A school ship bringing conservation education to Indonesian islanders wins UNESCO sustainability education prize


The Kalabia Environmental Education programme is one of the three winners of the 2018 edition of the UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development. Programme Founder and Advisor Angela Beer spoke to UNESCO about the win.

The Prize, which rewards the three winners with US$ 50,000 each, will be presented at a ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris on 9 October 2018.

The Kalabia is a lesson in the transformational power of sustainable development education. The 34-metre-long ship, an innovative floating platform educating young people about conservation of the environment as it moves between Indonesian islands, used to be a destructive tuna trawler.

Refitted as an education station, it is now the keystone of a marine conservation programme delivered by a dedicated team of local educators to the more than 100 remote coastal villages spread across the five million hectares that make up Raja Ampat in West Papua, a region of spectacular biodiversity.

Education Adviser Angela Beer, who has seen the programme evolve from its first days, said:

“We are honoured and very proud that the Kalabia programme is receiving this much-deserved recognition for this invaluable programme in a globally unique, special, and important place.”

Conserving precious natural resources

The programme, initially developed by Conservation International and now part of the Kalabia Foundation (Kalabia is the local name for a ‘walking’ shark unique to the islands), began in 2008 with a mission to improve the long-term well-being of the Papuan people by giving them the knowledge to ensure the conservation of their marine and coastal resources for a sustainable future.

“Fifteen years ago, nobody had heard of Raja Ampat,” said Angela. “Then its blow-your-mind reef and coastal biodiversity was recognized and everything changed. When it was first ‘discovered’ the challenges in conservation were to do with destructive practices such as bomb fishing, shark finning and general over-fishing.

“In addition, on the many low-lying islands the local people would actually dig up the reef to use as foundations for housing construction. There was coral mining and poaching of endangered species of sea turtles. People didn’t realise how special, nor how vulnerable, the area was and it was an interesting challenge to formulate a programme to raise awareness.”

In one decade, however, there has been a huge shift in the main threat to the area and ironically, the interest in its incredible diversity began to attract tourism.

“The threat now is not so much to do with bad use and extraction of natural resources by locals, but to do with tourism and development pressures: the exploitation of the islands is happening too rapidly and not in a context of responsible tourism nor sustainable coastal development,” she said.

Youth and clan leaders empowered

Enter the Kalabia with a mission and strategy to engage communities, and most of all youth, in their islands’ future and precious resources. This has involved working with tribal councils and clans who have ownership claims extending from land to reefs and also backing up the educational work with traditional and governmental legislation. A network of six large marine protected areas (MPAs) have been developed in Raja Ampat to help manage and protect the rich local oceans.

The Kalabia tours the islands offering 4-day intensive education programmes to children which are designed to involve whole communities.

“We work with children in grade 4 to 6 at an age where they are super keen to learn and soak up information like sponges. We also teach whole communities that by using unsustainable practices they are undermining their own future” said Angela.

During the interactive courses, which offer 5 to 6 educators per 30 students, the children participate in a mixture of small-group lessons, field trips and interactive games some of which take place onboard the Kalabia.

“In relation to one of the most fragile elements of this environment, the coral reef, the children and their elders often think coral is a rock or a plant, rather than a living animal. Gaining understanding like this is key to change.

“Even in these remote regions marine debris has become an issue. We teach about the impact of plastics on the environment and health and that it cannot be discarded like a biodegradable leaf,” she said. 
The programme includes a monitoring and evaluation element to record evidence of change in knowledge, skills and attitudes, but anecdotal evidence is the most powerful indicator of the transformational power of what the children learn.
“We start the lesson by asking them ‘where does your garbage go when you throw it in the sea?’ They usually reply simply, ‘away’. So, after doing a beach clean-up together and snorkelling on the reef, we tell them that their island is another island’s ‘away’.
When it comes to indigenous clan leaders they have been able to exercise their ownership rights to block and shut down outsiders from overfishing while themselves fishing only for subsistence and allowing local fish stocks to regenerate.

Since its inception the Kalabia has taught more than 10,000 students in its core programme, visited all Raja Ampat villages over three times and touched the lives of well over 100,000 people through extended programmes.

For the future the team hopes to use the prize money to provide capacity-building to the Papuan Educator team and to develop and publish a new story-book series for distribution in constituent communities.  

“Most significantly, we hope the funds can be used to leverage additional funding for program expansion,” said Angela. “The West Papua government has declared itself Indonesia’s first ‘Conservation Province’ and we hope all Papuan communities will have access to a tailored Kalabia Environmental Education programme within the next few years.”