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My name is Brittany Johnson. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Costa Rica and work with the Environmental Committee composed of six other Peace Corps Volunteers.

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Costa Rica is famous for its diverse ecosystems including tropical rainforests, cloud forests, and mangroves, which are home to an estimated 500,000 different species.

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Nearly 25% of the country’s land is protected as parks and reserves, making Costa Rica a popular destination for ecotourism.

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Even though Costa Rica is known as being an ecologically-conscious country, environmental problems still exist. Populations of certain animal species, such as scarlet macaws and sea turtles, have declined in many parts of the country due to habitat destruction and poaching.

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Scientists believe that other animals, such as the golden toad and the harlequin frog, are beginning to disappear as a result of climate change.

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Many of the rural communities where Peace Corps Volunteers serve face unique environmental challenges. For example, rural communities frequently have to figure out how to dispose of their own trash. Most will burn it outside their homes, which can release chemicals that are unsafe to breathe.

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Trash can also end up polluting local rivers or being carried to the ocean.

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Soil erosion is another issue affecting rural areas in Costa Rica. Many communities have experienced destructive landslides; some resulting from natural causes, and others from improper road construction and deforestation.

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To work with communities to address these and other important issues, I collaborated with other Peace Corps Volunteers to develop an initiative called ALA, Alianza de Liderazgo Ambiental or the Alliance of Environmental Leaders.

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We started by creating six dynamic lesson plans to involve youth in analyzing and addressing environmental problems in their local communities.

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Ten different communities from across Costa Rica participated. Groups of students aged 14 to 24 gathered to learn about water conservation, soil conservation, biodiversity, and climate change.

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After each lesson, these students went out into their communities and used several forms of multimedia to document the environment. They conducted and filmed interviews, took photos, wrote blogs, and made PowerPoint presentations.

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Youth identified many factors contributing to the endangerment of animals and the deterioration of the environment: deforestation, dredging of rivers for construction material, poaching, and littering. The most pressing and prevalent issue revealed in these presentations was that of climate change.

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During interviews with the youth, Costa Rican adults from across the country gave testament that the climate is noticeably warmer than when they were younger. In one part of the country, it rains less frequently than in the past. The community is hotter and drier in the rainy season and, at times, it rains in the dry season. In an opposite part of the country, the rain is unpredictable and overabundant which leads to months of flooding.

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After their initial research, two youth leaders came from each of the 10 participating communities across Costa Rica to attend the ALA conference in Bahia Ballena .

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Bahia Ballena means Whale Bay in English and is located on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It is named for a nearby beach naturally shaped like a whale’s tale.

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Most youth in rural Costa Rican communities do not have the opportunity to leave their districts and often don’t know what lies within their province. To have youth gather from 10 communities allowed them to share their experiences. As a result, they not only learned about these other regions of the country, they also learned about the different environmental problems these regions face.

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Youth participated in two full days of workshops on topics including conservation, project design and management, sustainable practices, leadership, and surfing!

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Each community presented the multimedia analyses they completed in their community at the ALA Film Festival, ‘ MediaLocos .’ Youth attending this workshop were previously uninvolved in community leadership. Through this workshop, they made public presentations of themselves, their communities, and their analyses.

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They also learned to surf, which like any sport, requires perseverance to be able to get up over and over again after falling. This and other activities were, in the words of one participant, "motivational to act in the community."

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After the conference, students returned to their communities to lead local environmental projects. Some presented classes about the environment to younger students, others organized trash pick-up and recycling campaigns for their villages,

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still others began small tourist initiatives to preserve biodiversity, such as a butterfly garden that would provide a protected habitat for native plants and attract diverse species of moths and butterflies.

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Before the workshop, youth had a broad understanding of the problems of pollution and the importance of conservation. However, after the event, youth became leaders in starting environmental initiatives.

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Other community members, many of whom were interviewed for the community analyses, were responsive to the projects the youth were proposing. Many students reported healthier practices in disposing of waste within the household, as well as an overall desire to clean the community and better the country.

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