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On Wednesday morning, we headed toward the municipality of San Vito for a visit to Wilson Botanical Gardens, 20 minutes outside of Agua Buena. These gardens were founded 50 years ago to be a home for tropical plants from around the world. It is now an internationally renowned research center as part of the Organization for Tropical Studies. The Center is actively engaged not only in tropical plant research, but also the reforestation of surrounding lands. We wandered through the gorgeous grounds making note of the diversity of trees and flowers including the world’s second largest collection of palm trees.
Next, we met with Ariadne Sanchez Gutierrez, the coordinator of the Garden's Environmental Education program and outreach to local schools and community. Ariadne captivated us with the activity-based program she has developed for teachers to use in the classroom. The curriculum, in its final field-test stage, connects teachers and students with their local environment as they learn about forests, use of natural resources, water use, and climate change. After our two days at the high school, we could easily see how these materials will help connect students to their surroundings, give them the opportunity to see how their own habits help or hurt the environment, while learning within the context of larger global issues.
We left enthused about these efforts with several members of our group interested in staying connected with this program, including me. I hope to see how we might connect future field studies’ students interested in environmental education with this project. We left the room where we met with Ariadne to find a pair of toucans in the tree right above us, a perfect end to our visit to the botanical garden ... and to bringing closure to our stay in Agua Buena.
Yes, the heart of the course was drawing to a close. Wednesday evening the home-stay families hosted a despedida (farewell party) for our group. It was full of joy and sadness. It’s so amazing how the families opened their homes and hearts to the participants. Rather than try to summarize this, I’ll let the words of some of the participants speak for themselves:
Dana: I really enjoyed having the tour of Belisa’s garden on the first day. And later I was given a full tour of their farm. What I loved the most was when they took me for a walk up the mountain and the dad told me all about the area and how it was when he was a child. I felt like I had a true glimpse into their lives and of who they are. It was very special for me.
Jenae: The family was very open, showing us family photo albums, introducing us to the extended family, and including us in all family activities. One night we spread blankets out on the grass in front of the house and spent the night stargazing, talking, and laughing with the family. We even saw a shooting star — my first!
Marissa: Living with Roberto, especially after the tour of his farm, I felt I had a deeper understanding of the land and him. I had more appreciation of the food I ate and the amount of work it takes to grow healthy and sustainable food.
The students learned up close the hopes and challenges of working on sustainable development at a community level. They each went away with their own unique learnings as they reflect on who they are and what they want to do to make a difference in the world. In Olivia's words: I think about how one is to work on sustainable development. It seems to me that it has to be done at a community level and very carefully, especially if it is to merge two different cultures. Ariadne made me realize this since she works so closely with her own culture. As a white person from a “first world” country, I’d feel a little out of place if I were to work abroad. Ariadne actually inspired me to continue working in my own local community.
This morning I said goodbye to the group as they headed off for two days at the beach. I’m staying in the community for another day to wrap up the course and talk about future plans. What did I learn from this experience? Given the context and opportunity to learn new things and learn from each other .... whether 6-years old or 60 ... we will do so, and gain so much from the exchange. In my first few days of being here I wondered whether CAN still had a place in the community, and whether the region of Agua Buena still had a place in the CAN network. In the last 10 days I was able to discuss this with different people — individually and in groups. I am coming away with a sense that this course experienced sustainable development in action as we restructured our partnership with the community and renewed our commitment to work together on sustainable agroecosystems, improved livelihoods for farm families, and intercultural relationships that create better understanding.