CHONG KHNEAS, Cambodia--The eight children concentrate intently on the board game. A 10-year-old boy moves his little plastic fish forward five squares, where he is asked: "Give the name of a plant or an animal you depend on to live." Without hesitation the boy answers "Fish" -- a response that leads to a discussion about the many varieties of fish living in Tonle Sap Lake in northern Cambodia near the world-famous Angkor temple complex. In another corner eight children discuss water pollution and the many uses of the area's plants

This peaceful scene contrasts with the stark environmental reality outside the windows of this one-room floating house, which hosts an environmental education centre - the Greater Environment Chong Khneas Office (GECKO). In the Tonle Sap area, which accounts for 60 percent of national fish production, fish stocks and catch have gone down, deforestation is widespread and sewage and other waste are polluting the lake, which provides drinking water for thousands of villagers.

"If you want to do some long-term good for the environment, where is a better place to start than with the children?" says the Center's lead facilitator, Has Piron, 36. Part of a natural resource management project funded by the Government of Belgium and managed by FAO, the GECKO Center was opened two years ago and has so far taught more than 1 000 children about the environment.

The GECKO Center works with communities in the northern end of Tonle Sap Lake. Here, the people have created water-borne worlds with floating homes, markets, temples, barbershops, slaughterhouses and even petrol stations.

Boating among the treetops-- The Tonle Sap area consists of the lake and a floodplain of interconnected streams, ponds and thousands of hectares of flooded forest, which provide good breeding grounds and nutrition for more than 100 species of fish. Every year the lake expands from 2 500 sq km in the dry season to approximately 10 000 sq km in the wet season, when people can boat among the tops of partially submerged trees. In 1997, UNESCO nominated Tonle Sap as a Biosphere Reserve, underlining the uniqueness of the environment and its rich biodiversity.

The environment of the lake is fragile," says Mr Piron. "Old people tell stories about how elephants used to come down and drink from the lake during the dry season. And only a few years ago it was an everyday event to catch a big catfish. Today, that is history."

Raising awareness in children and adults-- The aim of the GECKO Center is to promote environmental awareness among both children and adults to prevent further degradation of the area.

Twice a week Mr Piron and his three colleagues host classes for school-children from the communities around the lake. "We focus on the area's main environmental problems: overfishing, environment-damaging fishing techniques, cutting of the flooded forest and inappropriate waste disposal," says Mr Piron, who taught environmental education at local primary schools before he joined the FAO project.

The people themselves have identified the problems, helped by Mr Piron and experts from the FAO project, who have facilitated week-long workshops in six communities. During the discussions, 30 participants in each village identified their main environmental problems and formulated possible solutions.
"The feedback was very constructive, and the participants have shared their new knowledge with the other villagers," says Mr Piron. "We can already see a change in behaviour. Things are starting to move in the right direction."

Targeting tourists-- Thousands of tourists flock to the nearby City of Angkor -- a great complex of ruined ancient Khmer temples. Some take a boat tour of the lake, and a few find the time to visit the Center for an introduction to the environment of Tonle Sap.

"We show the visitors that the area has much more to offer than just temples, and after our introduction they often donate much-needed money to the Center," says Penny Everingham, Environmental Education Adviser in the project. The Center wants to attract more tourists by working with the local tourist industry. One of the tools to attract more foreign visitors is the GECKO Center's new Web site. To view it, click here.

"There are so many possibilities, in terms of visits by children and tourists and especially the opportunity to raise awareness in cooperation with the local communities," says Ms Everingham. She adds with a smile: "Just give us some more money and some extra hours in the day and we will work wonders."

30 January 2002