Photo: Screengrab from the UNEP video

Photo: Screengrab from the UNEP video

The project is part of a larger effort by UNEP to engage Africa’s youth in natural resource management and spur the upscaling of restoration initiatives across the continent.

Most school children in South Africa learn about ecosystems – like wetlands and river basins – in the classroom and from textbooks. But a new programme is using videos and animation to give pupils an up-close look at some of South Africa’s unique natural spaces.

On 5 June, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and several partners launched the Virtual Ecosystem Classroom, which takes young South African learners on a journey across three landscapes threatened by human development. Its aim is to raise awareness about how humanity is damaging the natural world and show students how ecosystems can be revived.

“Involving youth in restoration activities helps foster local action and global commitments to sustainable development,” said Cecilia Kinuthia-Njenga, Head of the UNEP office in South Africa. “All children have a human right to be educated about nature and the challenges it is facing.”

The programme comes on the eve of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a 10-year push to revive the natural world that launched on 5 June, World Environment Day. Ecosystem degradation affects the well-being of at least 3.2 billion people, 40 percent of the world’s population.

South Africa is home to more than 95,000 known species, making it the third-most biodiverse country in the world. Yet its natural spaces are greatly threatened by human actions, including mining, farming, urban sprawl and industrial development. That has serious implications for society and the economy and, say, experts, disproportionately harm vulnerable populations.

The new virtual classroom, which is a joint partnership between UNEP, CapeNature, Western Cape Government Environmental Affairs and Development Planning and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, is casting a spotlight on those challenges.

A direct response to Covid-19, the video-based content – which will be subtitled in three local languages – features footage from three iconic South African landscapes and interviews with experts in the field. The virtual Ecosystem Restoration Classroom will target 1,000 primary schools and aims to empower students to be ecosystem ambassadors.

“Our beautiful planet we call home needs our help to survive,” said Latita Liebenberg, who hosts the series. “As a young South African, I would like to encourage all young people to use this Decade of Ecosystem Restoration to make greener choices, to ensure sustainability and leave our planet in the best possible shape for our future and generations to come.”

The video will be uploaded on e-learning platforms and explores three landscapes in the Western Cape and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces.

– The Berg River in Western Cape, where conservationists have replanted indigenous vegetation across 15 hectares of land, stabilizing the soil and buffering the river against agricultural runoff.

– Groenvlei Lake, where CapeNature partnered with local volunteers to remove an invasive species of fish, the common carp, that had been overwhelming native fish populations.

– A former sugar cane plantation between the uMlalazi and Amatigulu estuaries in Kwazulu-Natal that conservationists have spent seven-plus decades rehabilitating, planting some 80,000 indigenous trees in the process.

The project is part of a larger effort by UNEP to engage Africa’s youth in natural resource management and spur the upscaling of restoration initiatives across the continent.

The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

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