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.
Nearly one thousand Peruvians made the long, hot journey this past September. They were gathering to celebrate rainforest birds at the first bird festival in Loreto, Peru. For mothers and fathers to pack up and bring their children many miles away to another village for the sake of birds was incredible. Amazing. And totally unprecedented. In local slang, it was chevere— or “really good.”
Peru has been listed as the world’s best country for bird-watching and ranks second worldwide for the most species of birds registered. Yet, 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.
Their enthusiasm and support for birds are crucial. 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.
So for rural people to come together to talk about birds and conservation is nothing short of miraculous.
Many of the people attending the bird festival in Loreto live in villages without running water or electricity. Many fish daily for basic sustenance. Yet they came together to sing and rap and wax poetic about birds. At the festival, 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 unsustainable ways.
But this bird festival didn’t happen overnight. The festival came after three years of teaching, outreach, and community development through a partnership between the NGO CONAPAC (Civil Association for the Conservation of the Peruvian Environment) and Cornell Lab of Ornithology (CLO) ornithologists Karen A. Purcell and Marilu López Fretts. Working with teachers, the partners developed lesson plans. They thought long and hard on how to transmit passion and love of Peruvian tropical birds to primary and high school teachers out in the villages.
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.
After more than fifty years of working with local villages to provide clean water, education, and promote conservation, CONAPAC, the only NGO in the Amazon, had developed relationships with the villages, the teachers, and all the people who would benefit from this kind of education. Many NGOs that are focused on preserving the rainforest and promoting sustainable development are based in Lima or the global north. CONAPAC, based at the jumping-off point for many jungle tours, the city of Iquitos, CONAPAC and the Cornell ornithologists launched a pilot program of bird education.
The team’s 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.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 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 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.
By 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 captures the enthusiasm of these events.
Since the festival in September, 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 this past October, uniting 11 communities and 600 people around bird conservation.
The potential for this program to have a positive environmental and social impact is clear. The efforts have 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.
As it gains more attention in Peru and internationally, the program 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.
Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit.
Perhaps the most important outcome is that thousands of children in Peru have connected with local nature and can feel proud that they have contributed to the wellness of the Amazon rainforest and the planet overall.
Photo credits: CONAPAC
To read a previous version of this post on Mongabay, click here.
Additional Reading and Resources
Learn more about CONAPAC
BEYOND EARTH DAY: Bringing Indigenous Perspectives into Learning From the Land
CROSSING CULTURES: Making an “Impossible” Dream Possible
NATURE AS TEACHER: A Transformative Experience
NATUREHOOD: Rediscovering Nature in Your ‘Hood
CHILDREN AND NATURE WORLDWIDE: A Shared Vision
THE WORLDWIDE CHILDREN AND NATURE MOVEMENT: A Home for Hope
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