The Languages of Forests and Climate Change

Maria Ghiso, manager of the Rainforest Alliance’s Education program, writes about her experience introducing teachers and students in a rural community in Oaxaca, Mexico, to our climate change curricula.

The six-hour drive through the mountains of Oaxaca to the community of Santa María Lachirioag passes quickly. We are surrounded by forests filled with too many varieties of bromeliads to count—some trees look as though they might collapse under the weight of the epiphytes—watching the vegetation change with every mile. The rain falls quickly and heavily on our windshield, disappearing as rapidly as it comes.

Oaxaca teachers

Teachers at our environmental education workshop

Photo credit: Maria Ghiso

We are on our way to meet with a group of 23 teachers and 10 students from communities spread across the linguistically and culturally diverse Mexican state of Oaxaca. The community of Lachirioag, where we will host a workshop on forests and climate change, is high up in the mountains surrounded by a cloud forest filled with pine trees.

Every morning, we wake to a peaceful blanket of fog that slowly lifts as the sun rises. For the next week, we will share activities highlighting the basics of climate change, the carbon cycle and the role of forests in protecting our global climate.

One of my favorite activities involves identifying local names for forests and varied vegetation. Teachers are divided into groups based on their native languages, which includes multiple dialects of Mixe, Zapoteco, Mixteco, Chinanteco, and Spanish. The activity taught me a great deal about the biodiversity around the state and the cultural terms and traditions surrounding different vegetative zones.

Measuring tree for carbon storage

Measuring a tree for carbon storage

Photo credit: Maria Ghiso

On one special evening, we have the pleasure of watching the local students perform cultural dances that represent their region while accompanied by the music of the community band. The students wear beautiful, traditional dress and light up the stage with their energy and enthusiasm.

As the week continues, we shift our workshop focus to the forests of Oaxaca. These forests are as diverse as the people who call them home.  We analyze the changes in forest cover, mostly due to conversion to agriculture or cattle pasture, and we highlight a local community committed to sustainably managing the forests.  The group reflects on how forests and people can prosper together and begins to think about ways they can take action to improve the environment within their local community.

We end the week with a group reflection.  As we go around the circle, I am moved by the work and commitment of each of these teachers.  The majority of these educators travel hours each week to get to the remote communities where they teach, only seeing their families for a few brief hours on the weekends.

Now, the hardest part will begin—developing a plan for sharing this new knowledge within each teacher’s community and motivating students to take action to protect the environment and the global climate.


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