Argos to the Amazon
Try to imagine the most dangerous and stress-inducing trip on which you could take a group of 15-year-old boys. A cultural awareness trip to the Bronx, perhaps? Up Mount Everest, maybe? What about two weeks in the Amazon Basin where deadly snakes lurk unseen on the forest floor and the air is thick with malaria mosquitoes? Most teachers would recoil in horror at the thought of trying to ensure their young charges did not get into any more trouble than a few bee stings.
No wonder then that science teacher Paul Millard, who is taking eight boys from Wakefield City High School to the lowland rainforests of Ecuador this month, views his responsibilities with trepidation. "It's horrific," he says emphatically. "Absolutely horrendous."
one is tempted to ask why he should want to put himself through this ordeal, but he is clearly driven by a strong desire to do something to protect these rich habitats from disappearing completely under the logger's chainsaw, and to introduce others to their strange, captivating beauty.
Mr Millard has been all over the world collecting plants, particularly his beloved bromeliads, a species common all over Ecuador. over the years he has given numerous assemblies and slide shows to the school's staff and children, and has also found time to set up a charity, Equafor, to raise money for and awareness about equatorial rain forests. As a result of his efforts, Equafor helped an Ecuadorian non-governmental organisation buy about 1,000 hectares of threatened forest on the Pacific coast. The 200 hectares which Equafor funded has been termed the Yorkshire Rain Forest Reserve.
It was one of his assemblies about Equafor which prompted four of his science students to ask what they could do to help. It became apparent there was enough enthusiasm to justify a trip to Ecuador to investigate the issues further. As a result of growing awareness, rainforest issues are now on the national curriculum, so the trip will help the youngsters with that. But the main benefits are of a broader nature.
"It will open their eyes," says Mr Millard. "It will make them grow up. It will make them think about what they have got." Like most 15-year-olds, they can only begin to imagine the differences between Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and the rainforest habitats of South America.
By their own admission, the children are not widely travelled. only one, Nasar Meer, has been anywhere which could be termed "third world", while for some the furthest afield they have been is France or Ireland. Headteacher Alan Yellup believes their insularity is even more profound than that. "They don't move in a very wide radius from Wakefield," he says. "If you asked them about their knowledge of greater Yorkshire, it wouldn't be that much. The furthest one boy in the school said he had been was the Argos corner."
The party flies into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on February 16, and they will spend a couple of days acclimatising there. They will then drive in a hired mini-bus east over the Andes and down into the jungle, to the Jatun Sacha Foundation reserve on the Napo, a river which ultimately feeds the Amazon itself. The drive alone will be an exhilarating experience for children who have only ever known the drab and enclosed environment of inner-city Wakefield.
"We will drive to the Napo via the paramo so they experience different climates as they go over," says Mr Millard. "We'll let them out at 14,000 feet and let them run about so they know what it's like to be breathless."
There are number of projects planned for their week's stay at Jatun Sacha. They will spend a day planting trees in an area of land previously cleared for cattle pasture and which the foundation is trying to reclaim. They will also plant bromeliads in the reserve's botanical gardens. Mr Millard has plans to organise a football match with a school in Tena, the nearest town. A couple of days will be spent visiting a local indigenous community. Mr Millard wants them to spend a night or two sleeping underneath the rainforest canopy, in hammocks, covered with mosquito nets.
Ants, he says, are the biggest danger. He has told the kids that one bite from one particular species could put them out of action for a day or more. They are more frightened of tarantulas or snakes, but in reality these beasts stay largely anonymous in the forest. Ants, however, are everywhere.
The eight boys have an understandably naive but essentially accurate grasp of exactly what to expect when they arrive and of the issues surrounding tropical rainforests and their plight.
Nasar Meer sums up their attitude when he says: "We are all quite concerned about the devastation that has been caused. It seems to me it's all take, take, take from companies, a lot of them British companies. They're taking and not putting back. It's going to catch up with them." The negative publicity that Shell incurred as a result of the Brent Spar debacle and the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa has clearly helped to raise the children's awareness of global environmental issues.
"There's not enough people in this country aware of what's going on and what we can do to help," adds Andrew Taylor.
Gareth Quinn, who is taking a GCSE in cookery and is planning to do a project on edible rainforest fruits and vegetables explains why he thinks the preservation of the rainforests is important. "It could help to find new medicines. They might even find a cure for cancer. " The dangers fascinate them. They joke about the infamous species of catfish which can swim up the urine stream of someone relieving themselves in a river and then lodge themselves in the urethra, and animatedly discuss whether they could handle a poison arrow frog without being poisoned themselves.
"I want to go out there because it's something new," says Duane Craven. "To see big forests, different plants and birds."
They - and their parents - are raising the Pounds 8,000 needed for the trip through the normal channels: washing cars, sponsored walks, raffles, jumble sales, car-boot sales and even busking, though this last event only pulled in the grand total of Pounds 3.05. At the time of writing, they had reached Pounds 5,500. Mr Millard has had virtually no hand in this at all and says organising the trip has been relatively simple, mostly because of his extensive knowledge of and contacts in Ecuador.
As Mr Yellup points out, the fund-raising itself is a good experience for the children, particularly in an area which has been hit, like many northern inner-cities, by the nagging recession of the past 20 years. "It serves to remind the community that the children do have something to offer and that they are in no way inferior to kids in any other parts of the country. They are prepared to take on challenges and in this case go to the other side of the world."
Mr Millard and Mr Yellup are determined the trip will not be a one-off, and with a class of year 8 students currently fund-raising to buy more land for the Yorkshire Rain Forest Reserve, the issue is partly out of their hands.
Schools in Leicestershire, Newcastle and Cleethorpes have all expressed interest. Ecuador, regarded by travellers as one of the havens of South America because of its accessibility and stability, may soon find it becomes a more unlikely home-from-home for British schoolchildren.