ROME, 4 June 2002 -- Labia, the elder pastoralist, Mubzi the talking goat, Doctor Nature and the termite guide are all united by a common goal: saving the East African savannah grasslands and preserving the cycle of nature. But Labia is in trouble... His cattle are going hungry because the plants they graze on are dying. Three schoolchildren and their teacher decide to help him, but first they need to learn about their environment.

These characters and the challenges they face form the plot of Savannah lifestyles, a comic book designed to teach East African schoolchildren, ages 10-15, about their environment. The booklet contains exercises on environmental issues that need to be addressed in the savannah regions. Students are asked to reflect on their environment and on the way their community manages natural resources.

"It started as a collaboration between FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme. We wanted to do something to help young people learn, while having fun, about how to manage and protect their environment," says Caterina Batello, coordinator of the project for FAO.

Through the activities proposed, children learn how to work within their communities. By drawing or explaining in writing what they observe in their environment, they analyse problems they find and look for solutions.

They are then invited to talk to their parents about traditional agricultural methods and to explain why there may be conflicts over land use or problems in protecting the environment. But the message is always positive -- and personal: "The concept is, 'what can you do to become active in maintaining and preserving the environment you live in?'" says Ms Batello.

Savannah lifestyles was launched recently in Kenya and is being widely distributed to Kenyan schools by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Environment. The booklet, published in English, is the second in a series of comic books on environmental issues. The first, produced in Arabic, was distributed to schoolchildren in Syria and focuses on the benefits to communities of preserving wildlife reserves.

Serious concepts presented in a fun way

How do you explain concepts like photosynthesis to children? "It is very difficult to write technical messages and present them together with drawings," explains Ms Batello. "Teachers were involved at every step in the process to ensure that the images accurately reflect the region and that the lessons are appropriate for the target age group."

A teachers' guide is also available, giving background information on environmental issues, advice on the use of the teaching materials and sample exercises.

A lot of care has been put into getting the details right. "If you do an inaccurate drawing, a child will never recognize himself in that reality and will say, 'this does not apply to me'. If the story contains a drawing of a gazelle, it must be the right gazelle. It can't be one from a different area," says Ms Batello. "Similarly, every phrase, every detail has to be socially acceptable. We spent hours discussing things such as: Is it culturally correct to portray a goat speaking to a man and making decisions on its own? Or would it be pushing it too far, since animals are supposed to do what they're told? One wrong word and you stop being credible."

Difficult words and concepts are illustrated and put into context to make them easy to understand. The booklet also contains a glossary that explains all the difficult terms in language accessible to children.

An approach that works

The idea for the booklets arose from the UN conventions on biodiversity and desertification and Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development that grew out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. All stressed the need for environmental education, but there had been little formal teaching material on the subject specifically aimed at young people.

Environmental education is essential because many people know very little about their own environment and even less about how to protect it. In Syria, the booklet on wildlife reserves was launched as part of a wide educational campaign orchestrated to inform communities of the potential benefits of reserves -- both economic and environmental.

The achievements of this environmental education initiative were beyond anyone's expectations. When the first Syrian reserve was established, in Palmyra six years ago, the local population was against it, considering it a waste to use land for wild animals. In addition, establishing reserves restricted access to a very lucrative business: hunting. But in only five years the population grew to accept the reserves as vital to their economic well-being rather than as a threat to their grazing areas.

Tourism was a major incentive. Ms Batello recalls: "The managers of the reserve had a problem because they didn't know the species of most birds they were encountering when they took tourists around. So they asked three hunters to serve as guides. The hunters discovered that they could make money with the reserve, and they suddenly turned from hunters into wildlife guides!"

More to come

Two other booklets are in the works. One targets secondary school children in the Himalayan region, and the other focuses on the conflict between pastoralists and farmers in the Sahel. All have the same objective: raising the children's awareness of environmental issues.