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September 10, 2007

N.C., Michigan 4-H’ers learn about plants, culture in Puerto Rico

4-H'er in Puerto Rico
Chelsea Evans, a 4-H'er from Stokes County, practices journaling amidst exotic plant life during a trip to Puerto Rico. (Photos courtesy of Liz Driscoll)

Leaves large enough for umbrellas, roots dripping down from trees and tickling your hair, frogs living inside plants—these were among just a few wonders that eight North Carolina 4-H’ers discovered while traipsing around the island of Puerto Rico. Designed as an environmental service learning trip, 4-H teens from Graham, Randolph, Stokes and Wake counties traveled with Liz Driscoll, 4-H specialist in crops, horticulture and soil science, and Fran Senters, the 4-H program assistant from Lincoln County, along with 4-H’ers from Michigan, to learn about different ecosystems through hands-on service.

The first place the group visited was an organization called Casa Pueblo, nestled in the mountains near Adjuntas. Initially, Casa Pueblo led a grass-roots struggle against international strip mining ventures that would have caused devastating environmental damage in the forested areas surrounding their town and throughout the island. They have since become a multifaceted movement that strives to preserve land for people and wildlife and teach about the importance of the natural world.

Puerto Rican youth have been actively involved in Casa Pueblo’s projects, demonstrating that a community that comes together can have tremendous impacts. One of Casa Pueblo’s main sources for fiduciary support comes from growing and selling sustainably produced coffee. The youth on this trip gave their time and efforts in labeling their coffee jars, assisting in the continued success of Casa Pueblo’s Projects.

Much of the visit to Puerto Rico involved exploring the different environments throughout the island and documenting observations of the soils, plants and animals. The group visited an arid forest, mangrove swamps, moderate rainforests, coastal and estuarine environments and wet rainforests. They compared and contrasted the diversity of plant life and examined the plant morphology. For example, the group found plants growing in the Bosque Estatal de Guánica receive limited moisture due to a rain shadow from the neighboring mountains.

“Youth found many of the plants have leathery leaves, were hairy and thorny, and thick and fleshy,” Driscoll said. “Swimming and kayaking around the mangroves, we saw they have amazing root systems, which have adapted to saline and anoxic conditions and host creatures like snails, barnacles and sponges.”

The most diverse environment the group trekked through was the Caribbean National Forest of El Yunque. In this rainforest, they found huge vines of pothos trailing down from treetops, ferns as tall as a basketball hoop and trumpet wood trees used to make musical instruments. Many of the 4-H’ers attending, also participate in the state horticulture judging contest and could identify the flora in the wild that they study as houseplants or ornamentals.

Much of El Yunque was once farmed for sugarcane, cotton, corn, tobacco and cattle. Today, native plantings continue to restore the diversity of plant and animal life. A group of Puerto Rican 4-H’ers continuing in this spirit has started a tree-planting program on the island. They learn how to grow, transplant and care for native trees that can be planted in environments that might have been hurt by hurricane damage. The North Carolina and Michigan 4-H’ers helped with this process, and some youth have ideas to start similar projects back in their own communities.

4-H'ers in a tree
Youth on the 4-H trip pose in a large ficus tree.

Mofongo. Empanadillas. Reggaeton. From ordering food to learning how to properly dance, the group encountered the vibrant Puerto Rican culture in many fascinating ways. Invited by the 4-H’ers in Fajardo, they enjoyed an evening exchange of food, music and much laughter in trying to communicate. Patiently, their hosts showed the U.S. guests salsa steps and gamely sashayed with line dancing.

“We had small cultural debates by region with the Michigan and North Carolina youth debating the virtues of ‘pop’ vs. ‘soda,’ and we were a little distraught to discover there are no Chick-fil-A’s in the Midwest,” Driscoll said.

The adventure to Puerto Rico gave this group of youth the opportunity to learn about how individuals working together can make a difference. They witnessed how they might make changes in their own neighborhoods and towns and have a deeper understanding and appreciation of how the natural environment provides the resources we need to live.

“The 4-H youth that participated in the program to Puerto Rico displayed the best of our organization,” Driscoll said. “They are all creative, inquisitive, altruistic, polite and had a genuine and honest interest in finding out about each other and the opportunities that Puerto Rico had to offer.”

Posted by Natalie at September 10, 2007 11:23 AM