AFRICA: Scholars, locals collaborate on environment

"There needs to be a mental shift: people need to realise that they themselves are often the cause of environmental problems," says Elsie Kariuki, 30, from Nairobi. An environmental studies graduate employed as project officer for Community-based Biodiversity Conservation Films, Kariuki is determined that training she is undertaking to create environmental film 'shorts' helps educate her fellow Kenyans to understand "that our natural resources are not infinite, that they must make a conscious effort towards their regeneration and sustainability".

Kariuki is one of 50 aspiring young film-makers from Kenya and Tanzania who have been learning to shoot and edit footage on natural history topics ranging from the illegal poaching of endangered wildlife for export to land erosion because of the disastrous drought now affecting many parts of East Africa.

This is part of a project led by Dr David Harper, a senior lecturer in the University of Leicester's biology department, together with renowned television producer Richard Brock who made the BBC wildlife series Life on Earth. The idea is that the films will be used in conservation education in local schools and villages.

Funded by a Darwin Initiative grant from the UK Department for the Environment, the fact the films are conceived, produced, directed, shot and edited by local graduates, rather than by foreign film-makers will be crucial to their effectiveness in getting their environmental message across, Harper says.

Wildlife documentaries created by Western television companies do not deal with the dilemmas faced by village communities in Africa as they interact with their surrounding environment in what is often a daily struggle to survive, he explains.

Kariuki agrees: "Most of the conservation films shown to Kenyan audiences are not made with Kenyans as the primary audience in mind. The language used, the expressions, the style of presentation, may sometimes hinder the audience from really getting the message."

Harper says the trainees' films made for local audiences have people in them that pupils can recognise and relate to. "It means an empathy is instantly created."

Jackson Kipkoech Komen, 28, an education officer for Lake Bogoria National Reserve, is training as a film-maker on the project and says he has already noticed a difference in audiences' response.

"When I used to show films made in other areas [of the world], people were never serious in watching," Komen explains. "They took everything to be unreal. Since I have made my own films and shown them, communities appreciate [the issues] because they saw themselves, saw an environment they recognised and respected the opinions in the films."

The challenge now is to get the young film-makers' shorts out to the most remote and poorly connected parts of Africa. This is where Brock's work on finding novel distribution methods comes in. He is currently testing out options such as mobile phone screens, laptops and memory sticks onto which a tailored selection of films can be loaded and easily transported to wherever they are needed.

"A unique element of this project is that, through using highly accessible distribution methods, an extensive 'mix and match' library of 300 or so of these short films will be created for use across Africa," he says.

"Educators will then be able to use this film library to build, for example, a 'conservation curriculum' tailored to local children's environments that could run for a school year, or which could, perhaps, contribute to a community education project on, say, the long-term effects of forest clearing."

This month, Harper and Brock intend to invite a large number of environmental and educational NGOs to see a demonstration of the newly created film library. They will be able to try out the various means of selecting, transporting and showing the film shorts in remote locations.

As well as being used to raise awareness among communities that are vital guardians of fragile local environments, the Darwin Initiative film-makers' newly learned skills are also being used to enrich university teaching.

In a collaboration led by Professor Kenneth Mavuti of the University of Nairobi, the trainees recently accompanied newly appointed university scientists from Kenya and Tanzania to record their research into water basin management at Lake Naivasha and Lake Natron.

"They are following each scientist and editing footage into short clips that will give an explanation of the research, demonstrate methods, illustrate laboratory analysis and show the results," explains Harper.

The partnership was brokered under the Field IT for East Africa project, which is managed by the British Council and funded by the Department for International Development, with the intention of revising higher education courses in sustainable water management by using film and web-based material.

Aiming to bring the wetland ecological cycle to life, the clips will be uploaded as support material onto a website that will provide a 'virtual field course' for many more students.

Filmed appropriately and used creatively, Kariuki believes, the kind of footage she and her fellow trainees are producing could help to spread the message - both through informal and formal education - that their countries' most precariously poised environments need protecting.