been established in the Karur, Trichy and Dindigal districts. Schools are divided into 5 eco zones, and each zone has 8 schools.

Students are initially invited to help with our local environmental activities and those who are interested are then selected to enrol. The membership fee is 10 rupees, and they receive a Lea Eco Club note book.
Objectives of the Lea Eco Clubs
Their objectives are:

  • To create awareness of biodiversity conservation and local environmental issues among schoolchildren.
  • To create a ‘clean and green consciousness’ among students through various innovative methods.
  • To involve Eco Club students in open-orientation programmes in schools and public areas.

Phase 1: environmental awareness programmes

In the first year we grew tree saplings on the school premises and motivated the students by holding competitions.

One-day environmental education programmes
One-day environmental education programmes (EEPs) are exclusively for Lea Eco Club students. Once an Eco Club is formed, all members are brought together to the Genetic Garden, and briefed with a short introduction about: the environment, an explanation of Eco Club goals, a slide show on the vanishing forest, a video on “Green Health”, as well as an overall description of the present status and future threats to plants. This is followed by a guided walk around the Garden, where they see native medicinal plants and threatened floras, as well as the waste recycling unit. Before their departure, students are divided into groups for an informal quiz to gauge their understanding and get feedback about the EEP. The group winners are provided with a small token gift. At the end of the day, students are encouraged to write imaginatively about their experiences.


The strength of the one-day programmes is that, for many students, this is their first time out of their classroom in a more informal learning environment. For them it is an unusual and exciting experience. It is important to us that we treat each student as our friend and encourage him or her to interact with us freely. Eco Club coordinators from different schools have commented that, after a programme, students have volunteered to water plants, clean their school campus and generally get involved in environmental work.

Environmental bins
Environmental dustbins are provided to all the schools after they attend the EEP. The students are responsible for keeping classrooms free from paper, plastic carrier-bags and food. The Club members regularly come to check and collect the bins and once a week all Eco Club members clean up the school campus and take care of the planted tree saplings.

Core team teachers and the Teachers Forum
The core team for this environmental education work is a group of enthusiastic teachers that represent schools from each eco-zone. They meet once every two months to share their experiences and plan the implementation of outreach programmes. A Teachers Forum group then approves all programmes before they are implemented in the field and passed on to the Eco Club coordinators. Each school Eco Club co-ordinator prepares monthly and yearly reports which describe experiences shared with other schools and stories of success stories and sends them to the Genetic Garden Manager. Eco Club teachers are encouraged to attend a 4-day leadership programme at the Anglade Institute of Natural History, Shembaganur. Every year 10-15 teachers are also sent on an environmental leadership training programme, where they meet conservation experts and other environmentalists. This enables them to gain extra knowledge and focus on their goals.

Nature Camps
Three-day Nature Camps are organised for the Lea Eco Club students. Five students are selected from each school to participate. The three days are designed to give students:

  • an acquaintance with nature and the conservation of biodiversity,
  • an exposure to the fauna and flora of the local hills
  • an impression of the degradation of forests caused by human interference, and
  • an awareness of how to protect and preserve natural forests.

On the first day, students are encouraged to interact with local people to find out know about their traditional herbal medicines and the animals and birds of the hills. On the second day, students are taken on a guided walk through the forest and learn how to identify common medicinal plants, different wild species, butterflies, and to observe the symbiotic relationships of lichens. On the third day, students concentrate on combining their information on solid waste management and nursery techniques. At the end of the third day, the students are required to write a report summarising their 3 days’ activities.

Keystone Students Training Program (KSTP)
The Keystone Students Training Program is an environmental education programme that works through the concept of ‘students through students’. Students eligible for the KSTP must have participated in the EEP, Nature Camps and other open-orientation programmes in schools. Five days of training focuses on local environmental issues, such as biodiversity conservation and water conservation. They also talk to field experts.

Competitions for Eco Club members
Several environmental competitions have been organised for Lea Eco Club members. Competitions consist of essays, quizzes, and drawings and are rewarded by prizes. We found that these kinds of competitions encourage the students and boost their environmental involvement with outdoor field programmes. One of the competition essay headings was ‘Medicinal and threatened plants of your village’. Students collected information from their grandparents and the elders of their village. We received 200 essays; the prize winners were brought for 3 days’ environment training at the Anglade Institute of Natural History and Kodikanal.

Exhibitions at the Annai Genetic Garden
Every second year an exhibition is held at the Annai Genetic Garden, with different science themes that focus on biodiversity and natural resource management. The main objective is to provide an outlet for students’ creativity and to enable them to channel their imagination into practical work. Their ideas and messages not only spread to other schools but can reach the public as well. It also is a golden opportunity for non-Eco Club students to visit the Garden.

Mobile science and environmental exhibitions
Mobile exhibitions are also organised in collaboration with the Thrunelveli Science Centre. Once a year a large exhibition carried in a bus tours all the Eco Club schools in the local three districts. The exhibition contains 22 science models and environmentally-related films and video shows which are shown to the school students.

Phase 2: the impact of our awareness programmes

We have created several programmes to help students’ understanding and imagination:

The Eco Echo Newsletter
The Eco Echo Newsletter is the student’s environmental development magazine. It contains articles written by both the teachers and the students. The student articles are based on their training and experience, and are chosen for their originality, environmental message and creativity. The Newsletter is filled with; poetry, essays, songs, proverbs: anything about the environment and nature. Interested teachers are involved in the editing and select the best articles for the Newsletter. So far 9 issues have been published and about 2000 copies circulated.

Growing and maintaining medicinal plants at school and at home
After attending our training programmes, motivated students have collected tree species from our Garden nursery or from the local forest nursery, and grown these trees in their schools. These students are collectively taking care of each tree. A lot of students have also collected medicinal plants from our Genetic Garden at a minimum cost, and planted them in their backyards. By planting specific plants useful in primary health care, families now know more about medicinal plants and believe in their indigenous medicine.

Eco Club students are encouraged to work in the Gardens in their own time. The Green School Garden is divided into medicinal, green vegetable, nutrition and an herbal demonstration garden. The overall objective of the Garden is to grow plants and encourage the students and public, to access medicinal plants for their primary health care use. The students look after the watering and weeding, and organically maintain the Garden with effective utilisation of solid waste and organic pest control measures.

Phase 3: open-orientation programmes

Part of our training is to take the Eco Club students onto the streets to help spread awareness to the public.
Rallies in the street, cleaning dirty towns, and cycle rallies
In Vadamadurai, Dindigal district, in 2001 a mass procession was organised. The procession was split into groups: one group distributed handbills to the public saying “No plastic carrier-bags”, another group picked up carry bags from the street and the rest walked in the procession, with banners against using plastic carrier-bags. The procession and the efforts of the Eco Club students were well received by the public.

Next, we sent our team to the town of Tharagampatti in Karur district. With the support of the Karur district administration, the Tharagampatti School, local women’s sangams, the Holy Cross College Exnora Wing, and the local Panchayat completely cleaned the small town. Collected organic waste was transported to the school campus for compost preparation and the rest of the non-degradable waste was taken by the municipal workers.

In October 2001, about 52 energetic Eco Club students cycled from Tharagampatti to Puliyur, covering a distance of 35 km in the Karur district. The message this time was about the conservation of water resources: ‘In search of water’. Stopping at five Eco Club schools, the rally addressed every village about the current water problems, the importance of rainwater harvesting and the reason for the present water crisis. These cyclists were cheered from both sides of the road.

Cleaning schools and public places
Once a year, Eco Club students meet to evaluate their work and fill in a questionnaire. They are also expected to get involved in the waste-recycling management: cleaning public streets, removing plastic carrier-bags, bottles, plastics and organic waste. Carrier-bags and organic waste are then buried in a deep pit. Eco Club students are also encouraged to clean their school once a fortnight. Cleaning includes organic composting and taking care of the gardens.

Phase 4: planning the future of the Eco Clubs

We are planning to establish 100 Eco Clubs, so that local schools can access our resources and create awareness amongst students and the wider community, for the protection of our environment and biodiversity conservation.

Senior Eco Club Students Association
After the successful completion of their third year, Eco Club students are encouraged to join the Senior Eco Club Students Association (SEA) movement. The senior students help select new Eco Club members and guide the students in keeping school campuses clean and green. They occasionally participate in regular meetings and play an active role in the orientation programme. SEA members should be role models for their peers and live an eco-friendly life on all levels and, of course, be supportive of all Eco Club activities.

Conclusions

Any successful project requires determination, dedication, commitment and an active role-model. We have also recognised the need to create a strong, consensual network between all members. We should always keep in mind the following maxims:

  • BE A ROLE MODEL
  • AWARENESS & EDUCATION FIRST
  • GOOD RAPPORT
  • AWARNESS + ACTION = SUCCESS
  • REGULAR FOLLOW UP
  • REGULAR EVALUATIONS
  • LOVE KIDS + RESPECT TEACHERS = EXPECT MIRACLES

Acknowledgments
We would like to mark our respect for our late Belgian lady Mother Lea Provo, founder of the Inba Seva Sangam, Sevapur, who dedicated her life to the poor and the conservation of nature. Also our hearty thanks to the Belgium Organisation SAWES for their great courage and continuous support for the Annai Genetic Garden and Eco Club activities; without their support the Garden and the environmental education programmes would never have existed.

Our special thanks to our colleague Mr. K. Arumugam, Eco-Club organiser, and to Mr. Subramani for their continuing assistance in carrying out the project in a very successful way. We would like to thank members of Inba Seva Sangams. Special thanks for Karur, Trichy and Dindigal districts of Tamilnadu, Lea Eco Club school coordinators and the headmasters who dedicated themselves to their implementation and made in a grand success.