Outdoor_ClassroomFor villagers in Eastern Nepal, the indigenous knowledge they have acquired through generations of living and farming locally can be a new source of livelihood, via participation in the ‘Vertical University‘ initiative.

The project involves a series of interconnected villages whose microclimates provide a trail for learning about ecosystems and biodiversity. This program also employs villagers as teachers in these outdoor classrooms. The innovative effort comes at a dire time for socioeconomic progress in Nepal, with the 2015 earthquake pushing more than 1 million Nepalese below the poverty line.

The Vertical University trail, which stretches across Eastern Nepal, encompasses the living grounds of 150,000 individuals and 107 different habitat types. Visitors travel from one outdoor learning space to the next, absorbing locals’ knowledge of native species and diverse habitats as they go.

The founder of the Vertical University is an organization called KTK-BELT. This group engages important local actors, like farmers and teachers, in “community-based biodiversity conservation.” The Vertical University initiative represents conservation in action, resulting in a 100-acre land trust and critical tools for preventing deforestation.

For Nepalese community members, the project represents more than an opportunity for environmental conservation. This project has been instrumental in providing locals with economic and educational opportunities.

The outdoor classrooms are free and open to visitors at all times, as the local Nepalese have mapped and tagged the indigenous knowledge they can offer. For Nepalese youth, the opportunity to be involved in the process can mean acquiring valuable educational skills or receiving a stipend to pursue further education.

Young girls in particular benefit from programs like this because they face deeply entrenched gender stereotypes regarding education. Most girls find themselves restricted to domestic tasks. However, the Vertical University teaches them to catalog species for the trail, as well as survey local farmers and communities.

Not only do girls lack in schooling, but there’s also a dire overall need for education funding in Nepal. The country’s educational system is quite young relative to global advancement in education.

Additionally, schools in rural areas lack in productivity, effective learning and testing. The lack of quality education offered in rural schools is also a widespread problem for public schools as a whole. Females, Dalits, Muslims and other minority groups suffer in particular. However, outdoor classrooms offer a viable solution.

Adult community members in the Vertical University villages receive the additional economic opportunities borne from protecting the environment. Creating the trails led to the discovery of a variety of natural products, such as essential oils and soapnuts. The locals can then sustainably produce and sell those products. They also learn a variety of education skills, which can compensate for the low rates of higher education in Nepal.

The many facets of the project translate into various opportunities for the Nepalese living within the Vertical University belt. Education funding and employment as mappers of indigenous knowledge are just the beginning. People have repurposed barren land for permaculture and highlighted the danger of poaching. They have also mapped and labeled 6,600 plants in areas frequently devoid of Internet access.

Co-founders Rajeev Goval and Priyanka Bita created the project through a Kickstarter campaign. The power of crowdfunding has enabled the education and livelihoods of countless villagers within the region. This is especially important for Nepal, as it is still reeling from the 2015 earthquake.

In creating outdoor classrooms and employing local farmers to map and catalog their indigenous knowledge, the KTK-BELT Vertical University represents a conservation approach with both involves the community and fights global poverty. Its ability to provide education funding in Nepal, a country where that funding can change the lives of girls and disadvantaged youth, creates widespread change.

Charlotte Bellomy

Photo: U.N. Multimedia