Recently the Reforestation Project I work for organized a workshop at a primary school in one of the communities where we have worked with farmers to diversify their farms.  The topic of the workshop was, Reforestation and Soil Conservation.  Given that we have in the two-and-a-half year span of this project we have only worked with adults, we worked intentionally to create a presentation that included lots of images, and thought of some “ice-breakers” to engage the students.  Since we expected to work with fourth through sixth graders, we also planned an activity with them to measure the slope of the garden behind the school and make a terrace with them.  Conveying the concept of soil erosion and also teaching the math involved in calculating the average of a slope was ambitious, but the kids were great!

You can never plan perfectly, and sure enough the other teacher at the two-room school house asked if her kids could come to the presentation as well.  So her class of first through third graders joined us as well and instead of 16 kids we had 31!  We started by asking each student to introduce themselves and give the name of a Nicaraguan tree they like.  We got a lot of good answers – nispero, mango, and sacuanjoche – before the kids decided that manzana (which is not a Nicaraguan tree, but an imported fruit that is very popular around Christmas time) was the coolest answer and it was hard to get them back thinking about native fruits.

The presentation started with illustrating the water cycle, and then focussing on the section of the cycle where the rain falls on hillsides and it washes into rivers and out into lakes or ocean.  Then we split the classes into two different activities.

It worked quite well!  The older kids grasped the concept and became very efficient at using the Aparato A to mark and measure the slope.  A young girl took the job of hammering in the stakes at 4m intervals, and two different students wrote down the measurements every 2 meters so they could divide into groups afterward and calculate the average.  The students are lucky to have one of the farmers in our project as a teacher, and he has clearly brought environmental values to the curriculum and school environment.  The yard was trash-free and planted with a wide variety of fruit trees, and a little patch of corn and beans.  When the teacher noticed the yard eroding, he asked the students to bring in large soda bottles, which they buried neck down around the lower edge of the school yard, creating a little wall has been successfully collecting topsoil so that by now many of the bottles are nearly completely buried.

The younger students worked with me to create two scenarios, farmer Ricardo and farmer Juan who live opposite sides of the same mountain.  One cuts all his trees down to sell the wood and plant corn.  The other cuts his trees down to sell the lumber, but plants new trees in terraces along the level of the mountain and corn in parallel rows up the side of the mountain. We simulated the farms by laying a wooden board at an angle, covering it with earth, and then making rain with a watering can, washing the soil off.  The we repeated the excercise, but laying rocks in rows along the board with weed draped across them.  Some of the soil washed off, but more of it caught on the rocks and stayed in muddy rows along the terraces.

At the end of the morning, we gathered the older students to review the different components, and asked them what they would like to do or study.  Only one student said he wanted to farm; the other students said doctors, teachers, firefighters, even one said he wanted to be an architect.  Unfortunately, probably not all of them will graduate high school and a small percentage will probably successfully graduate from college.  Access to higher education is improving in Nicaragua, but many obstacles still stand in the way.

Returning to the office, my colleagues said they were a bit disapointed that so few of the students had mentioned “rural careers” and that they hadn’t been able to convince more of the kids of the importance of good farming.  I had had the opposite reaction, and was thrilled so see so much ambition and creative ideas from the kids.  Most of them live on farms, and it’s understandable for them to want something different than their parents at their age.  Whether they go on to further study or not, many of them will probably end up inheriting land from their families, and could even have the possibility of both farming and having a trade or profession (like their teacher, who has a fruit and honey farm in the village).  If we are truly working with sustainable rural development, which should enrich the rural areas and create environments that encourage the youth to stay and not emigrate to the cities, and the best way to acheive that is for all of those professions to be present in the rural areas.  Considering doctors and architects as “urban” professions is a mistake.   We need rural doctors and teachers, and even better if they understand fundamental concepts of environmental sustainability to boot.

The students helped to assemble the "Aparato A" which is used to measure the slope and create the terraces. We donated the finished aparatus so they could continue the work the next semester.