Youth Environmental Summit 2016

Written by Oliver Halsey & Meg Schmitt

April 2016


This article and project can be found featured on UNESCO's green citizens project platform, which "highlights outstanding Education for Sustainable Development, which display good practices from around the world. These stories are intended to inspire individuals to take action in conveying new practices to guarantee a sustainable future". - UNESCO


On the week beginning 16th May [2016], thirty grade 11 learners from seven regions across Namibia came together at the Namutoni Environmental Education Centre in Etosha National Park for an annual educational event: the Youth Environmental Summit (YES).

Organised and run by Gobabeb Research & Training Centre with support from the Ministry of Environment (MET) and Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit (giz), this year marked the seventh YES training. The educational programme focused on familiarising the learners with the scientific process through a week of intensive fieldwork that addresses specific environmental topics whilst promoting the overall objective of establishing environmental leadership amongst young people.

  Zebras in Etosha National Park.

Zebras in Etosha National Park.

This year, the YES was constructed around the 2016 International Day for Biological Diversity theme, “Mainstreaming Biodiversity: Sustaining people and their livelihoods”. The United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Biological Diversity sets this theme for the annual celebration, held this year on May 22nd, to honour the world’s flora and fauna.

Within a world of dramatically increasing human population and the issues surrounding this such as climate change, sustainable living is becoming an evermore-popular topic. Linking these global environmental challenges to the biodiversity of Etosha National Park proved a great way to introduce the young learners to the environmental sciences in a quintessentially Namibian context.

Namutoni Environmental Education Centre (EEC) was the perfect place to host the 2016 YES. With its abundant and varied wildlife, learners witnessed an array of impressive animals from elephants, rhinos and lions to the black-faced impala, endemic to Namibia and a local conservation recovery success story. Environmental educator Vilho Absalom manages the Namutoni EEC, and sees the vision of the Centre very clearly.. “Through education we want to promote and encourage young people to value our biodiversity,” says Absalom. “Etosha has a variety of animals that learners see on TV or read in books, which they could get an opportunity to see and learn about physically here.”

For the week-long training of the YES, learners were split into three separate groups. Each would undertake different research topics and fieldwork, but all were connected by themes of biodiversity conservation and learning the structure of the scientific method. One group focused on fresh water algae, and its linkages with water quality. Learners were introduced to fieldwork as well as microscopic lab work. The learners obtained samples from various water sources around the Namutoni area. They were lucky enough to venture out to Namutoni’s local watering holes; only possible with the supervision of experienced MET game guard, Willem Kubeb, who kept a watchful eye for thirsty animals interfering with the young scientists’ work! 

  MET game guard, Willem Kubeb protects the young scientists from Etosha's potentially dangerous animals.

MET game guard, Willem Kubeb protects the young scientists from Etosha's potentially dangerous animals.

The group analyzed their samples under a microscope to assess the species diversity of algae species found in the various fresh water samples, and used the biodiversity together with physical parameters to assess the quality of different water sources.

Project leader Monja Gerber, research technician at Gobabeb Research & Training Centre designed the research project and oversaw it during the YES.  Gerber saw this research project as an opportunity to underscore the often under-appreciated biodiversity found just under our noses – or rather, our microscopes. Many learners were astounded by the range of living organisms found in the waters around Etosha. YES participant Karim Selemani, from Osire Secondary School in the Otjozondjupa region, found his first encounter with the microscope inspiring. During his evening reflection to the group, Karim shared his experience with the algae, noting that, “The eyes are useless if the mind is blind.” 

   
  
 
  
    
  
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   The freshwater algae group collects samples from an Etosha waterhole.

The freshwater algae group collects samples from an Etosha waterhole.

Another group took a closer look at the sustainability of tourism in Etosha. Looking at the NWR Namutoni Resort, learners explored what goes into making a tourist operation sustainable. By interviewing tourists and NWR staff, learners examined the categories of food waste, tourist transport, and curios to find out how sustainable tourism in Etosha is. Learners quantified their tourist impacts by making carbon footprints, allowing them to visually imagine the environmental impacts of tourist activities. The Sustainability Team interviewed more than 60 tourists at von Lindequist gate and Namutoni NWR campsite, covering not only the number of kilometers traveled, but also tourists’ expectations for tourism sustainability in Namibia.

As one of the most significant industries in Namibia, tourism, particularly in Etosha National Park, is an essential source of livelihood. Learners got to experience first-hand how complex scientifically evaluating what goes into “sustainability”. Tracking the number of kilometers, and resulting carbon footprint, of the many tourist vehicles from their various previous destinations, learners discovered the full range of factors that feed into quantifying sustainability. 

  The sustainability group discusses ideas for the week.

The sustainability group discusses ideas for the week.

  The learners also engaged in a number of classroom-based activities.

The learners also engaged in a number of classroom-based activities.

The research topic of the third group applied to reforesting degraded lands, such as those damaged by fire or overgrazing. Their project had two parts: the first part of the project had the learners measuring out “plant sweat”. The group conducted fieldwork measuring the evaporation and transpiration of trees by tying plastic bags over the tree branches, and measuring the amount of water that the trees would “sweat” over a 24-hour period. Using simple mathematics the group could then calculate the overall transpiration of various trees over the period of a day – which helped establish a baseline for the experimental methods for the second part of the project.

  Measuring the evaporation and transpiration of trees by tying plastic bags over the tree branches.

Measuring the evaporation and transpiration of trees by tying plastic bags over the tree branches.

Project leader Jasper Vannueville, from Vives University College in Belguim, wanted to pursue reforestation schemes to recover the lost opportunity of degraded lands. The potential benefits of reforestation are impressive -  not only do larger mammals return but also a huge number of smaller insects and other invertebrates which can play a huge role in the ecosystem. All of these organisms play an essential role in allowing the ecosystem to function. 

  YES participant Helvi Nghitaleko searches for various tree and plant species in the field.

YES participant Helvi Nghitaleko searches for various tree and plant species in the field.

The results of the learners’ work throughout the week were presented on the International Day for Biological Diversity in the form of role-plays and a song – a fun and accessible form of communicating their scientific results. Many of the learners found their week of scientific exploration with peers from across the country an inspiring and exciting way to spend their school holidays. Elvi Nikodemus, from Ponhofi Secondary School in the Ohangwena region, stated, “Since I came here the YES people inspired me [and] diverted me. I would like to become an environmental educator or environmental scientist.” Karim Selemani similarly enjoyed the intensive training programme in Etosha. “I really enjoyed working at the YES because I worked with real scientists and did experiments with them which gives me hope and courage for the future”.

The YES is quickly becoming a staple in the environmental education field in Namibia, as more and more learners gain from this unique opportunity to work alongside scientists and explore their country’s biodiversity. The YES would not have been possible without its generous supporters and contributing organisations, as well as continued support from the public.


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Learn more about the YES experience at www.gobabebtrc.org
 
or watch the video from this year’s YES below:


All images unless stated otherwise are copyright © Oliver Halsey.