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Women in Peru get a taste for environmental science

It’s a Friday night in the small Peruvian town of Huari and Sara Arrera is sitting in the living room with her two brothers. They’re talking about the snow leopard and how climate change will affect its glacial habitat and food supply. While the snowy peaks of the nearby Andean mountains are not somewhere you would find snow leopards, this doesn’t stop them passionately discussing the big cat’s plight.

Sara had never heard of a snow leopard before she wandered into one of Huari’s community halls during a free environmental documentary screening. The screening is part of a weekly education program started by the Huari Provincial Government’s Director of Environmental Initiatives, Carlos García. Each screening is accompanied by a guest lecturer who talks about the video and how it relates to life in Huari.

“Sara came up to me after watching the film and said ‘What is the point of showing us that video if the snow leopards are all going to die?’” Carlos says.

“I then realized that this video and lecture series has the potential to excite people to care about the environment and ask questions about issues they have never heard of before.”

Considering that the average Peruvian only spends 11 years in formal education (9 years in rural areas), the municipality’s free lecture series – exploring topics such as freshwater ecosystems, forest restoration, evolution, the cosmos and caves – is a crucial way for communities to learn more about the world around them.

“Women in particular are often told that science is too complex for them to understand or that they should only work in tourism or accounting. This lecture series is breaking the norm – when we have women guest lecturers it opens up a whole other career path that these girls have never been exposed to. Or when they realize that they can understand these complex topics like climate change and greenhouse gases it can be very liberating,” Carlos says.

Collaborating across borders

Andrea Becerra, Outreach Associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the USA got involved in the lecture series due to her love for Latin America and environmental studies.

“In 2011, I spent my first summer working abroad in Ayacucho, Peru, for a microfinance organization. I have wonderful memories of my co-workers, students, and the beautiful landscape. This lecture series intersects with current work on researching and advocating for renewable energy both at home and abroad in Latin America and my personal hope that our world can work together to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Andrea delivered a virtual guest lecture to a packed room and explained what greenhouse gases are and how they cause climate change.

“Understanding this phenomenon is the basic foundation needed to understand climate change and the role that humans play in our changing environment. This knowledge gives us more agency over what happens in our world and also empowers us to make changes in our daily lives to emit less greenhouse gases, such as using more public transportation or biking to work, eating less meat, using less electricity and so on,” Andrea says.

Andrea’s lecture stands out for Carlos. As he was packing up, a young girl of 19 approached him. (He was quite taken aback, he says, as it is very uncommon that women directly approach men in Huari.) The girl said to him: “Because of this lecture, I’m changing my major from tourism to environmental engineering.”

Andrea was amazed that her lecture could have such an effect.

“I think this proves that we’re all capable of making a mark in the world, however small or big this might be,” she says.

Although climate change is becoming increasingly pressing, our understanding about the environment is still very limited, Andrea says, making programs like these more critical.

“This lecture series provides a unique platform to extend the reach of our knowledge and inspire people to become learners in the field. Programs like these make it easy to spread information and collaborate across borders.”

With 1% of Huari’s total population now regularly attending the weekly lecture series, Carlos is now thinking bigger.

“I’ve been approached by UN Women who is hoping to take this video series to various countries and develop educational programs.”

Despite Carlos’ attempts to reassure Sara that snow leopards will not necessarily become extinct because of climate change, she wanted proof.

“So now, every Tuesday and Saturday, she comes to my office and we research how ecosystems are going to be affected by global climate change,” Carlos says.

“She begins every conversation with: ‘how are my snow leopards?’ I hope she’ll use her newfound knowledge to drive positive change in her community.”