"Sir? Sir!" Two months after starting to work with learners in Namibia, I still hadn't trained myself to respond to that seemingly misplaced title. "Sir, seriously, I really need to come up with a name for this plant. It looks like it's been eaten. Let's call it 'Scar'." Not an unfitting name, considering the spiky nature of the plant. But even though this was one of the few plants that I was absolutely sure I could identify at that time, I kept my mouth shut as the learner diligently recorded that plant as Scar for the next several hours.
The exercise was part of the first full day of Gobabeb's first-ever Youth Environmental Summit (YES!; how convenient), a six-day programme for 30 grade 11 learners from the Erongo Region. The goal of the programme was to investigate and understand the impacts of mining in the Namib Desert, with an emphasis on research-oriented, data-driven analyses of environmental issues. During that first day, an entourage of Gobabeb staff led the learners through the theory and practice behind an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a crucial step in considering how a mine might impact an area. I wasn't keeping the name of the plant from the learner mentioned above to be cruel; rather, our purpose in that first day was to guide the learners towards developing what they thought to be important elements of an ecosystem. We nudged them in certain directions if they strayed too far from reason, but above all we wanted them to understand what ecologists face as they try to navigate the daunting complexities of an ecosystem.
When I say Gobabeb entourage, what I really mean is a majority of the Gobabeb staff. To pull off a successful Summit, the training section enlisted the help of at least one person from every area of Gobabeb. The Summit learners benefitted from the almost undivided attention of the station, a rare phenomenon at Gobabeb. It was an impressive display of the diverse skills possessed by various Gobabebians; one of our master's students even managed to make hypolithic cyanobacteria an exciting topic for increasingly dehydrated secondary learners. I feel like I also owe Laura, my predecessor, a HUGE thank you for planning and organizing a large portion of the Summit.
Mining in the Namib Desert may seem like an uninteresting subject to present to grade 11s, but it was chosen because of its conspicuous pertinence to the present and future inhabitants of the region (and all Namibians, really). For better or for worse, mining is fundamental to the current economic vitality of Namibia. Uranium mining in particular plays a vital role in the Erongo Region, and it's not uncommon to see uranium company logos on schools, T-shirts, and even the rubbish bins at a National Park campsite. It brings much-needed revenue to a potentially fragile economy, but the trade-offs are equally as critical. The process of uranium exploration and mining can be frightfully destructive, and adolescent policies regarding mineral exploitation in Namibia extremely worry environmental activists.
Since mining is such a controversial topic in Namibia, we decided to invite stakeholders from all sides of the issue to present their perspectives to the learners. We tried in vain to create a panel-type discussion consisting of both mining activists and representatives of the mining companies, and were rather expectedly shot down. Instead, we had guest lecturers present individually, on a variety of topics. Over the course of the week we heard arguments from, mining activists, spokespeople from the Uranium Institute (a coalition of mining companies), a representative of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, an environmental lawyer, and ecologists with decades of combined experience working with EIAs in Namibia.
We couldn't have predicted how voraciously the learners critically absorbed what they were being told. After they got over their initial shyness, the learners questioned and debated every speaker, regardless of their position on mining. They were even successful in slightly rattling the lawyer. The discussions didn't stop after the lectures, either. I'd often hear the learners, during dinner or in the free time, continuing to challenge on another on what they had learned (albeit with a slightly less...formal air).
Another unexpected result of the Summit was how the activities and discussions throughout the week simultaneously enthused the Gobabeb staff (myself definitely included). After the learners had gone to bed, and the staff finally had a change to relax in Old House, the conversations often drifted towards what we had observed and learned during the course of the day. Seeing the learners take their place in the debate surrounding mining in Namibia resonated with our work at Gobabeb. It's not always easy to see the effects of what we do here, both the research that we undertake and the training we offer. Watching the learners progress through the week and leave with their critical tools a little sharper, I think we all felt prematurely proud of the difference, no matter the size, that these learners would make on their communities.