A church-led 'eco-ministry' spreads sustainable environmental education in southern India

An ecology programme led by the Protestant Church of South India (C.S.I.) is reaching teachers, clergy, students and children with education about leading healthy lives, sustainable agriculture, climate change mitigation and energy saving.

The programme, Eco-Ministry of the Church of South India, was among nominees for the 2019 UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD), which rewards outstanding projects as part of UNESCO's broader work on ESD.

With more than 4.3 million members, the C.S.I. has placed ecological concerns as a key part of its constitution and mission and runs a programme to transform behaviour and systems through engaging, learner-led education. In 1992, it began by establishing a committee for ecological concerns, making it the first church in India to do so. 

Honorary Director Professor Mathew Koshy Punnackad said: “Our overriding vision is to build a better world based on justice, peace and respect for creation in all its forms using the values of sustainability. India is deeply affected by climate change, and we are facing both flooding and drought during the unexpected season due to the cyclones. The change in weather pattern affected agriculture drastically. All of this affects the poorest people. Climate change has an impact on health also with diseases new to this area such as chikungunya infection emerging.”

Training ‘green clergy’ and teachers to empower learners

The programme works through schools, training green clergy and teachers to empower people to withstand those challenges. So far C.S.I imparts education on sustainability through 94 colleges, 341 high schools, 1,704 primary schools, 47 technical institutions, 24 para-medical institutions, 14 professional institutions, 50 medical centres and 343 hostels. Between 2014 and 2017, 100,000 children benefited from the programme with 800 clergy and 1270 teachers working as educational facilitators. In 2009, C.S.I. received an award for Long Term Commitment to Protect the Living Planet from UNDP and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation presented by then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

“Information and training are disseminated in schools and churches on sustainable agriculture, healthy lifestyles, harvesting rainwater, solar energy, biogas, the use of sustainable material, raising awareness on climate change mitigation-adaptation and impact reduction, and tree-planting projects,” said Professor Punnackad.

“In schools, we start with a three-month green audit which involves all teachers and students and uses practical methodology to touch on many parts of the official curriculum as, for example,  data is produced on how much water is wasted and how to reduce that waste or what are the best plants to grown on campus,” he said.

The audit touches on air, water, energy, waste, land and food, and the evidence is added to create a database for the school. The Green School Programme has empowered students to use natural resources responsibly and efficiently and optimise energy efficiency. This includes harvesting rainwater; propagating plants, which enhance groundwater recharge and avoid soil erosion; making churches plastic-free; planting saplings on the church grounds as part of all important functions such as weddings, funerals, baptism; using sustainable construction materials to build environment-friendly churches to accommodate the maximum expected number of people. In addition, it promotes the ‘Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle campaign eliminating chemical pesticides on church campuses and honouring local farmers; incorporating sustainable agricultural information into church services; encouraging the use of public transport to get to church; and publishing paper communication less often.

Model centres to see sustainable living in action

The programme has also established model centres at Othera in Kerala and C.S.I. Synod Centre in Chennai where visitors can see sustainable living in action.  At Othera, the 3.5 acres of land includes an eco-friendly camp centre with rainwater harvesting, solar energy, biogas cooking and domestic animals. At the C.S.I. Synod Centre in Chennai, a sewage treatment plant purifies 20,000 litres of water per day, which is being used, for non-groundwater recharging and gardening and farming purposes. A solar panel grid system installed on the rooftop of the centre meets 65% of electricity consumption.

Success stories for the 7,000 schools taking part in the Green School Audit include the C.M.S. L.P. School, Mundakayam, which took first place in 2016. The school, located in the state of Kerala in the South-West of India, raised money for people in Kasargarod, a district of Kerala, where the soil and water have been contaminated by the Endosulfan pesticide for over 25 years leading to a rise in cancer cases. Pupils devised a puppet show which toured the 11 districts of Kerala to fundraise for those affected and also created a street play to instil the value of soil conservation.

Students at the rural C.M.S. Lower Primary School which was placed second in the audit worked to avoid the use of plastic bottles or any throw-away plastics under the slogan “Beat Plastic Pollution”. Instead of plastic pens, they use pens made from wastepaper which contain a seed so the pen can be buried after use. All students use cloth school bags and the whole school has adopted a village ward consisting of 400 houses to propagate waste management techniques.

Last year C.S.I. collaborated in organizing an International Conference on 'Greening the Globe for Sustainable Living' in Chennai which was attended by more than 380 delegates from India and outside who discussed what religious collectives could do to tackle the issues of ecological conservation.

“Our ultimate goal is to build a new world without pollution and fair social order. Thanks to the programme, we see that students are changing, and a new generation is being built with new values,” said Professor Punnackad.

Education for Sustainable Development empowers people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and behaviour needed to think and act for a sustainable future. It is also about including sustainable development issues, such as climate change and biodiversity into teaching and learning. UNESCO promotes and implements ESD at all levels and in all social contexts. In India, UNESCO is supporting communities to empower themselves through community-based non-formal education for a sustainable future.