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30 years of eco-education at Lapalala

Information provided by: Lapalala Wilderness School

Over the past 30 years, the Lapalala Wilderness School has been a breathtaking outdoor classroom, where children and young adults are exposed to nature. The mission of the school is to help children and young adults to discover the value of the biodiversity of the natural world and our place within it. The school also aims to identify and nurture Africa’s future conservation champions.

Thirty years ago, the Lapalala Wilderness School was founded in an old farmhouse near the banks of the Palala River, a major tributary of the Limpopo River basin. A dream to educate the young people of South Africa became a reality and today, the Lapalala Reserve is a major component within the 1,750,000ha UNESCO Waterberg Biosphere Reserve, which is greatly enhanced by the presence of the Lapalala Wilderness School.

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Educational activities at Lapalala started in April 1985 when the school was opened by Don Richards, a leading personality in environmental education from Treverton School in Natal. The original building could accommodate 36 pupils and two teachers, and 819 children and their teachers participated in 58 courses in the first year. The school quickly became internationally recognised, sponsoring thousands of young children from South East Asia and disadvantaged children from across South Africa, the UK, USA and West Africa to attend.

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In 2001 the school’s facilities were expanded to accommodate 60 pupils and four teachers. The school appointed and trained environmental educators from neighbouring communities, and two of them are still on the staff in 2015. Interaction with living animals, including the introduction to close but safe encounters with a black rhino, became highlights of time spent at the school.

A major phase of reconstruction of the school buildings was initiated in 2006, including the opening of a new interpretative centre and a dining room, the upgrading of all the dormitories and teachers’ rooms, and the installation of solar water heaters.

Numbers have increased steadily and, in the period from July 2014 to June 2015, 3,102 children, young adults and their teachers came to Lapalala.

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Local communities have been, and will remain, one of the school’s priorities. Lapalala hosted 31 local schools in the past year, attracting 1,900 learners from disadvantaged schools, and providing each one with three good meals a day as well as exposing them to top quality and stimulating education programmes. Equally encouraging was the attendance of 214 educators from disadvantaged as well as fee-paying school groups, giving Lapalala the opportunity to influence and inspire the development of ongoing environmental education programmes in their own schools.

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The endpoint of the nurturing process will depend on the attitudes of the individuals and the available career opportunities. For example, some of these children could become excellent field guides, or join a conservation department as a game guard or game ranger. Others could be nurtured right through to university and training colleges, and take up posts as technical assistants or biologists.

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In this 30th year, Lapalala has been reflecting critically on the contribution that the education programmes have made at local, regional and global levels towards addressing challenges like climate change, water scarcity, land degradation, and the destruction and loss of vitally important ecosystems and species. This ongoing evaluation is designed to help focus and improve the school’s daily work and practices, giving particular attention to the extent that the current environmental education and training processes help to develop children and young adults to be potential agents of change.

The Lapalala Wilderness School has been a leading force for change in the Limpopo province and in other parts of South Africa and the southern African region for the past 30 years. Innovative environmental education programmes continue to be conducted at the school, with an eco-school programme and outreach processes being particularly successful in the province.

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It is throughout this period of celebration that more and more individuals are testifying that the time they spent at Lapalala was a life-changing experience, often pointing them in the direction of a career in conservation or in some related environmental management or research programme. The increasing scope, depth, quality and quantity of the environmental education programmes presented by the staff all contribute to the continued growth of the school, and all of the staff deserve to be congratulated and thanked for their outstanding effort to maintain the highest standards and to cope with the demands of such a full agenda.

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