Alaskan Students Save Something They’ve Never Seen: Trees

Buckland Rainforest Club
Buckland Rainforest Club
Buckland Rainforest Club

Most of the 450 residents of the isolated village of Buckland, Alaska, are Inupiaq Eskimos who live the same subsistence-based life as generations of their ancestors before them did: hunting migrating Caribou or fishing for Smelt in the Buckland River.

In this remote part of the Alaskan tundra, trees are a rare sight, but that didn’t stop a group of Buckland students from doing something to protect them.

Fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade students from the Nunachiam Sissauni School spent weeks learning about the importance of rainforests–and the threats they face–as part of a curriculum on the environment. During the 2009-2010 school year, students held fundraising events and collected donations of coins with the aim of covering the floor of their school gymnasium. In total they raised an astonishing $1,300 and donated it to Rainforest Trust to protect 26 acres of remote Colombian rainforest.

Students found Rainforest Trust, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that purchases and protects highly-threatened rainforest, through an internet search. The Inupiaq students asked Rainforest Trust to support the emergency Las Tangaras Rainforest Project in the species-rich Chocó of Colombia–home to several communities of the Embera indigenous tribe.

In late November 2010, news outlets announced the discovery of three new amphibians in Las Tangaras rainforest, including a toad that is said to look like famed cartoon miser Montgomery Burns, a character from The Simpsons TV series. Rainforest Trust and its partners in Colombia are now trying to protect the very area where these species were discovered.

“This idea came from the students,” said Buckland teacher and rainforest club sponsor Terri Chapdelaine. “After a discussion about conservation, students said to me ‘we could do that’ and started looking into to making a difference for rainforests.”

Through December 31, 2010, donations to the Las Tangaras appeal were being matched by two generous donors to Rainforest Trust, Frank Kling and Robert Giles. As a result, the students’ donation will have twice the impact.

Buckland Alaska, less than 250 miles from Russia, is nearly 6,000 miles from the site of the Las Tangaras Reserve in the Department of Chocó in northwestern Colombia.

After a class on the important role rainforests play in regulating the climate, providing medicine, and protecting countless plants and animals and indigenous peoples, students jumped at the chance to do their part.

“They really appreciate what rainforests do for the planet,” said Chapdelaine.

Environmental educators with Fundación ProAves, the Rainforest Trust partner in Colombia, recently visited several Embera communities, bringing pictures of the Eskimo students who raised money to help preserve the Tangaras rainforest.

“The Embera children who saw the pictures were very excited when they heard what these [Eskimo] kids–who had never seen trees–were doing,” said David Carlos, Executive Director of ProAves. “So they decided to draw picture of their own rainforest to share with the Eskimos.”

Rainforest Trust is trying to raise funds to protect over 5,500 acres of rainforest from non-native colonists along a highway in order to stop deforestation and ensure a future connection between the various indigenous Embera tribes of the area.

“By protecting this relatively small area, we can effectively create a buffer to save an additional 82,000 acres of land where the Embera communities are located,” said Rainforest Trust Director of Conservation, Dr. Paul Salaman.

But he also says that the time to act is now. A road into the area is being widened and paved, and logging has been on the increase.

“And unfortunately,” says Dr. Salaman, “gold was just discovered in the area–which means we only have a short window to act in before a wave of colonization and deforestation destroys the area.”

But he is quick to hail what he calls “an unprecedented Arctic-to-Andes collaboration.”

“Allegiances between indigenous communities are a natural way forward,” says Dr. Salaman. “The Arctic is suffering the some of the most noticeable effects of global warming, and rainforest conservation is seen as one of the keys” to curbing these effects. Rainforest Trust is delighted to provide the connection for this partnership.”

For their part, the students of the Nunachiam Sissauni Rainforest Club say they’re glad to have been able to do something for rainforests.

To learn more about the reserve, click here.

To read more stories of students saving the rainforst, click here.