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Environmental education changes attitudes

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Teacher-trainer Yi Chhun Hong explains the book to students.

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sk the teachers of Koh Kong about the benefits of Cambodia's wildlife and they will

answer: "Delicious. We use the teeth and horns to decorate our houses and the

skin to hang on the walls. We also make medicine out of the animals.'"

This is the reason Kay Leak is in Koh Kong province to educate teachers about wildlife

preservation. That attitude quickly changed.

"At the end of the training they'll say what they used to do is kill the wildlife,

not care for it," he says. "Now they'll go back to their villages and teach

their students and families to take care of the animals."

Leak and fellow teacher-trainer Yi Chhun Hong work for local NGO Sangkrohs Satprey,

or Save Cambodia's Wildlife (SCW), which were established in Phnom Penh two years

ago. They are spending a year traveling around Cambodia training more than 1,500

teachers in the non-formal sector about the importance of the country's natural habitat.

Their main educational tool is A Walk Through the Forest, a Khmer and English language

book about a monk who travels through Cambodia, visiting and blessing the country's

forests and wildlife.

Through the teachers, over 50,000 students will read the book.

SCW has signed memorandums of understanding with the departments of non-formal education

and primary education. It will begin training primary teachers next year and aims

to reach one million primary students by 2004.

Leak and Hong have traveled to nine provinces since January and plan to reach all

21 by November. Koh Kong's entire complement of 21 non-formal sector teachers attended

their recent one day training session.

Aware that many have traveled overnight to get there, Leak starts the day with a

rather unorthodox 'energizer' involving much laughter, animal charades and teachers

drawing animal words in the air with their bottoms.

The energy continues through the day, as Leak combines teaching about pollutants

and endangered species with games involving the teachers running in circles to reach

plastic bottles to the music of a mobile phone. His enthusiasm is infectious: two

female teachers stand crying with laughter at the sight of Koh Kong's non-formal

education director scrambling for a bottle when the music stops.

"We want the teachers to follow our activities when they go back to their students

and be active and happy so they do a good job," Leak said. "We don't want

the students to fall asleep."

SCW's book is a success with the teachers. They have few classroom materials and

seem amazed by the numerous pages depicting native Cambodian animals. One participant,

20-year-old teacher Man Rotya, has only three books to teach with. She says her 16-40

year old students have never seen environmental books.

"They will love it, because they love pictures of animals. Only some of them

can read and write," she says. "I am so glad to have another book. One

of the only books I have is about planting mushrooms."

Kit Whitney, director of SCW, says her organization targets people too poor to afford

education or those in rural areas lacking schools. The NGO provides basic literacy

and aims to change negative attitudes to the environment.

"Khmer culture has lost its love of books," says Whitney. "In many

ways, people demonize animals and depict forests as scary. You can't protect the

wildlife if you are scared of it."

A Walk Through the Forest is the first in a projected series of books about the environment.

Others on gibbons, tigers and catfish are due out at the end of May. One on elephants

is also in the works, as is a coloring-in book.

"These are the only books of their kind for quality, color and accuracy,"

Whitney says. "Most of the stuff you see is black and white cartoons. This sets

a whole new standard for environment education materials."

Whitney also believes SCW is the only NGO doing environmental education of this kind.

While in Koh Kong, trainers Leak and Hong also hold a special session for students.

In a teacher's narrow house, 13 students sit cross-legged on the wooden floor. A

fan rotates slowly overhead. The light is dim, yet they seem completely oblivious

to their sweltering surroundings, poring through pages of colorful animal illustrations.

Phat Dara, 18, has been attending free nightly classes for two months. He has just

learned to read.

"I used to attend Grade Two in primary school but stopped because my family

had no money. Now I have started again in the non-formal education class," says

Dara. "I have never seen a book about the environment before, and I found the

monk [in the story] interesting because he was good and saved the wildlife."

The message on conserving the environment seems to have registered. So Phon, 17,

says her attitude has changed.

"I like the wildlife in the pictures, but I recognize only a few animals like

the elephant," she says. "From now on I won't throw rubbish away. Before

I always threw out my plastic bags; now I will keep them."

Provincial governments, desperate for reading materials, support SCW's work as keenly

as do the teachers and students. Director of the non-formal education department,

In The, said:"Some of the wildlife in this book is nearly extinct, so it will

help children to learn about endangered species from when they are young."

Leak is optimistic about the impact of the work his team is doing on the future of

wildlife.

"We hope everyone who reads these books will take care of Cambodia's wildlife

- and that they will no longer kill animals and stick them up on their walls,"

he said.

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