In addition to the many social and cultural experiences of an international exchange program such as the one we've designed with Colegio Menor in Ecuador, our Eighth Graders also benefit from the opportunity to explore and immerse themselves in a different ecological setting. This week our students walked through a secondary cloud forest, where they were able to experience the magic of regeneration, and even got to meet a special man affectionately known as the "Lorax" of Ecuador.
This past Monday we met up with our Eighth Graders and their host students bright and early to set off on our journey to the forest. After a roughly three hour bus ride and an 8,000 foot descent from the highlands of Quito to the sub-tropical cloud forest of Mindo, we arrived at our destination: a one-man mission to save endangered plant species and reforest a land that was once lush with jungle but was cleared for grazing cattle.
Fifteen years ago, fueled by his personal passion to save the forest, Pedro Peñafiel purchased an 18-acre plot of cleared land he was determined to reclaim and restore to the lush tropical forest it once was. He started by prohibiting the cattle to graze in order to allow the forest to begin the healing process. To aid in its recovery, Pedro worked on bringing endangered endemic varieties of trees and other plants back to the region. "Mindo Lindo" (Beautiful Mindo) as he calls it, has grown from a cleared plain to an organization that receives local and international groups to learn more about the cloud forest, its value, its plight, and what we can do to help this forest that is home to a broad assortment of plants and animals, including the greatest diversity of birds in the entire world.
Some highlights of our visit included a hike through the jungle, a guided exploration of plant life, bird watching, and planting 20 trees that were once endemic to Ecuador but are all but gone except for the ones that Pedro and his visitors have replanted in Mindo Lindo. During our hike, our guide explained that approximately one football field of jungle in Ecuador has more biodiversity than all of North America. At one point along our hike, he asked us to stop and count the number of species living off of just one branch overhanging the path. Students were amazed to discover ten different varieties of plants growing on a span that stretched no more than six feet. Our hike ended in a special section of forest Pedro called the "International area," so called because the plants and trees there were planted by students who visited from all over the world - Italy, China, Belgium, Germany, England, and now the United States. It was a tremendously moving experience to be part of the reforestation of this endangered ecosystem with our students.
We began this school year by engaging students and our entire school community in a number of "Eco Challenges" while exploring the aspect of our mission statement that focuses on "a responsibility for this planet and gratitude for its beauty." All classes have made greater efforts to be mindful of our footprint while we look for opportunities to allow our "digital native" students to explore their personal connection with nature. Meeting Pedro, who truly does speak for the trees, and taking part in a real effort to make a difference, our Eighth Graders have helped to ensure that they will not be the last children in these woods.