Vicente Emilio Sojo Bolivarian School is tucked into the labyrinth of streets and corridors of La Vega, a Caracas barrio of more than 100,000 residents on the southern end of the Venezuelan capital. Through the classroom windows, block homes stacked one on another stretch across the countryside. An improvised garbage dump sits just outside the school, where a small, evidently ignored sign reads "Don't throw trash here." The colorful environmental mural painted by students only a few years ago is faded and riddled with the slop of garbage that overflows from the dumpster and covers the ground, emitting a foul stench. On the other side of the wall, you can hear the sound of children playing in the courtyard during recess.
This scene is an unfortunate reality in many poor barrios across Venezuela, a reality that a grassroots group called Geografía Viva (Live Geography) is doing its best to alleviate, teaching a subtly radical form of environmental education to hundreds of Venezuelan children.
Take the Trash Out
Geografía Viva was founded by a group of progressive geography students 20 years ago with the goal of bringing one's surroundings, or "geography," to life. The founders advocated encouraging residents to actively participate in the solutions to the environmental problems in their communities.
Various early programs gave way to organizing for children's rights, which within 10 years had consolidated into the project that would become the heart of the organization: Participando por un Ambiente Sano (Participating for a Clean Environment), or PAS.
PAS would bridge environmental and citizen education through interactive programs for fourth- to sixth-graders in poor communities across Venezuela. Promoters visited each school once a week, taught respect for the environment, and had students carry out investigations to discern the most pressing environmental problems facing their community.
The students in almost every school found trash to be the number one environmental problem. In response, PAS called on local governments to solve the trash problem through better cleanup and disposal. Students and promoters met with the local mayors' offices, the Ministry of Environment, and even spoke before the Venezuelan National Assembly. Geografía Viva Director Isabel Villarte says that although the experience was "great public speaking practice," it didn't make any headway in solving the trash problem.
So three years ago, PAS organizers decided to take a different, more action-oriented approach. They launched a recycling and composting education program to deal with the trash problem directly by reusing organic material instead of throwing it out. While still fairly young, the program appears to be a success.
Getting Children Motivated
"Is the composting working? Definitely," says Carmen Ramirez, a sixth-grade teacher at Vicente Emilio who has been collaborating with the project since its inception 10 years ago. The plants that line her classroom windowsill are potted in the soil that her class created last year by composting their organic waste. Ramirez explains that since they began composting, one of the two dumpsters outside Vicente Emilio has been removed. But the students aren't just composting the waste from their classroom and lunchroom. Teachers have encouraged them to bring in organic waste from home and from the local casa de alimentación (soup kitchen).
"How many of you composted at home over the summer holiday?" asks Yelitza Uzcategui, Geografía Viva's afternoon Caracas promoter. Just over half of Ramirez's 30 students raise their hands.
Uzcategui holds up a plastic to-go container into which she places a bread roll, some orange peels, and leftover coffee grinds. "We're going to be studying these items over the upcoming weeks to see how they change," she says, placing the container in the corner of the room, "Certain organic materials are really good for breaking things down."
This type of hands-on education with the students is what Ramirez says makes Geografía Viva stand out from most of the other organizations working in the communities. "The promoters interact with the students," she says. "They get involved and they get the children motivated."
The interaction isn't limited to the classroom. Many of the schools also have outside compost pits where the students work building the compost piles, turning them, and eventually using the new soil. The finished abono (fertilizer) is often delivered to neighboring schools working in collaboration with Venezuela's reforestation program, Misión Arbol (Tree Mission).
"It is really neat making the organic fertilizer and working in the PAS project, because we can decrease the trash and take more care of the environment," says Geonelsis Briceño, one of five student "Environmental Animators" chosen to represent their class in the PAS project because of their enthusiasm for composting. The animators participate in extra activities and are expected to educate the rest of the community about the environment.
But the PAS project doesn't end there. Organizers produce a quarterly environmental newsletter, I‘ñamo; they are setting up a video library to lend environmental videos to their members; and in La Vega, they produce a community-based, environmentally focused, children-run radio show. Elsewhere, PAS has supported efforts for local school-based environmental newspapers, carried out recycling workshops, and recently sent five student animators to the South American Youth Conference on Climate Change, held in Ecuador in October 2007.
Sí, Se Puede
With its international connections and programs run free-of-charge to 1,500 fourth- to sixth-grade students in 20 schools across four Venezuelan cities, one might imagine Geografía Viva to have a budget of millions and a staff of dozens. It doesn't. There are only 12 employees in all four cities combined - Caracas, Barcelona, Merida, and San José de Guaribe - and half of them are promoters who must visit each classroom once a week.
The Caracas head office, where more than half of the employees are based, is squeezed into a small two-room space on the bottom floor of a downtown apartment block. The organization's limited foundation funding runs out next year, and without resources from the Venezuelan government, Geografía Viva is getting a little nervous. But Villarte is confident that they will get by, as they always have.
While the students are enthusiastic, Villarte admits not all of them will stick with composting once they have moved on to higher grades. But the students aren't the only ones who are getting involved. They are also influencing their entire community. Nearly all of the PAS promoters first learned about composting from their children who brought the idea home.
Outside of Vicente Emilio, there is still trash in the streets. But it has been noticeably reduced by the students, teachers, promoters, parents, and community members who have decided to participate in the recuperation of their community and its waste problem, an improvement built on the governing principles of Geografía Viva's PAS program - that education occurs through hands-on participation.
In a country like Venezuela, where it is common to see residents toss trash out the window without thinking twice, this type of change can be very difficult. But it is not impossible.
"Sí, se puede (Yes, you can)," says Uzcategui to one of her classes, which is quickly learning that much of what they once thought was garbage, isn't. "Do you want to feed the rats, or feed the plants?" she asks. For the students enrolled in the program, that's a no-brainer.
Michael Fox is a freelance journalist and translator in South America. He is a correspondent with Free Speech Radio News, and has written for The Nation, Yes!, and Venezuelanalysis.