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Dadanawa Ranch in Guyana. (Samantha James/Iwokrama)

Launching Leadership Opportunities
Guyana is the fourth-smallest country on the mainland of South America, but harbors an outstanding biodiversity. Rainforest comprises 90% of the country, and it’s considered one of the last four “Frontier Forests” of the world, the last large and relatively intact tracts of forest. The future is unclear, as these forests are under increasing threats, mainly from unsustainable, large scale natural resource exploitation.

photo by Ricardo StanossIwokrama International Centre, the largest environmental organization in the country, in collaboration with 16 Makushi communities (the predominant indigenous group in Guyana’s interior), are putting forth an innovative effort to preserve their Amazonian wildlife. The community-owned Makushi Wildlife Clubs educate and train young Makushis on traditional and Western approaches to conservation.

With the conviction that wildlife preservation requires a personal connection and all types of conservation leaders—the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS) recently launched the first site of the Global Conservation Leadership Program for Youth in Guyana. Based on the successful Youth Volunteer Corps (YVC) program at Brookfield Zoo, this global initiative will support the Makushi Wildlife Clubs of the North Rupununi District in Guyana by providing training and mentorship opportunities.

International Youth Movement
As the first step to develop a model for international youth programming bridging students across the Americas, CZS Director of Education and International Training Ricardo Stanoss and Debra Kutska, CZS Youth Program Coordinator, visited Guyana in October of 2008. Their first order of business: to collaborate with Iwokrama in a training project for the Wildlife Clubs and elaborate an action plan for developing similar collaborations in other countries.

“It was very easy within the first few moments of meeting Wildlife Club participants to see the similarities between them and our own Career Ladder participants,” says Kutska.  “All of these students care about nature and are enthusiastic about learning and sharing information. Most are natural leaders, looking for ways that they can help themselves grow as individuals.”

For Stanoss, it was a return visit—he previously worked with Iwokrama for about six years providing training for youth clubs. “The clubs were created as an after-school program to carry out projects that reinforce the students’ knowledge of native plants and animals, and to learn multiple approaches to conservation of natural resources,” says Stanoss. And, the clubs had a long-lasting effect on the students too: after a few years Stanoss noticed that former wildlife club members were hired as park rangers, bird guides, and researchers because of specific skills developed in the clubs.
photo by Samantha James/Iwokrama

Down-to-Earth Teaching
This time around, CZS is teaming up with Iwokrama to assist young Makushis’ with monitoring projects and teaching them to use the “Cycle of Inquiry,” a down-to-Earth version of the scientific method that helps students
understand the effects of their actions on the environment. This is the same methodology that CZS uses to help students at Brookfield Zoo understand the effects of their actions on the environment. By supporting the next generation of conservation leaders, Iwokrama and CZS also help these teens to develop skills necessary to obtain jobs, many of them in conservation.

This notion resonates with Stanoss and his team through programs such as the CZS Youth Volunteer Corps. “We believe in the power of young people as agents of change—and our model for youth leadership programs must consider sustainability,” says Stanoss.

photo by Ricardo StanossThe main event of the most recent trip was the Wildlife Club Centralized meeting, usually held two to three times per year to discuss projects and lessons learned. Forty two club leaders from 16 Makushi communities gathered in the central village of Annai and received “Skills for Success” training such as public speaking and leadership skills.

Stanoss and Kutska participated in the meeting and facilitated a “Cycle of Inquiry” training session. “One of the most endearing moments for me was when I presented a DVD showing our YVC members volunteering at Brookfield Zoo,” says Kutska.  “A couple dozen wildlife club members surrounded the laptop on which it played, truly fascinated. The expressions on their faces were the same as those our YVC students wore when I presented images and stories of Guyana and the Makushi students….illustrating an understanding and a keen interest to know more.”

Conservation Citizens
Worlds apart, the Makushi Wildlife Clubs and the Brookfield Zoo’s Youth Volunteer Corps share a common goal: to empower teenagers as agents of change in their communities. In August 2009, CZS will be holding the first Global Youth Conservation and Science Leadership Conference, an extension of “Chicago Teen Networking Day” held here at Brookfield Zoo in 2007. A Makushi coordinator and Iwokrama staff members will participate as special guests at the upcoming conference.

The Leadership Conference will be an opportunity for other Chicago-based cultural and wildlife organizations to share ideas with Guyanese partners. As for the students, both the Guyanese and Chicago area teens will continue to have the opportunity to learn from each other’s efforts and feel part of a new, youth-led international conservation movement. Adds Stanoss: “Learning multiple approaches to conservation from other cultures will greatly expand their world view and help them become citizens of a global city.