Community Action
Rainforest Experience Days: Inspiring the next generation

Local schoolchildren explore the wonder of the forest and learn about its different values so that they develop a better environmental knowledge and appreciation.


The crowd of children take a step back as our senior researcher Lawrence Whittaker pulls a snake out of a bag. They’re grinning with excitement but their arms are rigid at their sides.


Lawrence explains that the team found the snake while out surveying late last night, as part of the long term research into amphibians and reptiles here at the Manu Learning Centre (MLC).


He stresses that the snake isn’t venomous and won’t bite, it’s completely harmless. You can even touch it. One arm reaches out from the back of the crowd, as a girl timidly stretches out a finger to stroke the cold scales.



Next the schoolchildren are chatting to Claudia Pérez, a Peruvian bat researcher who’s spending three months surveying the weird and wonderful species of the reserve. She shows the eager crowd photos from last night’s activity – the fangs, the huge pointed ears, the bizarre skin folded noses. The children’s faces are a picture of amazement: eyes wide, jaws dropping.

This is how the latest Rainforest Experience Day began, with the students getting up-close to species they’ve never seen, even before leaving camp and stepping into the forest.


Before long they’ll be running up and down the forest trails, capturing an array of glittering butterflies and carrying out their own data collection. Their first hands-on experience of scientific research. There will be a lot of firsts today.



Why environmental education is needed


It may seem strange that children who live in the Amazon and especially here in the Manu Biosphere Reserve, one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, are not familiar with their local wildlife. In fact, for many, this is their first time exploring the forest.


“We run environmental education for the local community mainly because the families from the local town of Salvacion are not from this area, they’re not from the jungle”, explained our education coordinator, Johanna Markiewitz.

The community moved from the Andes to the Amazon during the 1960s and 70s when there were grants to buy cheap land. They came to take advantage of the rainforest’s wealth of natural resources – mining for gold and gas, logging for timber, converting the forest into agricultural land for crops and cattle rearing.


“It’s really important that we have a programme in place that helps to encourage alternative land uses, like agroforestry”, said Johanna. “So that people are learning to use the land in a way that’s working towards sustainability.”


Creating a sustainable future



Not only is this critical from an environmental perspective but also from a social and economic one. Using the traditional Andean agricultural techniques simply doesn’t work in the Amazon.

“It’s so green here that you just assume that the soil is really nutrient rich”, said Johanna. “In reality, the nutrients are found in just the first 10cm of leaf litter. So after a year of growing their plants or keeping their livestock people found that the soil became leached of all its nutrients.”


Based on their Andean knowledge, many people then turned to slash and burn, a hugely damaging agricultural practice of clear cutting and burning the land.

“This is what’s done in the mountain areas but here it doesn’t work because you just destroy all the limited nutrients in the soil”, explained Johanna. “So after a few seasons people are forced to move to a new plot of land. They move further and further into the forest, contributing to the massive deforestation problem that we have.”


As part of our work here at the MLC, we help the community move away from this agricultural technique and set-up agroforestry plots, whereby they grow banana plants among a variety of hard and soft wood trees. This provides a more complex habitat for wildlife, keeps the nutrients in the soil, as well as providing the community with quick financial gain through selling bananas and long term financial gain through selling timber.


Valuing the forest: learn, appreciate, protect




The aim of the Rainforest Experience Days is to show the schoolchildren the different values that the forest can have.


“They come over for the day and have the opportunity to learn about the forest and appreciate it”, said Johanna. “The idea is that if you appreciate the forest then you’ll want to conserve it. The way to appreciate it is to learn more.”


Our ethos is to not preach to local people, but instead to point out and provide alternatives.


“We don’t want to, by any means, tell people that they are doing something wrong”, said Johanna. “It’s not necessarily wrong, it’s just what’s here and an alternative is not always the best option for a family when you’re trying to raise two, three, four kids or whatever their situation may be. So what we try and do is to point out the different values that the land has.”


The MLC is the perfect place to do this, as it was once used as agricultural land, for growing crops and rearing cattle. It was then turned into a protected area and the forest has been regenerating for 30 to 50 years. The value of the land is now as a site of scientific research and ecotourism.


“We talk about how the MLC reserve attracts people from across the world”, explained Johanna “because it has been conserved and is regenerating, because it holds 89% of the biodiversity of a primary forest, because it’s absolutely beautiful.”


We want the children to feel a sense of pride because they live in a place that’s of global importance and they can play a critical role in its protection. We are looking to inspire the next generation so that they become ambassadors for conservation within their community.


“Our end goal is that in 10 or 15 years time, all these small experiences in the forest will inspire kids to ask more questions about policies that impact the environment or activities that are happening in their communities,” said Johanna.


The long term aim of our education programme, both for local students and international visitors, is to encourage independent, critical thinkers who can make informed decisions based on greater environmental knowledge and appreciation.