BIRTH OF A PROJECT
When I set off for Bahia de Caraquez exactly six months ago I had no idea where I was going or what I was really being sent to do. My boss, Peter berg, told me that he was throwing me into the deep end of the pool on this one, but I felt confident in my ability to swim, As the idea of bioregional education was explained to me I was going to facilitate educating the local community of Bahia about how to live in harmony with their surrounding environment or particular bioregion, and how to appreciate and protect its natural resources. My heart, mind, body, soul, everything I had was behind this idea and I couldn’t wait to put it into action.
When I got to Bahia the first thing I did was to come up with a curriculum. This wasn’t a difficult task because I had the invaluable resource of Peter’s article, Learning to Partner with a Life-Place, that set out a timeline of topics and projects that could be used for bioregional education throughout a year’s time. The topics ranged from energy resources to indigenous peoples, native plants and animals to geology, with some art and literature to spice it all up. Once it was clear to me what the different topics that I would be teaching were, I set about looking for who was going to help me teach them. I was a stranger in a strange land and to say that I was in any way an expert in even one of these fields would be a gross fabrication. So I said to myself, “Why reinvent the wheel? The knowledge is here, the expertise is here. So why not use it?” My idea was to have the community teach the community…to further teach the community. This meant that I would work as a facilitator finding the local experts who could come and teach my class (from the community) about their specific subject area so that my class could then go and diffuse the knowledge by teaching this to others in schools and work places (back to the community).
Now I just had to find the experts, find the students and contact the community. To find the experts I decided to call upon the Friends of the Eco-city group for support. I planned a meeting in which I discussed the plan for the project, curriculum and the actual program of a twice-weekly meeting of a few hours in which theory and practice went hand in hand. The Friends were wild with support, volunteered to help as the experts, and proffered names and phone numbers of experts in other subjects. One thing led to the next. I did some more sleuthing around and by the time I was done There was a long list of names and numbers for each and every subject. Experts, check!
The next thing I had to do was find the students. This is where I hit the ground running. I went on the radio, I talked to the newspapers, I talked to college classes and high school students and told everyone interested to meet next week at the municipality building (Municipio) and we would talk about subjects, times and all those other details. The only requirement was an enthusiasm for learning and a desire to protect the environment. There were over fifty students at that first meeting! That was much more interest than I had expected but I said to myself, “What the heck, the more the merrier.” Students, check!
Then I got in touch with community leaders such as barrio presidents and city agency heads who were accessible through the municipality data base and sent them all letters inviting them to an informational meeting about the program. “Come one, come all,” I said and ended up with a representative sprinkling. I told them about the project and asked for their support in heading any community development projects that were in line with the themes of the education program such as beach clean-ups, elementary school education, and erosion-controlling tree planting projects (just to name a few). They were enthusiastic and promised to help with the bioregional education program as much as they could. Some even volunteered to be students in the course. Community, check!
The last plan was to find a place where I could hold classes. Because the course was to be of the people, for the people and by the people, I couldn’t think of a better place to teach the course than the municipality building. I got the stamp of approval from the mayor and was set to go. Meeting place, check.
AS IT UNFOLDS
I think that the true genius of this project lies in the fact that theory and practice go hand in hand and, as I see it, this style of education is not only more interesting, exciting and has greater information retention value, but it is also essential for a full understanding of the subject matter. My students and I spent one day talking about the devastating effects of the El Nino phenomenon on the community, watched a video tape put together by the civil defense agency, listened to their rescue stories, and then walked through the ruins and sites of mudslides to really visualize the houses that slid down the hill taking 16 lives with them. This provided a perfect opportunity to discuss the link between nature and human interaction. People hadpreviously deforested the hillsides leaving no tree roots to hold the earth in place.When the drenching year-long rains of El Nino came the hills became saturated and collapsed to devastating effect.
After we established a base of understanding about human interaction with nature we moved on to other subjects such as native plant restoration. We talked about mangroves and their role as filters in the estuary, And followed up by planting mangroves. We talked about the dry tropical forest characteristics of the bioregion in Bahia, then walked through the forest with a guide and saw the role of trees, orchids, lichens, and vines in an unadulterated state. When we talked about the river and the role of fishermen in contributing to contamination and overfishing, we went out in a boat and saw the nets and saw the floating trash. We made necklaces of native seeds, planted native trees, learned about native birds, studied the currents and climate and their effect on the seasons, watched monkeys swing from mangrove trees (most had never seen a monkey!) and learned all about the Bahia bioregion.
The students gave back to the community through clean ups on the river and ocean beaches, and a site known as “Bosque en Medio de las Ruinas” or “Forest in the Middle of the Ruins” where the lives had been lost and houses swept away during El Nino mudslides and Planet Drum Foundation was actively working at revegetation using native trees. The high school age students joined up with a younger Ecology Club kids to make recycled paper and decorate paper products. In this way the experts taught my students and my students taught the community.
The great diversity of subjects led to a great diversity of learning activities. My students were continuously learning more about their bioregion and all the natural resources that they had the responsibility to protect, and at the same time were constantly exploring and pushing their comfort zone as they planted mangroves in knee-high mud or walked hours through a green, viney, Tarzanesque forest. My students were constantly smiling, and hardly realized how much they were learning because they were having so much fun doing it.
AND COMES TO A CLOSE
The course started off with fifty participants and slowly the wheat was separated from the chaff and I was left with about twenty constant, dedicated students that loved the course and wanted to be true crusaders of protecting the bioregion. They were mostly high school age because it seemed they had the most time, motivation and ability to put into the course. They were to receive a certificate of completion when the course was over, but even more importantly they were to graduate with a real, concrete knowledge of their bioregion and an understanding of how they could protect it.
Now comes the catch. Because my students were high school students, and mostly seniors at that, the course had to take a backseat to their other school responsibilities. When it came down to finals or school projects I found myself with only a handful of students. After about five months of teaching, I learned that many of my students were going to have to take an after school preparatory class required for attending the University. Because of the time conflict, they would no longer be able to participate in my class. With great reluctance due to not being able to continue with the different subject matter, but much joy over what had already been taught, the course came to a close.
WITH FUTURE PROSPECTS
It was both the innovative as well as extracurricular nature of the course that brought it strength and weakness. There isn’t a general cultural model for extracurricular education in Ecuador. Consequently, even though there was great interest and enthusiasm for the novelty of the course, there was a lack of commitment to see it through. There is a real cultural difference in work ethic between the costal Ecuadorians and North Americans. Ecuadorians are typically late and even take pride in impunctuality, calling it “la hora Ecuatoriana” (the Ecuadorian hour). People often wouldn’t show up for meetings. Of course it also meant that things in general were more laid back and that the people take things a little easier and slower (which they call “tranquilo”). I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some happy medium of efficiency in a laid back setting somewhere in the world.
In order to give the project greater structure in the future I would recommend that the course be taught through an already established system such as public and private schools, churches or community programs. I would give greater, more tangible incentives to the students that complete the course by encouraging more dedication and attendance. In the future there should be even more local and community involvement in the program, including a local teacher who has greater cultural understanding of the system and work ethic.
I would strongly encourage partnership with other organizations to strengthen the scope and breadth of the project. Because what Planet Drum Foundation is doing is so innovative and ground breaking, I believe that it could be more effectual and efficient with support from other organizations that are also interested in environmental protection and education such as the Fundacion Cerro Seco and Ecology Clubs of the area.
I think that there is great potential for a future bioregional education project if it was given greater structure and some of these steps were taken to ensure its heightened success. A truly in-depth knowledge of the people and place is crucial. Then, truly, the sky is the limit.