The chirps of songbirds and squawks of macaws ring through the air as the first rays of sun break over the world’s largest inland wetland. I sit with Suelen Leite, Panthera’s youthful and spirited professora (teacher), as she prepares for another day of school here in Jofre Velho in the northern Pantanal of Brazil. She sets down her coffee as the first whoops and giggles of her students echo from the nearby boat landing.
The children from neighboring ranches have reached the school by an aluminum boat that carries them on their daily 20-minute ride along the languid Cuiabá River. As soon as the bow touches the sandy shores of Jofre Velho, the children skip out of the boat still wearing their lifejackets and holding each other’s hands as they race to the school.
Suelen’s face lights up with a broad smile as she greets her students. “Olá, bom dia!” (Hello, good morning!) they chorus back in unison. The children — ranging in age from 7 to 13 years old — excitedly tell her about jaguar paw prints they saw on the path outside their home. Suelen exclaims with awe and listens to the breathless storytellers as she patiently ushers them to the classroom for today’s lessons.
Suelen’s task is to provide state-approved primary education in one of the most remote regions in Brazil. The nearest frontier town of Poconé is a five-hour drive along a rough dirt road called the Transpantaneira “highway.” The Transpantaneira traverses the Pantanal’s creeks, lagoons, and rivers with over 120 wooden bridges in various states of repair. While the region hosts profitable seasonal ecotourism operations, the year-round residents are mostly cattle ranchers and riverine villagers.
The children from Fazenda São Bento board the boat on their way to Escola Jofre Velho as a capybara watches from the banks of the Cuiabá River.
The people who live here typically have limited or no access to educational or medical resources. Families often need to make the difficult decision of either staying together — at the cost of raising their children without opportunity for formal schooling — or splitting apart, with the mother and children living in the city while the father works on the ranch. If a family is split, the stress is compounded by the difficulty of communication. Many ranches in the region don’t have internet, let alone consistent power or landline telephone connections.
Families here want their children to lead better lives and have more opportunities than they had. The parents believe that education is key. This is one of the most consistent hopes and dreams of every family my colleagues and I have met during our work in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. And the ability of local education to transform lives and improve the happiness of families is something in which Suelen wholeheartedly believes. Not only does she teach the children during the day, but she also hosts night classes where adults in the area can learn to read and write.
Suelen Leite begins the day’s class at Escola Jofre Velho with lessons about wildlife of the Pantanal.
After the students complete their lessons and return home for the day, I ask Suelen about her hopes and dreams for the schoolchildren and their families. She gazes around her classroom, now quiet but still full of well-loved and colorful books, posters, and wildlife drawings. After a moment, she smiles and says, “Education is the one thing that can never be taken away from them.”
The northern Pantanal is home to one of the world’s highest densities of jaguars. If we want to keep jaguar populations healthy in this unique wetland, we need to invest in the local communities that live with the cats every day. Until recently, when cowboys here saw a jaguar, they saw only loss or a threat: loss of livestock, which directly translates into lost income. For parents with small children, they may be concerned for their safety. For others, jaguar hunting is a way of life ingrained by generations of cowboys that came before them.
Professora Suelen Leite teaches primary school curriculum to children around the Jofre region at Escola Jofre Velho.
Now, with the free schooling offered to those who agree to coexist with jaguars, locals see benefits for keeping the cat around. If we as conservationists want to effect positive, tangible change, we need to create partnerships where local communities have a stake in the success of the conservation program. When everyone contributes and each stakeholder can benefit in some way — from the local families, to tour guides, to the jaguars themselves — conservation efforts can be truly transformational.
Suelen not only teaches state-mandated subjects like math, science, and Portuguese, but she has also adapted her curriculum to include lessons on the Pantanal, Pantaneiro culture, and the work we do at Panthera to help protect jaguars. By cultivating children’s natural curiosity about the world around them, and inspiring their wonder for the wildlife and wild lands in the place they call home, we can help them become stewards of nature.
The students make their way to the boat launch with Panthera’s ‘busdriver,’ Eledilson Souza (nicknamed “Grandão”.)
We hope to equip this next generation with the passion and the knowledge they need to succeed in their own lives — and help save the jaguar and its habitat along the way. Because by saving the jaguar, we can save the Pantanal. And maybe, too, a part of our own humanity.
All Image Source: Panthera