Ecological Youth Camps in Colombia

“Nature is a Reflection of the Divine.”

Junior Youth Bahá’i Ecological Camps in Colombia and how they fostered environmental awareness and caretaking

by Pascal J. Molineaux, Cali, Colombia

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Ruhi Institute in Colombia put great effort in developing a series of four-day Junior Youth Ecological Camps in the Cauca region. These camps were conceived, in both their content and how they were organized, as a complement to the Junior Youth Program taking shape in the region of the Norte del Cauca. They sought to foster and strengthen in the participants a sense of Bahá’í identity, of belonging and sharing in service to the greater good, while developing a deep appreciation for the majestic beauty and life-sustaining properties of Nature, la Pachamama or “Mother Earth”.

Some 15 camps were offered, with more than 800 junior youth and 130 trained animators participating. Moreover, two-week training sessions (including a camp!) were also given in two other countries (Ireland and Australia), with help and guidance from the Continental Board of Counsellors. I was a privileged member of the working team since the inception of the program and Camp Coordinator on several occasions. The program benefitted from a generous contribution that allowed the Ruhi Institute to purchase 15 four-person tents and basic equipment (shovels, flashlights and more…).

Sadly enough, the Colombian Bahá’í community was not ready at the time to sustain such an effort over the long-term, as these Junior Youth Camps, offered to an ever-expanding Junior Youth population of limited resources, required the full dedication of a team of animators and continued financial resources to subsidize the basic costs. Eventually the camps were discontinued. Time has gone by, and my hope is that this initial effort may now be further pursued. The benefits of the Junior Youth Ecological program were many and, when fully integrated as part of the Bahá’í Junior Youth Program, made a decisive contribution to the development of a Junior Youth Bahá’í identity and sense of purpose.

We live in a day and age in which fewer and fewer of us have any meaningful relationship with Nature: we relate to Nature only through movies, supermarkets and very occasional outings to forest, mountain, sea or river landscapes. Especially in our cities, most youth today grow up with a very limited understanding of Nature and its essential life-sustaining properties or appreciation for its awesome majesty and intrinsic beauty. As a University teacher, I am struck, time and time again, at the reduced personal contact my students have had with Nature or basic understanding of the sacredness of its diversity and life-sustaining properties. To awaken in them a deep sense of appreciation for both is a challenge I always try to take on.

The Bahá’í Writings emphasize that every created thing is reflection of at least one of the Names and Attributes of God. Furthermore, the Bahá’í Writings themselves have numerous metaphors or allusions to Nature that help us to arrive at a deeper understanding of what these Names and Attributes really mean. These two concepts – in every created thing is reflected at least one of the Names of God and the use of nature-based metaphors in the Writings help us understand the deep meaning of These - underly the essential purpose in the development of the Camps. The hope was that the participants would develop, as they got involved in the study of the relevant Writings and in the activities of each camp, an ability to “read” the Book of Creation and “see” the Names and Attributes of the Divine in every created thing, developing the ability to be awed and inspired by these self-same Names and Attributes. The utter Beauty and Majesty of God’s Creation gradually dawns on each of the participants. This then leads to a heart-felt desire to care for, protect, preserve these expressions of God’s Will. The Camps also sought to provide a hands-on approach with direct simple ecological service actions these Junior Youth Groups could then carry out in their communities - with the advisory help of their Animator and a member of the Camp Organizing Commission. These included, for example, the planting of trees, the management of a compost and waste-separation, recycling initiatives and learning to prepare healthy and eye-catching salads (this the JY loved to do).

One of the truly significant impacts of the Camps on the Junior Youth Participants was the experience of living as a member of a Baha’í-inspired community of peers during these four days, away from home and parents – often a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Learning to share in the many tasks of the Camp and making a conscious effort to develop one of the Names and Attributes (each tent group – different form the study groups – had an Animator and was given an Attribute to strive to develop during the Camp). At the end of the Camp, each Participant was given a Diploma with the name of the attribute s/he had best shown during the Camp.

The activities were many and integrated each day of the Camp around a specific learning objective. I would like to share here one of these activities: the night walk. On one of the evenings of the Camp, the Animators having previously identified where a 30-minute night walk could take place, through wooded and open areas, to identify possible risks (fallen branches, unexpected slopes). The Participants were given a brief introduction to the activity and made to form a line in which they had to hold on to each other’s shoulders with one outstretched arm. The Animators were sprinkled along the line with flashlights (always turned off, except when needed). Participants were told to maintain absolute silence and carefully listen to and identify all the sounds, loud and subtle, of insects, animals, water and the wind blowing. In fact, during the night walk, two interruptions of two minutes, just standing in silence around a big tree allowed the Participants to listen. Emphasis is placed on the symphony of noises that identify any given ecosystem and how we are often submerged in sounds of our own making that do not allow us to be aware of the enchanting mystery of these natural sounds. The fact that each Participant had to hold on to the shoulder of the person immediately in front made him/her aware that you need the guidance and help of others and can provide guidance and help too. The night walk ends with a small bon fire and marshmallows and a reflection on the noises identified and intricate subtlety of the specific symphony of the place. One of the Animators also shared an inspiring story from the early days of the Faith – of a martyr or distinguished Bahá’í, a story that emphasized the humble spirit of service and generosity of heart and soul of the protagonist. These were indeed moving stories. Of course, a set of prayers ended the day before all headed back to their tents.

After each Camp, as the Junior Youth groups returned to their communities, with the help and guidance of their Animators and a member of the Ecological Camp Commission, they identified a straightforward ecological service action they could carry out that would benefit their community. They might have had to raise some funds, contact local authorities or neighbors, coordinate getting the tools (shovels?) and other implements (trees? frame for the compost?) and define how each one would participate on the given day. I personally was a witness to several of these service actions. The joy, satisfaction and unity seen in the Participants, their parents and other community members was always inspiring. These service actions, by their very nature, brought benefits to all in the community and required sustained follow up efforts during several months. For example, for tree planting: the frail seedlings needed to be protected, nurtured, and watered until strong enough to “fend for themselves”.

These Camps, it is my unshakable belief, have enormous potential in fostering in the Junior Youth a sense of belonging, of community, a definite Baha’i identity AND a renewed awe at Nature`s beauty and develop certain basic skills in carrying out ecological service activities that will benefit all community members.

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Last updated 24 July 2023