May 14, 2012
Guardians of Nature students take a field trip to snorkel in coral reefs. Photo courtesy of: Miguel Hernandez.
"These children live in some of the most beautiful and productive ecosystems on the planet, yet they don’t know it; to them they are just part of their backyard," conservationists and the creator of Guardians of Nature, Miguel Hernandez, told mongabay.com. "Traditionally, local people exploited their environment with little concern for sustainability, and rightly so because population was low and natural resources very abundant. During the last few decades, however, the opposite has become true: burgeoning population, dwindling resources. This has resulted in the collapse or near collapse of some of these habitats."
Hernandez says the Guardians of Nature program works to "teach kids living in critical coastal ecosystems how to appreciate and protect their own environment. We educate and empower young people not only to learn about and to do something for their environment, but also to become leaders in their communities and thus catalyst for positive change."
Working with students from ages 14 to 18, the program includes classwork, field time, and ecological projects such as reforestation and sea turtle conservation. The program seeks to provide basic knowledge about the environments where the children live. For example, Hernandez says the students are taught the ecology of coral reefs, so they see the reefs as more than easily-destroyed "rocks" that hide their quarry.
"Making these connections is vital not only for the preservation of the environment but also for the well-being of local communities. In the context of Colombia, the role of the community is very important considering that environmental regulations are weak or unenforceable in some regions," explains Hernandez.
Reefs in the area are imperiled by overfishing, certain fishing methods, and erosion. The Caribbean coast of Colombia also sports mangrove forests that are cut for charcoal, construction, and coastal developments. Climate change is also a rising concern. Both reefs and mangroves are vital for abundant fish populations and therefore the communities' livelihood.
The most unique ecosystem in the region, however, is the tropical dry forest. Worldwide, 98 percent of tropical dry forests have been lost. In Colombia, according to Hernandez, only 5 percent remains. Much like tropical dry forests everywhere, Colombia's last fragments remain imperiled by agriculture and cattle ranching.
One of the keys to the program is giving the students an opportunity to connect with nature in ways they would not have the opportunity to do otherwise.
"Snorkeling in the coral reefs while learning about conservation, or releasing a baby turtle expected to come back to the same beach 20 years later, is something that we hope will stay with [our students] throughout their lives for their own personal growth and to teach others," Hernandez says. "We also hope that our students will remain Guardians of Nature where ever they go or whatever they do."
Hernandez says there is a number of ways to help Guardians of Nature, including donating or sponsoring a program. In addition, the program also hosts foreign volunteers, both English and Spanish-speaking, for anywhere from seven days to three months.
Students working on reforestation. Photo courtesy of: Miguel Hernandez.
Releasing baby sea turtles on Isla Fuerte. Photo courtesy of: Miguel Hernandez.
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