Bosque Escuela is an experiential learning program set to preserve the forestlands in Puerto Rico by inviting young ones to connect, research and protect their native grounds.
Special Report By Cristina Ramirez Doval
After defeating the mining industry in the mountainside town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, Casa Pueblo became one of the top leading NGOs working for the preservation of the forestlands in the archipelago. Now, with its Bosque Escuela educational model, it seeks to inspire a new generation of environmental youth advocates connected to their earthy roots.
Casa Pueblo Executive Director Arturo Massol Deyá was born and raised in Adjuntas and has seen firsthand how the landscape has transformed from mining grounds into a blooming forest.
Puerto Rico has a total of 180 mineral mines; the biggest landmarks identified by the U.S. Geological Survey are El Yunque National Forest and Toro Negro Forest, which is near Bosque Escuela, an area that comprises Bosque del Pueblo and La Olimpia Forest.
Massol Deya’s hometown has nine mines itself; heavy mining activity carried out by U.S. companies were deteriorating the quality of life for fauna, flora and people.
At the time Casa Pueblo was founded in 1980, Massol Deya was a college student and he decided to join the civil fight that lasted over a decade.
Because of his strong advocacy for the environment and his academic background -obtaining a Ph.D. in Microbial Ecology 1994 – , he decided he would continue this path of working with and for the forest.
Once the mining industry left the area in 1995, Bosque del Pueblo became a protected area.
The restoration process took several years.
In 2003, this natural habitat along with La Olimpia Forest served as a place to explore, learn, and have leisure time in nature.
Ten years later, Bosque Escuela was officially founded by Massol Deyá and a team of environmentalists and educators seeking to create an outside classroom where learning took place without human activity causing any damage to the area.
From then on, parts of the forest have been used as classrooms for students interested in learning about nature, preservation, and environmental sciences.
“The faculty of Bosque Escuela divides the education process in two categories: there’s the visitation model, and the alternative learning model,” said Massol Deyá.
The first model allows people who want to take up hiking, birdwatching or any other type of leisure activity to explore the forest whenever they like.
When it first started, the area was open to the general public everyday from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. Visitors could always count on guides if they were interested in learning any additional information. Aside from private groups, school trips were also allowed.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, visit days and hours changed to Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with audio guides provided upon request.
The alternative learning model is a more structured program where students from public and private schools in Adjuntas and the neighboring town of Utuado are selected to visit the forest once every two weeks until they complete a certain amount of contact hours.
Aside from their regular school curriculum, they take classes in the forest, both in the specialized classrooms and on field trips arranged by the faculty. Some of the courses offered are Fungi and Composition, Watersheds, Water Sampling, Renewable Energy, Sustainability, Preservation and Forest Temperatures.
After the students finish the courses in Bosque Escuela, they must complete a final project where they can apply what they’ve learned.
Bosque Escuela Resident Teacher Ada Miranda is in charge and said she has seen many interesting student projects showcasing the impact Bosque Escuela has had on the Puerto Rican youth.
“I’ll never forget this vocational school in the city of Ponce”, she said.“For months they had been learning about biodiversity and compost, and one day after they finished the program, they invited me over to show me how they had separated parts of the ground compost, recycled it and made more than a hundred t-shirts, some shopping bags and a waste basket. Both the students and I were really able to appreciate the results of what the forest had to teach us”.
Bosque Escuela has been proven a success in many aspects of environmental sciences.
Massol Deyá said that since children are visiting the forest, they get to learn about its species firsthand, how the forest works and therefore, they also learn how to properly take care of it.
For example, a group of students from the Table Tennis School in Utuado took the initiative of reforestation and forest cleanup after Hurricane María hit the archipelago in 2017.
Since the main island’s power grid also suffered severe devastation, students who were taking a Renewable Energy course decided to develop a solar energy system, which has powered around a thousand homes and businesses in Adjuntas.
Massol Deyá’s vision is to inspire students and teachers from other municipalities in Puerto Rico to develop similar learning programs.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily happen here (Bosque Escuela), there are so many other forests in the Island; teachers can take their students to those forests instead, or to the beach, and have the learning process happen outside of traditional classrooms”, he emphasized.
In the past, the mining industry was invading the mountains’ natural habitats. Today, it is urban, commercial, and lodging developments. However, if initiatives such as Bosque Escuela continue to thrive and expand as it is happening in Puerto Rico and even Ecuador, which was inspired by Casa Pueblo’s innovative model, there is hope for greener futures.
If communities can be inspired by the restoration process in Bosque del Pueblo, there is a possibility Puerto Rico can restore its rural identity just the same.
Photo Credits: Equipo de Trabajo del Bosque Escuela