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Projects from the Global Initiative

ARAB REGION ECOTECHNIE NETWORK: "Notes on Environmental Awareness in Arab Countries"

by Irina Springuel

Most of the Arab countries share a similar environment, where water scarcity is the main constraint, and face common environmental and social problems, including a rapid increase of population growth and urbanization. An alarming decline of biodiversity knowledge among the urban population, particularly in Egypt, is quite obvious. As a professor teaching botany and ecology in a university, I can state that my students of first year biology know only the names of a few cultivated plants. Those from cities and large towns often cannot recognize plants that are commonly cultivated in Egypt. Most of these students cannot give the names of street trees, indigenous Nile Valley and desert plants, common birds and mammals . Some students from cities have seen cultivated land through visiting relatives in villages but most students never have been in the desert, despite 96 per cent of Egypt being desert.

The fellahin have a good knowledge of cultivated ecosystems, which they transfer to their children. However, as soon as the children are grown up and leave their parents, especially those who have been educated, and move to urban areas, they no longer work on the land and lose their received knowledge, so are not able to transfer it to next generation. Taking into consideration that most knowledge on their surroundings, including biodiversity, is learned by young children (below the age of two) from their parents, the loss of knowledge on biodiversity is increasing in inverse proportion to the decreasing rural population. However, in Arab countries there is a population group with high knowledge on biodiversity that is transferred from one generation to another. These are the nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples that still exist in remote desert and on the marginal lands, who live in a very harsh environment and sustainable manage the scarce resources of such inhospitable lands.

Let me give you an example. The nomadic population in the Wadi Allaqi Biosphere Reserve are living in the area where rainfall happens once in a few years. Only a deep knowledge of the ecosystem where they are living and their sustainable utilization of resources, particularly pasture land, help them to survive. They know the names and uses of all the plants growing in the surrounding desert. They use almost all of the 130 plant species growing in this area, in almost every aspect of their lives, including food and medicine, animal fodder, charcoal and firewood, domestic artefacts.

I can give another example from the geographer Joseph Hobbs, who lived for about two years with the Khushmaan clan whose territory lies in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Hobbs states that: "The nomads' knowledge and use of resources are not based only on taxonomic categories or aesthetic qualities. These people are also unmatched authorities about the ecology of their environment. " He illustrated the breadth and depth of their knowledge with two detailed examples on animal diet and the ibex. He comments that: "The Khushmaan know a great deal not only about the interrelations of plants and animals but about the life-cycles, habits, habitats and other details of particular animals and plants" and points out that the observations about the ibex he includes are exclusively those of the nomads. "These suggest that much `scientific knowledge' is held in the untrained, `unscientific' environmental lore of these people and they illustrate the importance of this animal to the Bedouins. " The book's appendix listing Bedouin, Latin, and English plant and animal names follows the Khushmaan classification of plants and animals.

I strongly endorse Hobbs's statement that "the traditional knowledge and skills of pastoral nomads, developed over thousands of years of experience with the desert, should be of priority interest to Egypt and other arid nations with severe environmental problems".

Levels of knowledge on biodiversity (BD)

 
  Population Level of BD knowledge Need for BD education BD knowledge to be acquired Access to media information
1. Urban Increasing Poor, if any Urgent None Good
2. Rural Decreasing Relatively good on cultivated ecosystems Reasonable Some Some
3. Nomads or semi-nomads Dramatically decreasing Excellent None Much None

The above table briefly summarizes different population groups' level of biodiveristy knowledge and what should be done to improve it.

Priority should be given to the urban population at all ages in improving the level of biodiversity knowledge. Attention should be paid to both family education and higher education, bearing in mind that university graduates could form the nuclei for spreading the knowledge. Access to media information is not a good criterion in evaluating the extent of biodiversity knowledge. For example, the Internet can be a very powerful tool of communication and source of information when a reasonably large proportion of the populace has access to it. However, it is of limited value for biodiversity education, especially in developing African and Arab countries, where even university professors may not have access to Internet, for example in my own university! The semi-nomadic and nomadic peoples, highly knowledgeable on biodiversity, have little or no access to media such as radio and TV and none whatsoever to the Internet. But they can provide us with biodiversity knowledge and our goal is to obtain and protect the indigenous knowledge. The UNESCO MAB programme of Biosphere Reserve is a suitable means of working with these semi-nomads and nomads. Establishing education and training centres in the Biosphere Reserves is strongly recommended for formal and informal environmental education in general and biodiversity in particular.

Chair and networks

In November 1997 a UNESCO-Cousteau Ecotechnie Chair on Environmental Education (EE) and Sustainable Development was established at the Unit of Environmental Studies and Development (UESD), South Valley University, Aswan, Egypt, in recognition of its outstanding contribution in the field of multidisciplinary research and applied studies toward the sustainable development and protection of natural resources. Biodiversity education as an integral part of EE is one of the main components of Chair activities.

The global objectives of the Chair are to contribute to promoting national, regional and international co-operation in balancing the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of natural resources and their ecosystems.

The objectives and the activities undertaken by Chair are as follows:

  1. To promote interdisciplinary education, training, research and field projects combining socio-economic, human and environmental sciences. The current activities have included the intensive research work by national/international multidisciplinary team in Wadi Allaqi Biosphere Reserve on different aspects of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge of natural resources.
  2. To build the capacity of UESD, in order to serve as a Centre of Excellence for Ecotechnie-related, advanced interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies, vocational training and research concerning integrated management of natural resources and sustainable development. The present activities focus on the establishment of the infrastructure for laboratory research in the University campus. Phyto-chemistry, eco-physiology, tissue culture, aquatic, soil and renewable energy laboratories with advanced equipment are already established at UESD, supported by a library and offices. The UESD team of senior and junior researchers is highly qualified in different environmental topics with the ability to promote environmental research and education. A field centre and an experimental/demonstration farm have been established in the Wadi Allaqi Biosphere Reserve. A Centre for Desert Research and Training has been proposed on the base of existing infrastructure in Wadi Allaqi Biosphere Reserve and will be advocated in the coming symposium organised by UESD to be held in March 2001.
  3. To design projects focusing on the integrated management of natural resources of the Wadi Allaqi Biosphere Reserve. Examples of major projects have been designed and implemented and still implementing by Allaqi team include: environmental valuation and management of indigenous plants; cultivation of indigenous plants with high economic value and particularly medicinal plants; Bedouin women and sheep production and other projects with related items.
  4. To improve the general knowledge on environment and promote awareness among policy-makers, educators and the public regarding integrated approaches to environmental conservation, natural resource management and sustainable development. A series of seminars on environmental issues (e.g. population growth, water scarcity, air pollution, biodiversity, desertification, environmental law, etc) is currently being conducted in the university (mainly for students from different faculties) and in the town of Aswan for local people interested in environment, including students, schoolteachers, and government employees. The staff of the UESD has also initiated field studies for schools on the First Cataract Islands at Aswan. These islands have been given conservation status by Egyptian legislation. One of the main objectives of this conservation area is to increase both local adults' and children's awareness of biodiversity.

An important activity of the Chair is the promotion of networking efforts in the fields of study it embraces and to act as a leader in the development of two networks: an national and Arab Region Ecotechnie Network.

The National Egyptian Ecotechnie Network (NEEN) has united several Egyptian universities and other national institutions and organizations in promoting co-operation among national bodies and regional centres working in the field of environmental education and training. Following is the list of national institutions of NEEN:

  • South Valley University
  • Cairo University
  • Ain Shams University
  • Alexandria University
  • Assiut University
  • Mansoura University
  • Suez Canal University
  • Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA)

The main objective of NEEN is to promote Environmental Education at university level, particularly in supporting the establishment of a Department of Environmental Science at South Valley University and a general course on environment for all first year university students in Egypt. Towards this end NEEN members have prepared syllabi for environmental courses and organized the related meetings with the Supreme Council of Universities, the British Council and UNESCO Cairo Office.

The Arab Region Ecotechnie Network (AREN) between Arab Universities (Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) and similar advanced centres in the world was approved at an Ecotechnie meeting in July 1999 in Bahrain. Universities within AREN are prepared to work together on Biodiversity Education issues as part of environmental education towards sustainable development. Following is the list of AREN members of Arab Universities:

  • The University of South Valley (Egypt)
  • The University of Bahrain (Bahrain)
  • The University of Jordan (Jordan)
  • The University of Mohamed V. (Morocco)
  • The University of Khartoum (Sudan)
  • The University of Damascus (Syria)
  • The University of Sana'a (Yemen)

Based on the principle of academic freedom and the free flow of scientific information, and in a spirit of academic solidarity, the participating institutions in the activities undertaken by the Network, shall seek through long-term co-operation to facilitate the transfer of knowledge among themselves. This will be achieved by means of staff exchanges, staff development schemes, curriculum development and other appropriate action, with the overall aim of contributing to the development of the educational and research capacities and self-reliance of the participating universities.

Projects can be designed among the network members to promote multidisciplinary Environmental Education. One of the suggested topics is to study and record the indigenous knowledge of the peoples who are still living nomadically or semi-nomadically in most Arab countries.

Another topic which, is the main objective of AREN, is to build up the capacity of the centres of excellence of AREN in education and training in environment-related maters. This will include both formal and informal education with special attention to training the taxonomists (world wide programme), teachers training on biodiversity and establishment of field centres for BD training. At first stage the AREN can be connected to Arab MAB in establishment of Education Field Centres or stations in following Biosphere Reserves:

  • Egypt: Omayed; Wadi Allaqi - (some actions already taken toward establishment research and education centre)
  • Jordan: Dana
  • Morocco: Arganeraie; Oasis du sud marocain
  • Sudan: Dinder; Radom

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme