Anyone who wishes they lived in a better world – whether it be for environmental reasons, or social justice, or racial equality, no matter – has encountered the same frustration: that crushing feeling sometimes that people… just… don’t… care… Ideas like those of the Earth Charter of “Respect Earth and life in all its diversity,” and “Care for the community of life with understanding, compassion, and love,” can seem far-fetched sometimes – how can people respect and care for the planet if they don’t even give a damn? As Nony Dattner of SONATI in Nicaragua put it, “People who don’t care for or love nature will never want to protect it.”
Respect for Earth, care for the community of life, these things don’t just come upon people because they read a cool document about it – it has to be taught. A better world has to begin with education. Again, as Nony put it, “The only way, if we want to make a change, is to work together with the people in order to give the knowledge, the interest, and the love of nature… The people are the children, and that’s what we focus on.”
In Leon Nicaragua, the folks from SONATI are teaching love of nature every day. The project focuses on three different techniques. First, through talks in schools. SONATI works with children from 3 to 18 years old, reaching the same audience year after year and becoming a real part of the educational process. They play videos and show photos, they even bring a singing tree named “Chapulin” who teaches children about the importance of trees and why they shouldn’t be cut down. For some activities, especially those about the traffic in wild animals, the change can be immediate and permanent. “[The traffic in wild animals] is a theme where in one hour we can change children’s behavior. Mostly just by changing the information they have about it.”
The second initiative, which makes for even deeper changes in the lives of children, are visits out of the city into the surrounding forests. The goal here is of course to teach kids about the forest so they understand their environment better. But more than that, the hope is that by spending time in the wild, children will learn to love nature. This is the most important step, because once children learn to love nature, then ideas like recycling, like protecting surrounding forests, like not eating or buying endangered species as pets become self-evident and last for a lifetime. No one will willingly mistreat something they love.
The third initiative is the most exciting though – at least to our minds. These are classes which work to take that love of nature and push it even farther, to turn it into environmental leadership and activism. These classes are outside school, with groups of up to 15 children ranging in age from 8 to 18 years old. If the goal of the other two types of classes is for children to learn not to pollute, or not to buy wild animals as pets, the goal of these last courses goes a step farther – trying to turn the children into active protectors of the planet, ready to invest their time and money in creating a better world and a better country. “Only then do we consider ourselves successful,” Nony told us.
To illustrate just how well it can work, he then related the story of one of the recent graduates of the environmental leadership and activism course who had been working with SONATI on a volunteer basis. Nony and the rest of the team had seen that this young man was spending so much time at the office and so much time working that he was the equivalent of a full-time employee. They decided then that they should treat him as one, and Nony arranged a meeting to discuss setting up a salary for the young man – only to be surprised by his refusal. He wouldn’t be paid. Nony insisted. The young man refused. Only after a 2-hour discussion did Nony finally succeed in convincing him to accept money in exchange for his work.
It’s hard to relate how amazing a story this is. In our travels through the developing world, we hear almost without exception of NGO’s fighting in the opposite direction, often feeling obliged to give payments of up to 10$ per person just to get people to attend and feign interest for a few hours of workshops on issues like health and the environment. The folks at SONATI are among the few organizations we have heard of fighting in the other way, trying to convince people who don’t want to be paid to accept a fair salary.
It is a testament to two things. First, that the project is financially flexible – thanks to a youth hostel and a company of hiking guides, SONATI is entirely financially independent and free from relying on donations and grants – a luxury most NGO’s can only dream of. Second though, and no doubt most important, the people who go through SONATI’s courses and learn about the planet, learn to love it. It’s not about money for them, it’s about building a better future.
The people they work with really, truly, care.
To find out more, visit: SONATI.org.