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Inheritance and commitment to Fe y Alegría: The forest passion of José María Vélaz, SJ

31 October 2013

The Fe y Alegría school, San Javier del Valle, in Mérida, Venezuela. Photo credits: porunmundomejor.com;
José María Vélaz, SJ (1910-1985). Photo credits: Fe y Alegría Venezuela

Joseba Lazcano, SJ

José María Vélaz SJ, founder of Fe y Alegría, showed great passion in transforming education from a general process – education for all – to a more individual-centric approach, incorporating education for life, job training, agricultural education, and reflecting his passion for the forest.

Two years ago, the ecological and forest plantation activities at San Ignacio del Masparro, a boarding school for rural children in Barinas, Venezuela, were shared in Ecojesuit. In this article, we feature the forestry development initiative of the Fe y Alegría school, San Javier del Valle, in Mérida, Venezuela, that Father Vélaz also started.

Before establishing Fe y Alegría and whilst the principal of Colegio de San José, a boarding school in Mérida, Venezuela, Father Vélaz purchased the mountainous land known as El Eucalipto (the present-day San Javier del Valle), with an elevation ranging from 2,000 to more than 4,000 meters above sea level. It was there, on 800 hectares of farmland and natural forest (cloud forest), that he initiated a comprehensive forestry development.

Students from poor rural communities learn skills in industrial mechanics at the Fe y Alegría school, San Javier del Valle, in Mérida, Venezuela.
Photo credits: industriautomotrizdevenezuela.com

Later, this vast estate was transferred to Fe y Alegría and in this place the House of Spiritual Exercises – one of Father Vélaz’s most notable achievements – was built in memory of 27 students killed in a plane crash on 15 December 1950. Moreover, an elementary and secondary school for the farmers’ children were constructed. The school complex includes: the School of Applied Arts (today, it is the Technical High School) with more than 300 students boarding; well-equipped workshops; extensive forest and farmland areas where students have the opportunity to be trained in farming and forestry; a guest house designed to host eco-tourists; and a holiday camp, among other structures.

When Father Vélaz retired to San Javier, nine years before his death, he regretted that grazing cattle devastated a huge portion of the 75,000 ash trees that were planted. In response, he undertook a new project to plant a further 100,000 ash trees, the purpose being to “form a large canopy outside, as the most appropriate environment for the enjoyment of solitude and silence, for meditation and contemplation, and for recreation in harmony with nature.”

In his plans for the forest, as in other vocational training projects, it was his clear intention to develop economic productivity and therefore achieve the social transformation of the country. It was his fervent desire that these projects were “schools to teach people to live better.”

The holiday camps were perhaps the most effective means of environmental education beyond these forestry projects, and indeed Father Vélaz considered them to be “educational lungs.” In 1980, five camps were fully operational with 500 beds: La Mata at the Federal District, Ciudad de los Muchachos in Guarenas, Miranda state, San Javier del Valle Grande in Mérida state, Campo Mata next to Cantaura, Anzoátegui state, and Altamira in Barinas state.

From 1979 to 1980, around 16,000 young people and adults attended the camps (with an average of nearly four days of stay per person), “in cheerful and joyful contact with nature, to love nature in harmony with their own life.” Father Vélaz himself stated: “Our plans aim to substantially increase these numbers and the quality of educational services of our camps.”

There are many forest initiatives as well as environmental education programs throughout Fe y Alegría and an exhaustive list is not possible). But both Venezuela and other countries where the Fe y Alegría schools emerged, must understand just how challenging the words written in 1980 by Fr. Vélaz are:

“I think is easy to think of similar projects in other nations in places near Medellín, Bogotá, Cali, Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, La Paz, Santa Cruz, Cochabamba, Panama, Managua, San Salvador, and Guatemala. In places not far from Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Natal, Belem do Para, Brasilia and others, but a Fe y Alegría do Brasil could be bigger than all others combined.”

Eight months before his death, Father Vélaz wrote the following in El Masparro: “I want to plant a big forest with thousands of giant saman trees (Albizia saman), the completion of which I will not live to see. I will ask God to give me a good seat in the balcony of heaven, from where I will see how they grow and, if he lets me, I will ask to be allowed to help to make them more beautiful, with big and perfect branches that inspire serenity and power.”

I am sure that Father Vélaz enjoys “ecotourism” in heaven, and that God is granting his request.

I desire to integrate into a single value
jungle, workshops and books,
teachers and counselors,
faith, landscape and prayer,
the big projects of the future
art, hope and love.

Joseba Lazcano, SJ. Photo credits: Fe y Alegría Venezuela

Joseba Lazcano, SJ, is a 79-year old Jesuit sociologist, and since 1998 has worked in Fe y Alegría. From 1998-2004 he was the Assistant National Director of Fe y Alegría Venezuela. In 2004 he was appointed National Director of Fe y Alegría Ecuador, a position that he held until 2011. Between 2004 and 2007, he was also a member of the Board of Directors of the International Federation of Fe y Alegría. Since 2011, he has accompanied the training of the staff in Fe y Alegría Venezuela.

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