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Celebrating Youth-Led Conservation: Pacuare Reserve's Impactful Initiatives in Costa Rica

Educational programs and initiatives for local Costa Rican youth have been in full swing at Pacuare Reserve. Here's a look back at the history of these programs, as well as a closer look at what today's initiatives entail.

Reconnecting people and place

Nestled along the vibrant Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, Pacuare Reserve boasts a treasure trove of biodiversity and cultural richness. Felines, primates, and tropical birds migrate through these slender corridors, and the coast is one of the world's richest areas for nesting sea turtles. However, despite federal protection and conservation efforts, critical habitats and species faced an alarming decline in the 1990s. Sea turtle eggs were openly sold in local markets, and beach pollution marred the coastline during rainstorms.

Ecology Project International's co-founders, Scott Pankratz and Julie Osborn, were working and studying in Costa Rica when recognized a need to involve local communities in conservation efforts. Their mission was twofold: rekindle the deep connection between people and their natural surroundings while also nurturing a sense of responsibility for preserving them.

In 2000, they initiated the first EPI program in Costa Rica, offering courses to Costa Rican students and teachers. Many of these students lived just a stone's throw away from the project site, yet had never encountered live sea turtles, illustrating the critical importance of education and local engagement in conservation.

Current day initiatives

Over the past 20 years, Pacuare Reserve has remained a hub where Costa Rican youth gain profound insights into the ecosystems that constitute their homeland. They learn not only why these ecosystems are crucial but also how they can champion their protection. Activities within The Reserve empower these young individuals to find their voices in their communities and seize opportunities to spearhead initiatives that benefit both wildlife and themselves. Here's a look into what these programs look like today:

In partnership with Fyffes, Pacuare Reserve began an exciting environmental education initiative with 5th and 6th graders at the Luzon school in Bataan, Matina, a community near The Reserve.

In-school workshop: Building community and sustainability awareness

This workshop served to immerse students in a journey of self-discovery, community awareness, and sustainability. Students were invited to discuss and expand on their understanding of concepts like neighborhood, community, quality of life, and sustainability.

"The students came into the program not really knowing how powerful they can become in their communities," says EPI Instructor Ana Beatriz Hernández Barquero. "They didn’t know what sustainability was, and how they could be environmental leaders in their community in regards to sustainability."

"This program was not about adults telling them everything they have to do, but more about instructors facilitating a workshop where the voices of the kids are the most important thing," Hernández Barquero says. "They learn that their voices are important, that we want to hear them and know what they think, that we believe they have ideas that will be helpful solutions."

"They see that we are listening to them. Sometimes in the rush of the normal academic system or daily classes, it’s not as easy in those spaces to be heard. Bringing them to a different experience where their voices are the ones directing is a big change and I think they are very grateful for it."

During the workshop, students located the Luzón community on a map and discussed the protected areas that surround it. They engaged in activities that helped them better describe their community, and identified community characteristics that contribute to a healthy and safe quality of life.

"One of the most amazing things was to see them becoming empowered, speaking up about things that were not ok in their communities. They were discussing among themselves, what the best strategy was to help their communities."

Visiting Pacuare Reserve: Where the classroom comes to life

Venturing beyond the classroom, students visited and explored Pacuare Reserve, immersing themselves in the forest while discovering its amazing biodiversity. Here, the conversation revolved around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seamlessly wove together with community life. Students discovered The Reserve's rich history, its far-reaching objectives, pioneering research, and conservation programs, as well as its impact on the community of Matina, and vice versa. They took inspiration from their surroundings and new knowledge to envision a project that could help shape a more sustainable community.

"The students really didn’t know a lot about the biodiversity in their area," Ana says. "They had an awareness of places, like where the sea turtles were, but they didn’t know how close they actually were. You could see they were very inspired and got to know about all the richness and beauty that was basically part of where they live. They were also aware of how privileged they are to live so close to a natural wonder like Pacuare Reserve."

"We loved hearing them say this was an experience they would never forget. Coming to the forest, listening to the birds, looking for the animals, using binoculars, exploring, it’s something that definitely will go with them far beyond in the future."

During interpretive hikes along Pacuare Reserve's forest trails, students learned how nature teaches us about sustainability. They gained insights into the ecosystem's valuable resources and identified their threats, and explored the interconnectedness with their own quality of life. The hike also highlighted the pivotal role sustainability can play in driving change, opening doors for the students to envision themselves as future sustainability leaders.

Next steps: Project Planning for a Sustainable Community

Returning to the classroom with newfound understandings of sustainability and their community, students broke into groups and selected project ideas that would generate change towards a more sustainable community. Once students have selected their project idea, they'll receive support to formulate a proposal where they apply their leadership skills in sustainability.

Want to learn and see more of EPI Costa Rica's local projects? Follow EPI Costa Rica and Pacuare Reserve on social media.
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