Andean Forests: Connecting to the Andean forests through virtual reality, and its educational possibilities

Educational opportunities in university teaching

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform

Introduction

Mountain forests cover about 900 million ha of the Earth’s surface, almost a quarter of the planet, occupying some 31 million ha in the Andean region alone, providing environmental services such as biodiversity, access to water, carbon sinks to cope with climate change, water regulation and natural landscapes. In addition, more than 40 million people depend directly on their services in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile.

However, due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier in recent years, deforestation, climate change and changes in land use have affected their preservation capacity and have reduced their areas, with large losses of forest due to burning and other damage. It is therefore vitally important to make its immense value visible, to promote its conservation, sustainable use and restoration through raising awareness, holding communication campaigns and providing educational support so that people learn about the forests and take care of them.

The Andean Forest Programme of Swiss Cooperation (SDC), implemented by the Consortium HELVETAS Peru (Condesan), developed the Andean Forest platform, a virtual reality online tour of the Andean forests of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile.

Andean Forests

Andean Forests is a virtual reality platform that gives a tour of the mountain forests of Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, with immersive 360° images in high definition and spatial imagery.

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform

The platform currently offers video tours of 14 places in these four Andean countries, with more than 50 scenes in interactive 360. Its potential for immersion in the sites is a chance to get closer to these special and fragile ecosystems, conveying a sensation of being in them or flying over them. While navigating the sites, users are given complementary information, links to publications or resources, shown beautiful images of natural areas and of the biodiversity, and hear the important accounts of the park rangers and others responsible for the forest. It is an amazing experience and above all, it inspires viewers to take care of the forests, to go and see them and to talk about the experience.

With the support of the renowned French photographer Nicolás Villaume of the Association Conversations du Monde and recent winner of a National Geographic grant, the platform presentations have been warmly received at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP), in national events of SERFOR Peru, in civil society festivals, in the last COP25 Global Conference on Climate Change, and in the recent virtual activities that the Andean Forest Programme has been organizing since the global COVID19 emergency began.

The platform has mapped the following forests:

Peru

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform
  • Ampay National Sanctuary
  • Lake Rontoccocha
  • Kiuñalla forests

Ecuador

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform
  • Yunguilla
  • Bellavista
  • Nanegalito
  • Mashpi

Colombia

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform
  • Arví Park
  • Alto de San Miguel
  • Alto de San Sebastián
  • Baldías moorland

Chile

Screenshot of the Andean Forests platform
  • Lauca Biosphere reserve
  • Tolhuaca National Park
  • Quinquen community
  • River Carillo reserve

Andean Forests was launched in March 2019 with multimedia scenarios of Peru: Apurimac and the special cloud forest of the Ampay National Sanctuary. It aims to expand in South America by joining forces with various partners and organizations working in the field to protect forest ecosystems.

It is just the right time to explore these tools and virtual spaces even more. Without leaving home, we are transported to our mountain forests and the Tropical Andes.  Their potential in education is significant; and to date they have had success from Medellin to Lima.

The ecology course in Lima

Sandro Makowski is a professor of Ecology, Climatology and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the specialty of Geography and Environment at the PUCP in Lima, Peru. He and his students took part in the Climate Change and

Human Rights week organized 3 – 7 June, 2019 at the University Campus. Andean Forests had four panels with information on the Andean forests of Apurimac, and virtual reality lenses that sparked a lot of interest in the university community.

It was then that Sandro experienced at first hand the benefits of virtual reality and the importance of the platform in his students’ education.

He recognized an opportunity, and he invited his students to go to the fair and visit the Andean Forests module. He encouraged them to enjoy the experience of getting to know the mountain forests and marvel at their richness. When he saw how interested his students were, he decided to use the platform in the students’ practical courses. The following semester he incorporated two practices in the Ecology course, because it is on the General Studies curriculum, and does not include field trips, which makes the theoretical concepts very abstract.

The course consisted of theory for addressing climate change issues and Andean ecosystems (vulnerabilities and strengths), accompanied by some practical sessions that included reading on Andean forests, access to information on the Andean forests programme and an introduction to the platform. Once in the computer rooms, students were asked questions about three tours: the Ampay National Sanctuary, Lake Rontococcha and the Kiuñalla forests. Students explored these in group work, presenting their discoveries, and marvelling at the trip.

The end result of this venture was good in sensory experience and awareness. Andean Forests enabled the students to see the land and different ecosystems and inspired them to preserve, admire and make a connection with these fragile ecosystems that are so important for Peru.

Students of the Pontifical Catholic University (Lima-Peru)

Sandro quoted some of his students’ remarks, and they demonstrate the platform’s educational potential:

  • “We were pleased that virtual reality is being used to reinforce learning in an area that was totally unknown to us.”
  • “It draws us near to these forests and makes a connection with them”.
  • “The platform is really useful and realistic, as the images are of good quality and have clear descriptions”.
  • “It was a unique experience. It is interesting how we can see somewhere and learn without going anywhere”.
  • “It provides a better way of learning and lets us enjoy the beauty of the nature in Peru”

Now, during the Covid19 pandemic, this platform is even more important for education, and Sandro Makowski and his team of lecturers have realized that and will remember it in future.

The botanical course in Medellín

In March 2020, the world was hit by a deadly virus, which completely changed economic, social, political and educational activity. The Covid19 pandemic made people rethink how they could continue to hold their activities. In Medellin, Ana Maria Benavides, Conservation Leader of the Medellin Botanical Garden and Professor at the University EAFIT, saw how she could use the Andean Forests platform in the botany course she was giving.

The virtual reality experience connects you to the forest, its inhabitants and its flora and fauna, through its stories. In the words of Ana Maria, Andean Forests “lets you travel from your computer to places far from Colombia, like the Araucaria Forests in Chile, and you can see these beautiful and majestic trees. It also lets you make trips to forests and parks in Colombia itself, and discover and admire the ecosystems of the moors, wetlands and Andean forests”.

Although the platform does not replace a field trip for students to have that contact with plants, ecosystems and communities, Andean Forests lets them understand a lot about ecological approaches. But above all, it captivates students, it conveys the passion for knowledge and for the forests, and for conserving them.

Ana Maria always urges her students to marvel at nature, and now with the platform and lockdown, she has seen a unique opportunity to travel into the forests surrounding her city of Medellin. Although they are so close to them, many of its inhabitants have never been to them. This tool is powerful because it allows the experience of immersion in Colombia’s forests and moors, to know them spatially, to recognize the species that live there and to value the ecosystem services that the city of Medellin offers.

Finally, this form of education, which has been in use since the EAFIT, demonstrates that it can be applied not only in university lectures but also in schools.

The Andean Forests Programme

The Andean Forest Programme (AFP), funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), helps improve climate change adaptation and mitigation capacities by consolidating and scaling up successful policies, practices, tools and incentive schemes in the Andes for the sustainable management of Andean forests. Its regional scope has differentiated intervention strategies in the Andean countries. It began its activities in 2014, thanks to the consortium formed by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation Peru and CONDESAN, and is currently in its second phase, which will continue to 2021.

Source: Andean Forests
www.bosquesandinos.org

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