Environment, Education, and the Power of Choiceprint story
July 27, 2012
"If you’re planning for a year, sow rice. If you’re planning for ten years, plant trees. If you’re planning for a lifetime, educate people." – Chinese proverb (brought to me by Amie Riley)
Environmental concerns in a small village like Limon, Nicaragua, are, on a global scale, not that important. It’s a tiny rural community. Half the population gets around via bicycle. The coastal landscape feels (at least in the rainy season!) relatively lush and pristine. Howler monkeys swing and growl through the trees alongside sapphire butterflies; huge flocks of pelicans scoop up a healthy population of fish from the thundering waves. No one here is living off of landfills or shielding their faces from smog or sitting in gridlock traffic.
Still, Limon has no trash or recycling services to speak of, unless Rancho Santana, the foreign-owned resort, expands its nascent program to the local community. Everyone in Limon burns their trash, including plastic bottles and bags that release thick, caustic fumes; most cook their food over wood fires studded with items from their petroleum-clogged trash heap. Many people see trees as wood fuel only and have little understanding of the impact of deforestation. Many still throw wrappers and bags into the street or the yard haphazardly. Many local farmers (like most around the world) coat their beans and rice in pesticides.
So, how important is talking about the environment in one Nicaraguan village? Will the several thousand saplings now studding one little Casa Verde hillside make a difference to anyone? Are a few sacks of worm-fed organic compost appealing to local farmers? Do occasional youth-led beach trash cleanups have any kind of impact? What about all the foreign influence – Rancho Santana, the Foundation for Sustainable Development, Casa Verde?
Of course, the impact of these grains of sand in what is truly just a grain of sand in the enormous, leaky bucket of global environmental degradation is in itself miniscule. But I’m going to get a little bleeding-heart here and echo the above Chinese proverb I was so glad to get my hands on (thanks, Amie!): education, in whatever form it takes, especially if it involves widening perspectives, intercultural exchanges, and locally-driven, practical applications of environmentally sustainable approaches is going to have a far greater impact on everyone in Limon and everyone who visits Limon than any one project.
Formación Fénix, for instance: a collection of incredibly ambitious and intelligent teenagers whose grandparents might not be able to read and whose families’ educations have been spotty at best. (I know, at least, that my host mother, a grandparent, picked up the Spanish-English dictionary I was leafing through at breakfast one day, squinted at it, shrugged, and let me know the written words had no meaning for her.)
But if these young people make organic compost and stage beach trash cleanups and make jewelry out of candy wrappers, and use the money from their jewelry and compost sales and other fundraising efforts to build a scholarship fund that sends them to universities, then that’s a huge shift. If they recycle, plant trees, meet people from abroad, go to college, and realize career dreams, maybe some of their children will do the same.
We were planting trees full-throttle during the time that Omprakash held its cross-cultural education conference in Playa Potrero, Costa Rica, and yet the theme of the conference struck me as precisely the kind of thing that Casa Verde is exploring (it's an organization whose primary goal is, after all, to create cross-cultural educational experiences): How can we make cross-cultural interactions mutually beneficial and mutually educational?
Not that there are any easy answers, but this is one of the most pressing questions that every traveler, volunteer, and nonprofit organization that accepts international volunteers should be asking. To me, Casa Verde’s relationship with Formación Fénix was especially gratifying. Casa Verde participants learned alongside Fénix members about how to plant baby trees and develop organic compost using worms and cow manure, for instance. We taught Fénix a few things about basic photography and made a music video with them; they taught us about their lives, showed us how they make earrings out of trash. We dug in the dirt alongside one another and taught one other our languages and exchanged hopes and dreams for the future. And because Amie has been building relationships with the local community and local nonprofits for five years and growing, and because we stayed with local families and watched their telenovellas and told them about our lives and learned about theirs, we got to step into what felt like a rich, collaborative intercambio.
But… was it? I’ve traveled a lot around the world. I’ve volunteered a lot. And there are so many things to love and admire and even envy about the lifestyles of the rural communities I’ve visited: close-knit relationships with family and friends, a relaxed understanding of the passage of time, paradisiacal environs. But the major difference between myself and these communities, I find, over and over, is one simple thing: choice. A lot of people don’t have the opportunity to travel, to attend universities, to leave the place where they grew up, to choose from a wide variety of professions and find one that suits their personality and their dreams. So often, I’m able to visit a place and step into the lives of its residents, but so rarely can any of those residents do the same in my hometown. I can try on many different lives for size, while a majority of the globe’s population has very limited choices regarding location, career, and lifestyle. And so it goes, this lop-sided interaction that allows for such limited movement and growth: it’s an exchange that creates a new window to the world without ever breaking the glass.
Still, if grassroots nonprofit work can help increase a community's choices on some level, I see that as by far its greatest benefit. With resources and opportunity and education – whether that education arrives through meaningful cross-cultural experiences, apprenticeships, mentorships, workshops, language classes, or four-year universities – people everywhere can increase the number of choices they have. With education, there's a little more economic freedom; the world gets a little bigger; there's more to explore. What if everyone could choose to fish, to write, to build houses, to study law, to work in a medical clinic, or maybe even – like the gung-ho young members of Formación Fénix – help protect the planet?
I have a few more things to finish up for Casa Verde, including an audio slide show about Fénix's secretary, Christiane, a 16-year-old powerhouse I was privileged to spend an entire day shadowing (she's giving a thumbs-up in one of the photos in the gallery). I’d also like to pore through my archives of journalistic tips and tricks and see if I can put together a resource for Omprakash that may help future volunteers think critically about the documenting they’re doing. I've got a couple more pitches to send off to education sites and magazines and then I enter the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where I will continue to name-drop Omprakash as an incredible resource for travelers and scholars and journalists. (It’s already come up in almost every conversation I’ve struck with a traveler on a bus or in a hostel in Costa Rica and Nicaragua!) In that way, I’ve already seen Omprakash’s network grow – one volunteer, one Partner, one traveler at a time.
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