Creating Environmental Stewards in the Amazon

Imagine if you were a teacher and your outdoor classroom was the Amazon rainforest. Endless biodiversity of every species of plant and animal you can imagine exists just a step outside your classroom walls. However, your teacher preparation was at a university in a city, and you have no idea where to begin teaching about ecology beyond what you’ve read in a teacher prep textbook. On top of these challenges, the only way to reach the community you’ve been assigned to work in is to take a boat down the Amazon River. The trip takes several hours, which means you’re only home on weekends and rarely have an opportunity to learn with or connect to other teachers.

Such is the case for the dedicated employees of CONAPAC, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment, which was formed in July 1990 by a group of teachers, forestry engineers, and employees of the travel operator Explorama Lodges in Iquitos, Peru. Registered with the Peruvian government, its purpose is the conservation of the Peruvian Amazon primary rainforest. Though the staff is small, it serves those most in need of education and other tools for sustainable living in the rainforest, with the help of Explorama Lodges. The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) has been a partner in this important conservation and education program for nearly 20 years.

As part of the services and support CONAPAC provides partner communities, an annual teacher workshop brings educators in these rural, remote communities together to learn. Earlier this year, Karen Purcell from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology returned for the second time to provide professional development for these teachers. Fluent in Spanish and passionate about birds, she delivers dynamic, hands-on workshops that demonstrates what teachers can do with their students by having the teachers do it with her. Guides from Explorama Lodges, who are also bird experts, assisted by guiding the teachers to understand how binoculars work, how they add excitement to bird observation, and how to identify common species.

Karen created a safe place for the teachers to share their attitudes towards birds, addressing common misconceptions and dispelling myths and legends that often cause people to dislike or even dispatch birds. She prepared them to be citizen scientists, gathering and sharing data on the species they see most in theircommunities. The teachers continue to document their successes and encourage one another through a massive group chat in WhatsApp. While there may not be internet access in these communities, almost all the teachers have a cell phone that has service and a means to charge the phone by generator or solar panel collected energy. Not a week goes by without a teacher posting photos of his or her students looking for birds, drawing them, building replica nests or some other activity. Karen and the team from CONAPAC are all on the group chat, documenting the progress in real time of how the workshop content is being implemented.

In early November, DZS staff returned to the rainforest to assist with end-of-the-year evaluations in each community. Teams of CONAPAC staff, Iquitos Board of Education representatives, local environmental experts and DZS staff traveled to each community to ensure school supplies are being utilized, children and teachers are attending school regularly, and that the teachers are implementing their skills and concepts shared with them during the workshops. The artwork, poems, field work and skits that the communities shared with the teams provided solid evidence that the spring workshops were a tremendous success.

Professional development is an essential part of any profession. The CONAPAC teacher workshops are a vital part of creating the next generation of environmental stewards, providing teachers and students the information and passion needed for protecting the rainforest for generations to come. This year’s workshop was supported through the generous financial support of JBQ Charitable Foundation and Explorama Lodges.  An international donor-base further provides financial support to provide annual teacher and student school supplies. To learn more or to participate in these efforts, visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/.

– Claire Lannoye-Hall is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

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