Coldhearted is the person who doesn’t jump at the opportunity to tag along to a local school for a day of conservation education, especially when the kids are actually excited to learn about the importance of preventing deforestation and preserving orangutan habitat.
Etty Rahmawati heads up ASRI Kids and also serves as community outreach and conservation education manager. She’s a fireball – full of energy with an infectious laugh and nearly perfect English. Through ASRI Kids, Etty and other ASRI conservation staff teach local fourth- and fifth-graders about conservation topics relevant to their homes near one of the orangutan’s few remaining habitats.
Most of these kids have neither seen orangutans in the wild, nor visited nearby Gunung Palung National Park. Although some of their parents are involved in extractive industries like illegal logging, timber, and oil palm, the kids are largely unaware of the environmental impact of these endeavors.
ASRI Kids fits nicely under the wider ASRI umbrella: ASRI works to transition people away from detrimentally extractive livelihoods, and ASRI Kids teaches the next generation to recognize and avoid environmentally destructive practices. The kids are then empowered to educate their parents about the environmental issues that affect their daily lives.
The school is about half an hour’s bumpy drive outside of Sukadana, down a road-in-progress with strips of pavement barely wide enough to accommodate our chariot (the ambulance, naturally). We arrive to a cacophonous crowd of kids racing across the weedy schoolyard in their mustard yellow and brown military-style school uniforms. The second time we visit, they’re wearing completely different outfits. I like their style!
As we make our way to the classroom, the kids are practically tripping over themselves and nipping at our knees with excitement. They mob Etty like she’s a rock star. She launches in to an animal identification game, moves on to a PowerPoint presentation and BBC video projected on a white sheet strung across the chalkboard, and, for the grand finale, produces a quiz (pronounced “QUEEEEEEZ!!!!” by the kids who know that a quiz means prizes).
The kids cram three to a chair, playfully punch their teacher, and shove each other out of the way to answer questions during the quiz. At one point, an old lady from the village wanders in. They kids don’t miss a beat, even as the woman, milky-eyed and wearing a knit cap, folds herself into the festive environment.
On our second visit, we bring about 15 seedlings for the kids to plant in the schoolyard. Additional ASRI conservation staff help the kids dig appropriately sized holes, pat compost from the organic farming program around the seedlings, and break bamboo into sharp stakes to fence off each tree from hungry goats and chickens.
Unsurprisingly, the kids have amazing facility with the tools we’ve brought: back hoes, rusty shovels, box cutters, and a couple small machetes. They’re crafty, grabbing large rocks from the side of the schoolyard to pound bamboo stakes into the dry soil. At one point, a laughing kid runs across the yard brandishing a box cutter in one hand and a scoop of compost in the other. It’s funny to think how this scene would play out at home: multiple lawsuits and Child Protective Services would probably be involved! Here, such activities are just part of another schoolday.