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Back to School: Change Takes Root in Rural Bolivia
In Focus, July 2005
by Ben Jolliffe
Successful conservation of protected areas and reserves has long depended on engaging neighboring communities. Acting as environmental stewards, the communities can help create a crucial buffer zone offering extra protection.
Many of these conservation areas enable multiple, mutually supportive uses of the land, but perhaps the most effective kind of buffer zone relies on what people think just as much as on what they do.
Environmental educators from the Bolivian Instituto para la Conservación y la Investigación de la Biodiversidad (Institute for Biodiversity Conservation and Investigation or ICIB) helped children and their teachers think—and ultimately act—in new ways around three protected areas in the Tropical Andes biodiversity hotspot.
The three areas—Apolobamba Integrated Management Area, the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve and Indigenous Territory, and Madidi National Park and Natural Area of Integrated Management—are part of the Vilcabamba-Amboró biodiversity conservation corridor, a focal area for Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) investment in the hotspot.
The corridor, which stretches across the border between Bolivia and Peru, shelters some of the hotspot's most important intact ecosystems and some of its richest biodiversity. Madidi National Park alone is home to more than 1,000 bird species, representing an extraordinary 11 percent of the world's 9,000 bird species.
Focusing initially on one school near each area, ICIB's environmental educators first approached teachers suggesting that they ask the children themselves to decide what were the most pressing environmental problems in their immediate surroundings. In these impoverished, rural communities dogged by unemployment and a lack of opportunity, most of them didn't have to look far.
Changing Minds with Practical Projects
Children in the village of Charazani, near the Apolobamba Integrated Management Area in northeast Bolivia, were tired of the trash around their school.
Using classroom activities such as making paper masks or murals out of old magazines, their teacher helped them design a trash management system, with simple separation, collection, and recycling. They then spread the word to parents through exhibitions and plays featuring what they had made.
"There are three elements to it," said Cynthia Silva who directed the CEPF-supported project at ICIB. "The kids are learning how to do new activities, how to work in teams. Through that they learn to see that the solutions to the problems they face are within their grasp.
"The teachers are learning how to get away from rote learning and use more imagination and creativity in the classroom. Then, when the children go home, the parents in the wider community are learning too."
The scheme proved successful and, although participation was voluntary, most of the schools in each area took part. At a school in Quiabaya, a community in the heart of Kallawaya land, an indigenous people noted for their knowledge of traditional medicine who live on the borders of the Apolobamba protected area, there were no proper toilets and children relieved themselves wherever they could.
The teacher got together with colleagues from other schools and, supported by the municipality, designed a latrine with his students. They then followed up the project with lessons in basic hygiene and health. Hearing about what was happening at school from their children, many parents built latrines in their own houses.
"To get quite such a big impact from such basic educational tools is incredible," said Juan Carlos Gómez Gonzales, Director of the Apolobamba Integrated Management Area. "You really can motivate a whole community."
Tying Education to the Local Environment
"It's not typical envrionmental education, more like a participatory community program." Silva said. "What they are doing is practical, but what they are learning is how to work out things out together, how to help themselves. It's a state of mind."
In a school in the wetlands around the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve in the west of Bolivia, children from the area's 12 Chimán and Mosetén indigenous communities mix with kids from families who have migrated to the area from the high Andes and the mining regions. One of their classrooms had been infested with bats. Their droppings were making a real mess and classes were becoming impossible because of the smell.
The most obvious answer might have been just to exterminate the bats.
However, as the teacher had participated in an ICIB workshop, he used the problem as a way of teaching the children. With the help of some of their fathers, the children put in a new ceiling, studying the bats in the process and discovering their importance in the local ecosystem. They then made educational materials to show how the bats were not pests or dirty animals but a necessary part of the natural community.
In each area, teachers also helped park guards with educational outreach work, for which there is often no budget. In Pilon-Lajas, the guards made a nature trail for the children in the reserve to help them better understand local species. In Apolobamba, they started off making a "medicinal" garden, planting herbs and other beneficial plants, and also ended up constructing a small visitor center.
In some areas, the project did not run so smoothly. In Rurrenbaque, for example, where there is a substantial Chimán community whose people are principally engaged in fishing and farming, teachers were initially keen on the idea. However, their enthusiasm faltered, partly because a lot of NGO projects in the area had lost momentum but also because there are too many training programs on offer. In the rural communities nearby, however, there were practically none and the project met with much more success.
Success was also elusive in the Madidi area. Despite enrolling a number of schools in the town of San Buenaventura, all three of them opted out of the project although some teachers took away some of the basic ideas from the workshop including how using local natural resources as teaching aids can bring immediate practical benefits.
Scaling Up Brings Difficulties
The second phase of the project, which ended in September last year, aimed to bring teachers together from across the three districts to share resources and lessons learned in an environmental education network. This proved more difficult mainly because of the political situation in Bolivia last year.
As now, numerous strikes against the government and roadblocks, particularly in Charazani, prevented teachers attending networking events. Communications infrastructure is also not very developed in the rural areas around reserves so "virtual networks" are not yet a possibility.
Unfortunately, too, as a result of a change in policy at the National Academy of Science, the organization in which ICIB sits, the emphasis on environmental education and working with teachers shifted, weakening the long-term commitment to establish a teacher network.
However, conservationists from Peru and Bolivia meeting in Lima last May gathered strong institutional support for a number of conservation initiatives, including the teacher network. Partly funded by CEPF, the meeting drew together representatives from protected area authorities in both countries, a number of Bolivian CEPF grant recipients such as Probioma, Central Pueblos Indigenas de La Paz and the Instituto de Ecología as well as Conservation International's Peru and Boliva programs.
Since the ICIB project ended in September, Cynthia Silva and Carmen Miranda have set up a new NGO called Savia to continue their biodiversity conservation work in Bolivia. Their first projects are in the Potosí Wetlands, high in the Andes of southeast Bolivia.
Raising public awareness and what they call environmental citizenship remains at the heart of their work, bridging the gap between management of protected areas, such as RAMSAR sites and national parks, and the communities that live in and around them.
"We can't solve everything ourselves," Silva said. "But if we use the natural resources we have at our disposal—our rivers, our forests and our brains—then we can begin to improve our lives in harmony with our surroundings."
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View more In Focus features
© CI, photo by Roderic B. Mast
The Tropical Andes Hotspot is the biologically richest and most diverse hotspot on Earth. Nearly half of its 40,000 plant species are found nowhere else.
© Cynthia Silva
Hands on! Children decide which projects are important for their village.
© Cynthia Silva
Puppets made from recycled materials poised to tell their story.