Notes from the Classroom


We have had a very busy, productive, and sometimes frustrating, year teaching Detectives de Aves here in Coto Brus. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program, you can learn all about it here This year instead of simply writing about how many schools we visited, how many kids we taught, etc., I would like to take some time to discuss what I see as the larger purpose of teaching Detectives de Aves to as many kids as we can, as best as we can. This post is a little long, but I hope you will find that it is worth your time.

It’s All About Making Connections
This year we have had the opportunity to make lots of connections.
In March two of our teachers, Carla Azofeifa-Rojas and Paula Mesén, and I had the opportunity to go to Guatemala to meet and collaborate with other teachers of Detectives and volunteers dedicated to providing essential educational opportunities to one of the most disadvantaged populations in Guatemala – Rural Indigenous Women.

This year we were also able to connect with a new teacher of Detectives, Marco Mora, who has been, and hopefully will continue to be, a valued colleague who has brought new energy and perspectives to the program. We also made connections with two new schools, Santa Rita and La Esmeralda, and reconnected with two schools we haven’t worked with in a while, La Lucha and Concepción. And finally, we connected with Pablo Elizondo to bring kids from three of our schools to Madre Selva, on the Cerro de la muerte, to connect with kids from the schools his organization, Costa Rica Bird Observatories, has been teaching this year.

Finally, we are ending this year making new connections with our neighbors, and fellow bird enthusiast (bird-lunatics?) the Pajareros del sur. Both groups hope that this collaboration will help both groups make connections with the greater community of Coto Brus, and with neighbors who haven’t known each other well enough up until now.

Now I want to spend a little time connecting with you all writing about these three, very important events.

To Guatemala, and back again
In March of this year Carla, Paula, and I had the great pleasure to visit Guatemala to meet and work with teachers and supporters of Detectives de Aves in Alta Verapaz, and to attend the Guatemala Bird Fair on lake Atitlan. This trip was made possible by a grant from the National Geographic Society obtained by the formidable Dr. Lilly Briggs, our close partner at the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. We were also accompanied by Jennifer Sánchez, who has been teaching Detectives de Aves for years at the Parque de Libertad in Desemparados, San José during the school vacations. A rather impressive group of young, professional women.


The reason for the trip was two-fold: first an opportunity for people working on Detectives de Aves to meet and share experiences, and second to continue developing a survey to try to measure the effectiveness of Detectives de Aves in imparting knowledge and changing the attitudes and behavior of our students. You might be surprised by how difficult it is to develop such a survey, especially across linguistic and cultural norms. It looks easy at first but becomes very complicated as you dig into it. The survey is an important way to objectively measure the practical impact of the course on the kids, and is even more important when it comes to raising money and garnering Institutional support for the program. Those of us who have worked with the kids in the classroom know that it changes their attitudes and behaviors because they tell us stories about how they stopped killing birds with slingshots, or about how they protected a nest near their house, or about how beautiful the birds they see on their walk to school are, etc. We can tell they have learned to care by the passion they bring to the lessons. However, the surveys we had been using had not been very effective showing this, and scientists don’t care much for Anecdotal Evidence. So, Lilly hoped that by bringing our teachers together with those from Guatemala, they could work through the problems and come up with a unified instrument that would be able to objectively demonstrate the positive effects of the course on the kids, and that would work equally well in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

So, our first task was to travel to the Central Highlands to stay with Rob and Tara Cahill at their most impressive center in Alta Verapaz, to meet Vilma, Gilda, and Norma, three Q’eqchi’ women who have been teaching Detectives de Aves to the local kids. Rob and Tara are an extremely dedicated couple who have a genuine vocation to help the community in which they live, and particularly the women of that community. If you want to learn more about what they are doing, please go here: They will do great things with whatever support you want to provide.

The climate and ecosystem around Rob and Tara’s place is very much like Linda Vista or Paraguas here in Coto Brus. It is very rural, with a large indigenous population, lots of trees and wildlife, although less every year, and lots of birds and fog in the Winter. Unlike Coto Brus, however, Alta Verapaz, and particularly the Indigenous areas, have had very few resources and little government support over the decades, leading inevitably to high levels of poverty and a large percentage of families surviving through subsistence farming. Just to give you some idea of the effect that this has had, during the Civil War that only ended in 1996, there were no public schools in the area. None. Although now almost all the kids go to primary school, the majority of their parents remain illiterate. A lot of kids start dropping out of school after third grade to work, after all by that point they have already learned to read and write and have surpassed their parents. Maybe 50% of the kids finish primary school (6th grade), less than 5% high school, and virtually none attend university. It is even worse for girls. While still beautiful for now, the area is facing an impending environmental disaster. The population has been rising rapidly and the traditional way of feeding families by clearing old-growth forest to plant maize, has become unsustainable because growing maize quickly exhausts the soil and they are running out of forest to clear for more crops. In this context, education in general, and environmental education in particular, is critical to the medium and long-term survival of these communities, since it one of the only means through which families will be able to provide for themselves in the future without further, grave environmental damage.

Guatemala is not Costa Rica. This is obvious, but in a very important sense this is what we all learned in Alta Verapaz from Vilma, Gilda, Norma, Rob and Tara. We live in increasingly cynical, self-absorbed, and angry times in which the idea of the Common Good seems more and more like a sucker’s bet. However the very stark contrast between the resources and opportunities available to even the poorest and most isolated families in Costa Rica and the lack of the same in Guatemala is a clear demonstration of what 70 years of peace without an army, an unrelenting commitment to public education and health care, and an almost universally acknowledged duty to raise others from poverty and to provide opportunity to the disadvantaged can accomplish. I’m not saying this to lionize Costa Rica, which like all countries is far from perfect, nor to denigrate Guatemala, but to show one manner in which the trip to Guatemala was a way for Paula, Carla, and Jennifer to reconnect with what Costa Rica represents, and to appreciate the advantages they have gained by growing up here. More importantly, I believe that we all discovered a profound connection with Vilma, Gilda and Norma, and that we have a duty to help as we can out of respect for the obstacles that they have had to overcome to become the women they are, and with the humbleness that comes from realizing that we have not had to face the same challenges because of the sacrifices, work, and commitment of those who came before us. Oh, and also because Vilma, Gilda, and Norma are absolutely hilarious… I don’t think any of us will forget our experiences in Alta Verapaz, and I hope the memory will be a reminder that we have a duty to do what we can for our neighbors, even if they are 1.000 kilometers or more distant. As I said in the beginning, it’s all about the connections.

Neither birds, nor animals, nor the weather observe national boundaries. Rivers don’t stop at borders, nor does polluted air. Any environmental work is necessarily collaborative and international. It does little good to protect areas used by migrating birds in Costa Rica, if all of their habitat is destroyed in Guatemala, Honduras, or Mexico. This was brought home to all of us during the working sessions of the Guatemala Bird Fair. The chance to learn from the experiences of other academics and bird guides trying to change the ways both governments and local communities view their natural and living resources was invaluable. I found particularly impressive the presentation by Dr. Vincente Fernández on the community-based monitoring of birds on the Yucatan peninsula. He outlines many successful techniques that have been used to involve rural communities not only in the collection of valuable scientific data, but in gaining a much deeper appreciation of the wild creatures they share their lives with, and in learning to work with those creatures to improve their lives. I want to use some of his ideas and techniques to involve our Detectives graduates in citizen science down the road. Paula and Carla had the opportunity to connect with, and be inspired by, colleagues from Guatemala and other parts of North and Central America. They assisted Lilly teaching a super intense training session for Detectives, which was hugely popular. Oh, and I understand that there was some late-night dancing well – being old, I was already in bed.
If you want to see an excellent, short documentary of our trip to Alta Verapaz, please go here for Spanish, or here for English. I’m afraid there’s no dancing in the videos…

Also, a big Thank You to Dr. Lilly Briggs, Rob and Tara Cahill, the many supporters and members of the San Vito Bird Club, and the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology who made this all possible.

That’s all for now. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing more about our year in the classroom, and our collaborations with the Pajareros del sur. I think you’ll find that many of the same themes raised will return over and over again since they are an essential aspect of what we do and why.

Saludos desde Coto Brus,
Peter Wendell