María Elena Ordoñez Legarda
Fellow Since 2000
This profile was prepared when María Elena Ordoñez Legarda was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
María Elena Ordóñez teaches environmentalism to children across Ecuador through a television program, teaching materials, student clubs, and commercial products that saturate Ecuador with a new and much-needed regard for environmental protection.
The New Idea
María Elena's organization is one of few in Ecuador devoted entirely to environmental education for children and is the only one using television and radio. She has produced a successful educational television show that captures young people's attention and imagination and turns them into proactive environmentalists. The program and its characters are informed by a network of teachers and schools trained to use educational materials. Educators incorporate environmentalism into their curricula while María Elena markets environmental club membership and projects to students around the region.
Ecuador's rich diversity of flora and fauna is matched by an equally rich variety of serious environmental problems: drought, pollution, extinction of animals, and deforestation. These problems are compounded by the public's lack of awareness about the effects of environmental degradation on their health and quality of life. According to the International Center of Advanced Studies in Communication's 1998 Latin American study, 78 percent of the Ecuadorian population believes that environmental protection is the responsibility of the state and accepts no personal responsibility. In spite of efforts by civil society organizations and public and private entities, there has been very little success in changing the behavior of the Ecuadorian population with regard to environmental protection. Moreover, with the severe economic crisis that is taking place currently in Ecuador, environmental concern has become a low priority for government funding. Little money for environmental programs means a lack of opportunities to teach young people about environmental problems, solutions, and safeguards.
María Elena has devised a two-part strategy that includes an educational television show, Arcandina, and a comprehensive environmental education program that combines communication, entertainment, marketing, and social mobilization. Her goal is to change Ecuadorians' behavior with regard to environmental conservation. Arcandina, or Andean Ark, promotes young viewers' participation in community activities that protect the environment. The show's characters are a computerized plant that navigates the ark, two young ecologists working to protect the environment from the villains trying to destroy it, and puppets representing animals native to Ecuador and other parts of Latin America. María Elena carefully chose three endangered species to represent air, land, and water: toucan, jaguar, and sea lion. The first two were chosen because they are near extinction, and the sea lion represents the ecologically important Galapagos Islands. The program also has several villains, the most popular of which is a rat that loves to eat garbage. Arcandina first aired in 1996 on various Ecuadorian and South American television channels, as well as the international Spanish language station Telemundo, through which it reached an audience of millions of Spanish speakers in the United States and Central America. To ensure that shows are aired, María Elena has developed a strategic plan for working with television companies. At first, she works on a 50 percent contract, through which her organization provides the finished show and the station seeks advertisers, each side receiving half of the gross revenues. In the second stage of her broadcast strategy, María Elena buys television timeslots and collects all advertising revenue. María Elena also uses her international network, including the Discovery Kids cable channel in the United States and the Prix Jeunesse German children's television festival, to promote the show abroad. She uses popularity among foreign audiences to leverage her marketing among Ecuadorian television outlets. The Arcandina staff teams up with teachers to incorporate environmental education into all aspects of the curriculum. As teachers know about and respect the television program, they are excited to adopt the curriculum María Elena has designed. Moreover, teachers rely on Arcandina to teach environmental topics of which very few have prior knowledge. María Elena created a guide that provides teachers with stories, games, songs, and class projects designed to make environmental lessons fun and easy to implement. She also markets an environmental kit with stories, games, a video, and a compact disk for use in schools and for commercial sale, which is currently in development as Arcandina's first English language tool. A third component of María Elena's scholastic program is the Arcandina club for children ages six to fourteen. The club groups young people together for competitions, games, recreational workshops, and outdoor environmental activities, primarily in six key areas: water conservation, recycling, energy conservation, garbage disposal, reforestation, and air conservation. Their activities are recorded and broadcast as part of the Arcandina television program, feeding into the program's marketing strategy. María Elena believes that if she can convince children to start thinking and talking about environmental issues, they will then be able to influence the non-environmentally friendly practices of their parents. María Elena is working to build the sustainability of her organization through the sales of the television show's products, including stuffed animals, music CDs and cassettes, T-shirts, puppets, and dolls. Additionally, she is marketing environmental ads sponsored by the Johns Hopkins University Communications Program and featuring her characters to companies that want to improve their public image by associating with Arcandina. María Elena uses the success and credibility of Arcandina products to form alliances with local and national governments, further ingratiating environmental concepts and her nonprofit brand into the country's conscience.
María Elena studied education in university, where she decided to focus on television as a means of educating children. Following her studies, she worked as a scriptwriter and production assistant on Ecuador's first educational television show, Rinconcito. During this time, she became involved in an international movement to promote quality children's programming, organizing international seminars to promote this programming in Ecuador. María Elena became aware of the power that television can have, while also noticing how difficult it was to secure airtime for educational programs. A serious concern for the environment, along with her interest in education, led her to create Arcandina. From the show's inception, María Elena wanted to show that Ecuador can produce high-quality materials. She has been faced with many obstacles and ethical challenges, but she has never abandoned her commitment to producing quality children's television programming. While the show has received national and international acclaim, she is focusing on capitalizing on this success to strengthen the scholastic component of her project to ensure deeper overall impact.