How three Volunteers are tackling Peru's environmental challenges

How three Volunteers are tackling Peru's environmental challenges
By Peace Corps
June 2, 2014

Though he was assigned to work on youth development, Michael Kowalick says it’s no surprise he’s oriented his work around the environment.

A student of environmental policy, Kowalick blends his passion for sustainability with his youth projects, organizing science fairs, recycling fairs and aiding kids in a Guardianes de Planeta, or Guardians of the Planet, program.

“Outside of this program and a little bit from local water authority, there’s really not any big environmental education. Kids learn about climate change, but not recycling, not water storage, or things like that,” Kowalick said.

Through a program called Escuelas Ecoeficientes, or Eco-Efficient Schools, Kowalick works with a team of environmental engineers from his local municipal government and the national Red Cross to teach kids across eight schools about climate change and waste management.

Michael Kowalick with the Escuelas Ecoeficientes team.
Michael Kowalick with the Escuelas Ecoeficientes team.

The program encourages student participation during events like Earth Hour and World Environment Day, where students can do recycled arts and crafts, create eco-friendly fashion designs, and even recite environmental poetry.

“The kids are awesome. There’s a saying that we use, that ‘the boy is the father of the man.’ Basically, the habits you have as a child continue as an adult, and we want kids to develop strong habits,” Kowalick said. “Kids would find me and say they want to do more, they’re literally asking for these projects.”

For Earth Day, Kowalick organized a trash pick-up along the Nasca Lines. His students’ passion for environmental projects comes amidst national conversations about mining, water quality, landfills and broader climate change in Peru, Kowalick said.

“The development by others, their expectations from community members, that makes me happy,” Kowalick said. “I think they now realize that they have the power to do that. What’s rewarding is not that a couple kids may be recycling, it’s more that they realize they have the authority to do this on their own.”

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Peru faces a host of environmental challenges, from trash management to deforestation. But Natalie Lake has a host of projects to combat them.

Through municipality and grant support, Lake has helped install a wind turbine at a high school, lead an environmental youth group and craft a monthly beach clean-up campaign.

Lake spearheads interactive projects, like a miniature tree nursery, which teach her students about reforestation. In the tree nursery, Lake and her students plant native tree species, offering students a glimpse into their local ecosystem.

“This has inspired many of my students to improve green areas around their homes and neighborhoods. I cannot tell you how many students I have seen pocketing seeds to plant in their homes,” Lake said.

She also uses online programs, like Globe, which provides a global platform for scientists, professors and students to input data on soil, water and air quality in their local ecosystems.

“Globe is a wonderful resource because it teaches environmental monitoring and scientific method in a real-life application. The students connect with the environment more through these experiments than through normal lectures,” Lake said. “This also gives students and teachers the opportunity to connect with others from around the world while also empowering them through their contribution to environmental monitoring.”

Lake said Peru’s biggest environmental challenge is trash management, since many communities lack formal recycling programs and often burn their trash to dispose of it.

Informal trash collectors try to combat trash pile-ups and sift through recyclable materials, so along with community members, Lake started a pilot recycling program which revamps the image of recyclers – granting them formal uniforms – and equips them with motorcycles to collect recycling more efficiently. When families properly separate trash and recyclables, they receive rewards, such as school supplies for their children.

Now, 25 percent of Lake’s town, or 1,800 homes, have recycling picked up every Saturday.

“I think the most rewarding element of my work is the ripple effect I've seen come out of the projects I've successfully implemented. The small projects I started within my community have inspired similar larger projects at the municipal level and these are leading to bigger changes than I could have ever hoped to achieve during my two years here,” Lake said.

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Kiryssa Kasprzyk helped install solar energy systems.
Kiryssa Kasprzyk helped install solar energy systems.

When faulty batteries and confusing installation manuals threatened the success of solar energy panels in one of Peru’s national parks, Kiryssa Kasprzyk stepped in.

Kasprzyk had worked on solar energy installations on municipal and household levels, often seeing families interested in alternative energy but lacking the resources to afford the necessary equipment.

“In my own experiences, I worked with a family who had acquired a panel but didn’t understand how to correctly set it up. They were running it directly to a battery – which works though burns through an expensive battery quickly – and knew where to find the proper parts but couldn’t afford them,” Kasprzyk said.

Some local NGOs and national parks have resources to purchase solar energy systems, Kasprzyk said, but relied on third-party installation technicians who struggled to successfully implement them based on English-language instruction manuals.

Kasprzyk extended her expertise to the park, helping to install two solar energy systems and earning a grant for battery costs. The systems aid electricity and lighting needs as well as water pumps for cooking and sanitation.

Kasprzyk ensured her impact outlasted her service, launching education campaigns on renewable energy in communities around the national park. Tourists are now also welcomed by an educational graphic on the park’s solar energy usage.

“I always like to stress that solar energy is not just about using solar panels, but also about harnessing the sun for cooking, drying, heating and passive lighting needs,” Kasprzyk said. “Many Peruvians have a basic understanding that the sun works for these needs, but not about the specific technologies for optimizing solar thermal energy.”

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