Putting Ocotepeque on the Map: Tropical Watersheds, Forests, and Birds
Where is Ocotepeque? Have you heard of this town before? I'll give you a hint - it is an excellent place for local and tri-national conservation efforts in Central America where there are high levels of species endemism (think the Quetzal), rare cloud-forest habitat, and watersheds that directly impact the fate of water and soil health, as well as the coral reefs found at the finish line of this watershed; in the Pacific Ocean. Any ideas now?
Ocotepeque is a town of 50,000 people in Western Honduras, just minutes away from the El Salvadorian and Guatemalan borders. Monte Cristo, a global wilderness reserve, is found at the center of these three places, where nations work together to protect these unique water and forest habitat types using a strategic model called, "Trifinio."
Seeing the importance of Ocotepeque's location, and strong community, I decided to teach at a local high school while also serving as a volunteer with My Little Red House Bilingual School. I wanted to both teach, and learn about the unique role Ocotepeque residents can play in conservation efforts while bringing my scientific expertise in environmental education, bird conservation, and watersheds to the table. I was intimidated at first, since I had never taught classes in Spanish before, let alone to a group of high school students. To my surprise, the four days I was able to teach at the Colegio Normal, greatly exceeded my expectations.
In just four days, 140 11th grade students learned 1) the significance of their local watershed on a regional scale, 2) what makes their tropical ecosystems unique on a global scale, and 3) how they can make Ocotepeque a better place for migratory birds, on a local scale, who call Honduras "home" during the summer.
Here's a Taste of how Class Went:
I. LA CUENCA EN OCOTEPEQUE (The Watershed in Ocotepeque)
I opened up the class asking: When I take a drink of water from my water bottle, where does it come from? Silence. Does it come from those big jugs from the supermercado? No. One student raises their hand, and says, it comes from the the lake? Hmm. Another says, "the rio." The river is correct. But what is the name of this river? More silence.
Upon researching, it turns out Ocotepeque gets its water from Rio Quilio, a river that runs from Ocotepeque to El Salvador.
I asked another question: why can't we just drink from the faucet? Student: because the water is too dirty. Why? Student: because of contamination, pollution, and cows. Why is there contamination? Student: due to chemicals from agriculture. I ask - do you think the water was this dirty 200 years ago? Students: no. What has changed? Student: deforestation! Why does deforestation matter for the water we drink? Student: because of erosion! Smart class! Do you think the water is cleaner in Ocotepeque or El Salvador? Class: Ocotepeque. That's right, because at the bottom of the river, things continue to build up and make water dirtier. So, are people in El Salvador happy about this? Class - no. So, today, I want to focus more on the positive things we can do for the watershed, versus the negative - which is more commonly addressed!
After our opening discussion, I told the class it was time to go outside, and make some observations! They were thrilled! Going outside for class was a real treat. Looking at the beautiful landscape that surrounded us, we learned about the parts of the watershed by sketching and labeling the nature around us - 1)the top part, where water first touches the land in the mountains, and forests and other plants help filter the water as it leads to 2) the middle part, where most people live and interact with the land, and those behaviors effect 3) the bottom part, where the water leads into the ocean.
Students were assigned to come up with ways that people can positively effect each part of the watershed.
Here's what they came up with - The Top: Plant more trees! Use less chemicals, or alternate chemicals that are organic based. Create reserves for the forests. Study! Share information with others and learn more about the importance of our home.
The Middle: Pick up all the trash! Plant more trees here too. Educate ourselves and others!
The Bottom: Plant more trees, education, and work with people in El Salvador
Great students! Once they were finished we talked more about the Trifinio Plan, which I had also just learned about the same week. It turns out, the students and myself came up with ideas very similar to what the Trifinio Plan is already doing! Reforesation in Honduras to protect the health of the water in El Salvador.
Students were left wondering, how are we going to plant all of these trees? That is so much work! So I asked, who can help us! Who plants trees every single day? Silence. Birds do! So, our next class, we'll focus on birds, what they do for us, and what we can do for them!