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Developing a Conservation Garden as a Centre for the ‘Every Child a Scientist’ Programme

N. Anil Kumar & V. P. Sajeev
M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Wayanad, Kerala, India


Article 13 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) emphasizes the need for public education and awareness about the importance of, and the measures required for the conservation of, biological diversity. The use of and the inclusion of biodiversity topics in educational curricula have also been highlighted. The Global Biodiversity Strategy (WRI IUCN, UNEP 1992) suggests the national biodiversity curricula to focus the contributions to community food, health and livelihood welfare and should be developed in partnership with teachers, NGOs and national ministries of education and environment. However, even a decade after the adoption of the CBD, biodiversity education remains a challenge in several developing countries. As a result students and teachers are loosing opportunities to understand the significance of their surrounding biotic world and its various ecological, economical, physical and cultural manifestations. In India, in recent years, both government and non-government agencies have made several attempts to reach directly through formal and informal approaches. While this is important, education should not be limited to school-going children alone, though they are an important audience.

At Wayanad, an agrobiodiversity hot spot situated in the Western Ghats in Kerala, India, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) has given high priority to educating tribal and rural children and youth to understand the biodiversity of this region, and to help them to become the catalysts of a community agrobiodiversity movement. The tribal and rural communities of this district retained their traditions intact until the recent past and still use a large number of species for their health and food security. Unfortunately, several such species, as well as the traditions of their use, are facing serious threats. The fundamental cause of the loss of such knowledge and the depletion of biological resources is the ignorance of the public about the value of the local natural heritage and its application in human life. The younger generation of the tribal communities and other such disadvantaged sections of society have few opportunities to gather such knowledge. Hence it is essential to create opportunities for them to understand the importance and value of biodiversity and their own conservation traditions.

MSSRF initiated a biodiversity education programme in January 2002 targeting tribal and rural school dropouts of Wayanad. Five years ago the Institution had conceptualized and developed a community-level institution, known as the ‘Community Agrobiodiversity Centre’ (CAbC) primarily to build the capacities of village men and women through education and empowerment to use resources in a sustainable and equitable manner. The Centre has collected and collated a large amount of information on biodiversity and several hundreds of plant species of the region. This has now resulted in the establishment of a Biodiversity Knowledge Centre (BKC) with a Conservation Garden as its focal point. The Centre is designed to facilitate education and training for children and the free flow of qualitative and quantitative information on biodiversity to potential user groups.

The Process

An integrated approach to education combining traditional and modern methods of teaching has been adopted for teaching children. The education course is planned for a year, classes being held for four hours a day in two sessions –from 9.30am to 11.30 am and 2 pm to 4 pm. The current strength of the student group is 100 (6 groups consisting of 17 students each), comprising 53 tribal and 47 non-tribal children. They are divided into several groups; each group consists of 5–15 members depending on the nature of project work. Field visits are scheduled for 2 days a month (totalling 24 days in a year) and nature camps once every three months.

Identification and Selection of Students

The first step was to identify potential students who have an interest in learning and helping to protect biodiversity. Children (school-going and drop-outs), educated unemployed youth, teachers (in-service and pre-service) and parents are the target groups of the programme. Children in the age-group 10–16 and youth below 35 years were selected in groups of 6–10 from villages and schools with the help of local leaders, NGOs, youth clubs and village panchayats. Care was given to select students belonging to both the genders in equal numbers.

Youths were recruited from youth clubs that have a stake in various social activities and experience in literacy programmes. The children and youths were invited for a two-day orientation workshop to familiarize them with the concept of biodiversity conservation and its application in enhancing livelihood security and sustainable development. Experts from MSSRF and other institutions interacted with the workshop participants and conducted a field trip in 3–4 groups to nearby hills. This was followed by visits to their respective villages and schools to interact with their parents and teachers. The visits often led to joint field visits along with the children and their family members to see various biotic resources available in the locality and the manner in which they are being used. Through this approach, we have been able to identify those who have an interest and commitment to function as ambassadors of biodiversity conservation.

The Resource Team and Resource Materials

An Education Committee consisting of 10 experts has been formed under the leadership of a veteran biodiversity educationist in Kerala. Members of the resource team were drawn from different disciplines: wildlife, ecology, plant taxonomy, ornithology, horticulture and agriculture. In addition, volunteers of the Agrobiodiversity Conservation Corps (ACC) who were trained earlier by MSSRF extended their help in conducting field trips and introducing the children to the other stakeholders. Some traditional healers were also involved in educating children about the medicinal uses of various herbs known to them. Printed materials like magazines, booklets, and posters are being developed about different issues like conservation of medicinal plants, endangered plants, wild food species and wild relatives of crop plants. A newsletter named Vayal (the vernacular name for paddy fields) has been launched to network with other partners in the region.

Curriculum Development

A detailed curriculum has been developed with the aim of enabling children and neo-literates to increase their capacity for observation and positive attitudes towards biodiversity conservation. Effective applications of computers in possible areas have been visualized and applied. Basic education on biodiversity, soil, air, water, rivers, mountains and their relation to subjects like biology, geography and economics has been built in the syllabus. Education through simple project works has been emphasised, in order to enable children to enhance their capacity as well as to increase and sustain their wonder and awe about the living world.

Establishment of a Conservation Garden

MSSRF has a living collection of several plant species of the Wayanad region. Our orchidarium contains over 150 species of wild orchids, and our arboretum contains several rare native trees, wild food plant species, and host plants of butterflies and medicinal plants which are a major attraction for visitors. A herbarium and a seed museum have been added. Another key attraction of the Centre is the collection of 200 germplasm accessions belonging to 25 taxa of Dioscorea.

Shade houses, plant growth chambers and plant nurseries are placed aesthetically in the campus. The Knowledge Centre is equipped with 20 computers and accessories such as digital cameras, and scanners. Children are taught how to use of these pieces of equipment in their activities.

Education and Training

Basic Knowledge about the Use of Computers

Computers are used to document various outputs of projects being implemented. Using Microsoft Word and Excel, various documents have been created such as descriptions of medicinal plants uses, articles about pollution and the environment, and field-work reports. A daily nature watch diary is maintained by each child: they enter data into an Excel sheet representing sunrise and sunset times, the number of birds and animals sighted during a particular season, and star and climate observations, and so on. A small database containing basic details about plants is under construction using Microsoft Access.

Children have found PowerPoint very interesting, as they have opportunities to create slide-shows with text, photos and sound insertions. By the end of the course, it is hoped that children will know the basics of: Windows, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, Microsoft Access, Microsoft Front Page and Kid Pix Studio. In addition, students are becoming efficient at handling audio-visual equipment such as televisions, video recorders, LCD and overhead slide projectors and tape recorders. Voice recording, scanning and photography are regular part of their activities.

Plant Exploration Programme

Students were formed into groups and sent along with volunteers to various landscapes in the locality to observe and collect the plant species during different seasons. Specially designed workbooks are provided to them in which they list the plants they observe by citing local names, describing the details of their habit, habitat and uses. Later, an expert examines these names and the collected material and provides the corresponding botanical names, which are then recorded by students in their notebooks. They are asked to analyze the number of species collected, their habitats and their various life forms: trees, herbs, shrubs and climbers. In addition, students are trained to prepare herbarium specimens of the more important species.

Plant Morphological Studies

Species belonging to the pea, mint and grass families are collected and observed. For each plant, parts are noted and the characteristics of different plant parts compared with that of other species. The importance of the above three families were highlighted in terms of their contribution to food, health and economic security. Students have been given assignments to collect details of all grass plants they gather for the purposes of fodder and for making crafts.

Ethnobotanical Studies

Detailed cultural and ethnobotanical studies of 14 tree species that are sacred to the native communities has been carried out by the students. They have been given the task of collecting all available information about the species from primary and secondary sources. Children are given training to raise nurseries of these species for the purpose of planting in the school, college and temple ground. Students are also encouraged to chronicle the uses of various plants, especially those used as food known to the elders of their family. A study by MSSRF shows that about 250 wild food species supplement the regular diet of the tribal communities of Wayanad. The forest dwelling communities depend heavily on wild foods such as yams, roots and tubers, greens, fruits and the meat of a wide range of animals. Study is focused on groups such as palms and fruit trees (with emphasis on mangoes and jack-fruit).
Genetic diversity is taught by highlighting the variability within each species.

Horticultural Studies

It is planned to educate children and youth about the need for home gardens containing vegetables, roots and tubers, fruit plants and plants of medicinal and aromatic value. Such a garden has been developed on the campus of CAbC, with many kinds of legumes, cucurbits, amaranths, banana varieties, Dioscorea, medicinal plants and wild edible greens. Parents and girl children collect vegetable seeds from their respective villages and promote their cultivation by sharing the seeds with others. They are also asked to participate in seed fairs with their collections. Children were given seeds of some common food plants (legumes, rice and mango) and asked to observe and record different stages of germination. They have also given different fruits and asked to make cross-sections of them to understand the internal arrangement of seeds.

Fungi and Algae Studies

Mushrooms are an important source of food for several tribal communities. CAbC scientists have details of 33 such mushroom species. Tribal children are given opportunities to bring such species and observe their different parts and spores under the microscopes. The importance of keeping spore prints for the purpose of conservation has been highlighted. They draw pictures of several such species on computers. The importance of micro-floral studies in understanding the magnitude of biodiversity is being emphasized. Students collect water drops, rotten materials and use microscopes to observe and draw the different algae and fungi species living in them.

Habitat Studies

The diversity of ecosystems, habitats, and landscapes has been given much importance in the curriculum. The role that landscapes such as paddy fields, swamps, grasslands and bamboo breaks play in daily life has been highlighted. The manner in which these landscapes are useful in maintaining food diversity and water security of communities is also emphasized. Students are asked to observe plant and animal diversity in each habitat type and make notes in consultation with their parents.

Bird and Butterfly Watching

Most of the tribal children are familiar with birds, as they often trap different bird species to meet their food needs. Students are being trained to systematically observe birds known to them, record their sounds, food habits, breeding habits etc. Students have started butterfly watching by listing out the host-plants of butterflies. The food plants used by several tribal communities have been given importance in this programme. It is important to note that tribal groups also consume several plant species which are hosts to butterflies. A total of 23 such species have been selected for a detailed study. Students have been formed into small groups and have started collecting such species. They have grown several of them in the campus as well as at home. They are being taught to observe the life-cycle pattern of butterflies.

Freshwater Fish Study

The Tribal men and women of Wayanad know about 60 species of edible freshwater fish. Several such fish species are now becoming rare due, because of the drying-up of bodies of water and changes in patterns of land use. The children will be trained to observe such species in detail. For this purpose, some aquariums have been constructed in the campus.

Craftwork and Leadership Training

Craftwork has been included in the curriculum, in order to mould and enhance the creativity of children. It is envisaged that students will make models of different fruits, seeds, animal types and so on, using waste, clay and pulp. Leadership training is also envisaged, as most of the tribal children interacting weakly with others. In order to improve their confidence and develop their leadership skills, a programme of yoga as well as leadership training courses have been incorporated into the curriculum.

Nature Camps

Every three months the entire team of children has to attend a 2-day nature education camp. Two such camps have already been conducted, in which parents, teachers and Agrobiodiversity Conservation Corps members participated. Camp activities included star watching, trekking, bird watching, and butterfly watching. The progress of the programme is also reviewed during the camp.


Experience shows that children are a very receptive group, and a that variety of customized programmes are required to make them understand the value and importance of biodiversity in their day-to-day life. In Wayanad, children, by and large, know little about the magnitude of the rich biodiversity of the region or its contributions to their welfare. It has also become evident that tribal and rural children, in spite of living in and around diverse resources, find it difficult to conserve this diversity, since their survival is often a daily issue. Most of the tribal children do not have access to schools or do attend regularly.

The relevance of education, awareness and training to such children in this context is important; it can lead to children, youth, teachers and parents getting involved in the protection and maintenance of genetic wealth. Such a committed team can also be brought in to inventory the natural diversity around them and chronicle the knowledge of their elders about biological resources. The results of such exercises can be recorded in the form of Biodiversity Registers; these would be very valuable in recognizing and rewarding the contributions of tribal and rural people to bioresource conservation (Gadgil et al 1993).

In this context, Biodiversity Knowledge Centres can become an important facility for teaching children about a wide range of subjects such as biodiversity, the environment, and various aspects of biology. It is hoped that the trained students and youth will be formed into a ‘Bioresource Conservation Corps’ and will mobilize the masses with practical information about the bioresources of their respective villages.


World Resources Institute et al. (1992). Global biodiversity strategy: guidelines for action to save, study and use Earth’s biotic wealth sustainably and equitably. World Resources Institute, Washington DC, USA.
Gadgil M., Berkes F. and Folke C. (1993). Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. AMBIO 22:151.