Lessons in conservation: When saving nature means fixing a school

(© Conservation International/photo by Marco Quesada)

Marco Quesada (left) with students and community members at one of the schools on Costa Rica’s Chira Island that was recently renovated to make it more accessible for disabled students. (© Conservation International/photo by Marco Quesada)

Editor’s note: After working for years with fishers and mollusk-gatherers on the coasts of Chira Island, Conservation International (CI) Costa Rica’s Marco Quesada wasn’t surprised to find himself working on a local school improvement project — even if it wasn’t traditional “conservation” work such as protecting mangroves or fishing grounds.

In a small community, everything is connected. By finding out what is critically important to people — and working together to fix those issues — essential collaboration to protect nature becomes easier.

January brings the dry season to Costa Rica. That means clear skies, sunny days and warm temperatures, especially along the coast. It also means vacation for schoolchildren all over the country. However, for a group of fishers in two coastal communities on Chira Island, last January meant showing up every morning at school. They were not there for their kids’ school activities, but to complete a surprising task:  building wheelchair ramps and new bathrooms in two local schools in order to improve access for children with disabilities.

Livelihoods in Chira Island’s coastal areas are closely linked to and heavily dependent upon natural resources. That’s why CI has been working with community members to improve the sustainability of the island’s fisheries and mangrove areas, which were seriously damaged between the 1950s and mid-1970s and are now slowly recovering. But how did we make the leap to supporting Chira Island’s schools?

At CI Costa Rica, we take a holistic approach to our work, focusing on the entire island’s health, rather than, say, the fishing sector alone. The connections between people and places allow us to increase the impacts of our projects in the long term, so that the benefits spread further and last longer.

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The community of Chira has taught me that in order to implement effective conservation efforts, we must find common interests that are shared across multiple stakeholders. The fishers we work with are married to the women with whom we restore mangroves, and their children attend these schools. It makes sense that improving access to and conditions in the local school is a priority for them, and that benefiting the school is good for the community as a whole.

Led by one father in each community who took responsibility for completing the job, the group of fishers worked on outfitting the two schools with wheelchair ramps and new bathrooms, as well as improving the buildings’ roof insulation so the children wouldn’t need to sit in scorching-hot classrooms. CI Costa Rica teamed up with an architect who donated his time and worked with our local consultant and parents. (See the completed work in the video below produced by CI Costa Rica). 

These improvements have helped build community and solidarity between local residents — feelings that have carried over to our conservation efforts. Over three years of work with these fishers, we have gotten to know them outside the limits of their occupation. So when we asked them to spread their knowledge about the importance of sustainable fisheries to their children, many stepped forward. We have since engaged in environmental education programs in the schools, and donated books and teaching materials — efforts that will benefit all the students, not just the sons and daughters of responsible fishers.

We plan to continue working with the communities on Chira Island. This year we will start implementing pilot projects to improve fish traceability from the hook to the plate and design management plans for mollusk harvesting. We will continue to restore mangroves, and will also assess the economic benefits provided by these ecosystems to people. As for the children living in these communities, we hope to continue to improve their access to better education and opportunities so they can enjoy a bright future right here, in the magical place where they grew up.

Marco Quesada is the director of CI Costa Rica.

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