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Friday, April 16, 2010

Small changes make a difference

Story and photo By YU JI yuji@thestar.com.my

Careful guidance: Sabatini Dapit, 16, from SMK Penrissen, planting a mangrove tree with help from MNS environmental education officer Prasad Vasudevon at Kampung Pasir Puteh, about 20km from Kuching.

The energy and food crisis, for example, has destabilised various governments in poorer parts of the world; while in richer countries, there is a growing movement to adopt back-to-basics lifestyles.In Malaysia, as in other developing nations, society is stuck between a rock and a hard place. It is a tricky balancing act between infrastructure development and conserving nature.Both sides lay claim to legitimate concerns, and although at opposite ends, both share a common goal – achieving a better quality of life.

One of the oldest non-governmental organisations in the country, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), founded in 1940, believes that environmental education is the best way forward.The MNS does not adopt sensational methods. While it comprises undeniably passionate activists, society members are mindful of their ways.“In Malaysia, like in other Asian nations, it is less effective to create tension,” the society’s senior education executive Evelyn Lim toldStarMetro recently. “For MNS, we do not want to create a situation whereby we cannot see eye-to-eye with the Government on various matters. It’s much better to use a softer, more indirect approach to move forward.
“No, the Government does not adopt all our suggestions after roundtable discussions we have with them, but at least some ideas are infused into their policies and implementation.”Lim is a good example of the society’s members who are mostly young. Many are university graduates and well-read. Above all, they stick to their ideals as best they can.
“I’ve been with the society, in its education department, since I graduated from university a decade ago,” Lim said. “It’s the kind of job I enjoy, since I like teaching. I like the environment, but I don’t like classrooms.”Most of MNS’ efforts lie in education for school kids. The programmes emphasise outdoor activities, which Lim said were aimed at complementing Malaysia’s exam-oriented education system.“It’s one thing to teach concepts, but another to actually see and act on climate change,” she said. Lim was in Kuching as part of Telekom Malaysia’s Earth Camp, a collaboration between the telco and the society.
Last weekend, the joint effort brought together 64 students from secondary schools throughout Sarawak for a three-day nature event around Kuching.The society’s education officers talked to students about advances in bio-technology contrasted against its negative effects. This was reinforced with experiments, games and nature walks, both during the day and at night. The students were taken to Kampung Pasir Puteh, about 20km from the city, to help villagers plant mangrove trees. There, they learnt how erosion could lead to sedimentation in coastal areas. Kampung Pasir Puteh (White Sand Village) is typical of the environmental woes in Malaysia. Part of its problems are natural, but a lot of it is caused by human activities. The village lies between Bako National Park and Senari Port in Sejingkat.
Prior to the planting activity, the students learnt why mangrove forests were rich in biodiversity.For example, saltwater trees serve as nesting and nursery areas for marine life. Oysters cling to mangrove roots and migratory birds shelter on their branches. Mangroves also provide a natural shield against wind and wave erosion. As environmental educationists, Lim said: “Our greatest challenge is to translate complicated scientific knowledge and technical terms into layman’s term. In one word, environmental concerns rely on relevance.
“For adults, we’ve got to show them how their ways could affect their and their children’s health. For children, we’ve got to make it fun for them to learn about nature. If you just go on about a concept, it’s not going to make a difference,” Lim said. She said that environmental awareness in Malaysia was high, but there was little action. The environment was not a priority for most, she added. “If you ask Malaysians to list their concerns, the environment is rarely within the top five. It’s true that awareness is improving, but people here aren’t walking the talk, so to speak.”
At the end of this year, MNS will have a big celebration to commemorate its 70th anniversary. But Lim said the society’s members preferred to think small. “At MNS, we are not aiming for big drastic changes. Most of us are brought up within an education system that spreads environmental concern over multiple subjects, so youths are not going to wake up the morning after graduating and suddenly become full-blown environmentalists.
“What MNS is striving for is a change in attitude, in people’s habits. That’s a realistic goal because people are more receptive to small changes.”
For more information, visit www.mns.org.my

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