It was recommended at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that environmental and development issues be incorporated as an essential part of learning within both formal and non-formal education sectors and at all levels of society. Central to this recommendation was the premise that most people are unaware of the harmful, cumulative impacts to human health and prosperity associated with economic development. Jacquie Tarr, a freelance writer on environmental issues, reports on environmental literacy in Namibia.
Whether a nature lover or not, every human has a responsibility to safeguard the natural environment. Our health and survival depends on it. Although the need for clean air, clean water and uncontaminated food is universal and supersedes nationality, culture and income, the value of these essential commodities is seldom fully appreciated until they are no longer available. Economies depend on a clean and functioning environment too, for without a strong workforce and healthy natural capital, evidenced by unpolluted soils and easy access to clean water and other natural resources, the production of food and the provision of goods and services becomes increasingly difficult and more costly over time.
Although many viable, environmentally friendly technologies are available and continue to be created, governments generally need to be persuaded to choose these over the often cheaper, more polluting means of energy production, agricultural and industrial activities that have been used since the early 1900s, for example the use of coal-fired energy production as opposed to wind or solar energy. Consequently a shift towards environmentally orientated development plans, “green” policies and technologies has a far better chance of successful implementation when supported by an informed, educated and involved electorate.
In response to the recommendations made at the Rio Earth Summit, formal efforts to improve environmental literacy broke from the confines of the Life Sciences and began to penetrate the curricula of several unsuspecting and seemingly unrelated subjects – from business management and architecture to commerce and mining science. As a consequence it is not too unusual today to meet a mining engineer who contemplates how to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of a highly acidic tailings dam, an architect who plans buildings around the natural environment (and not bulldozed through it), or a business executive who makes decisions based on environmental and not just financial astuteness.
However, formal environmental education has a limited chance of success in societies that have low levels of education to begin with. A good basic education is as essential to people’s needs as clean air and water, for without it individuals are robbed of their ability to make sound choices about their future and are left vulnerable to political manipulation and economic exploitation. At independence in 1990, Namibia’s new government inherited a country with significant financial, social and environmental debts, incurred through a century of colonial rule. The outcome of this legacy included widespread environmental degradation and a sharply divided society whose majority were very poorly educated.
Efforts to redress past inequalities in education in Namibia have been extensive. Approximately 28% of the government budget is currently allocated to the education sector, which aims, inter alia, to improve and expand educational infrastructure and increase enrolment. Between 1990 and 1999 the number of schools in Namibia increased by 21% and adult literacy enrolment increased by 300%. In addition, many NGOs and donor-funded projects have helped to bring education and human capacity in Namibia up to speed with the rest of the world. Examples include SchoolNet Namibia, which aims to build capacity through improving Namibian learners’ access to modern computer-based information and communication technologies (in schools and higher education institutions throughout the country, but especially in the marginalised rural areas); NAMCOL, which offers correspondence courses for students unable to attend regular school; and the Rössing Foundation, which has focused on, inter alia, adult education and skills enhancement amongst rural communities.
In addition many efforts have been made to improve environmental awareness in Namibia:
• Informal EE has been the focus of many programmes run by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and various NGOs, including the Namibia Nature Foundation, the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, NARREC, the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Save the Rhino Trust and the Rössing Foundation.
• Several high-quality Regional Environmental Profiles, country studies, popularised articles and information pamphlets aimed at creating awareness at all levels of society and improving Namibia’s knowledge base regarding the natural environment have been produced.
• Environmental membership organisations, such as Earthlife Africa and the Wildlife Society, promote awareness of Namibia’s natural environment, monitor development programmes and apply public pressure relating to environmental issues when necessary.
• Theatre is recognised as a highly effective medium for creating awareness. Vibrant theatrical performances aimed at educating the public regarding specific environmental issues e.g. The Guardians of Eden and A night in the life of Kaya Africa, have been sponsored by NGOs and the private sector.
• Formal education has attempted to improve Namibian students’ knowledge of environmental and development issues through the introduction of a school-leaving Grade 11 and 12 course on Natural Economy. This subject was developed in response to the issues and challenges highlighted at the Rio Earth Summit. It provides students with the opportunity to learn about the earth’s natural resources and the vital role they play in determining local and national economies, the positive and negative social, economic and environmental impacts that are associated with economic development and the management options that can be adopted to limit these impacts and help achieve sustainable development.
• Various tertiary level environmental and natural resource oriented courses have been established at Namibia’s Polytechnic, including a National Diploma in Natural Resource Management (Nature Conservation) and a Bachelor of Technology (Nature Conservation).
Redressing Namibia’s past inequalities in education and promoting environmental awareness has proved to be a gargantuan task and, despite the admirable efforts mentioned above, comparatively low levels of education still exist. The biggest challenges include the need to improve the level of English tuition throughout the educational system, specifically in the teacher-training colleges, and training teachers to take a cross-curricular, integrated approach to the subjects they are teaching.
Furthermore, the growing AIDS epidemic has the potential to reduce enrolment and educational performance at all levels. Unless these constraints are overcome, the country’s human resource capital will continue to be eroded, a trend that will not only hamper private-sector business expansion and limit public-sector capacity and economic development, but will also curtail the ability of the public to make educated decisions regarding the country’s environmental future.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.