- A recent bird festival in Loreto, Peru was the culmination of three years of teaching and outreach focused on Amazonian bird studies, which resulted in such concern for birds and their habitat that a kind of revolution is building among the thousands of students involved.
- It’s a celebratory kind of revolution, raising spirits and enhancing cultural arts. Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.
- At a time when both the president of Peru and the president of Brazil view the Amazon as a huge, untapped extractive industry basin — whether it’s logging, gold mining, or gas and oil drilling — for rural people to come together to talk about birds and conservation is nothing short of miraculous.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
They left at five o’clock in the morning and traveled all day, sitting in their dugout canoes called peke-peke under the punishing tropical heat — all to attend a meeting.
One thousand Peruvians came from far and wide for a celebration of rainforest birds. They braved the heat for hours on end, but they made it. The meeting was the first bird festival in Loreto, Peru, held from September 9 to September 13, 2019.
For mothers and fathers to pack up and bring their children many kilometers away to another village to talk about, well, birds, was incredible. Amazing. And totally unprecedented. It was chevere, in local slang, meaning “really good.”
This bird festival was the culmination of three years of activities focused on Amazonian bird studies, resulting in such concern for birds and their habitat that a kind of revolution is building among the thousands of students involved. It’s a celebratory kind of revolution, raising spirits and enhancing cultural arts. Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.
It’s in good time; Peru has been listed as the world’s best country for bird watching, and is second worldwide for most species of birds registered. At a time when both the president of Peru and the president of Brazil view the Amazon as a huge, untapped extractive industry basin — whether it’s logging, gold mining, or gas and oil drilling — for rural people to come together to talk about birds and conservation is nothing short of miraculous.
For the villagers, the forest is a collection of resources that provides them with food and shelter. They ordinarily do not have great concern for nature conservation, but that has begun to change in a significant way. Students’ enthusiasm for understanding birds has led to a desire to protect them and their habitat, stopping parents from hunting birds, and stopping friends from killing birds for sport.
The K-12 students who have become involved in this movement over the past several years were initially led by their teachers in classes on the region’s bird habitat, behavior, nesting, diet, cultural stories, and more.
Many of these people live in villages without running water or electricity, and they fish daily for basic sustenance. A few of the parents have finished high school. Yet they came together to sing and rap and wax poetic about birds. Students performed plays, portraying birds fighting to retake their habitat after being encroached upon. Others hung up portraits of birds while others made replicas of their nests. A high school senior rapped about birds’ beauty and the tragedy of losing them. Another 14-year-old young woman’s poem about respecting birds in nature left the normally reserved Peruvians teary-eyed. Third graders sang songs about birds’ beauty. One mother even rose to share an unsolicited folk song about the Blue-gray Tanager.
The impact of this is showing immediately as more concern for birds. Children are heard stopping their classmates from killing birds, and their parents are reporting no longer hunting birds in unsustainble ways.
The bird festival came after three years of teaching, outreach, and community development. It was the result of a partnership between the NGO CONAPAC (the Civil Association for the Conservation of the Peruvian Environment), the director of which is an author on this article, and ornithologists Karen A. Purcell and Marilu López Fretts, both of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO). With the teachers, they developed lesson plans and thought long and hard on how to transmit passion for love of Peruvian tropical birds to primary and high school teachers out in the villages. Their focus was, first, to educate the educators. Peru has minimally distributed bird books, making it crucial to begin writing a local bird guide in Spanish.
After more than fifty years of working with local villages to provide clean water, education, and promote conservation, CONAPAC had relationships with the villages, the teachers, and all the people who’d benefit from this kind of education. Many NGOs focused on preserving the rainforest and promoting sustainable development are based in Lima or the global north. CONAPAC is the only NGO in the Amazon. Based in the jumping off point for many jungle tours, the city of Iquitos, CONAPAC and the Cornell ornithologists launched a pilot program of bird education. How do you encourage rural people to try to save the rainforest? You teach them to love what’s unique and precious about their own natural world.
In 2017, the first ornithology training workshop was provided for teachers from these rural communities by Karen A. Purcell and the “Celebrate Urban Birds” citizen science team, which works around the world inspiring children to appreciate and study birds. As the teachers began enjoying leading the classes, they then began contributing materials to the annual workshop lesson plans to build what has become a vibrant, project-based, culturally-sensitive education program focused on bird conservation.
In 2018, teachers began notably increasing their involvement following bi-monthly meetings with the CLO team. A large WhatsApp group began to receive hundreds of photos posted weekly by the teachers, excited to share their progress, and in turn motivating one another.
In early 2019, there was no doubt that the program had matured when students presented, unsolicited, elaborate skits and dances related to bird conservation during CONAPAC’s visits to their communities. Thousands of photos of class developments began to fill the WhatsApp group monthly, and the program supporters, JBQ Charitable Foundation and the Amazon Binocular Project, have stated they could not have used their donations in a better manner.
When the last workshop was held in June 2019 on the Amazon and Napo rivers, it wasn’t the NGO or the Cornell ornithologists who opened the event — it was the Peruvian teachers themselves. They performed their own songs, hung up sketches of birds, and gave presentations of what their students had learned. CONAPAC’s footage of these classes on YouTube effectively capture the enthusiasm of these events. The culmination of this, with the recent September bird festivals, surpassed CONAPAC’s and the Cornell staff’s expectations.
At the time of writing, thorough, co-created program evaluations are being led by CLO that will analyze the progress made. Initial signs are positive: The classes continue regularly, and bird clubs have been formed by the most interested students from each community. Thirteen bird watching trails have been developed, and more are being planned. The first community-led bird festival in Loreto was held on October 30th, 2019, uniting 11 communities and 600 people around bird conservation, leading to this press report.
The potential for this program to have a positive environmental and social impact is clear. As it gains more attention in Peru and internationally, it will add momentum to the global movement to respect and conserve the Amazon rainforest. For bird appreciators, incorporating ongoing citizen science data from students and community members will expand the database of birds from this region on Cornell’s ebird.com. If the Peruvian board of education replicates the training and materials in other areas of Peru, the impact would multiply tremendously, further fueling the country’s strong efforts to be a prime tourist destination. If more bird festivals occur, celebrating birds could become a proud new tradition.
Nonetheless, what has happened over the past three years has given unforgettable, enjoyable memories to thousands of children in Peru, empowering them with activities that contribute to the wellness of the Amazon rainforest and the planet overall.
Brian Landever is Director of Conapac, devoted to conservation and community development, in Iquitos, Peru. Fufkin Vollmayer is freelance writer and retired journalist who enjoys regular travels in South America.
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