The Easy Way to Tour South America Lazy dad, hyper mum, four kids (one in nappies) tour South America for 6 months

The Easy Way to Tour South America
Volunteering at the Children’ Eternal Rainforest
Tariq cleans up the rainforest
Tariq cleans up the rainforest

We have had a near daily education as to the etymological makeup of the word ‘rainforest’, and the critical 4 letter difference from the word ‘forest’. Today was no different, but fortunately the downpour came after our work was done.

We took the children to Monteverde’s Children’s Eternal Rainforest (Bosque Eterno de los NiƱos). This endangered rainforest gained some fans from a school in Sweden, who after learning of the rainforest’s plight, started fundraising activities that grew to encompass children from 44 countries. With the funds raised, they are buying tracts of forest and protecting these from being cut down for wood. They are currently fundraising to extend a corridor from the forest which would allow birds to migrate South for whom the current journey is too long.

We started our volunteering activities there in the morning. Wendy, who was looking after us, told us that in the year that she’s been here, we’re the first family to volunteer. This struck me as somewhat sad, as it is a great opportunity for kids to start to understand the environment, the cycle of life and nature’s workings first hand. Our onerous task was to sweep leaves from a path through the forest and collect them for composting. The older two boys were great, the youngest two engaged in diversionary and occasionally subversive tactics. Our efforts were also punctuated by frequent trips back up the path to take one or the other of them to the toilet. Despite this, we managed over the three days to clear the entire path and collect about 18 bags for composting (This compared to a group of 20 American students a few weeks prior who managed to collect one bag over the course of a day. It astounds me sometimes how some ‘volunteers’ fail to see that volunteering is a responsibility rather than (just?) a favour).

When we took the bags to the greenhouse where the composting would take place, Wendy explained to us what the compost would be used for. Done in kids’ terms so that Paola and I would understand. It was for an interesting programme. A local artist aptly named Willow had taken it upon herself to convince the local hoteliers and restaurateurs not to import exotic plants from other parts of the world to adorn their properties, and thereby upset the delicate local balance. The alternatives she offered them were stunning locally grown plants which would more than beautify a garden or property, and would continue to keep the environment here in balance. I don’t know whether she charged for them – I would hope that they are part of the fundraising for the forests here, but it struck me as a tremendous social enterprise. Very local, very needed, and value adding.

On days 2 and 3, Wendy was unfortunately rather ill. Instead, we were accompanied by Elias, who was from one of Costa Rica’s endangered 24 indigenous communities. Unlike the Maya in Mexico, these groups, who’s origins more or less coincided with the Maya, receive no protection from the national government, and their language and culture are in serious danger of extinction as the younger members take up English as a second language after Spanish, relegating their own mother tongue to obsolescence.

As I write, Elias is studying for his masters in sustainability, and is engaged in reviewing some of the policies and implementations in the local area. It was fascinating for me to learn about the double-speak that occurs in the area of ecotourism at all levels. At a national level, a government that recognises the national treasure that is Costa Rica’s unique and rich biodiversity, and places much of its public relations around this fact. Meanwhile, licences are handed out to mining companies and oil explorers in ways that will threaten much of the environment that the government is so fond of talking about. At a business level, again many businesses, especially in the ecotourism trade, make much of their sustainability credentials while pumping polluting effluent into the local streams. At an individual level, many people who make their names on the sustainability and environmentalist speaking circuit while not actually engaging in actual work in the field. None of these double standards are unique to the fields of environmentalism and sustainability, but it was fascinating seeing this first hand.

(Aside – random idea. Create an ecotourism sustainability index that would be monitored by an independent organisation. This would award a score to ecotourism (and other) businesses on the basis of a variety of criteria relevant for their business. The scores would be made visible to the various tourist and ecotourist organisations such as Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor, who would also fund the independent awarding body. This would encourage hotels and other businesses to put their actions where their PR is, as people engaging in ecotourism would start to avoid bad-scoring hotels and businesses. End of aside.)

It was also fascinating to learn of the unique relationship between some of Costa Rica’s environmental movements and the Quakers. A number of Quakers had moved to Costa Rica back in 1950 after serving time for refusing to do military service in the USA. You could see the appeal from that perspective of moving to a country that at the same time was actually abolishing its entire military forces (yup, Costa Rica has no army, air force or navy). However, the Quakers’ philosophical view of the preservation of nature as well as a long-term vision that saw the importance of protecting the rainforest to protect their water supply helped the local environmental efforts no end.

Now with the Quakers ageing and not being replaced, a government that talks much but gives encouragement to industries that destroy the environment, businesses that use the ecotourism label while eating further into the rainforest and polluting as they go, voluntary and non-governmental organisations are needing to pick up much of the void to try to protect one of the aspects that makes Costa Rica so special, but more importantly keeps a delicate balance of nature alive.

The work we did as volunteers makes an infinitesimally small difference to that. But like voting, when we each exercise that responsibility, it does kind of add up. Omar did a grand job of distracting the little ones so that they minimally hampered our efforts, and Alvaro was a champion leaf sweeper, going on longer than anyone else. And both boys know that the work they did will create compost that will nourish a local plant that will stop an imported one from disturbing its bit of environment.

P.S. For anyone thinking about doing this or similar, we’d mightily recommend it. A couple of things you might find useful…
1) The boys did some reading to give them context. The Kindle is proving a great asset for just-in-time books to educate us as we go without adding weight. We downloaded two stories, “A Different Kind of Hero” and “The Story of a Forest” (though I liked the look of “The Vanishing Rainforest“, but it wasn’t available on Kindle), and a great book on environmentalism called “365 Ways to Live Green for Kids“. This latter book is great reading anywhere, as it teaches and shows what they and their schools can do to engage, and has experiments, research and reading. It had sections of rainforests and ecotourism, which we looked at specifically for this trip, but will continue to look at it when back home.
2) the children’s eternal rainforest will take donations and volunteers.
3) the drive up to Monteverde is via very gravelly and pebbly roads. Only do it in a car that’s up to the job.

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