“It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” Rachel Carson

For years the GAAP founders, Elena and Guillermo, have watched as the temperate Valdivian rainforest has been slowly subdivided and chipped away, bit by bit. Despite being one of the top 25 global diversity hotspots, the local government of Valdivia has not taken significant measures to protect it. In fact, they do quite the opposite: the government has recently allowed people living in rural and forested areas to subdivide their property down to 1,000m2 (the size of a city lot), and the ministry of transportation is paving the road extending out into the forest from the town of Valdivia, meaning that the local people are now even more likely to divide and sell off their forested land for development.

Forest management is a very complicated issue in Chile, as in most parts of Latin America where countries struggle to balance their economic development with protection of their natural resources. Overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem, Elena and Guillermo got to thinking about what specific measures they could implement to protect this unique ecosystem. What impact could the GAAP team possibly have?

Perhaps we could do something with the local children, the future stewards of the land. So we put together a proposal to build a network of ecological trails that weave through a small but beautiful portion of the Valdivian forest, and to develop an environmental education curriculum for children, ages 8-10. The Lush Cosmetics Charitable Giving Program generously funded our project and the GAAP Nature Discovery Center was officially born!

We got busy on the trails and the curriculum and then just a few months before the launch of our environmental education program, we were soberly reminded about the importance of our work. Elena and Guillermo watched as their neighbors suddenly flattened a large chunk of native Valdivian forest adjacent to the GAAP property which was to house the Nature Discovery Center. It was devastating to see the destruction – big old trees came tumbling into the creek beds and birds circled in the sky who had lost their nests. Elena and Guillermo realized that to their neighbors, the native Valdivian forest was not valuable – at least not in comparison to whatever their reasons were for flattening it.

When I heard about this latest blow to the forest I thought of the quote by the naturalist Robert Michael Pyle: “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” We resolved to develop an intensive environmental education program that the children would never forget – an experience that would open their eyes and hearts to the limitless wonder and value of their native ecosystem, and inspire them to protect the forest when they grew up.

Here’s what we developed in collaboration with two fantastic environmental educators who joined the GAAP team, Carolina Jara and Benjamin Diaz. We would implement an 8-day outdoor education program that incorporated opportunities for children to use ALL their 5 senses to experience the forest – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. The children would learn about the unique ecosystem through hands-on scientific investigation, art activities, and of course PLAY! (Over the course of the 8-days we spent a good deal of time running around and getting dirty…but more to follow on all that in Part 2 of this story). The 8 modules covered over two weeks included: an “introduction to the forest and its charms”; “the 5 senses”; “ecosystems and trophic networks”; “birds and their habitats”; “water and the forest”; “decomposers”; and our closing integrative module, “the wisdom of nature”.

And let us not forget the new ecological trail system! Built by an amazing local family team – two brothers, Aurelio and Rafa, and Rafa’s son, Ronald – the trails now weave around areas of the forest that showcase the unique properties of the ecosystem. Most of the curriculum’s activities took place IN the forest on the trails, where children could explore endemic frog sites, habitats for the rare and threatened pudu deer as well as forest marsupials, nesting sites for the Darwin’s fox and owls, and perching trees for a plethora of native birds as well as lichens and mosses.

One of my favorite memories from the program was watching the children descend into the forest for the first time. Seeing their faces and listening to their delighted voices I knew this was going to be an awesome experience.

Part 2 of this story about the Nature Discovery Center will be included in the next GAAP newsletter. Stay tuned!