CASE STUDY: Human Rights in Environmental Education

By Steve and Anna Tolan, Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre

Human rights are the rights and freedoms that everybody has from the moment of birth, simply because they are human beings. They are not privileges which need to be won and cannot be taken away by anyone or any organisation, including governments. They cover a huge range of issues, including those concerned with the environment.

All human beings are linked inextricably with their environment, whether they live in a New York apartment or grass hut in a remote part of the African bush. Environmental issues are, however, complex and multidimensional. As well as biophysical factors they include social, economic and political factors that all interact. In its broadest sense environmental education encompasses all of these issues and empowers people to make changes in any of them. 

If we accept this, then environmental education also encompasses human rights. The subject is particularly pertinent in developing countries where problems such as population growth, poverty, disease, clean water, land allocation, use of resources etc., all put tremendous pressures on the environment and have huge impacts on the daily lives of individuals.

The environment is what nurtures and protects us, often endangers or harms us, and gives us experiences that shape our lives. With such intricate ties to the environment, people have the right to be able to protect and conserve it and enjoy the aesthetic, social and economic benefits it can bring. This can be achieved by preservation, conservation or management strategies all of which need to be learnt and understood. 

Environmental education is the key to this learning process, to which everyone should have a right. In some countries of the world where there is a well-thought-out education system, environmental education forms part of the curriculum. In many countries, however, it has been swallowed up by mainstream subjects and its impact has thereby become diluted or lost.

In the developing countries of the world, the need for environmental education is probably as important as subjects such as biology, social sciences or history. In countries or areas which still hold wildlife populations it may be even more important. The natural wildlife of an area is the inheritance of the local people who have the right to enjoy it but also the duty to protect and conserve it for its own sake and for the benefit of future generations. When a species becomes extinct through land encroachment or poaching it can never again be of benefit to the people, whether through aesthetic appreciation, through employment or economic benefits made available by tourism. The environment can also benefit the community by the sustainable use of natural resources.

All of these issues are of great relevance to communities throughout the world. But if they cannot learn about them and understand them, they cannot be empowered to make changes and improvements to their lives. Environmental education -  learning about the environment which we live in and of which we are an intricate part - is a right we all have, so we can make informed choices for the benefit of present as well as future generations.

Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre, Zambia

In the early 1970s the density of black rhinos in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia was higher than anywhere else on the African continent. Nobody is sure of the exact population, but there were estimates of anywhere between 6,000 - 12,000. There then followed 20 years of the heaviest poaching within recorded history. Any large mammals were shot or snared, but the main targets were elephants and rhinos. The horn of rhinos is demanded in the Yemen of the Middle East where it is turned into traditional knife handles; in the Far East it is seen as a cure for anything from toothache to impotence. By the early 1990s there were no rhino left. Today, the children of the Luangwa Valley are able to see a vast array of mammals including elephants (their population was drastically reduced but they survived), giraffe, zebras, lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, sixteen species of antelopes, hippos, crocodiles etc. But they have never seen rhinos. Given the economic reality of Zambia, it is unlikely they will ever be reintroduced into South Luangwa National park, which otherwise remains one of the finest Parks in Africa.

It was against this background that in 1998 I came to Zambia with my husband Steve Tolan. For the previous ten years, wild Africa had become our passion. We had travelled widely on the continent and filled our lives outside of work with collecting old tribal artefacts, reading Africana books and watching every available television programme on Africa and its wildlife. We had a dream of one day moving to Africa and running a wildlife education centre for local children. We had both been long-serving Police Officers in England and Steve had retired with a healthy pension. In 1998 we sold our house, put everything into storage, bought a Landrover and shipped to Namibia. However Zambia was our destination, an economically poor, landlocked country with a low population density that still has vast, untouched wilderness areas and some of the best National Parks on the continent.

After only three weeks of entering Zambia we were fortunate enough to be given some land by the local Chief on the Luangwa River opposite South Luangwa National Park. After a year of struggling with bureaucracy for permission to run the project we started building. The Centre is located in a remote wilderness area, about sixteen kilometres from the nearest rural settlement and 160 kilometres from the nearest town. Obtaining supplies for building was full of problems and delays but by May 2001 the Centre was completed and officially opened. We called it Chipembele, the local name for the black rhino.

The Centre comprises a classroom, library and large interpretive room full of exhibits and displays on different aspects of wildlife and conservation. There is no charge for the schools to attend. All of our savings and the proceeds from the sale of our house went into the project and today it remains unfunded, being run from Steve's pension, our only source of income.

We bring in pupils from six local schools on a daily basis (though the Centre is open to any other school by arrangement if they can provide their own transport). These pupils are from poor, rural backgrounds and their schools are seriously lacking material and equipment. Poaching, deforestation, soil erosion and land shortages are but some of the environmental problems their families face in their daily lives.  And even though they live only a few kilometres from the National Park, many have never been inside it and the only animals they see are the problem ones such as the elephants and baboons that destroy their crops.

The programme is based on team work, with the twenty pupils being divided into five teams of four for the day's activities. These may include lessons, word games, a quiz, a drawing competition, a bush walk etc. Points are awarded throughout the day and at the end of the day the winning team members each go home with a small prize - a great incentive for the pupils to listen and participate!

At Chipembele we teach the children that wildlife and their environment have values that can improve and enrich their lives. Animals and plants can be beautiful and interesting and in addition are important both in their own right and in the roles they play in maintaining the balance of the environment.  But they can also be of value because of the tourists who visit the area. Tourists bring foreign exchange; the lodges and supporting businesses provide employment. There is therefore a real chance of the pupils finding a job when they leave school. We teach them that these benefits are, however, all based around wildlife and if we do not look after it, it could all go the way of the rhino.

A Role for NGOs in Environmental Education

With funding, land and permission from the appropriate authorities a Wildlife or Environmental Education Centre is not difficult to establish. From the Chipembele Case Study you will see that we were fortunate enough to have been given land for the project and were not dependent on funding. The land was given to us because the Chief believed in what we wanted to do. He was able to see not only the very real immediate benefits for the children of his community but also the longer-term benefits to the wildlife of the area. We also had the full support of the local community, which helped in our battle to obtain permission from the authorities for the project to go ahead. This is a vital first step. Without community support any such project will inevitably fail.

The second imperative for setting up a similar project is a passionate interest in wildlife and the environment. This is what drives us and what will keep the project going, hopefully for the rest of our lives. Every week we are picking up new exhibits to put in the Centre, finding new ways of improving the teaching programme, networking with similar-minded organisations etc. The project has also expanded to include a pupil sponsorship scheme for orphaned pupils and school renovation projects whenever funds become available. It is our enthusiasm and belief in what we are doing that keeps the project alive and dynamic.

As a final word of encouragement, never give up! The developing world is full of logistical and bureaucratic problems that will delay and frustrate you. Our project took almost three years to complete and we could write a book on the problems we encountered. We could easily have given up many times along the way but never did. Our dream was to build and run a wildlife education centre for local children in Africa and by sheer persistence we did it. Now we are starting to see the benefits as some children ask for extra tuition because they want to become safari guides, or they choose to read wildlife books in the library after lunch instead of playing football, as schools from hundreds of kilometres away are asking to send their pupils here and the local adult community is now insisting we include them in the programme! 

Never give up... environmental education is one of the most valuable and rewarding projects you could ever get involved in. Believe me, I know - from the singing and smiling faces of the children as they drive away at the end of the day at Chipembele.

For further information on Chipembele Wildlife Education Centre please visit our website or contact us, Steve and Anna Tolan, by e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.