What would happen if children from the communities in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve would learn math skills by calculating how much rainfall they need for their cacao crops to thrive?
How would their learning change if the educational materials they have include photos of jaguars captured with camera traps installed by their own parents a few hundred meters away from their homes? In WWF-Ecuador we believe that education must connect learning with the local environment and context to have impact on biodiversity conservation objectives.
Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve is one of the biggest protected areas in the Ecuadorian Amazon. With an extension of more than 590,000 hectares, this complex wetland system has an incredible biodiversity, and is home to species such as the river dolphin, the jaguar and the giant otter. However, it is not only animals that live here. Five different indigenous nationalities call this area home: Kichwas, Cofanes, Sionas, Secoyas, and Shuaras. WWF-Ecuador has been working closely with these communities in different aspects, including biological monitoring with camera traps for territorial management, and the development of sustainable livelihoods that are socially and environmentally responsible. However, our time in the area and our constant interaction with people from these communities, revealed something that has been getting more and more evident. Not only as an urgent need in the communities in Cuyabeno, but most importantly, as the missing piece in our conservation efforts in this incredibly biodiverse area: the need to address education as a tool for conservation.
So, we decided to dig deeper, and this past November we traveled to Cuyabeno to make an assessment of the situation and define the needs, challenges, and potential of working in education. We visited four communities: Charap and Taikua (Shuaras), Zábalo (Cofanes) and Zancudo Cocha (Kichwas). What we found out was concerning but incredibly encouraging at the same time.
The days we spent in each community included meetings, conversations, observations and activities with four groups: parents, school teachers, elders, and children from the local school. Especially effective were the early morning breakfast meetings or the afternoon talks by the river to get the inside story of life in a community.
Although provided with basic materials, teachers have almost no support or assistance regarding teaching methodologies and approaches to the complex realities they face in these communities. Drawing on the lacking materials and knowledge they have available, their teaching ends up being mechanic and repetitive, but mostly, irrelevant. Children are instructed to draw bunny rabbits and learn math by counting bears, a complete theoretical abstraction for someone who has never seen any of these animals. It is impossible for children to interiorize learning if teaching is not relevant within their context.
Infrastructure was one of the main issues, not only concerning school facilities. Only one of these communities has drinking water and a basic sewage system. As one of the parents simply puts it: “how can my kids learn if they are constantly missing school because the water they drink makes them sick?”.
This reality can be overwhelming, and it would be easy to say that education is not a priority when there is such an urgency to cover basic needs. Nevertheless, our assessment of the situation made it clear that in contexts such as this one, education might be the long-term solution for the problems these communities face.
It’s not easy to get children to talk, so instead, we would ask them to draw. The first activity was to draw their school. This took them quite a long time. They would stare at the blank page, peek at their classmates’ work, and constantly ask the teacher what they should draw. By the end, most drawings looked the same: a squared, closed classroom, with a few desks. When we tried to start a conversation about their drawings, we were faced with silence and boredom.
We then asked them to draw “el monte”, the forest. The transformation was immediate, they all had something to say, a story to tell. Their drawings took up the entire page: trees, rivers, birds, animals, flowers, fruits, but most importantly, people. Most children had included an adult from their family in their drawing, fishing, hunting, or gathering. This just proved, once again, that these people’s lives are connected with the rainforest. Their daily live and survival depends on the resources provided by the territory they live in.
But then, why shouldn’t this connection be replicated in education? School classrooms shouldn’t be a space that abstracts children from the reality the live in, instead, it should draw on the context to create teaching methods based in locally relevant themes. The idea is quite simple:
- Children internalize learning when there is connection, interest, and full understanding of the themes discussed, not theoretical abstraction of things and problems that they don’t personally know.
- Learning through locally relevant themes will develop the skills and capacities to tackle the problems children face in their context, with the opportunities and tools they have in hand.
- Efforts to develop sustainable livelihoodsostenibilidads will be supported within the community, with an education that reinforces skills and capacities to thrive in such context, creating a more suitable and appropriate environment for the inclusion of these practices in the long term.
This assessment process was only the first step of a long-term education initiative in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve. Findings and conclusions from this process will help us design an education project with real impact for the local communities and the conservation of biodiversity in their territory. The initial stage will have an impact on four communities, around 200 students and 10 teachers. The next steps include:
- Developing a local curriculum, materials and schoolwork for sustainable development together with each community, with participation of various groups including elders and community leaders.
- Training local teachers for the inclusion of this curriculum and methodologies in their schools.
This first phase will be a pilot program for a potential large-scale initiative in the entire Cuyabeno Reserve, with reach to all 18 communities living in the protected area. In order to do so, we would be working closely with the Ministry of Education to discuss the possibility of developing together an official curriculum for all communities living in Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, and adapting this curriculum to the native language and cultural context of each of the five indigenous nationalities represented in the area.
We are excited about the challenges and achievements that will come up along the way as part of this new project. In WWF-Ecuador, we are confident that education is a key element to achieve our goal of building a future where both nature and people will thrive.
Photos: © Nico Kingman/ WWF-Ecuador