Students of San Ignacio in the forest plantation, Masparro (Photo: C Arzubialde)
“It would be a victory over improvisation and futility that Fe y Alegría, in the future, could keep running good schools with the production of some forest timber, which could be planted, grown, and increased by its students and teachers. I imagine that these forests would have for them a sacred meaning, in the same way that mature and grown trees have always inspired deep and thoughtful men and a more positive generation would be born.” (P. Jose Maria Vélaz, SJ,” Letters from Masparro“, Letter No. 21)
These words of Father José María Vélaz, SJ, founder of the popular education movement Fe y Alegría, today spread throughout all Latin America and constitute the inspiring framework for the forestry and ecological activities in the Boarding School of Saint Ignatius of Masparro in Barinas, Venezuela). This school was founded by Father Velaz, where he also died in 1985. San Ignacio del Masparro receives each year more than 300 rural children, forming a small town in the way of the Jesuit missions of Paraguay. It is a model of community lifestyle in the extensive Llanos of Venezuelan.
The school is located in a 500-hectare farm whose activities help maintain the school. The main income generation activity is livestock covering 300 while 60 hectares remain as original forest, forming a magnificent natural reserve for fauna and flora from the region. And then there are 25 hectares of forest plantations of teak, mahogany, and other native species.
These plantations are maintained by students, teachers, workers and volunteers in Masparro, and have became beautiful forests after being well cared for. In them we can find trees of different ages, even some are already beginning to produce wood for the market. The ten acres of teak follow a management plan to produce a significant income for the school’s maintenance, at least for the next 20 years. These plantations are located in the original forest edges and serve as protective barriers.
It is true that forest plantations are not as rich and varied than the original forests from the point of view of biodiversity, but they help to reduce some of the major problems created by deforestation. The plantations provide housing and shelter for many wild animals, protect the bank streams and rivers from erosion, create microclimate conditions for other wild plants, protect forests from the “edge effect” that ends up killing the trees, reduce the impact of dry winds in summer as the shade keeps the moisture, favor a rich and varied landscape. They are also important carbon sinks to stop the advance of the greenhouse effect (each hectare of forest plantation can “hijack” twenty tons per year of CO2).
From a social and educational point of view, trees not only provide sustainable wealth, they also encourage important values among the people who plant them. The forest plantation activities promotes better planning as people learn to plan their future in the medium and long term. They create linkages with the earth by “planting their own roots” and are transformed overnight from “nature killers” to breeders and supporters of nature.
Fifteen years ago, as we continued the work begun by Father Velaz, we launched a project funded by the European Union that sought to strengthen the forestry initiatives in the school. Thanks to that initiative we have today some magnificent teak, mahogany, apamate, saqui-saqui and black nerd plantations. For years it was Mr. Monga who took care of all these plantations, and currently there are field instructors and students who run the program. More than 20,000 trees were carefully grown forming impressive forests, which are frequently visited by technicians and students. Some of these forests are already under production and the school is getting income by selling the timber. There is also a good nursery that produces tree seedlings for planting in the school farm and for selling. The most important lessons from these plantations is that we learned about soil types and the care required for each species. Above all, the students coming from very poor families are learning all these techniques and the necessary skills to take with them to their homes. We therefore have a productive, educational, and ecological demonstration forest.
Forestry activities are carried out using the plantations as classroom. Participants include alumni, faculty, Spanish and Venezuelan university students, technicians from the Ministry of Environment, and these programs are highly valued by all. The extension and communication activities are continuous through planting campaigns with neighbors and students involving many rural teachers who are school alumni. Through these activities, there are now many forest plantations in other neighboring farms. Future plans of these forestry activities will require the integration of the production cycle through the incorporation of sawmills and carpentry and cabinetmaker skills.
There is now a National Coordination of Fe y Alegría for production which includes 15 schools of agriculture, including the Technical Institute in San Javier del Valle Grande, Merida, and the University Institute Jesus Obrero – Extension Guanarito.