Environmental literacy, which is at the core of and environmentally sustainable society, is extremely limited in Southeast Asia despite enormous strides in economic development. Rural farming communities are among the most immediate and directly impactly while also being unwittingly contributors through the increasing use of unsustainable agriculture practices in response to pressures associated with globalization. Improving environmental literacy among this group represents a significant opportunity. They are literally “at the front lines” with regard to decision-making about farming practices including the use and exposure to pesticides as well as numerous other practices with both immediate and long terms impacts on their health and livelihoods.
Considered one of Southeast Asia’s development success stories Thailand has simultaneously suffered massive deforestation, loss of biodiversity and dramatic increases in the use of agricultural chemicals. Northeast Thailand (Isaan), the socioeconomically and educationally least develop region in the country, is perhaps the most seriously effected and “at risk.” Farming communities here in the struggle to transition from traditional livelihoods have little if any knowledge of these impacts which neither the government not commercial sector including agrichemical companies have any incentives to inform them about.
A general lack of environmental education is at the root of this problem since, as has been proven in Western countries where strong environmental protection exists, advocacy by educated and environmentally informed citizens is key. This begins with the formal education system where classroom and outdoor “laboratory” teaching in the local environment has proven extremely effective. As in all of Thailand, Isaan has an extremely well-developed K-12 educational system including village schools with teachers trained by Khon Kaen University’s Faculty of Education. The teacher trainees are themselves from farmer families and return to their home districts to take teaching positions throughout Isaan. A pilot project that we initiated in 2014 with faculty at KKU has since demonstrated significant potential to leverage both environmental education and advocacy.
We are continuing to work with KKU science education faculty, their teacher trainees, village students and community leaders on environmental science curriculum development including place-based teaching methods based on local knowledge. This led to the establishment of a formal course in 2015 now serving as the principle vehicle for teaching training in environmental education and advocacy. Plans are now underway to supplement this with a scholarship program targeting poorest communities from throughout Isaan, that will include teacher workshops and environmental education and advocacy using on the basis of place-based education, local knowledge curriculum model.