Fellow Since 1997
CEAL-Centro de Educación al Aire Libre
This profile was prepared when Rodney Walker was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
A longtime educator and environmentalist, Rod Walker is protecting the bioregion and promoting environmental education and awareness, as well as launching an eco-tourism program that trains and employs local guides in the Cañi region of southern Chile.
The New Idea
Drawing on his decades of experience teaching urban dwellers how to appreciate nature, Rod Walker has launched an environmental protection program in the south of Chile that combines eco-tourism, income generation, and education. Located in the Cañi forest, the first privately-run sanctuary of its sort in Chile, Rod's program is training local guides to lead eco-tourism excursions and to educate locals and tourists alike about the fragility, the needs, and the natural wonder of the region. In so doing, Rod is emphasizing the educational side of eco-tourism while at the same time generating jobs and income for the local economy. Moreover, Rod is making his guide training courses available nationwide and building a network of guides and other organizations committed to environmental protection through eco-tourism. He has created a guide certification program that, pending approval from the National School of Mountaineering, will systematize the training of local guides. Through his work, Rod is spreading the idea that Chile's diverse and rich bioregions cannot survive unless citizens are given an opportunity to explore and appreciate the natural richness of their country.
Although small in size (some 757,000 square kilometers), Chile contains rich and varied ecosystems, ranging from the desert north, to the mountains, to the coastal zone, to the frigid southern provinces. It has a relatively small population of just over thirteen million people, 85 percent of whom reside in urban areas. In order to relieve the congestion of these major urban areas, there has been growing pressure to develop Chile's rural areas and encourage people to move out of the large cities. Areas that were previously untouched by civilization are suddenly being flooded by roads, electricity, industry, and tourism. Moreover, as Chile pushes to maintain the momentum and scope of its "tiger-like" economic growth, natural resources are being consumed at dramatic levels. The land and the forests are suffering. While mining and logging expand, the government has recently blocked the efforts of private park investors to create reserves which would protect the ancient forests. In this sense, even the tourist appeal of these once pristine places is being threatened, as are the potential for eco-tourism and other compatible uses to serve as a sustainable support for local economies.
Starting in the Cañi forest, Rod is building eco-tourism as a viable means through which to achieve several goals: local sustainable development, environmental education, and environmental protection. He chose the Cañi as a launch pad for his project because it is the first privately owned and protected forest of its kind in Chile. It is owned by the Lahuén Foundation, the first Chilean nongovernmental organization dedicated exclusively to protecting native forests. First, in order to fuel the local economy and create jobs for young men and women who might otherwise migrate to the cities, Rod has designed and implemented a guide-training program that enables Cañi locals, those who are most familiar with the land and its richness, to lead tourists through the bioregion. Based on their leadership skills, their knowledge of the region, and their commitment to environmental protection, guides are selected to attend a week-long training session. During this intensive training, guides hone their outdoor leadership skills and, through environmental awareness workshops and mock trips, learn how to educate tourists about the need for environmental protection in the bioregion. In addition to the income received by the guides, Rod's "seed project" generates local development through the sale of native species tree seedlings. Since 1994 Rod and his colleagues have trained ten local guides in the Cañi. The educational methodology used by the guides is a product of Rod's work at the Center for Outdoors Education, an organization he founded to teach students and educators alike to appreciate the outdoors. Headquartered in Santiago, the Center takes school groups to the hills and mountains surrounding the city for hikes, campouts, ropes courses, and other activities. Similarly, in the Cañi, guides encourage participants to spend time walking and sitting in silence, in communion with the earth. The excursion begins with a presentation circle in which the participants introduce themselves and talk about their experience with the outdoorshowever minimaland their expectations for the trip. When talking about water as a precious resource, the guides encourage people to walk barefoot in a stream, or to climb a waterfall. Because their mission is more educational than technical, the guides focus on teaching tourists about the flora and fauna of the region, the natural resources, and the terrain. In doing so, they promote the idea that the Cañi bioregion, like its counterparts throughout Chile and the world, is a valuable natural resource, to be appreciated, enjoyed, and protected rather than exploited and decimated.In addition, Rod is hoping to build a network of local guides, throughout Chile, whose shared commitment to preserving the country's natural beauty will serve as an alternative to the environmentally destructive trends which have long governed the nation's economy. Through partnerships with the National School of Mountaineering, the National Institute of Youth, and the National Employment Commission, Rod is opening the door to greater participation in the guide training programs, as well as increased funding. In the upcoming year, he plans to finalize the structure of a guide certification program that will, in effect, place a "seal of approval" on eco-tourist guides and locales across the country.
A native of Liverpool, England, Rod received his law degree from Oxford University in 1961. Despite this professional training, he never pursued a career in the legal field but instead immediately devoted himself to his true calling- the outdoors. While in law school, he had worked summers and vacations at a mountaineering school in Scotland and there was introduced to the concept of outdoor education. He learned three key lessons in Scotland that have profoundly shaped the meaning and direction of his life. First, from living the simple life of an outdoorsman, he learned the value of "living with less, instead of more." He also learned to instill the value of teamwork and cooperation, of working together with one's peers for common goals. Finally, by spending time in the hills of Scotland, he began to appreciate, in a much more personal sense than ever before, the wonders of nature. After receiving his law degree, he worked for three years as a meteorologist at the British-Antarctic Organization. In 1965 he traveled to Chile, fell in love with the country and its geography, and decided to move there permanently. He has lived there ever since.From 1965 to 1982 Rod worked as a science teacher and rector of several primary and secondary schools in Santiago, as well as in the southern city of Punta Arenas. Throughout these years, he led outdoor education excursions for students and teachers. In 1980, hoping to find a way to apply his experience in outdoor education, he founded the Center for Outdoors Education and began spreading his outdoor education philosophy and model throughout the Santiago metropolitan area. Between 1987 and 1990, a period he describes as very unsettling, Rod became increasingly frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of environmental and social relevance in formal education. At this point, he launched the international version of the Center, devoted to promoting peace and environmental awareness. The "6,000 Forum" program, for example, brought educators from four countries together on a 150-kilometer trek across the Andes.In 1990 Rod lost his eighteen year old son, Ian, in an automobile accident. This tragedy drew him back to nature, out of the city, on a journey of personal healing and reflection. It was at this point that Rod discovered the Cañi, a place where he could finally cultivate and expand his lifelong work in environmental education.