How sibling rivalry helped fuel a school-wide green movement in the Amazon—and emerging leaders.

By Jesse Mintz

 

The roots of sibling rivalry were planted one year ago, over dinner.

Sitting around a pot of uchumanga fish stew and bread made of yuca, then-12-year-old Frank Shanga Piedra listened as his sister Talia shared her news from the day. Their school in Kanambu, a small village inland from the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest, won first place in WE’s Clean Schools Program—and Talia led the way.

Just one year separates the brother and sister pair. As Talia recounted how she tended the school garden and taught classmates to keep the bathroom tidy to fend off infections and illness, pride shone on their parents’ faces. Frank decided then and there to follow in her footsteps—to lead the school movement and fight the pollution and environmental degradation threatening their community.

“There’s competition between us,” the Grade 9 student says in Spanish, his dark eyes glinting with mischief when he speaks of their playful rivalry. Frank smiles easily, running his hands through his 1950s-crooner hair. He becomes serious, though, when the conversation turns to his parents. “I want my parents to feel proud and happy knowing all their kids are able to do this.”

WE Villages launched the Clean Schools Program in five communities in the Amazon, to encourage students to take action on health, hygiene and protecting the environment. Students learn about environmentalism through workshops and give back to their schools by planting gardens, implementing recycling programs and spreading the word about sanitation—all while developing as leaders. The program culminates in an end-of-year competition where one school is crowned winner. Talia, now in Grade 10, led Kanambu to its first-place finish in the inaugural competition.

For those in Kanambu, the program comes at just the right time. The young community’s population has ballooned in recent years, growing from a few families to hundreds of people. That growth has brought a lot of good—a road, electricity for the school and clean, piped water.

But it’s also brought challenges in the form of garbage, waste and pollution. School principal Ramon Liqui Machoa doesn’t remember plastic being in the community 40 years ago, when he was growing up; now, as manufactured goods have penetrated deeper into the Amazon, it’s everywhere you look. Garbage disposal systems haven’t kept pace and residents spent years dumping their trash in the stream behind the school, waiting for the river to sweep it away. Stray plastic bags and errant trash line the road, testaments to Kanambu’s growing pains.

“This is a beautiful place,” Frank says, looking beyond the scattered garbage and the two-storey classrooms to the towering wall of trees and their dense forest canopy. Still, he recognizes its problems—and he’s determined to fix them. As a side benefit, he hopes to be stiff competition for his sister.

The Amazon is known as the lungs of the planet—but with the right plans in place it could be called the Earth’s largest composting facility. Nature is extreme here. Rain falls all year in great warm torrents from an endless sky. Trees grow ever taller, their massive roots snaking through the rich soil, trunks entwining around each other in a perpetual dance. And everything, eventually, returns to the earth.

Fallen leaves take three days to biodegrade in the damp Amazonian soil. A dropped apple core disappears even more quickly. Plastic is the one thing that refuses to break down, clinging to the land like a blight. “We didn’t know that we should take care of nature to not contaminate it,” says Ramon, gesturing to the bags and wrappers tangled in branches and caught in the chest-high grass.

Sitting in his tidy office, Ramon remembers the land before the school was founded in 1998. Then, it was a pasture on the cusp of the jungle. Today, it’s a thriving school, home to over 400 students, a point of pride for the community, and it’s becoming the epicenter of a burgeoning green movement. An educator of 10 years, he sees WE’s Clean Schools Program as an integral piece in the puzzle to protect the environment, because it gets the entire community actively involved.

Just take the example of Frank—he had an idea, but he needed help. He pitched his father, a builder, on his proposal to help solve one of the school’s most pressing problems: no one had any garbage bins. The closest town recently started sending garbage collectors to Kanambu, but without bins, there was nothing to pick up. Waste continued to be strewn around, uncontained. Frank wanted to build natural, durable containers out of bamboo for all to use.

Father and son set off early one morning for Frank’s grandfather’s land, where they cut a swath through the dense jungle to the bamboo grove within. There, the pair used machetes to chop the sturdy stems and hauled them home on their shoulders. They buried one end of each column in the ground, cutting slits along its length to allow it to bend, and then used sticks and wires to shape them into bins.

“It was the first time I’ve built something with my dad,” Frank says, satisfaction creeping into his voice. His classmates started using them right away, putting into practice what they’d learned in the workshops. Beyond the bamboo bins, Frank also made flower planters and vases to contribute to the school garden and beautify the classrooms.

“People didn’t know before that nature and humans needed each other,” he says, sitting on his school’s football bleachers as full garbage bins wait to be picked up nearby. “I’m really proud of this place.”

As for the competition, Kanambu finished third this year—“we weren’t as good as we could have been,” reflects Ramon. Still, there’s no doubt the competition sparked changed. Just look at the clean campus.

And, for Frank, there’s always next year.

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