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.

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: Teaching in the Amazon

The Amazon rainforest is an incredible place, the subject of countless novels and stories. Discovered, explored and exploited for generations, millions of people call this biodiverse and globally important region home. The area is often referred to as the “lungs of the earth” as the plethora of plant life grabs carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and replaces it with life-essential oxygen. In partnership with a Peruvian non-profit organization, CONAPAC, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is preserving the rainforest, one child at a time.

The DZS has partnered with CONAPAC since 1999, supporting children and teachers in rural areas of the rainforest. Each spring, more than 3,000 students and teachers receive a year’s worth of basic school supplies, purchased with money donated by individuals from all over the world. To complement the supplies, all teachers are required to attend a professional development workshop to enhance their teaching skills and increase student literacy.

This year, the teacher workshops were held in the city of Indiana, in Loreto, Peru, during the last week of June. I attended the workshops to observe first-hand what the investment of time, energy and resources was producing. I was incredibly impressed. This year there were two sets of workshops; one for teachers working in communities on the Amazon, the other for teachers who are working in the communities off the Napo River and its tributaries. The non-profit organization, El Conocimiento Se Comparte (which roughly translates to ‘the sharing of knowledge’), facilitated the content of the workshops on mathematics, reading comprehension and linguistics.

El Conocimiento Se Comparte is a U.S. entity, composed of four siblings who were born and raised in Peru. All four moved to the U.S. as adults to pursue their individual careers. Their goal is to share their talent and passion for teaching with a broad audience, including their home country of Peru. The CONAPAC team coordinated the location and logistical aspects of the workshop, and the El Conocimiento Se Comparte group brought their passion and talent.

For the most part, I was a participant of the workshop proceedings. I sat through each session, gleaning as much information as I could, completely immersed in the native language and enjoying every moment of it. I watched as teachers engaged with one another and with the presenters, asking for more explanation when necessary, inquiring about specific student needs and adaptations, and taking copious notes every step of the way.

Over the course of the next month or two, the board of education in the region will visit the teachers in their schools to observe if they have implemented the new teaching strategies. If they have, they will be eligible for a certificate, which could earn them a raise or a future promotion. When the CONAPAC and the DZS team conducts end-of-year evaluations in November, we’ll also be looking for signs that teachers have implemented the strategies and report back to our donors and the team.

The conservation work in the Amazon continues to be incredibly rewarding, yet also challenging. By providing the opportunity for an education based in conservation, we are empowering the next generation of children who call the rainforest home to protect the ecologically vital ecosystem.

For more information on the Amazon Rainforest Adopt-A-School program, including how to participate in annual deliveries or to support a school financially, visit http://detroitzoo.org/support/give/ or email clannoyehall@dzs.org.

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