The tape measure doesn't reach all the way around the trunk of the tree, so one student marks the spot where it started by placing a finger on the tree. Two more make their way around the thick trunk, adding up the length as they go. The tree is over two meters in diameter, and they estimate its height at about 16 meters. Using a table, the 8th graders calculate this single tree can sequester roughly 920 kilograms of carbon. It’s math and climate change education rolled into one.
These students live in Uaxactun, a forest community in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Northern Guatemala. Found in an area considered sacred by the Mayans, this community has been granted a 25 year concession from the government, which gives them the right to live in the forest and harvest forest products, as long as it is done sustainably. Education is an important part of protecting the forests, and the school in Uaxactun is not only teaching its students, but also the wider community.
Victor Otoniel Quixchan is a 25-year-old teacher who has taken an active role in forest education. In addition to teaching sixth and eight grades, he has organized community events, such as walks to raise awareness about forest fires. He is a participant in Rainforest Alliance teacher training courses, and is working on a research project with the Smithsonian to collect data on tree growth.
The school also provides vocational training for sustainable jobs. The community has created a nursery and a shade-covered plantation to grow Xate (pronounced “sha-tay”), a type of palm that is used in floral arrangements. Typically, these ferns are harvested from the wild and shipped to the U.S., where they are particularly popular as Palm Sunday decorations. Over-harvesting has been a problem in some regions of Latin America, but the school is working to help these plants regenerate more quickly and the community has earned Forest Stewardship Council certification for their Xate exports. A part of the income from these exports helps fund scholarships for students who want to seek higher education outside of Uaxactun.
A 15-year-old student in Quixchan’s class said they take some of the seedlings from the nursery and plant them in the rainforest. In the wild, Xate seeds only sprout after passing through the digestive systems of birds, so at the nursery they treat the seeds with hot water before planting them.
Younger students also participate in hands-ons environmental education. At an elementary school in nearby El Porvenir, second graders learn sustainable growing practices in a veggie garden. Rainforest Alliance helped to create kid-friendly tours of the protected areas of Tikal National Park, so the students “can learn about the environment in their own environment,” explained Yessenia Soto, a Rainforest Alliance staffer who also acted as translator.
On Earth Day, the El Porvenir students painted murals of forests, rivers and animals. But along with these idyllic scenes, the children depicted fires and bare deforested areas. When asked if the children had a message for grown-ups on Earth Day, several had the same answer:
“Please don’t cut down the trees.”
Travel for this reporting sponsored by Rainforest Alliance.