Welcoming Students to Cocha Cashu

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Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

Matsigenka schoolchildren pose for a group photo at the end of their adventure at Cocha Cashu.

We can hear the Matsigenka schoolchildren chattering over the hum of the outboard (it’s amazing how sound carries over water), but they fall silent as they approach the beach that represents our port. Unlike researchers, who typically spend 10 minutes tidying their gear and putting on rubber boots before disembarking clumsily, the kids jump out of the boat without fuss. They are shy as Cesar Flores, director of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru, comes forward to greet them. They have never been to Cocha Cashu before, although their neighboring community, Maisal, is just an hour or so upriver. Their teacher, Miluska, shakes Cesar’s hand and smiles warmly. Together, they walk the 550-yard (500 meters) trail through the rain forest to the station.

In our discussions with local people, we have noticed repeatedly a sense of bafflement about what we do at Cocha Cashu. People see us come and go, but there is very little connection, if any, between the researchers and staff who spend weeks or months at the station and the people who live in the communities in and around Manu. There is also little contact between the researchers and the Park authorities. We would like to change all this by making Cocha Cashu more accessible to local inhabitants, to increase the transparency of our activities and research, to share research findings openly with Park staff, and to enhance communication and interaction on all levels and with all community members. In short, we plan to integrate Cocha Cashu into the local and wider community.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station's library.

Cocha Cashu director Cesar leads a lesson in the Station’s library.

This process is not as simple as it sounds and will take some time to complete. We have begun exploring various avenues and ideas and will continue to do so in the coming year. As a first step, and at the request of Miluska, in October 2012 we invited 15 primary grade schoolchildren in Maisal to spend a weekend at the station.

Over the next two days, Cesar and Fortunato (our boat driver and photographer) introduced the children to life and research at Cocha Cashu. The kids were shown around the main buildings and given a presentation after lunch to enhance their understanding of Cashu’s role in Manu, beginning with the origins of the station and ending with our hopes and objectives for the future. This was followed by an excursion into the forest to explain a number of ongoing, long-term research projects, and they had the opportunity to count and measure some trees in a few little plots to experience how scientists evaluate the forest.

A refreshing swim in the lake!

A refreshing swim in the lake!

They also received a lesson about the mechanism of Cashu’s power supply, examined water quality, and, during a short discussion session, the children in turn showed us that they have a great understanding of the natural history of aquatic systems. There was also plenty of time for fun, not least a swim in the lake! Little by little, the kids lost their awe and entered into the spirit of Cocha Cashu. For us, the broad grins in the group photo, taken toward the end of their visit, say it all.

Jessica Groenendijk is the education and outreach coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Manu National Park, Peru. Read her previous post, Homecoming in Cocha Cashu.