A bird's-eye view of protecting forests

"Fasten your goggles, you may be off on the most important mission of your life!"

If the phrase brings to mind Superman, Captain Marvel or any other leaper of tall buildings at a single bound, the imagery is on the mark. The latest comic strip hero to enter the scene is . . . a fuchsia-coloured bird with goggles and very large feet. His mission: to save the world's forests. The name of this winged hero, as well as the magazine in which he figures, is Earthbird.

Earthbird was incubated ten years ago in FAO's Forests, Trees and People Programme. The programme, coordinated by the Community Forestry Unit, works with institutions throughout the world to strengthen the ability of communities to manage and use natural resources and to develop tools that encourage local participation. The idea behind Earthbird was to publish a child-friendly, comic-book style magazine focusing on environmental education, particularly forests.

Making sense all over the world

The first four issues were a rather modest undertaking -- one artist and one writer producing about 16 pages of text and illustrations per issue for a circulation of about 30 000. "To make sure that the magazine makes sense to readers all over the world is a really tall order," says Matthew Seebach, Communications and Publications Consultant at FAO. "The way you approach environmental education with children in China may be completely different from the way you do so in Costa Rica."

Indeed, one of the major challenges is adapting Earthbird to the many languages and cultures where it is needed. In order to speak to as many cultures as possible, the fifth and latest issue became an enormously collaborative and global affair. It was put together with the editorial guidance of such organizations as the Peace Corps, the Palestinian Youth Council, The Ghana Wildlife Society, the World Wide Fund For Nature China, CARE Indonesia and Costa Rica's Observatorio del Desarrollo.

Earthbird's message is that communities are dependent on forests, they need to work together to derive the benefits of forests and they have a right to use their forests. However, the magazine goes further. It teaches children how to identify and analyse environmental problems in their community and how to involve their neighbours in solving them. "It tries to show how people can manage their communities and their forests in a sustainable fashion," explains Mr Seebach. "It teaches skills and provides a plan for tackling the problem. It shows how to organize and is centred on learning by doing."

For example, the current issue gives a step-by-step approach to networking and outlines how to enlist other community members -- all in a language and context suitable for a 12-year-old.

Involving young people

It's an ambitious but realistic goal. The current issue is to be distributed to more than 125 000 students in developing countries. It has been translated from the original English into Arabic, Chinese, French and Spanish. Indonesian, Portuguese and Russian versions are in progress, and other languages and dialects are being pursued to ensure that the forest hero finds his way into those communities that are highly dependent on their forests, for example, where people collect wood for cooking fires. And especially into the hands of young people entering adolescence, the age at which they become socially conscious. As Earthbird himself says, "I can't do it alone. Young people must help. They must work together to use the Earth's resources wisely. I can help them get started!"

Schools and youth clubs are the best arenas for outreach, and Earthbird is also being taken under the wing of NGOs with strong community links. In Ghana, for example, NGOs are creating Teacher's Guides that are appropriate for local populations. And in East Timor, Earthbird may be serialized in a local magazine.

In some parts of the world, introducing environmental education in schools at all is difficult. In these situations, a 'back door' approach is used: the magazine is provided as part of a larger English-as-a-Second-Language kit that includes a teaching guide. There is also an illustrated poster featuring a hide-and-seek game that encourages viewers to look for hidden plant and animal species and forest products. Of course, all materials are free, and since Earthbird is not copyrighted, it can be reproduced freely as well.

"This is the kind of thing we're trying to encourage," says Mr Seebach. "We want everyone to pick up Earthbird and use it, reproduce it, and try to find other situations in which it can be used again. We want to get it into as many hands as possible."

13 March 2001

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