Sustainable education takes place in a cloud forest in emblematic Colombian site

A once fashionable tourist attraction reinvented as a cultural and learning platform is expanding on its success to meet the needs of a burgeoning local population. 

Based in a former landmark hotel near the 150-metre high Tequendama falls in Soacha, seven kilometres from the heart of the Colombian capital Bogota, the Fundación Granja Ecológica el Porvenir (the Foundation) was established to raise awareness among the local community and far beyond about the ecosystem, local water resources and the unique tropical cloud forest situated there. The Foundation was nominated for the UNESCO-Japan Prize for Education for Sustainable Development in 2018.

Environmental education programmes began in 1992 in an ecological farm located near to the falls, where visitors could learn about the importance of the area's natural resources and improve their environmental thinking. The site, on the banks of the river Bogota, is also the sacred seat of the indigenous Muisque people who have been instrumental in its protection. Legend has it that the Tequendama falls were created when Muisque deity Bochica split the rocks with his staff.

Director and co-founder Maria Victoria Blanco, who originally came to the area as a veterinarian to study the flora and fauna, soon saw its potential as a learning platform and has been there ever since witnessing its successful growth. The Foundation, which grew from an independent group of professionals, was created in 2007 and in 2014, it opened a museum on the historic site, which, together with the farm, has reached more than a million children, young adults, and adults through awareness programmes. As part of its work, it has restored more than 12,000 square meters of cloud forest. 

'Originally this was a train station which drew huge holiday crowds in the 19th century to see the falls which led in turn to the establishment of the hotel,' said Maria. 'It fell into disrepair in the 80s until the Foundation came up with the idea to reinvent it as a learning platform for the natural environment. Things really began to move forward in 1994 when the first state decree was made around education for sustainable development. The area is so rich in unique biodiversity that a pedagogic project seemed logical.'

From hotel to environmental museum

With European Union backing, they took on the huge work of rehabilitating the abandoned building into a museum.

The work of the Foundation has also encompassed raising awareness about the Bogota river that had suffered from its proximity to the capital. Part of what makes the Tequendama region of special interest is the height of the falls, which creates highly oxygenated water and unique conditions for biodiversity. 

'We went to the river communities to involve them in how we would clean and protect it. We formed a group of leaders and informed them using examples from around the world about other damaged rivers that had been successfully recuperated. They are now in constant contact with each other sharing news and information,' said Maria. 

In 2014, the Colombian state officially recognized the importance of the area of the Tequendama Falls as part of the country's heritage and it was declared part of the patrimony in 2018. 

'The centre has two main pedagogic scenarios, the interactive museum and the ecological farm and reserve. For both we engage children and young people in simple but creative ways. They have workbooks to colour and fill in which they then take home to pass on the message,' said Maria.

'At the same time, we build the capacity of people from the local community, we work with 12 families or so, who have the deepest knowledge of this area to show and teach visitors to the centre. I am a guest. They have their ancestors here,' explained Maria. 

It is the trained local guides who take visitors on forest walks to witness for themselves the unique cloud forest which is a vital system for controlling climate change and which is being ecologically restored by reincorporating both animal and plant native species. The area is home to a wide range of mammals including sloths and wild cats and a diverse range of insects and birds all of which are recorded in inventories provided through strong links with local universities.

The Foundation also works with the local community to implement sustainable agricultural and livestock production models according to the environmental conditions and the limited budget of most of the rural farmers. Alongside the promotion of environmental thinking it shows how conservation can be linked with income opportunities and health and well-being. 

Facing the challenge of a growing population

The next big challenge is to respond to a rapidly growing population which brings with it major construction and further threat to the natural landscape.

'We see our job as motivating civil society. We are not the government although we have their backing. We are convinced as citizens that we have certain rights and duties when it comes to the environment,' said Maria. 'This has turned from being a stigmatised area with lots of social problems to somewhere that local people are proud to show to others.'

Apart from reforesting an additional area of 10,000 square metres and developing new exhibition areas in the museum, there are also plans for a botanical garden where people could come and learn about the natural ecosystem. 

'The wonderful thing is that we are bringing back to life something that nobody really wanted and now we have reached a stage where the state itself is protecting and promoting us.' said Maria.

Education is essential for the sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity and its conservation. It equips individuals, communities and the wider world with the understanding, skills and attitudes to mainstream biodiversity considerations into their daily lives and practices. UNESCO promotes Biodiversity Education and Awareness as part of its Education for Sustainable Development programme and the inter-agency Communication, Education and Public Awareness work with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.