Eight high school students from Future School participated in a Symposium on Biodiversity held in Cancun , Mexico , from January 22 - 29
A paperback sparked it. The Passionate Teacher, by Robert Fried, talked about new ways of learning and teaching, introducing teachers who were pioneering their way into the world of new education. One such inspiring figure was Dan Bisaccio, a high school biology teacher from USA , and we felt the need to speak more with him. The Internet provided his address, and a barrage of e-mail exchanges followed where we introduced Auroville and he shared about his latest project of HabitatNet, a global biodiversity monitoring project, supported by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. HabitatNet was in the process of organizing an International conference for high school students called ‘Global Earth Summit For Youth – A Symposium on Biodiversity' in a bioreserve in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The conference would be co-sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute, the Mexican Amigos de Sian Ka'an and the El Eden Ecological Reserve. Other participants would include students from the USA , Mexico , and the Carribean islands of Saba , Jamaica , and Puerto Rico . And the question came: would Auroville students be interested to participate?
The offer was presented to the biology students of Future School of all levels and ages. Eight senior students jumped at the idea – literally. Though they appeared to be weighted down by their heavy academic load, they saw the invitation as a challenge and a welcome respite to the theoretical studies. “All they will need to do is to pick a plot of land, it can even be in the backyard of your school, 20 metres by 20 metres in size, where they will document the plant and animal life,” wrote Dan. Little did he know that Auroville has vast areas of unexplored greenbelt, and that Future School was not just another school in a big city.
The students invited experts in different parts of Auroville to help them, and decided on sites and areas of their specific interest. Hilde and Suryamayi picked a plot in an old forest in the Two Banyans community, under the stewardship of John and Colleen. In their research proposal, they wrote, “Our plot shelters TDEF indicator species notably Diospyros ferria, Atalantia monophyla, Memecylon umbellatum etc., and other local species which have rehabited the area by natural means. Our focus will centre on the comparison of planted versus naturally regenerated plant species.”
Aditi and Mukta selected the Botanical garden seeking guidance from Paul Blanchflower and Rauf Ali. They wrote, “Our plot in Auroville's Botanical garden was established in August 2000, prior to which the area was an agricultural cashew crop land. The area now is a conservation site that shelters a ten acre sanctuary planted with shrubs and trees of the TDEF variety. In our bio-plot, we will be monitoring the regeneration and re-establishment of both plant and animal species. We hope to observe the changing composition of species in a reforested area, and eventually to determine the species composition at the climax of the community.”
The boys' team consisting of Kalrav, Virya, Philip and Kumaran choose a section of the Success canyon. They articulated, “The canyons on the periphery of the low lying laterite plateau of Auroville were formed due to deforestation of the land, which left it vulnerable to the tremendous erosional forces of the bi-annual monsoons. In this environment, reforestation efforts have taken place for 30 years. Erosion of the top-soil is now largely controlled by shrub growth, facilitating water infiltration of the sub-soil. This landscape offers an interesting range of habitats for both flora and fauna, in particular the canyon wall-dwellers like the Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus. Our focus will be to sample life forms in this habitat, understanding and appreciating their variety, function, and the role they play in the ecosystem.” And so the project gained momentum.
“We got involved in this work without considering the trip to Mexico as our goal – at that point, we didn't think we'd be selected,” wrote one of the students. But less than a week after submitting the three proposals, the students learned to their amazement that they all had been selected. “Not only did that motivate us tremendously, but it also challenged us to face the issue of financing the trip. We were going to have to pay for our travel and lodging. Added up and multiplied by ten (eight students and two teachers) the amount was impressive. We discussed with our parents and teachers and expressed our decision that either all of us go, or else none, and that money or personal means would not be the factor that would determine which one of us would get this opportunity.” Fund-raising became an issue. For the two Indian students, an additional difficulty was obtaining a passport, a visa for Mexico and a transit visa for the USA – difficulties which were so momentous that one student only arrived five days after the start of the conference.
In their bio-plots, the students began exploring various topics – water resources, medicinal plants, butterflies, bats, animal tracks and droppings, and specific species of plants and animals. The common thread that connected all their work was natural regeneration. “Auroville, some thirty years back, was nothing but dry and barren land,” commented one student. “Looking at the green haven it is now, it does not take much to imagine just how much work and will had been dedicated into rendering the earth fertile again.” Some of their parents were themselves tree planters, and were involved in this early work. In particular, one parent expressed to the group how strangely gratifying she felt seeing the youngsters, the next generation, continuing the work that they had started years ago.
The students had about five months to work on their plots before getting ready to attend the conference in Mexico . To everybody's amazement and excitement, the funding came unexpectedly together. The last weeks before the trip was spent in developing Powerpoint presentations both on Auroville and the biodiversity work on the three plots. Former actor Croquette from Auroville International France coached the students on speech delivery and presentation style, while Rolf and Frederick primed them on Auroville and its philosophy.
The trip from Auroville to Cancun took almost 30 hours – and the first two days after arrival were spent in overcoming the jet lag and getting used to the 11½ hours time difference and the culture of Mexico . Soon it was time to head off from their hostel in down-town Cancun to the wilderness in El Eden bioreserve, about 37 kilometres west of Cancun , where the conference was to be held. Established in 1990, El Eden is the first privately own protected area dedicated to research in biological conservation in Mexico . The area was founded by a group of scientists and conservationists interested in the protection of the biodiversity. In contrast with most reserves that follow the “don't touch” approach, El Eden is a reserve in which managing by “touching” and “using” are principal objectives. It is an example, an alternative model of a protected area – small, non-governmental, research and education oriented, self-sustained, and low-maintenance.
The El Eden reserve has several major eco-systems. Most prominent is the medium semi-deciduous tropical forest. This is a biologically-rich tropical forest dominated by trees up to 15 metres in height, with many different species of shrubs, herbs, climbing plants or lianas and epiphytes like orchids and bromeliads. This forest is the habitat of the spider monkey, jaguar, and many other vertebrates. Another type of forest is the low deciduous secondary forests, representative of the younger stages of succession of the forests of the region. Then there are swamp forests called ‘tintales', forest of lesser height (up to 12 metres tall) dominated by the logwood known locally as ‘tinto' (Haematoxylon campechianum). El Eden is also rich in savannas or grasslands with many small scattered trees and different kinds of wetlands. Most interesting is the geology of the area, dominated by limestone rocks in a very advanced degree of erosion as evidenced by the great amount of crevices, holes and caverns. Many of these cavities retain water all year, resulting in a vast underground water ecosystem that connects to the surface through small or large openings known as microcenote and cenote respectively. The biota of these ecosystems is not totally known and is composed of many species of algae, flowering plants, fish, crustaceans, insects, amphibians, and crocodiles.
It appeared that four school teams had made the trip to Mexico : two from the USA , one from Cancun , and the Aurovilians. The students were mixed into five international groups to promote greater interaction and mutual understanding. Dan Bisaccio guided the seven-day conference organizing a rich variety of activities for the students. Besides presentations of their work, the conference was packed with activities from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., all related to the exploration of biodiversity and conservation. Morning hours saw the students working together in documenting two new bio-plots in the forests of El Eden, followed by 3-4 hour long forest hikes to various ecosystems. Afternoons found the students involved in creative interaction and play – making environmental sculptures, or engaging in reflective writing, theatre expression and games. A few nights also featured night-hikes to look for noctural creatures including wolf spiders, snakes, and to listen to the sonar signatures of specific bat species.
The student presentations happened informally, always after lunch or dinner, with one team presenting per session. Contrary to the Aurovilians, the other participants presented one project per school. The American group from Nebraska presented work on a lake habitat, and the New Hampshire team spoke about a forest situated nearby their school. The Cancun team discussed the issue of pollution and garbage treatment. All presentations were varied and thought-provoking, but it was the presentations by the Auroville students' teams that clinched maximum interest and discussion. With little influence of the teachers and adults showing up in their talks, the Aurovilian presentations carried a unique originality and energy that captivated the audience, leading to a extended question answer session both on their work, on Auroville and on the students themselves. Dan Bisaccio was particularly impressed with the quality of the work done by these students in the short span of five months, and immediately expressed his interest to visit Auroville. He also presented the students with a set of specialized scientific equipment for doing biodiversity field work in Auroville. On the last day of the biodiversity summit, a press conference was held in Cancun with two student representatives selected from each school articulating to the press the need for biodiversity and conservation.
The conference was a success. One of the teachers shared, “After seeing the way all of you work together I am not scared to leave the future in your hands,” and Dan expressed “Each of these students are leaders, leaders for the future and the future of this planet. They have a special charge to return to their home sites and work with others as mentors. I am really looking at the seed that was planted in El Eden to foster and grow.” The farewell from the newly made friends was emotional for all.
No one can expect a group of eight students and two teachers to travel half way around the world from Auroville to Mexico without trying to experience as much as possible something from the incredible cultural past and present of the Yucatan peninsula. An ecological tour had been arranged to visit the other bio reserve, Sian Ka'an. The Sian Ka'an reserve (‘gift from heaven' or ‘horizon' in Mayan) was created in 1986 and incorporated into UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves. It is not completely open to the public. The only accessible area is a coastal strip inhabited by a few fishermen. Many species which have disappeared elsewhere in the world have survived in this environment where humans have not been allowed to encroach.
The Auroville team stayed at the Visitors' centre by the coast, engaging themselves in many activities. Besides excursions to nearby Mayan towns and archaeological ruins, snorkelling in the coral reefs, kayaking through the lagoons, or bicycling through the reserve, they also designed the exhibition hall of the centre, got involved in a beach clean-up, and valiantly learnt some Mayan from the young managers at the centre – “Bashkavaliik? ” (Are you well?); “Maa'lo!” (Quite good!)