Educating people is important if the environment is to be protected. But that can only happen when everyone involved understands what’s at stake. That’s why the Dominican Republic is investing in climate education.
In a classroom in the Dominican Republic, Yndira Rodriguez is listening closely to the teacher’s words and taking down notes. The 39-year-old has switched roles. Normally, Rodriguez, a teacher, is used to standing in front of a class, not sitting in the first row.
But Yndira has changed sides for a good cause- in the last few months, she has clocked 192 hours - including weekends and most of her free time - learning everything she could about climate change, its consequences and how her region and country can better adapt to changing weather. Today, Yndira is to complete her final class and receive a so-called "climate diploma."
"I’ve learned so much - everything from cartography to the various effects of climate change on our environment to pedagogical concepts on how to teach what I’ve learned here," says Yndira.
So what’s the most valuable thing she’s picked up? “If we really want to change something in our country, we have to all join forces and act together against climate change,” she says. That is precisely why Yndira believes her climate diploma is so important. As a teacher, she can pass along her knowledge to the country’s youngest activists.
Rising sea levels
Yndira shares a class with 34 other people who work for various state institutions, whether it’s in schools or public administration. There’s even a mayor here, Ramón, seated next to Yndira. He heads the small village of El Limón. It’s located just a few meters from the beach and shares the same fate as coastal towns across the country. Large parts of the Dominican Republic are located just a few meters above - and sometimes even below - sea level, making the Caribbean country particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
As part of the Caribbean, the DR belongs to one of the regions in the world most threatened by climate change. According to a study conducted by the Dominican Institute for Integral Development (IDDI) in July, the Caribbean nation is the seventh most vulnerable country in the world. Despite the evidence, though, most Dominicans don’t seem to be aware of the severity of the situation, says IDDI’s Evaydée Pérez.
“One of the most acute challenges we face in our country today is the low level of knowledge about almost any kind of topic linked to climate change and its consequences,” she says.
That’s confirmed by a recent study published by the National Council on Climate Change (ONMDL) in 2012. It shows that while most Dominicans are aware that climate change exists, only 22 percent know its exact causes.
A journey through the Caribbean country, along its roads and past its villages and towns, makes that gap in knowledge ever starker. Many families here still burn their waste in the backyard, sending plumes of smoke wafting among the surrounding palm trees. For locals, it’s an easy an effective method of getting rid of trash - but they are unaware of the grave consequences for their environment and country.
“We have big deficits in the field of climate education“, says Indhira De Jesus from American NGO The Nature Conservatory (TNC). TNC is one of the sponsors behind Yndira’s climate diploma program. “Only 5.9 percent of people in the region have access to reliable information on climate change and its consequences,” she says.
That is why the Dominican Republic has made climate education a cornerstone in its battle against climate change, says Moisés Alvarez, the national coordinator of UN CC:Learn, a climate education initiative from the UN. “In the long run, no strategy against climate change can work if the public is not sufficiently educated and informed,” adds Alvarez, who also works for the Dominican Council on Climate Change.
He firmly believes that local decision-makers must know more about climate change and its consequences and the factors that accelerate the phenomenon. He says that knowledge is critical in order to tackle problems such as waste disposal at the community level more efficiently.
Along with the privately-funded climate diploma that Yndira and her classmates have completed, the Dominican Council on Climate Change has also launched another educational initiative to train 200 teachers in climate change so they can in turn pass on their knowledge to their students.
The country’s ministry of education is now considering whether to make climate change a permanent part of the curriculum in DR’s schools. If that happens, children as young as three years old would learn about the causes and effects of climate change, and how they can protect their environment.
“One of the country’s priorities is to educate citizens on climate change - that’s essential for our development,” says Rosaura Pimentel, a professor of environmental engineering at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology (Intec). Climate change is covered in several programs and majors, but universities here have yet to offer it as a dedicated standalone program.
Yndira’s students proudly present the results of their class: they’ve crafted butterflies out of old toilet paper rolls
Yndira Rodriguez, meanwhile, already has big plans for the future: she aims to set up a “green school,” where children and teenagers learn about their environment and how to protect it. “If we start when they’re young, they can bring that message home with them and in turn educate others - and that would be a completely sustainable campaign,” she says.
As part of her diploma, Yndira has already headed up a workshop on the environment, where she worked with the children to craft butterflies out of trash. But she knows that there is much more to be done.
“You can wish all you want. But if you really want to get something done, you have to give that extra effort,” she says.