Jan was born in Johannesburg and has been a teacher his whole life. In 2002 he founded an education centre in Kommetjie, because he felt there wasn’t enough done in the educational field.
“I hope I’m able to pass on my love and passion for the ocean to the many kids we teach here. I make sure they know that it’s never too late to turn bad things around.” Jan Labuschagne, better known as Mr Lappies, is an Environmental Educator at the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre in Kommetjie, South Africa. He lives on the premises of the centre and has been teaching children about the ocean and its inhabitants for over 17 years now. Today, he shares his story.
What is your first memory of the ocean?
I grew up far away from the ocean, in the province of Gauteng (about 600 kilometres from the ocean). But I have very good memories of going to the beach 2 or 3 times a year, during our vacations in Kwa-Zulu-Natal. My earliest memory would be the clean and salty smells of the ocean, the beach, the estuaries and the many mysteries we would discover in the rock pools. I remember we could play there for hours at a time.
And what does the ocean mean to you today?
I have lived by the ocean for the past 35 years now and every day I realise more and more, even though it’s a mysterious place, that the ocean is the heart of our planet. If it gets unwell, it will affect everything else on our planet. We probably know more about other planets than we know about our ocean and the creatures living beneath the surface. I wonder on a daily basis how we came to know so much about everything surrounding us, yet so little about the oceans and our blue planet.
“We probably know more about other planets than we know about our ocean.”
Working and living by the ocean, what changes are you witnessing?
The changes in the ocean and the extreme damage that is done to it, are visible right on my doorstep. I work with the ocean every day and every day I witness the depletion of sea-creatures through pure human greed. Poaching, overfishing, the vast increase of litter on our coastlines. Recently on a trip to Natal, I sat on the beach and literally cried when I saw the amounts of human waste and litter covering these once pristine places.
“I hope I’m able to pass on my love and passion for the ocean to the many kids we teach here. I make sure they know that it’s never too late to turn bad things around.”
It seems like these changes affect you on a personal level too?
I take the destruction of our environment way too personal. I get very emotional, upset, and angry when I witness it on land and sea. I also realize the immense task we environmentalists have, to fight against the changes that are going on. I hope I’m able to pass on my love and passion for the ocean to the many kids we teach here. I make sure they know that it’s never too late to turn bad things around. I tell them: ‘You are the future, I come from a generation who did not recognize the damage we caused to our blue planet.’
Can you tell me a bit more about what you do to turn these changes around and, for example, your work at the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre?
I have been an activist fighting for the environment since I was a child. Thanks to my dad really, he taught me a lot. I am now a professional educator and teacher, and I have taught at many different schools across South Africa. I believe education is key. Seventeen years ago, I took a bold step and left formal education to start the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre. We are a 3-day sleep-over facility and we believe in education through fun and adventure. We estimate that we have taught somewhere around to 60.000-80.000 people at the Soetwater Centre since we opened in 2002. We’ve seen children from very diverse communities and we have taught them about the environment and a variety of animals and organisms. Because we are literally located on the beach, we focus the education and experience on the ocean.
“I am amazed by how little people know, even those who should be experts: fishermen, sailors, politicians.”
In your opinion, what are good ways to safeguard the health of the oceans?
As you may have noticed, I believe environmental education is an essential part of conserving our oceans. Every time, I am amazed by how little people know, even those who should be experts: fishermen, sailors, politicians. We work with a lot of underprivileged, poorer communities living near the coast. By focussing on their children, we hope to get the message to the adults as well.
But I also believe Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are one of the great successes in conservation. It has proven itself as the way to go in all aspects. Especially with the pressure oceans and resource-stocks are facing. MPAs are a great start towards better conservation, but I think a lot more should be done to get governments to enlarge and expand MPAs. More funds and recourses should be put in, but an even bigger component as part of the establishment and expanding of MPAs should be environmental education. Knowledge brings true understanding, the empowerment of an I-care-attitude and eventually: change.
“Knowledge brings true understanding, the empowerment of an I-care-attitude and eventually: change.”
What do you think the oceans will look like in 2030?
I hold hope that our oceans will be the way I remember them from when I was 10 years old. We have a lot of work to do, but I believe we can; by combined efforts from corporates, governments, politicians and most of all well-trained educators. I believe the oceans will be improved by 2030, because of the younger generation. Slowly but steadily they are standing up to say: ‘No more, we need to change our ways.’
Thank you for sharing your story, you are an Ocean Witness now. What would you like to say to other Ocean Witnesses?
Never stop your efforts to conserve our oceans. The creatures in it and our future generations will thank you.
Jan was born in Johannesburg and has been a teacher his whole life. In 2002 he founded the Soetwater Environmental Education Centre in Kommetjie, because he felt there wasn’t enough done in the educational field. The centre believes in education through fun and adventure and has taught around 60.000 – 80.000 people. In his spare time, Jan loves playing golf, collecting treasures and watching sport and wildlife documentaries.