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Batela zamba, tokobatela zamba, toloni nzete, tokobatela zamba” – let’s protect our forests and plant trees – sing 500 elementary school students in unison at the Public School of Lusambila, in rural Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

It is National Tree Day, an observance established in 1986 to commemorate the importance of trees for DRC’s economy, society and environment. A special day to remind all citizens that the country’s future is tied to the biodiversity and vitality of its forests.

This year, Lusambila’s students have unusual guests. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has organized a special celebration, as part of its environmental education program in DRC.  Through a dynamic three-day workshop, the children will learn to protect the forest and take care of the environment – a critical know-how for a community that lives right next to one of DRC’s most important forests, the Yangambi Biosphere Reserve.

   Students sing “batela zamba”, which means “let’s protect our forests” in Lingala. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

“Our environmental education program helps students understand how their actions affect the environment,” explained Jules Mayaux, the activity leader. “It builds knowledge on the importance of using natural resources sustainably, and encourages them to adapt their practices, starting when they are children.”

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) worldwide there are deficiencies in the way that forest-related issues are taught, and environmental education is generally inadequate and insufficient. However, this is of utmost importance in a country that is home to 60 percent of the world’s second largest tropical forest.

“Environmental education should be part of the standard curriculum,” said Joelle Grandjean, who is responsible for the environmental education program.

“From a young age, it is important for children to understand the relations between the forests and the livelihoods of their families and communities, and how to ensure that the generations to come can also benefit from all the resources that forests provide.”

   Ce programme d’éducation s’adresse aux enfants et aux jeunes qui vivent dans les alentours de la Réserve de biosphère de Yangambi Axel Fassio/CIFOR
   Facilitators use art, dancing, board games and other ludic tools to increase the students’ interest. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Learning is fun

Due to the lack of resources and pedagogical training, traditional teaching methods in rural DRC have low learning outcomes. Overcrowded classrooms, limited materials, and poor comprehension leave teachers with little room for maneuver, beyond encouraging repetition and memorization.

But this program takes an innovative approach. Using board games, arts and handicrafts, outdoor sports, and movies – all in Lingala – young and dynamic facilitators engage get the full attention of students, regardless of their age.

“I love doing this, children have so much energy, and they are so eager to learn,” said Eric Basosila, one of the workshop facilitators, and a recent graduate in sustainable forest management from DRC’s University of Kisangani (UNIKIS). “It gives me an opportunity to use what I learned in university to make a real change in communities,” he added.

“We have an environmental education team, formed by people who know the communities, forest experts, and pedagogy specialists,” Mayaux said. “Together, we prepare an adapted program for each workshop and review the content to ensure that it is adequate to local realities and the age of the students.”

“The team never repeats the same workshop”, added Yves Agwamba, also a workshop facilitator and master’s student at UNIKIS. “We have to make sure that the students can easily understand the content, yet that it gives them new knowledge and tools.”

   The facilitators of the program are recent graduates and master students in sustainable forest management. Photo: Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Sustainable change

This program is part of an ambitious endeavor to transform the landscape of Yangambi – the Biosphere Reserve and its surroundings – into a place where forest conservation and scientific research contribute to improving the living conditions of the local populations. Financed by the European Union, the projects FORETS (Formation, Recherche, et Environnement dans la Tshopo) and YPS (Yangambi Pole Scientifique) have since 2017 created over 600 direct jobs, trained over 220 postgraduate students, restored around 300 hectares of land, and planted 300,000 trees, according to CIFOR.

But for these changes to be sustainable in the long-term, local behaviors also need to change, according to Paolo Cerutti, scientist with CIFOR. “Forests can be a long-term source of wealth if properly managed. Our job is to help communities better understand and achieve that.”

Therefore, environmental education will be crucial for the success of this project. “Change must start with children and youth,” Mayaux said.

   Environmental education is important to promote sustainable use of natural resources. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR
This research was supported by European Union
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Topic(s) :   Restoration