Teaching biodiversity conservation
Environmental education has its earliest roots in humans trying to understand the environment in which they lived. Over time it has evolved to address the urgent crisis of environmental degradation which severely threatens human quality of life. As the issues have become more complex, so too must the discipline evolve. As local and global biodiversity resources are being rapidly eroded, environmental education programmes must include biodiversity conservation as a priority theme.
But biodiversity conservation is an extremely complex science, thus education programmes are faced with the challenge of simplifying advanced ecological concepts and presenting multifaceted issues, for which there are no easy solutions. Environment TOBAGO is currently developing a strategic plan for its Education Programme, with biodiversity conservation being one of the central themes.
So what are the key concepts that must be addressed in a biodiversity conservation education programme?
What is biodiversity? This is the area perhaps most adequately treated in current education programmes, which seek to expose ideas about species and ecosystem diversity, especially focusing on charismatic megafauna. More attention can be paid to ecosystem as well as genetic diversity. The diversity of species in some of the less popular groups is outstanding, with sixty-nine percent (69%) of all the known species in the world being the "squirmy, slimy, crawly, creepy" invertebrates and only three percent (3%) being the popular vertebrates. Flowering plants represent sixteen percent (16%) of known species, and lower life forms twelve percent (12%). We need to educate about this entire range of biodiversity.
Why is biodiversity important? Some education programmes address this, focusing on the utilitarian values (biodiversity is important in providing goods and services for humans), as well as the more difficult to quantify but equally valid psycho-spiritual values (cultural, religious, and aesthetic values). Developing a system of environmental values and ethics is a prerequisite for a citizenry committed to biodiversity conservation, and education programmes should facilitate the development of a code of personal ethics, while maintaining appreciation and respect for the diversity of ethical codes held by others.
What is threatening biodiversity? This is a critical area to be addressed by education programmes, focusing on the four main threats to biodiversity (popularly dubbed "the evil quartet"): (1) over-exploitation, (2) habitat destruction and degradation, (3) exotic species, and (4) domino effects in ecosystems. Environment TOBAGO will be exploring causes of over-exploitation such as over harvesting (and illegal harvesting) of game species, over fishing (and illegal fishing), unsustainable pet trapping and trading, and unsustainable logging. The scientific principles underlying sustainable exploitation methods need to be simplified to be easily understood by even young children. Habitat destruction may be the single biggest threat, and is commonly included in education programmes. What is needed is more attention to the issues of habitat fragmentation and degradation. Environment TOBAGO will be looking at issues such as damaging fishing technologies, forest fires, destructive logging practices, inappropriate and unplanned development, mining (river, land and beach), damaging agricultural practices (including migratory agriculture), clearing of wetlands, reef walking and anchoring, and pollution. Threats from exotic species are especially important to small islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, but often too little is known to adequately guide education programmes. Domino effects are caused because of the intricate interconnections in ecosystems, which is a central concept that must be understood, and concrete simple examples illustrating this must also be included in education programmes.
What can be done to conserve biodiversity? The ultimate objective of environmental education programmes, which is too often sadly forgotten, is fostering action for conservation. An education programme should include the development of specific skills to facilitate citizens and groups taking action for the environment. The United Nations has declared the year 2000 as "The New Millennium: A Time to Act", and Environment TOBAGO will continue to conduct action projects with schools and communities.
Environment TOBAGO will be tackling the challenge of addressing biodiversity conservation in its Education Programme and is looking for volunteers to help. Any members interested in volunteering or finding out more should contact Environment TOBAGO's Education Coordinator, Nicole Leotaud, at 660-7462 or e-mail at email@example.com.