1000+ students from 26 remote Amazon rainforest communities participated in the first ever bird festivals in the Peruvian department of Loreto from September 9th to the 13th. They awoke early to travel to neighboring communities along the Amazon rivers, well prepared to present elaborate performances related to bird conservation.
These activities have gained momentum since 2017 such that a kind of revolution is building. It’s a celebrative kind, raising spirits and enhancing their cultural arts. Children are showing excitement for the natural world, and their parents are following suit. It’s in good time; Peru has been listed as the world’s best country for bird watching, and is second worldwide for most species of birds registered. Most importantly, these activities are showing concrete increases in bird conservation.
Thousands of students in K-12 have become involved in this movement over the past several years. Their teachers are consistently leading outdoor, project-based classes to inform them of the region’s bird species’ habitat, behavior, nesting, diet, cultural stories, and more. The show-worthy results have included activist theatre, portraying stories of birds fighting to retake their habitat after being encroached upon. Other students have nearly mastered drawing finely detailed portraits of the birds, and still others have crafted replica bird nests to explore nest functions. Much of this was shared during these festivals. One high school senior rapped about birds’ beauty and the tragedy of losing them. Another 14-year-old young woman’s dramatic poetry about respecting birds in nature left watchers teary-eyed. Groups of younger students were happy to be included too, sharing well-practiced songs about birds’ beauty. One mother even rose to share an unsolicited folk song about the Blue-gray Tanager.
The impact of this is visible. Children are heard stopping their classmates from killing birds, and their parents are reporting no longer hunting birds in unsustainable ways.
Behind these activities are 250 dedicated teachers, Peruvian NGO CONAPAC, led by Brian Landever, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science project Celebrate Urban Birds, represented by Karen A. Purcell and Marilú López Fretts. They have been co-creating training workshops each year since 2017, resulting in dozens of dynamic lesson plans, materials, communication methods, and culturally embedded evaluations all focused on keeping enthusiasm strong.
The people in this region are strong, accustomed to the intense Amazon sun, and mainly fish and grow crops for sustenance. Children and adults cheerfully play sports every afternoon, and couples help one another with fishing. Their music with flutes, drums, and rattles, their regional dances related to animals, and their stories about the meanings behind bird encounters are just a few aspects of the people’s rich culture. Their homes may not have electricity or running water, and they be over 100 kilometers from the closest city, but the warmth and comfort they have amongst one another in communities makes international visitors appreciate coming here, and has many returning frequently. Still, until recently, the forest was not commonly explored for leisure; entering only when hunting was the priority. That’s all changing now. Now, there’s a greater awareness of how the birds are important to the environment, developing the people’s pride they have for their home.
These perspectives were inquired into more closely in open conversations about this effort following each morning’s presentations. These discussions amongst parents, community authorities, students, and teachers with Karen Purcell of CLO are building understanding of the movement’s impact on people’s lives and environment. New, exciting initiatives were also shared, including long trails, or “senderos,” complete with benches and gazebos, built by parents for children to birdwatch in the forest, building their understanding of how birds live in nature.
In 2017, the first ornithology training workshop was held for teachers from these rural communities. Karen, Marilú, and the “Celebrate Birds” citizen science team, began co-developing materials, and an engaging, fun, culturally sensitive educational program focused on bird conservation was launched.
In 2018, teachers began notably increasing their involvement following bi-monthly meetings with the CLO team. The large WhatsApp group began to receive hundreds of photos posted weekly by the teachers, excited to share their progress, in turn motivating one another.
In 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, at Explorama’s lodges, located on the Amazon and Napo rivers, the teachers themselves opened the event. They had prepared creative songs, photo-realistic sketches of birds, and enthusiastic presentations of what they had accomplished to date with their students. The entire week was festive, productive, and further prepared the teachers with strong class curriculum. CONAPAC’s footage of these classes on its YouTube channel effectively capture the enthusiasm of these events. The students in turn are receiving motivated class sessions and can see that they have become part of something that is expanding, and being appreciated worldwide. The culmination of this, with the recent five bird festivals, has surpassed everyone’s expectations.
At this time of writing, thorough, co-created program evaluations are being led by CLO that will analyze the progress made. The classes continue regularly, and bird clubs are meeting regularly amongst the most interested students from each community. Eight birdwatching trails have been developed, and more are being planned. The first community-led bird festival in Loreto was on October 30th, uniting 11 communities and more than 600 people.
The potential for this program to have a positive environmental and social impact is clear. As it gains more attention in Peru and internationally, it 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. Nonetheless, what has happened over the past three years has given unforgettable, enjoyable memories to thousands of children in Peru, empowering them with activities that contribute to the wellness of the Amazon rainforest and the planet overall.
Article by Brian Landever.
Brian Landever is Director of Conapac, devoted to conservation and community development, in Iquitos, Peru.