Joaquín Leguia is redefining environmental education as a community experience, moving lessons from the school to the jungle. By setting aside areas of the forest for youth-management projects, he incorporates children into the global sustainability conversation at the most crucial stage of their personal development.
The New Idea
Joaquín is encouraging stewardship of the land, including the lowland jungles of the Peruvian Amazon Basin, by involving children in the management of community forests. In a region of the world where environmental mismanagement has resulted in wasteful agricultural practices, deforestation, and biodiversity loss, Joaquín leads communities in the creation of Children's Forests–wilderness areas that both strengthen children's knowledge and appreciation of the natural world and equip them with practical skills to sustain their conservation efforts over the long term. To offer incentives for parents, school administrators, and community members to participate, Joaquín also brings resources, especially in the form of land, to communities that demonstrate a commitment to implementation and spread of Children's Forests. Having already begun working with diverse communities and partners to establish these forests in the Madre de Dios region, Joaquín is demonstrating the viability of his approach for small rural communities throughout Peru.
Both the ecological diversity and fragility of the Amazon region has already gained world attention. Peru's Madre de Dios region alone has over 20,000 varieties of plants registered, only half of which have been recorded by scientists. Yet this diversity, in Madre de Dios and beyond, is threatened by poor management and unsustainable practices. Since the 1920s, when the Peruvian government encouraged people from the Andean highlands to move to the Amazon in search of a better life, there has been a massive, largely uncontrolled influx of new residents to the region. The majority of these nonnative Amazonians work in mining, logging, and other extractive activities that contaminate rivers and destroy the resources of the rainforest. Increased contact with outsiders is also changing the lives of the indigenous residents, including their traditional customs that protect the environment.
Although there is general consensus on both the serious threat to the Amazonian forests and, since Peru's signing of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, on the importance of children playing an active role in sustainable development, their participation in conservation remains limited. Few ecological initiatives actively involve children and Amazonian public schools thus far have no systematic strategy for environmental education, leaving children unprepared to participate in preservation efforts. Constrained by limited capacity, small, rural multigrade schools employ a centrally designed curriculum that usually does not demonstrate clear relevance to the lives, cultures, and surroundings of Amazonian children. Even when new, locally relevant environmental content is introduced, high teacher turnover significantly reduces the possibility of incorporating such changes permanently.
To provide children with both the preparation and opportunity for participation in sustainable management of natural resources, Joaquín is introducing Children's Forests–vast extensions of land that are managed by young community members–in order to teach and promote environmental stewardship to children.
Children's Forests comprise three areas. First, there is an outdoor community center made up of a children's park, a workshop, a latrine, a compost pile, and a clean water system design–together they teach composting, solar energy use, and other environmentally sustainable methods. Second, there is an area for natural resource management, which includes a large portion of conserved rainforest and a community garden to grow organic produce for consumption, as well as medicinal and ornamental plants. Finally, each forest incorporates a self-management area, through which children, their parents, and local authorities come together to plan the projects and budgets for the Children's Forests. By pairing children with adults to identify pressing problems, develop long-term plans of management and farming, and gather the resources they need to put their plans into practice, the forests raise environmental awareness among all age groups and train the youth in the skills necessary to carry out sustainable practices. Moreover, Joaquín's Association for Children and Their Environment (ANIA) recruits local government representatives to work directly with the communities on issues related to the forests like health, agriculture, and forestry, building infrastructure for the project that will last well beyond the students' youth.
To overcome the obstacles that have traditionally stymied environmental education efforts in the Amazon, Joaquín has designed Children's Forests to require minimal resources: communities need only have a public school and a commitment to providing at least two hectares of land. Within these communities, Joaquín has opted to work primarily with the more stable school administration and parents' associations, rather than with the school faculties themselves, to ensure continued support for the Children's Forests from year to year despite high teacher turnover. Still, Joaquín also actively encourages teachers to become involved and to see the Children's Forests as a resource rather than an added burden, hoping to use his project as a tool to increase faculty engagement and retention.
With the aim of demonstrating the applicability of his model for communities through the region, Joaquín has selected four communities in Madre de Dios representing diverse environments, cultures, and potential civil society and corporate partners to launch pilot forests. Four communities have already begun implementing the Children's Forests: Boca Amigo has set aside 11 hectares, Sonene four hectares, and Baltimore three hectares. In addition, Joaquín has requested a 20-year, 360-hectare concession to build an ecological and cultural center in the nearby city of Puerto Maldonado, where various organizations are based but rarely add value to the city or its 44,000 residents.
While working to show the benefits of Children's Forests, Joaquín is simultaneously laying the groundwork to enable the spread of his model nationally. He has already identified several partners, including Peruvian Ashoka Fellow Eliana Elías, who are interested in extending the model to Peru's northern Amazonian region, as well as others who would like to replicate it in Peru's Andean Mountain area. For example, the mining company Antamina has approached Joaquín to implement his idea, and he is now coordinating with the Mountain Institute to take a lead role on that initiative. Beyond Peru, Joaquín sees MAP, a coalition among bordering Amazonian states in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, as a natural mechanism for international spread.
To broaden his impact beyond individual communities, Joaquín also plans to influence legislation through a bill that makes the establishment of Children's Forests with access to up to 100 hectares of land a legal right for all rural Peruvian communities. To incorporate his idea more closely into the formal educational system, Joaquín has also proposed a system to certify schools that are managed according to principles of sustainable development; to this end to has begun work with education officers within the Ministry of the Environment.
As Joaquín realizes he will need broad support and new partners to achieve these policy aims, he has initiated a publicity campaign to increase national awareness of ANIA. The ANIA logo–a little girl named Ania with a flower on her heart and a butterfly on her toe–has been transformed into a cartoon by volunteers from the magazine Somos, a supplement of Peru's largest newspaper El Comercio, and is being developed as the new Aniamania comic strip. Next, he plans to produce short animated films to show before movies. Over the long term, Joaquín will position the Ania symbol to become a broadly recognizable character and a spokesperson for goods and services that promote sustainable development, garnering recognition for Joaquin's projects, promoting environmental responsibility, and generating revenue for the ANIA organization.
The grandson of a president of Peru and the son of a Labor Minister, Joaquín grew up around leadership. However, he discovered early in life that his passion lay with the environment, not politics. As a child, Joaquín's garden was a refuge from the world and a space to explore his imagination. After his mother married a Swedish businessman who worked in the Amazon, Joaquín spent his summer vacations in the jungle, which further inspired his creativity. There, he also became friends with a young Shipibo indigenous boy who shared adventures with him and inspired his early interest in the role of children in the environment.
After a failed attempt to please his parents by studying business, the political situation in Peru led Joaquín to finish his studies in the United States, where he earned his bachelor's degree from Cornell University in natural sciences. After returning to Peru and working in a variety of public, private, and nonprofit jobs, Joaquín attended Yale University and earned his master's degree in environmental management. A professor encouraged him to focus his dreams and studies on the role of children in conservation, telling him to "confront the cause and not the symptom of the problem." He traveled to Bolivia to study the role of indigenous children in community development for his thesis project, an experience that affirmed his conviction to work in youth environmental conservation.
After Yale, Joaquín traveled briefly to Washington, D.C., to study nonprofit management and returned to Peru to form his own organization in Madre de Dios, the jungle that inspired him as a child. In 1995 he and a friend founded the Association for Children and the Conservation of Their Environment. During this time he also worked as a consultant, helping to secure the first Latin American private land concession in the jungle, with the purpose of conserving the rainforest and benefiting the local population. Named one of the top young leaders in Latin America by Business Week magazine, Joaquín made the decision in 2001 to dedicate himself full time to ANIA.