Collaborative Knowledge Building – The story of River Kaigal

By Sriranjini RamanonJan. 04, 2022in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

With a focus on education centred around indigenous ecological knowledge while empowering children, their parents and the local community, the Kaigal Education and Environment programme (KEEP) is a unique community based environmental education programme. KEEP began as a programme under the Krishnamurti Foundation India (KFI)  in the regions adjoining the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district run by the Foundation for Education Ecology and Livelihood ( FEEL for Earth). Since 2002, KEEP has collaborated with the Yanadi tribal community in the region to work on education that is contextual to the community. Through FEEL for Earth’s programs, conservation is led by the community through Ex Situ Conservation and encouraging livelihoods that protect and nourish the local ecology of the region while nurturing the tribe’s rich knowledge of the forest.

Kaigal Group (Image from Feel for Earth Website)

As a former student of Dr Sudha Premnath, the founder of KEEP, and having visited the Sanctuary Schools and other Programmes run by KEEP, I explore the ingredients required for a successful education that is contextual to the community and education that is centred around a love for nature and protecting biodiversity. With the climate crisis, rampant environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and cultural erosion, programmes like KEEP give me hope about having a future where youth can celebrate nature, actively participate in democracy by being responsible citizens, practice stewardship of the land and protect the environment.

In 1997, the Government of India gave the Krishnamurthi Foundation of India 200 acres in the Kaigal village right outside the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary. The land was a degraded scrub jungle by the Kaigal river that led to a beautiful waterfall. The Valley School in Bangalore took the responsibility to take care of the land and started learning initiatives there that encouraged forest conservation and environmental education in collaboration with the local community. In April 1999, after the final exams, Sudha aunty took 13 of her 11th standard environmental studies students on a field visit to Kaigal. While the students camped in a single hut without any electricity or basic amenities, little did they know that this trip would lead to a lifelong relationship with the people of Kaigal, a community conservation programme and a small business that empowers the youth and women of Kaigal.

The trip’s objective was to observe and understand basic environmental concepts practically like populations and communities in an ecosystem, tree diversity, species diversity and more. Sudha aunty was clear that for ecological studies and conservation to happen, the local people have to be at the centre of the project. “If you’re going to work in a forest area and are interested in rejuvenating degraded land and restoring a forest, local people need to be involved in the project.” The students undertook a 3-day door to door socio-economic survey and collected data through interviews with the community. This fieldwork enabled establishing a friendship and personal connection with the village. The villagers were enthusiastic that teachers and students had come to learn with and from the village.

Sudha aunty continued to take her students to Kaigal for projects that studied tree diversity, birds, water bodies, communities and livelihoods. The locals and students together participated in these projects to document the knowledge of the region’s biodiversity and develop solutions to improve life for the people and the ecosystem. The teachers, students, and villagers began a research project on non-timber forest resources and an afforestation project. One of the villagers, Subbarayappa from the nearby Mugilupodalarevu village, suggested, “See, I will tell you some important trees you must grow – I will bring the saplings from the forest. Jalarimanu (this has fragrant flowers, good to grow), Bajji manga (good for lactating mothers and cattle), Karakkai, Thandra (both medicinal), Dhupam, Errapolichi”. One of the field coordinators with the students and teachers loved this idea and went with the villagers to the forests and gathered saplings which led to the starting of the community afforestation and conservation programme. Over the years, the locals, students and teachers have worked with scientists and communities to document biodiversity, build germplasm banks and initiate a participatory conservation programme. The work has impacted 26000 people over ecosystems covering 14000 hectares across 60 villages in and around the Kaigal region.

Sudha aunty’s friends and colleagues encouraged her to submit a proposal and apply for grants from the United Nations Environment Programme to continue doing the work at a larger scale. In 2002, The Kaigal Education and Environment Programme (KEEP) was founded. It has a Conservation Center in Kaigal village on the fringes of the Kaundinya Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh, consisting of a Seed Bank, a Forest Nursery, an Educational Resource and Training Center. The centre is now located in a beautiful forested land with the Kaigal river flowing through. KEEP focuses on initiating conservation work, providing training to youth and women to acquire skills for a livelihood, and starting schools for marginalised communities.

When I visited Kaigal in 2017 as part of KEEP, my fondest memories of my time there was at the Kaligutta Sanctuary school where I spent days with tribal children as they taught me how to make balls from lantana flowers, pick Nongus (Ice Apples) and sing and dance to folk songs about nature spirits.  I was in awe of these middle school children’s knowledge about their surrounding ecosystems, their food (where it can be foraged, how it can be grown, which season is it available), and their deep connection to and reverence for nature. This was in deep contrast to my city-dwelling self, my younger cousins or middle school children who are often discouraged or don’t have access to this knowledge and natural spaces.

Students playing at Kaligutta School ( Photographed by Sriranjini Raman in 2017)

J. Krishnamurthi said, “If you lose your relationship with nature, you lose your relationship with humanity.”

The Sanctuary Schools around Kaigal began after Subbarayapa asked Sudha aunty and her team in 2003, “You are talking to us about seeds and forests – can you do something for our children?”. Similarly, Duggeppa from Kaligutta, a village 17 kilometres away,  requested, “Teach our children, well, teach them about the forests”. Duggeppa cleared his goat shed to make space for a learning corner for children, the Kaligutta Sanctuary School. The Sanctuary Schools began as non-formal learning centres in 5 villages, and they transformed themselves into registered primary schools in Mugilupodalarevu and Kalligutta in 2008. Nagamma, a healer and a wise elder of the Kaligutta village, shared that two pieces of land were available. One would be used for the school and the other for the temple. The local community believes that education is as sacred as the places of worship. The villagers cleared out goat sheds, made fences and walls with Lantana sticks, and these are used as the schools.  With this prestigious responsibility, Sudha aunty and the teaching team envisioned the Sanctuary Schools to be a space that simultaneously affirms their knowledge and way of life and encourages a culturally responsive, inclusive, contextually relevant learning environment for the community.  The Schools are believed to be community-owned spaces where children and individuals can go on a learning journey and a path of self-development in an environment free from fear.

The schools are called Sanctuary Schools.  The name comes from how the schools cater to the children of remote tribal villages situated on the fringes of the only elephant inhabited forest in Andhra Pradesh, the Kaudinya Wildlife Sanctuary. The main goal was that tribal children who do not have school education should be provided with meaningful learning opportunities and quality education. When it comes to education, tribal children are often ignored, and their learning and childhood development is not prioritised. In the region, tribal children have also faced more discrimination in government and public schools. The Sanctuary Schools hope to help children grow into healthy, happy and responsible adults.

About  50 students in the age group of 3 to 14 attend the 2 Sanctuary Schools. The schools are registered under the Right to Education Act (2009) and are staffed by qualified teachers, and operate in two tribal villages of Kalligutta and Mugilupodarevu. Education is free, and all the teachers are from the locality. Youth who graduated from high school were trained to become teachers and obtained B.Ed college degrees. This training process facilitated livelihood creation as well.

Students are grouped according to their learning level, and classes are conducted in mixed-age groups. The child’s first language is the language of instruction, and the pedagogy is based on exploratory activities to construct knowledge. The curriculum and activities have been developed to draw from the child’s and the community knowledge of the local environment, and the classroom encourages peer learning rather than one-way teacher to student learning.

Experiential learning is prioritised, integrating local ecology with the subjects taught. Textbooks are utilised only in Grade 5.  The child’s autonomy is respected, and child-centred approaches like the Montessori and Kindergarten method are adapted. The living world is used as the classroom and is not limited to the textbook. Activities like forest walks, seed collections, and documenting biodiversity structured into the children’s schedule allows students to share their knowledge with teachers and changed the direction of classroom discourse.  Community members share their experiences and knowledge through scheduled resource activities with students. Creativity is encouraged among students and teachers through activities like art, craft, pottery, music for self-expression. The schools also encourage community service, silence, reflection, introspection and creative pursuits for children and adults alike. Parents take children to the forest and introduce them to plants in the forest study classes as part of the curriculum. Teachers have the autonomy and flexibility to learn and explore with the students. The curriculum evolves regularly based on the participatory design of the materials with teachers, resource persons and educators with similar learning experiences within a context. Children in the schools are encouraged to participate in events outside their village through structured academic experiences, arts, sports, and trips. Personalised learning plans and continuous individualised assessments are used to progress in their learning journey. Skill-based work like macrame, stitching connected to local women’s enterprises were introduced for students and teachers to understand the value of meaningful work.

Most of the children continue their studies after age 12 by joining a Government High School – day school. Few students complete their education through NIOS with support from the Sanctuary School teachers.

Sudha aunty believes that to address the challenges of sustainable development, we need a fresh perspective on education that offers opportunities to fall in love with nature and develop a sense of wonder. Feelings for forests and wonder are best created when children spend quiet time in nature and develop an understanding of the natural world. This also enables appreciation for the ways of life of different communities and creates an inclusive learning environment for learners. The Sanctuary Schools facilitate this kind of education through their educational principles.

Sudha aunty shared that “When children are educated in schools, they should feel proud of their parents, which empowers them. We have not been sensitive to children from tribal communities while writing textbooks, developing learning materials, and structuring lessons. Invariably you will find geography textbooks describing Indian farmers as uneducated, primitive, poverty-stricken as if they have no knowledge and don’t know natural farming. These farmers, especially tribals, have abundant knowledge about seeds, seasons, tubers, medicinal plants, herbs, wildflowers, millets and more. Children should be proud of their parents, and schools should facilitate this through education, and it is time education systems value this traditional knowledge.”

In 2008, the Environment Education Programme began for students from cities aged 6-18, who took 3-5 day trips to Kaigal, to bring new perspectives to environmental education apart from what is offered in the mainstream curriculums. Mainstream environmental studies curriculums are centralised and textbook-based rather than being experiential.

Sudha Aunty questioned why pollution is the first topic students in schools study under environmental studies. She shared, “Pollution is not the environment; pollution comes under sociology; it is man-made.” Textbook based ecological learning that is centralised often does more harm than good. She gives the example of how we learn about flowers in schools; we mostly see the photos of commercially grown flowers or invasive species in our textbooks rather than local endemic species like wildflowers. There is a disconnect for children, “The moment you go to school, you stop learning because you’re reading things you cannot relate to.”

She shares that “Instilling an environmental consciousness will never happen with textbooks and examinations. It will happen when schools and educators teach about beauty, the intricacy, the complexity of the environment, and nature’s rhythms. You cannot teach the rhythms of nature; you need to see, experience, feel, hear and be present with nature.”

In the environmental education programme, groups of 15-20 children and 2-3 teachers participate in forest walks and sessions on forest biodiversity with local tribal elders. Children learn activities like mapping land use, documenting biodiversity on nature walks, making seed balls from native species for dispersal and collecting seeds and saplings for a forest nursery. The importance of land stewardship is instilled through tending to the land, a day spent with local farmers on their farm, learning from women from their self-help groups supporting sustainable enterprises.

Kaigal River (Image taken from Feel for Earth website)

The programme is coordinated and facilitated by the teachers from the Sanctuary Schools, members from the Kaigal Trust – a community enterprise based on local bio-resources. This eclectic team manages the programme’s conservation and livelihood generation activities.

Field coordinators harvesting peanuts ( Photographed by Sriranjini Raman in 2017)

When I went to Kaigal for the Environmental Education Programme with my high school class, it was interesting how, in the beginning, my classmates felt fear because of being in the heart of nature without technology and the hustle-bustle of the city. This restlessness transitioned into calmness, wonder and awe as we participated in activities. Swimming in streams and waterfalls, hanging out with local farmers, playing with children who had an abundance of knowledge about their ecosystem, feeling the earth and making seed balls, eating locally grown food, spending quiet time under the moon or by the blue sky to reflect and introspect and deepen connections with nature.

Students harvesting Groundnuts ( Photographed by Sriranjini Raman in 2017)

The Kaigal Environmental Education Programmes are designed depending on the duration, age group of students, season, local conditions, and activities during the visit. Younger kids play and revel in nature and deepen their connection, and older children realise the threat to biodiversity and the impacts of the climate crisis. Children recognise the importance of conservation and connect the ties between environmental justice and social justice.

The programmes cater to students from 14 schools in India, including Peepal Grove, Bangalore Steiner School, Prakriya Green Wisdom School and Shibumi. Feel for Earth continues to work with the Yanadi knowledge holders who share their stories about their land, culture, and traditional livelihoods. The Yanadi people collaborated with teachers and students to document the vegetation diversity and deep understandings of the ecosystem. An extensive conservation programme ranging from Ex-situ conservation, collaborative knowledge building, biodiversity documentation and conservation in local governance has become part of the local community responsibility and life.

The Kaigal Education and Environment Programme is a fantastic example of an alternative that brings together knowledge systems and centres the community from the start. Education, Livelihood, Conservation, Skills, Ecology, Equity and Justice, must be at the heart of solutions protecting biodiversity and supporting indigenous communities.

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