The school that trees built

Environmental education pays off in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape (YEL), DRC
Two children plant a tree in Yangambi, DRC. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR-ICRAF

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Until recently, the Bilaka School Complex, in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape (YEL) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Tshopo Province, was not especially climate-resilient. Its mud and bamboo structures did not stand up to heavy rains and strong winds, and had to be repaired or rebuilt every year. 

Then, the school set up its own nursery and agroforestry farm, with assistance from the Environmental Education team of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). “We nursed acacia seeds for sale, and when they were ready for the market, CIFOR-ICRAF bought them,” said school promoter Faustin Elanga. 

“We asked them to pay us in bricks rather than in cash, and that’s how we got the first 1,000 bricks to start constructing our new building,” he said. “We later added 4,000 bricks to these from our school income, and that is how we built the new structure. Who could have imagined that a lesson in class could turn into a completely new school building?” 

The environmental education gained through the intervention is extremely valuable, he said. “I used to teach the children one or two things about protecting their environment, but it was not as in-depth as what they learn with the environmental education teams, and the good thing is they can practice everything they learn right here on campus.” 

Elanga said that there is still a lot more to be done in his school, and these first steps have laid a solid foundation. Moving forward, he is thinking of creating a school fishpond to expand his school’s income-generating activities, which will help to build more classrooms to accommodate the increasing number of students.

A landscape worth loving

The Yangambi Engagement Landscape runs along the Congo River and blends into the Congo Basin to form one of the most ecologically biodiverse areas in the world. The region has extensive forest cover and is inhabited by riparian local and Indigenous communities, whose livelihoods depend entirely on the area’s natural resources. 

Despite the seeming abundance, forests and biodiversity in the landscape are under threat mostly from unsustainable small-scale agriculture practices, with their corollary of activities such as  excessive hunting, bushfires, and charcoal making, leading to deforestation and forest degradation. 

In a bid to reduce human pressure on these natural resources and secure the position of local communities both as beneficiaries and custodians of nature, CIFOR-ICRAF has been working in the landscape on environmental education programmes that help community members develop skills to investigate and assess environmental changes, and make informed decisions to help protect their surroundings.

Working with school authorities, teachers, and students at primary and secondary levels, the teams on the ground ensure knowledge exchange and skills transmission on environmental protection through a number of approaches, including in-school games such as role play, group exercises, and simulation, and school projects in the form of tree nurseries, school orchards, and agroforestry-based school farms. These experimental settings allow the students to practice the lessons taught during awareness and classroom sessions.

Faustin Elanga (left) stands in front of the new school building with another teacher. Photo by Noella Ngunyam/CIFOR-ICRAF

Growing, together

Alongside the Bilaka School Complex, a large number of schools in the landscape are reaping benefits of these programmes. This year alone, the environmental education teams engaged over 1,000 students, teachers, and parents on environmental issues in schools and communities across the region. They also supported the cultivation of over 1,400 tangerine and orange trees, over 500 avocado trees, 300 coconut palms, and 2,000 acacias in school tree nurseries across the landscape.

Two schools had rainwater harvesting systems installed to guarantee access to water, facilitate the watering of seedlings, and contribute to sanitation. Eight schools established new agroforestry fields, and almost 1,000 fruit trees and around 250 acacia seedlings were transplanted from nurseries to school orchards and agroforestry fields. 

These activities enabled the schools to sell a combined total of over 400 avocado seedlings, 1,000 acacias, 420 orange trees, 30 coconut palms, and around 200 kilograms of food crops (soya, peanuts, and maize) from their nurseries and farms. Profits from the sales enabled the schools to purchase resources such as metal sheets to re-roof their structures, new benches for classrooms, and teaching material like blackboards and boxes of chalk, among other things. 

“With such favourable results generated from the implementation of the programme, schools in the YEL can better secure sustainable incomes for their operations by implementing tested and approved environmental education projects and activities while contributing to the training of the next generation of conscious environmental actors in the landscape,” said Cedric Ulyel, a member of the environmental education team at CIFOR-ICRAF.

About the Yangambi Engagement Landscape: Since 2007, CIFOR-ICRAF has been working in the Yangambi Engagement Landscape (YEL) to advance forest and agroecological research, local development, and conservation. Our goal is to support entrepreneurship, innovation, research, and natural resource management to transform the Yangambi Engagement Landscape into a place where forests contribute to the sustainable well-being of local communities. 

The above article is produced within the framework of the Training, Research and Environment in the Tshopo II (FORETS II) project implemented by CIFOR-ICRAF and funded by the European Union in the YEL, that targets specific objectives relating to the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity, while contributing to the sustainable development of local populations through awareness-raising, extension and mentoring activities, but also the strengthening of national human resources for better forest protection, notably through formal university training of the LMD type.

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