Notes from the Field: Adopt-A-School Assessments in the Amazon

When the boat beached for the third time on a sand bar, we knew we were in for a long day. Late autumn means low water in the Peruvian Amazon, requiring more walking than boating to get around. I was in the rainforest with a Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) colleague, representatives from our Peruvian partner, the Civil Association for Conservation of the Peruvian Amazon Environment (CONAPAC), and several volunteer educators from the nearby city of Iquitos. We were conducting our annual end of the school-year evaluations in the Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School program communities and we were in for a long, hot day.

The Adopt-A-School program is a decades-long partnership between the DZS and CONAPAC, using donations to provide educational supplies to schools, teachers and students in rural Amazonia. The program ensures that students have the materials necessary to earn a basic education and build an understanding of the complex and globally important region they call home.

The evaluations we conduct each fall coincide with the end of the school year in Peru – late November to early December – and are a great opportunity to focus on each community’s strengths and challenges.

The experienced boat drivers know when to call it quits and ours realized there was no viable path down the parched river. He dropped off us off on a muddy river bank and we gathered our supplies and trudged up the bank to a path on the jungle’s edge. An easy half hour walk brought us to a familiar animal sanctuary and a long dock that stretched into the tributary we needed to travel up to get to our assigned communities.

The dock stretched toward the water but ended on a muddy beach, not quite reaching the shallow, murky water. At first, the damp mud was easy to traverse, the sand holding firm. Then the river bank dropped off and the choice was to wade through the mucky water or climb the bank and walk through giant grasses that stood 10 to 12 feet tall. We chose the grasses.

After another half hour of battling grass stalks as thick as sapling trees and covered with spines, the river’s edge dropped back down to a sandy pathway. We gratefully slid down and continued our walk. Soon, a wooden boat about 10 feet long with a small outboard motor came towards us. After some negotiation, all 11 of us piled on board. We carefully balanced our bags and ourselves for an easier, albeit slow ride up the shallow river. A full three hours after we set out, my small team and I arrived at one of the communities that we were assigned to evaluate.

Community evaluations are a critical part of the Adopt-A-School program. They confirm that participants are holding true to the contract of sustainable resource use, prioritizing education, and organized leadership in exchange for support from CONAPAC and the DZS. All 55 communities were visited and vetted through a comprehensive rubric that addressed environmental, educational and institutional management. The vast majority of the communities were rated as “good” or “excellent”; three were placed on a watch list and one was unfortunately cut from the program due to a breach of contract.

This community has faced some challenges over the past several years. Record floods wiped out crops and unsteady leadership let the community bakery and drinking-water purification plant fall into disarray. CONAPAC offered support in restarting the bakery to make it a potential profit source. Turning raw materials into a finished product has a higher profit margin and bread is a constant need in surrounding communities. CONAPAC also offered training and materials to restart and refurbish the water purification plant, ensuring there would be clean drinking water available. The community declined both offers.

When the evaluation team arrived to assess the community, they came across a large path of bare earth; huge machines had clear-cut a road into the rainforest. The community acknowledged that they had contracted with a lumber company who had cut a path into the forest, removing dozens of large, old-growth trees for a relatively nominal amount of money. The community leadership was neither remorseful nor willing to work with CONAPAC on other projects that would allow them to profit in an environmentally sustainable way. The evaluation team discussed and unanimously decided to remove the community from the Adopt-A-School program.

There is always an open door for communities removed from the Adopt-A-School program to rejoin. The process is careful and thoughtful, involving several community visits to ensure a change in either leadership or practice has prepared them to be a successful partner again. Many of the 54 communities currently in the program have participated for more than a decade and are both dedicated to protecting the rainforest and appreciative of the educational opportunities it provides for their children.

To learn more about the Adopt-A-School program and how you can make a difference in the life of a child in the Amazon rainforest, please visit https://detroitzoo.org/support/give/ and choose
“Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School Program” from the drop-down menu.

Our upcoming volunteer expedition is scheduled from March 25 to April 2, and spots are still available. Volunteers will help deliver donated school supplies to these communities in need along the Amazon and Napo rivers . For more information, visit detroitzoo.org/about/travel-programs/amazon-travel-program/ or contact clannoyehall@dzs.org and/or adewey@dzs.org.

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

Education: Constructing School Kitchens in Peru

During the second week of our visit to Peru as part of the Adopt-A-School program, we continued to deliver donated school supplies to our final eight communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers. Students and teachers received pens, pencils, rulers, notebooks, textbooks and more that will assist with making learning accessible and achievable. The students showed their appreciation for this invaluable academic support by thanking the volunteers and giving presentions cultural performances, many of which include ecological messages.

As part of the Adopt-A-School program, community partners must commit to following these requirements:

  • Children must go to school regularly
  • Conservation and preservation of the Amazon Rainforest must be standard community practice
  • Communities must be kept clean
  • Productive projects such as medicinal gardens or crops must be maintained in community spaces

Creating reverence and respect for the natural world starts in childhood, is re-enforced through schools and grows into adulthood. In some of the long-standing Adopt-A-School communities, some former program participants now have children within the program, further expanding conservation and preservation as a family value.

In addition to school supply deliveries, the second week of the Adopt-A-School visit includes a service project. This year’s project is taking place at Centro Unido and includes constructing a school kitchen for the government-funded Qali Warma (Quechua for “strong child”) meal program. This will allow parents to cook both breakfast and lunch every day at school to further incentivize attending class by providing meals, while making learning easier by removing hunger as a distraction.

While construction is going on, some volunteers work with the children, providing individualized attention that is hard to come by in a classroom setting. We do many crafts and art projects with the students, exposing them to different learning experiences that are sometimes missing in the rote learning style of Peru. This opportunity to interact one on one with students creates new friendships and many memories.

As this Adopt-A-School volunteer trip comes to an end, it is hard to say goodbye to all of the people we’ve met in Centro Unido as well as the volunteers who have committed their time, energy and finances to making this program a possibility. A big thank you goes out to all who made the 2016 Adopt-A-School school supply deliveries and service project a great success!

Are you interested in preserving the rainforest, one child at a time? For more information on Adopt-A-School donations and volunteer opportunities, please visit http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school.

– Adam Dewey is an education specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Education: Preserving the Rainforest, One Child at a Time

We’re off to Peru for the 24th year of Adopt-A-School, a program that empowers the citizens of the Amazon rainforest to conserve and protect this globally vital ecosystem.

For this journey, I am joined by fellow Detroit Zoological Society Education Specialist Ben Connor Barrie and 20 volunteers from the U.S., Canada, and as far as Australia. We will be making deliveries of school supplies to communities along the Amazon and Napo rivers.

An average day begins with us packing the four “rapidos”, or fast boats, with school supplies. The volunteer team splits up into small groups and each heads out in a different direction to deliver the supplies. The children often come running to the riverbanks to greet us while adults play traditional Amazonian music on drums and flutes. Once the school supplies are moved into the schools, we begin the ceremonies with speeches, dances and more music.

During one of these deliveries, I was lucky to return to a community that is very special to me. Pucallpa is home to many students I’ve become attached to, as it was the first location I traveled to on a service project three years ago. During my last visit to Pucallpa, I had some down time after program evaluations and took up with a few elementary-aged boys who were playing with their balsa wood airplanes. We zoomed around making plane noises through the school and into the schoolyards. One young boy remembered this and wanted me to do it again. He disappeared for a few moments before returning with one of his balsa wood airplanes. He handed it to me and said it was a gift for me. This was by far one of the most special gifts I have ever received from anyone, as it was truly given from the heart.

The global importance of this region cannot be stated enough. It is home to a massive variety of life and produces much of the world’s oxygen. The people who call this region of the world home are crucial partners in conserving the Amazon rainforest. This international collaboration is preserving the rainforest, one child at a time.

For more information on Adopt-A-School donations and volunteer opportunities, please visit http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school.

– Adam Dewey is an education specialist for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes from the Field: Visiting Schools Along the Napo River in Peru

We’ve traded in the “mototaxis” for boats as we moved from Iquitos into the rainforest at Explorama’s Explornapo Lodge along the Napo River in Peru. It’s interesting – when you look straight down at the water, it is a milky shade of brown, but when looking further out, the reflection of the clouds and blue sky give the impression that the Amazon River is actually blue, which it is not. The scenery is green and lush, as we expect, but now that the water level is lower, we can see how aggressive it is when the river rises. We know how fierce yet resilient nature can be. The mud is sculpted like artwork in places high above the current water line. In many places, green plants have taken over the steep mud cliffs, growing where water stands for months of the year. Birds are flying around checking out the water below, and there is a sense of tranquility from the wind and noise from the boat as we travel from place to place.

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All of this boat travel means that we’ve completed the first week of evaluations, having visited 29 schools as part of the Detroit Zoological Society’s Adopt-A-School program. We can’t all visit each of these communities in this time frame, so we spread out and meet up every night for a recap of what is happening in each community. Common issues that come up revolve mostly around water. Due to flooding, some schools weren’t able to hold classes for up to four months of this school year. Some don’t have enough time to grow crops between the flooding, and almost all communities are having trouble with proper trash disposal. Being here in the rainforest and immersed in this environment leads me to question what is the best solution for this situation. There aren’t garbage boats that come through these communities to pick up trash, so what are they expected to do with it? This is one of the reasons why this program is so important – we focus on education, including education about sustainability and preservation of the environment.

I’ve enjoyed visiting many communities this week, but Canal Pinto was one of the most impactful experiences for me. It was obvious the two teachers in the community had everything under control. You could tell by looking at the students, the classrooms, and their interactions with students that this community was in good hands. As I looked around the beautiful kindergarten classroom, I noticed something that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Recycled plastic bottles, cut and painted, neatly labeled with student names. Inside each cup was a toothbrush. Hanging on the shelf next to each toothbrush was a washcloth. The students are learning to take care of themselves and to reuse items they have around them. This shows these children – at a very early age – the importance of helping to conserve items and take care of themselves, hopefully habits that will help them and the environment for years to come.

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We have a few days left of reviews before we head home. We will be soaking in the heat and humidity while we can before coming back to the much cooler north. Adios for now!

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society. The Adopt-A-School program provides donated educational materials and supplies for schools in rural Amazonia. The DZS has partnered with Conservacion de la Naturaleza Amazonica del Peru (CONAPAC) in this conservation and education program since 1999. For more information, or to donate to the program, visit: http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/adopt-a-school/

Education: Adopt-A-School in Peru

Most days don’t start with a walk through a construction site and a “mototaxi” ride to get into the office, but today it did. It also included watching an iguana outside of the office window as it rested against the tree branch soaking in the Amazonian heat.

Currently, I am in Iquitos, Peru, preparing for evaluations in 53 rural communities along the Amazon and Napo Rivers. This is part of our Adopt-A-School program that the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) supports in conjunction with an organization called Conservacion de la Naturaleza Amazonica del Peru, A.C. (CONAPAC), based out of Iquitos.

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We work together to bring conservation awareness to these communities as well as provide opportunities for education. Each spring, the DZS leads groups of volunteers down to Peru to deliver school supplies to these communities. In the fall, as the schools wrap up their school year, we send DZS staff to attend these evaluations to check in with communities on how well they are using their supplies, how well the students are learning and how well they are maintaining the environment around their communities. That’s what DZS Education Specialist Adam Dewey and I are here to accomplish.

Although I’ve attended the school deliveries in the past, this is my first opportunity to be here for the evaluation component. I’m looking forward to seeing what the communities look like without the festivities that the school supply deliveries bring. We will see students in school, see how they learn and all that they’ve been able to accomplish this past year. We will talk with leaders within the program to see how well they’ve maintained and supported the service projects that have been completed within their communities. We will also see the new water filtration systems in use in each of the schools. Clean drinking water has been an additional project for CONAPAC, and one that has helped to keep children in these communities healthy, so I am especially looking forward to seeing this in action.

Soon, we will be heading down the river to rustic lodges in beautifully remote areas, where hot water isn’t an option, and electricity is only found in the dining hall. I am looking forward to being immersed in the rainforest for the next two weeks, spending time in these communities and visiting with the amazing people that live here. Check back soon to hear more about the program and our upcoming adventures in the communities!

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Notes From the Field: Silence in the Amazon

Hola mis amigas y amigos!

This has been an interesting trip indeed! We can normally get pretty close to the island of Purawa by boat, but this time, we ended up walking on what looked like a desert a mile long! When we finally got to the “green” part, it was equally as dry. We cut a path with a machete for the evening hike and waited for the sun to disappear. We saw some species of amphibians, but none that we would’ve hoped or expected to see. This island is uninhabited and usually has not only a large number of amphibians, but also a lot of different species. We often see an abundance of tree frogs and many smaller species perched in the grasses along the smaller ponds. This time there were almost no tree frogs and only a handful of toads.

Days later, we made plans to meet with the Amazon Amphibian Protectors Club and take them out on a night hike. We have been working with these students for close to five years, and they have such a lovely appreciation for amphibians now, spreading the word to other students in their school. They are always thrilled to participate in an evening trip to learn about amphibians and potentially see different species than what they normally would. We chose an island that was close by the school and looked promising. The children found several toads until the professor announced that she heard rain. It took quite some time to get back to the boat and by then we were experiencing heavy rain and thunder. As we drove back to the school, several fish jumped in our boat. They were similar to what we have as sunfish or bluegill, and small and flat enough that I could toss them back into the water as quickly as they flew into the boat. I was thrilled I could toss them all back, but I may have been the only one that was.I am a third of the way into my travels and have seen and heard less than I would have expected. I have tried to record in the evenings so I can determine if there are other species present. I place a digital recording device in an area where I can already hear calls, so that I can record and download the sounds
later. One night, there was silence – complete silence for what seemed like an hour though it turned out to be only 10 minutes. That is an unusual sound in the rainforest – hearing nothing at all. Lightning and thunder came on quickly, which may explain the brief silence. I was curious before but am now very interested to see what the remainder of the week will be like.

Buenos noches!

– Marcy Sieggreen is the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and is doing fieldwork in Peru, studying amphibians in the lower elevations of the Amazon River to see how they are faring with increased human populations and impacts in their habitats.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.

Notes From the Field: Amphibian Diversity in Peru

Hola mis amigas y amigos!

My Peruvian friends have been telling me that the last few months have been very dry, so I had no idea what to expect upon my arrival. I was very surprised to see that the Amazon River was at least 30 or more feet lower than when I was here in March, which could potentially have a huge impact on what amphibians we see. Areas where there would normally be ponds could be completely dry. As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to get out into the rainforest and see what may be waiting for us.

Unfortunately, my suspicions were accurate and amphibians were much harder to find than usual. Since we monitor some of the same areas year after year, I had a pretty good hunch on where and what I might find in certain areas. When we have time, we always check other areas but our priority is to first survey our research sites. Among many other pieces of data we have been collecting, we are looking at diversity and abundance of species – basically, what types of frogs and toads and how many. This year seems to be the most obvious change, likely, due to the dryness. The humidity levels even felt different – normally my skin stays moist but this time I was using lotion.So far, the most interesting or peculiar sighting was a toad that had climbed a tree. The toad, common to South America, was at least four feet off the ground with no visible easy climbing point. I can hardly wait to see what else we may find!

Buenos noches!

– Marcy Sieggreen is the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society and is doing fieldwork in Peru, studying amphibians in the lower elevations of the Amazon River to see how they are faring with increased human populations and impacts in their habitats.

Editor’s note: Marcy Sieggreen was the curator of amphibians for the Detroit Zoological Society from 2008 until her passing in 2016. The Detroit Zoological Society established the Sieggreen Amphibian Conservation Fund in Marcy’s memory to continue to advance the work she so passionately championed.