About 130 miles northwest of Quito, Ecuador's capital, lies a cloud-covered paradise. At the top of the Andes mountains, a babbling creek and the calls of rare birds provide the background music to lush tropical trees and radiant flowers.
Jim Crowley, who teaches science to 4th and 5th graders at a private school in Atlanta, hikes through this rich vegetation with 14 other faculty members and students. As the group pauses to admire the breathtaking view, Crowley is inspired. He shatters the stillness of the early June afternoon with a long, loud Tarzan wail.
Rarely does a classroom inspire such a reaction. But at the Lovett School on the Chattahoochee River, hands-on learning takes on new meaning. Students and teachers alike study rain-forest preservation at the source. They not only travel to Ecuador, they own 320 acres of the high-altitude cloud forest through which they are hiking.
The Lovett School's cloud-forest project is the brainchild of Robert Braddy, the chairman of the upper-school science department. In the summer of 1990, he and his wife, Connie, who also teaches science at the school, traveled the rain forests of Ecuador with funds from a national science grant.
While studying the Intag Preserve cloud forest in the Imbabura province, the Braddys noticed that Santa Rosa, a remote village, desperately needed a new school. Robert Braddy asked village officials how he could help.
When school resumed in the fall, he told members of the ecology club about the village and raised the possibility of funding a school there. The students seized on the idea and raised the $1,800 needed to rebuild the school. A village native was hired as the carpenter. The students made sure he agreed to plant trees immediately after the old ones were cut for timber.
"It really was a student-led initiative," says Braddy, "with adults stepping in to take care of legal matters or sign forms."
Escuela Rio Cenepa was completed and dedicated in the summer of 1991. Braddy was a guest at the ceremony, and he brought books, pencils, paper, and other school supplies donated by his students.
During a visit to the village the following summer, Braddy realized how much the Lovett School could benefit from an ongoing relationship with Santa Rosa and the rain forest. He dreamed of the school preserving a portion of the land and scientists studying the rain forest in a rustic research facility built by the school.
He shared his idea with Headmaster James P. Hendrix Jr., a nature-lover and member of several environmental organizations. Hendrix was quick to agree.
Braddy's students took the initiative once again and raised $7,800 to buy the land by selling pizzas and other items. The school bought the land within a year and voted to name it Siempre Verde, "forever green" in Spanish. Braddy took title on the land in 1993.
Braddy has taken about 34 students and faculty members, including Hendrix, to Siempre Verde to see firsthand the lives of the villagers and the destruction of the rain forest. Both trips included a week on the school's property and a week studying the Galapagos Islands during the summers of 1992 and 1993.
This summer, Braddy will take students to Siempre Verde fora week and then to the Amazon River in eastern Ecuador for two weeks.
The Lovett School "teaches kids whose parents have a lot of money. They grow up without having a lot of opportunity to serve mankind," Braddy says. Through the Siempre Verde project, the students "learn in a rustic environment how to do for themselves and do for others, as well as learn about the fragility of the rain forest."
Students who've made the trip say it helped them put their lives into perspective.
"I definitely feel lucky, fortunate to be living in America. We have so many more advantages," says senior Chad Holleman, the chairman of the ecology club's rain-forest committee. "It's so unfair that my petty cash is like what they make in a year."
What impressed him the most was "just seeing how happy the kids were, even though they didn't have much. They were just happy to be there and with their families. That really changed me. You don't really need all this stuff to be happy. You just need family and friends."
Helen Fraser, a creative-resource teacher, worked with students at Escuela Rio Cenepa, many of whom have never ventured out of the isolated village. "These children are so smart, but they don't have the ability to use it," she says. "One boy was such a wonderful artist, and I said, 'Oh, if he could only channel that. What future will this child have?' That's what makes me so sad."
The Vanishing Rain Forest
According to the Atlanta-based Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, 12 million acres of tropical rain forests are destroyed each year by "slash and burn" methods. Village farmers must destroy plants and trees to make way for food crops, depleting the soil in the process. Once a tree is cut down, experts say, it takes about a century for the soil to replenish itself.
"You may think people would have a greater appreciation for what's around them...but, unfortunately, they're trying to subsist on this land," says Crowley, the science teacher. "You can see the crops they have planted on the side of the mountains. There's beauty in what these people are doing, and you're watching the beauty of it but being dismayed at the destruction at the same time."
Environmentalists teach villagers how to conserve the rain forest and still live off the land.
"We want them to understand that just because the jaguar eats the little pig, doesn't mean you have to kill the jaguar," says Braddy. "We want to teach them not only to hold [the land] in perpetuity, but the animals, and the river in perpetuity."
About 15 endangered species have been spotted on Siempre Verde, including the spectacled bear, the ocelot, the yellow-eared parrot, and the cock-of-the-rock. Travelers from the school have come face to face with some of these animals that they would never have seen otherwise.
"I almost tripped over birds," says senior Lisa Boe, who visited in June 1993. "You could actually get up close and see things."
Construction for the research facility may begin as early as this summer, Braddy says. His students are now soliciting construction funds from science organizations and businesses.
Once the facility is complete, graduates will spend summers there and host upper-school students and faculty trips. Braddy and Crowley are planning how to send elementary-age students to Ecuador with their families once the research station is a reality. Eventually, Braddy says, students, teachers, and scientists from both the United States and Ecuador will study on the land.
Visitors will be able to see deforestation up close thanks to enlarged photos of the property, Braddy says. One shows the rain forest in 1973 when the land was almost completely covered with trees and plants. An aerial photo from 1993 shows much of the land as barren.
Braddy is in contact several times a week with Richard Polatty, a Lovett School graduate and naturalist in the Galapagos Islands. Polatty keeps track of the day-to-day operation of the school's property and informs the school of conditions in Ecuador, including updates on the current war with Peru over parts of the rain forest.
"This has really been a learning experience for me. You're a little bit of a financier, a little bit of a lawyer; you have all different jobs," Braddy says. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. It's fun, and I love it."
Michael H. Robinson, a tropical biologist who is the director of the National Zoological Park in Washington, is a member of the project's advisory board. When he spoke to Lovett School students about rain-forest conservation in 1988, he urged them to become more aware of deforestation. "It's a wonderful project," Robinson says, "and a wonderful school."
Last year, the Ecuadorian government declared Siempre Verde a protected forest. A group of students and professors from Catholic University in Quito is now doing an inventory of the many rare species of plants and animals for the government.
More Than a Fad
The Lovett School community has gained insight into the richness of the rain forest and what needs to be done to stop its destruction.
Americans "talk a lot about what we can doto help the environment, and a lot of times,it's more rhetoric than action," Crowley says. "We want to show [students] that we have an effecton other countries. Students get to see firsthand what they're reading about. What they see, they bring home."
Participants in the 1993 trip brought home adventure stories, too, including tales of a bus that fell on its side, a teacher lost in the forest alone, and a hike down the mountains at a steep angle.
Faculty members who have visited Siempre Verde say it is invaluable for teachers to travel because it keeps them enthusiastic about learning. "You can read about this in class and tell the kids essentially the same thing, but it's so different when you've been there," Connie Braddy says. "It makes more of an impression on kids when you say, 'This is where I was' and you show them on a map."
The school's direct involvement with the rain forest has produced committed students who understand the serious consequences of deforestation.
"People here don't realize how well they have it," says Boe, the senior. "People need to educate themselves more about the rain forest if they want to be true conservationists. It can't be just a fad."