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Copyright © 2001 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Galindo-Leal, C. 2001. Design and analysis of conservation projects in Latin America: an integrative approach to training. Conservation Ecology 5(2): 16. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss2/art16/

A version of this article in which text, figures, tables, and appendices are separate files may be found by following this link.

Insight, part of Special Feature on Interactive Science Education

Design and Analysis of Conservation Projects in Latin America: an Integrative Approach to Training

Carlos Galindo-Leal

Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International


The Latin American countries have a disproportionate importance in global biodiversity conservation. Six of the 14 megadiversity countries that house 60–70% of the species in the world are located on this region. Unfortunately, the number of environmental professionals in Latin America is extremely small. Furthermore, most of them have no postgraduate degrees and are unacquainted with general research methodology and recently developed concepts and tools. In addition, many speak no English and have no way to communicate with colleagues in other parts of the world. In collaboration with Latin American colleagues, universities, government agencies, and nongovernment organizations, I have been developing an integrated field course titled "Design and Analyses of Projects to Manage Biological Diversity" to address these problems. To date, we have conducted nine courses in seven countries. The courses consist of five complementary components that are addressed sequentially: (1) conceptual framework, (2) critical analysis of personal projects, (3) methodological tools, (4) analytical tools, and (5) integration. I also discuss the elements that contribute to the success of these courses. Powerful elements in the course are the presentation, critical analysis, and constructive discussion of participants' real conservation projects. In addition, the careful matching of participants with instructors, subject matter, and learning environment has resulted in a great learning experience for everyone involved. Because of the lack of graduate training in conservation-related disciplines and the more general pitfalls associated with teaching science, there is a great demand in Latin America for integrated field courses.

KEY WORDS: biodiversity conservation, capacity building, conservation projects, field courses, Latin America, project analysis, project design.

Published: December 20, 2001


Tell me and I forget.
Show me and I remember.
Get me involved and I understand.

- Anonymous proverb

The Latin American countries play a strategic role in the conservation of the world's biodiversity. Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico are six of the 14 megadiversity countries in which 60–70% of the world's biodiversity is found (Myers 1988, 1991, Mittersmeier and Wener 1990, Toledo and Castillo 1999). These countries have other features in common: they all have tropical ecosystems, rapidly expanding human populations, widespread poverty, and economies that are strongly dependent on the exploitation of natural resources (UNEP 1997). Because of these shared characteristics, these countries are experiencing a rapid loss of ecosystems that are diverse, complex, and still poorly understood (Ehrlich 1997, Galindo-Leal 2000).

During the last 15 years, several disciplines, such as conservation biology, landscape ecology, and environmental economics, have developed rapidly, and now provide useful tools for conservation planning and management. However, most of the training of environmental professionals is concentrated in developed countries (Jacobson 1990, Jacobson et al. 1992, Ehrlich 1997, Toledo and Castillo 1999), and most professionals in both governmental and nongovernmental environmental agencies in Latin America are unaware of the rapid advances in the conservation disciplines. They rarely have access to literature in this specialty, because very few libraries house the ever-expanding list of environmental journals, and, even if the information is available, the language barrier makes it harder for them to deal with it (Galindo-Leal 2000). Nevertheless, these practicioners are responsible for making conservation-related decisions every day (Rabinowitz and Bennett 1995, Toledo and Castillo 1999).

At least as important as understanding and accessing emergent theoretical concepts is the ability to distinguish fact from fiction in practice. Everywhere in the world, new concepts tend to spread faster than supporting evidence can be gathered, and persist long after the evidence fails to support them. It is important to be able to balance the evidence and re-evaluate it constantly and critically in the light of advancing concepts and new evidence. This skill is rarely taught even during graduate training, let alone as part of undergraduate instruction. Because conservation biology includes strong motivational biases, critical thinking is very important to the discipline. Most of the time, researchers concentrate on resolving the "loose ends" of new paradigms without questioning them, a stage of science known as "normal science" (Kuhn 1977, Galindo-Leal 1987). However, expertise arises less from the accumulation of facts than from the continuous critical assessment of concepts and ideas based on the strength of the evidence and the reliability of their sources.

Traditional approaches to teaching science in Latin America and elsewhere emphasize facts. Facts are easy to teach and easy to learn. Unfortunately, in the battleground of new knowledge, facts are also short-lived. By the time they make their way into textbooks, many facts have already been questioned or rejected, or have evolved (Burk 1973, Galindo 1986). Furthermore, facts are not very useful without an understanding of how to transfer them to different systems (Benbasat and Gass 2001). In addition, the volume of information is constantly increasing. Every year there are two or three new environmental journals on the library shelves. As the pace of research production increases, it becomes more important to discriminate between reliable and unreliable and between relevant and irrelevant information.

Most research skills and tools are acquired during graduate studies, when students actively participate in all the steps involved in conducting an investigation. However, in many Latin American countries, only a very small proportion of professionals pursue graduate education (Toledo and Castillo 1999). Many become part of the work force after finishing their bachelor's degrees, without ever going through the research training stage, and very few have investigative experience as undergraduates. In fact, many job advertisements assign more weight to years of "experience" than to postgraduate degrees.

Many professionals without a solid scientific approach to problem solving join government environmental agencies or nongovernment organizations and actively take on conservation projects and decisions. They may determine conservation priorities, write and/or review proposals, provide funding to others, etc. Other professionals take research positions in academic or government institutions. In their jobs they need skills that they did not obtain in their undergraduate years. However, their work environment fails to provide the required research experience, and learning becomes a process of trial and error as they develop their projects.

The objective of this article is to introduce an integrated approach to field courses that attempts to address the problems and deficiencies that Latin American environmental professionals face in their training. I will first present the combination of ingredients in the learning process and then review the course content and dynamics.


During the last five years, I have been involved in building capacity in conservation research and management through the organization of an international field course titled "Design and Analyses of Projects to Manage Biological Diversity." The course addresses the problems outlined above. The main objectives are: (1) to make recent, relevant concepts in the conservation disciplines available to practitioners; (2) to critically assess some of the ongoing conservation projects of the participants to aid in their design, analysis, and communication; and (3) to provide research and management tools that allow practitioners to improve their projects. To fulfill these aims, it is crucial to find the right combination of these four elements of the learning process: participants, instructors, subject matter, and learning environment. I will now discuss how the course achieves an appropriate combination of these ingredients.


Motivated learners are the essential ingredient of the learning process, because motivated students learn in spite of their instructors (given the appropriate materials and environment). The main criterion we use to select course participants has been remarkably effective: applicants must be actively engaged in a conservation research and/or management project. The project of each successful applicant will be thoroughly analyzed and discussed as one of the main course activities. Projects range from undergraduate theses on general ecological topics to ongoing conservation projects involving several management agencies. By applying this criterion, we have been able to assemble groups of truly interested participants who are actively confronting problems and want to deepen and expand their knowledge, obtain timely advice, develop better skills, and build more effective working relationships with other professionals. Participants often have many doubts about the design and analysis of their projects, but lack the background to place those doubts in perspective or the opportunity to obtain guidance and professional collaboration. Because a central part of the course is devoted to analyzing the projects that the participants bring from their own work, the students obtain much-needed feedback on something to which they are truly committed.

Our other four selection criteria are intended to balance the composition of the group. We aim to obtain a diversity of specialties, nationalities, and ranges of experience as well as a balanced gender ratio in each group of students. Most participants have backgrounds in a natural resource science such as biology, forestry, or agronomy; a few come from other areas such as law, economics, education, anthropology, etc. When choosing biologists, we select those with experience in a variety of taxa and ecosystem types (forests, agriculture, fisheries, etc.). Many of our students come from academic institutions (64.3%) and range from final-year undergraduates who are just beginning to conduct research for their bachelor's theses to university professors with several years of experience. Others are researchers and managers from government institutions (20.7%) and nongovernment organizations (15%), many of whom are starting their first research projects with little guidance. In nine courses held in seven countries over five years, more than 120 institutions have been represented (Appendix 1).

Major institutions involved in conservation in Latin America have sent participants to the course. Among others, they include Costa Rica's Instituto Nacional para la Biodiversidad (INBio) and Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE); Cuba's Instituto Nacional de Areas Protegidas and Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática; Mexico's Secretaría de Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP), and Instituto Manantlán de Conservación de la Biodiversidad (IMECBio), as well as the Instituto de Ecología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; Ecuador's Galápagos National Park, Charles Darwin Research Station, Fundación Ecociencia, and Fundación Natura; the Universidad de Chile; Argentina's Universidad de Buenos Aires; and Paraguay's Fundación Moises Bertoni (Appendix 1). The diversity of countries represented also allows students and instructors to compare their experiences with different social, economic, educational, and ecological systems.

So far we have conducted nine courses (Table 1). We have had 285 participants from 21 countries; one-third to half of the participants in every course are from the host country (Ecuador, Peru, Cuba, Colombia, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama). Consequently, most participants to date have been from Colombia (21.8%), Ecuador (20.4%), Peru (11.2%), and Cuba (10.9%). In addition, the courses have also attracted participants from other South American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Venezuela), from Central America and the Caribbean (Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Puerto Rico), and even from Europe (Denmark, Germany, and Spain).

Table 1. Details of courses to date listed by course number (No.). These nine courses involved a total of 285 participants (P), 85 instructors (I), and 18 assistants (A).

Year          Location     Type of site   Local co-organizer
Quito, Ecuador
Auditorium at the Centro Cultural Abya Yala
Fundación Jatún Sacha
Tambopata, Perú
Protected area
WASAI Lodge and Expeditions (NGO)
Biosphere reserve
Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, Pinar del Río
1998 Colca, Perú
Ancient agricultural area    
Universidad Nacional de Arequipa, ProDefensa de la Naturaleza (NGO)
1998 Chocó, Colombia
Utría national park
Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
1999 Bacunayagua,
Protected area
Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, Matanzas
2000 Rucamanqui,
Forestry plantations
Universidad de Concepción, Forestal Agrícola Monte Aguila, S.A.
2000 Bluefields,
University campus,
second-growth forest
Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense
2001 Cerro de la
Vieja, Panamá
Mangroves and countryside
Universidad de Panamá, Instituto de Ciencias Ambientales y Biodiversidad

Each course accommodates 25–40 students. The upper limit is set by field logistics, although each of the last two courses had more than 100 applicants. Twice we have divided the course into two parts to accommodate more participants. For example, we opened the 4-day conceptual part of the course at the Universidad de Arequipa in Peru (1997) to 40 students, but the subsequent field section in the Colca Canyon included only 25 of the 40 participants. Similarly, we enrolled 44 participants for the conceptual section in the botanical garden in Medellin, Colombia (1999), but only 28 for the subsequent field section in the Utria national park in the Choco region.

The cost of our courses is relatively low compared to those of other courses available in Latin America. (For some examples, please consult the Ecoregional Network for Latin America online at http://www.redeco.org/.) The fee of U.S. $500.00 per student includes food, lodging, in-country transportation, and materials for 16 days (U.S. $31.25 per day). In three courses (Peru, Colombia, and Nicaragua), this total fee included domestic flights to the field stations. However, this amount is equal to about one month's salary for a professional in most Latin American countries, so it is high for most students, particularly those who are also paying for international flights (Field et al. 1995). Depending on course location, the participants' fees cover about half of the total course expenses. The other half is obtained from different funding agencies. Local coordinators are largely responsible for keeping expenses down. They know the best arrangements for local transportation, food, and lodging. The course brings income to local tourist lodges and research stations. Keeping course fees low is very important to avoid pricing the intended target audience right out of the market.

The diversity that participants bring in terms of age, sex, nationality, field of expertise, and experience provides an excellent learning environment with a healthy range of perspectives for discussions. Furthermore, throughout the course, participants avidly exchange information and create long-lasting connections.



We have found that the second indispensable requirement of an effective course is to have a group of enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructors with good communication skills. Instructors have come from 14 countries, including Canada (2), Chile (3), Colombia (5), Cuba (7), Ecuador (10), Guatemala (1), Ireland (1), Mexico (3), Nicaragua (1), Panama (5), Peru (1), Spain (1), the United States (4), and Venezuela (1). We select instructors based on three criteria to ensure that they have solid experience, enthusiasm, and a variety of perspectives.

First, instructors must be committed to improving educational standards in Latin America. Selected instructors have carried out research and/or management projects in Latin America, speak Spanish, and have an intimate knowledge of the daily constraints confronted by researchers and managers in the region. In contrast, most U.S. programs designed for Latin American professionals lack adequate comprehension of the working complexities, conflicts, and challenges the participants face in their own countries (Field et al. 1995).

Second, the instructors represent a wide variety of expertise, affiliations, and nationalities. Every instructor has solid experience with ecological methodologies for one or two of the taxonomic groups covered by the course exercises, including plants, butterflies, beetles, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. They have been involved in activities such as monitoring, reserve design, recovery programs for endangered species, taxonomy, wildlife management, and basic ecological research. Some of the instructors have also had experience in other conservation-related areas such as ecotourism, environmental education, and environmental policy. Their professional affiliations are diverse and include academic institutions, nongovernment organizations, and government agencies.

Third, some instructors in every course are from the host country. These local instructors have extensive knowledge of the ecology and taxonomy of local species based on their own research or management experience. Their presence is essential to the field exercises.

The participants themselves also contribute actively to the teaching process. Many of them are experienced researchers, managers, and teachers. They participate in the instruction by presenting their own projects (see Critical analysis of personal projects below) and volunteer to present topics related to their own specialties. They also provide constructive feedback on the projects of the other students in the course. In general, participants bring their own experience to enrich everyone else's during the design and execution of the team project (see Integration below).

Course coordinators

A great achievement of the course has been its self-replication. During every course, two or three participants become motivated enough to organize follow-up courses in their own countries. Participants have become course co-organizers, local coordinators, instructors, and assistants in Colombia, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Course coordination entails many tasks, from arranging the logistics of field transportation, food, and lodging to selecting participants. Course announcements, prerequisites, information, and so forth are posted on electronic mail and Web pages. The advantages of having host-country coordinators are fairly obvious and fundamental. These people are familiar with suitable locations, appropriate times of the year, costs, and safe places that will make the course successful. Coordinators have attended previous courses and make a concerted effort to improve logistics and group dynamics. A great deal of work and responsibility is in the hands of course coordinators.


Many ecologists and conservation biologists agree that they have learned more on field courses and field trips than they ever did in lectures or from textbooks. Field courses offer a myriad of advantages. The most obvious is that the subject matter is within reach and can be experienced directly. However, there are other very important elements. Field courses also facilitate different modalities of teaching that cater to a variety of learning styles (Gardner 1993). Participants are isolated from everyday problems and can concentrate more deeply on the subjects being studied. Sharing activities for a couple of weeks creates an atmosphere of camaraderie among participants and among participants and instructors. Students can address instructors and other participants with trust and be trusted in return, establishing "real" communication (Freire 1976). Reserved participants may feel more comfortable approaching instructors one on one under informal field conditions. In traditional classrooms, many students do not take part for fear of being judged by their peers or by the instructor and make no attempt to clarify potential misunderstandings. In contrast, field courses provide plenty of opportunities to continue addressing questions after formal classroom time, because instructors and participants remain close by after classes, which makes it easy to engage in formal and informal problem solving.

Aside from all the above-mentioned benefits, the main advantage of the fact that the learning experience takes place in the natural environment is the ability to establish close ties between theory and practice. Concepts, methodologies, techniques, design, and analysis, which are taught mainly in the classroom, can be applied immediately in field exercises. In addition, data gathered in field exercises can be used to demonstrate analytical techniques. Many issues are not obvious when a technique is taught only theoretically, and difficulties arise later when such techniques are applied in the real world.

Whereas early courses with a field element (Ecuador was the exception) were held in relatively undisturbed tropical ecosystems, such as the Tambopata protected zone in southeastern Peru, western Cuba's Guanahacabibes biosphere reserve, and Utria national park in the Choco region of Colombia, we recently began including sites where biodiversity management is of great immediate concern (Fig. 1). The last four courses took place in the ancient agricultural areas of the Colca canyon in southern Peru; forest remnants in Bacunayagua, Cuba; extensive eucalyptus plantations in the Bio-Bio region of Chile; and the rural countryside of Panama. Intensively managed areas are often overlooked by conservation biologists, and conservation actions are badly needed in these areas (Galindo-Leal 2000). In all courses, local conservation issues are discussed (Table 1). In fact, as a result of our course discussions with plantation managers in Chile, they are now engaged in designing corridors of native forest in a plantation matrix (J. Ortiz, personal communication).

Fig. 1. Countries of participants. Yellow circles indicate countries where the course has taken place. Large circles = > 25 participants, medium-sized circles > 10, and small circles = < 10.

JPEG Image (57 K)

Finally, the courses are taught entirely in the national language, increasing enormously the comprehension and involvement of the participants and their capacity to engage with each other interactively. Although English is the preferred language for scientific communications, many practitioners throughout Latin America use Spanish or Portuguese. This language barrier isolates a large number of Latin American researchers and managers from information and from the world community of their peers, which hinders their work. New concepts and techniques may appear in specialized journals in English, but they cannot be used by people who lack a command of this language.


The courses integrate five complementary components that are developed sequentially (Fig. 2). Each component builds on the previous one, and the first four are integrated into the last one. The sequence is as follows: (1) a conceptual framework covering topics such as conservation biology and adaptive management; (2) critical analysis of personal projects in the form of an "x-ray" of personal proposals and of on-going and completed projects; (3) methodological tools such as scientific methodologies, sampling and experimental design, and hands-on sampling techniques for several taxa; (4) analytical tools such as statistical tests, visual analyses, and ecological indices plus hands-on exercises with data collected on site; and (5) integration of all the above into project development, including observation, questions, hypotheses, experimental design, execution, analysis, and communication of results (Table 2). We provide the participants with a 100-page syllabus that is modified and improved after every course (Table 3).

Fig. 2. Course components and sequence. Horizontal bar indicates temporal sequence (16 days).

JPEG Image (32 K)

Table 2. Five complementary components of the course.

Themes and activities
Conceptual framework
Observations (sources)
Convention on Biological Diversity
Spatial and temporal framework of biodiversity from landscape to genetics
Adaptive management and experimental design
Biological monitoring
Ecology of local fauna and flora
Finding financial support
Communication of results
Critical analyses of
project design
Questions and potential answers (alternative hypotheses)
Presentation and analysis of management and research projects by participants
(~25 personal projects)
Methodological tools
Sampling design
Experimental design and adaptive management
Sampling techniques for several taxa
Guided team projects for several taxa (plants, aquatic organisms, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals)
Project presentation
Analytical tools
Analysis of results
Preparation of figures and tables
Basic statistics: introduction to multivariate statistics
Choice of statistical tests
Common statistical analyses and ecological indices
Use of software
Design, execution, and presentation
Project proposal (6 to 7 projects)
Execution and analysis
Interpretation and discussion
Communication of results

Table 3. Contents of syllabus provided to participants.

    Convention on Biological Diversity
    Biodiversity Conservation
    Design of Projects
    Analyses Tools: Statistics
    Communities: Similarity and Diversity
    Populations: Estimation
    Conservation Genetics
    Biological Monitoring
    Communicating Results
    Finding Financial Support

Conceptual framework

Spatial and temporal framework of biodiversity

The conceptual section of the course begins with the definition of biodiversity and an introduction to the convention of biological diversity. We use a hierarchical framework to focus on the composition, structure, and function of biodiversity at the regional, community, population, and genetic levels (Noss 1990). This framework allow us to explore each level in depth without losing track of the interconnections among levels. We explore landscape functions such as natural and anthropogenic disturbance regimes, complementarity, supplementation, source and sink relations, neighborhood effects (edge effects), and the consequences of habitat fragmentation on these processes. We also discuss environmental, demographic, and genetic risks to small populations; metapopulations; the concept of rarity; and correlates of vulnerability.

Adaptive management and experimental design

We use the conceptual framework of adaptive management as a learning tool to link resource management and research activities (Holling 1978). We also use this framework to introduce the scientific method in the form of inductive, retroductive, and hypotheticodeductive reasoning (Romesburg 1981, 1991, McNab 1983, Galindo-Leal 1987, Murphy and Noon 1991, Sinclair 1991), experimentation (observational vs. manipulative), and problems of experimental design (Hurlbert 1984, Underwood 1990, 1997).


A special section is devoted to the monitoring of management experiments to assess the effects of policies and to distinguish natural from anthropogenic dynamics. We discuss monitoring designs, biases, power analyses, and trend analyses (Thomas and Krebs1997).

Financial support and communication of results

In this component of the course we discuss locating funding sources and writing effective proposals. We also discuss simple rules for writing scientific articles (Lertzman 1995, Magnusson 1995, Galindo-Leal 2000) and the largely avoided issue of the ethics of authorship (Galindo-Leal 1996).

Critical analysis of personal projects

As explained above, all the course participants are actively involved in conservation-related research or management projects in their own countries. These projects, which play a very important role in the course and in the learning process, may be at any stage from proposal writing and design to execution and analysis. Some may already have been published. The main idea is that the participants have already confronted some of the problems of project development and are therefore aware of the issues.

During the course, the students present their projects to the other participants and the instructors following a set project outline (Table 4). This outline includes a project title, authors, conceptual framework, observations, questions, hypotheses, methods, dependent and independent variables, experimental and sampling units, sample sizes, controls, treatments, spatial and temporal distribution of samples, and statistical analyses. This outline acts as an "x-ray" that shows the meat, bones, and connections of these projects and makes it easy for those involved to identify problems related to project design and analysis.

Table 4. The project "x-ray" or the format that course participants use to present their research/management projects.

Project title:
Include complete project title
Include author's name
Conceptual framework:
Relate as concisely as possible your project to ecological theory, with the theoretical field of research
Preliminary observations (direct, from bibliography, assumptions) that suggested the project.
Summarize the objective of the research or management as a question.
The hypothesis is the potential explanation of the phenomenon under study. Whenever possible, present multiple hypotheses
Methods and design
How will you answer the question(s)?
Dependent variables
Potential effect
Independent variables
Potential cause
Experimental unit
Changes from study to study. It is determined by the question and research topic. For example, habitat type, each individual, etc.
Sampling unit
Changes according to the question and study: i.e. plot, transect, # of tourists, # of species or individuals, # of ectoparasites, # of tracks, habitat type, length of .., etc.
Sample size
Determine sample size for project.
Varies according to study: area, individual, etc., that are not affected by a treatment.
Varies according to project: area condition, species, individuals, (affected in different degree).
Spatial distribution
What is the spatial distribution of sampling units in the study area?
Temporal distribution
When and how often will they be sampled?
Include potential analyses to be used for answering your question(s)

The fact that all the participants use the same outline enables students who are not familiar with the system under consideration to comprehend it more easily. Before the presentations, participants are advised of the benefits of presenting their mistakes and accepting comments and criticism. As part of this analysis, the entire group discusses each project in terms of theoretical framework, scientific method, experimental and sampling design, expected results, statistical analyses, and communications. Participants thus receive feedback on their own projects and learn about the most common flaws in project design. This exercise fulfills several functions described below.

1) Framework. When they fit their conservation projects into the project outline (Table 4), participants are forced to consider questions, hypotheses, predictions, logical structure, experimental design, analyses, and communication of their ideas. This is a often a moment of supreme importance, because it may well be the first time that many of them have thought about these issues.

2) Written communication. When fitting their projects into the project outline, the participants must describe their projects in clear and concise language.

3) Oral communication. The participants practice conveying ideas in a limited amount of time (15 min). To do this, they must express themselves clearly and select only relevant information. They must also answer questions and accept criticism. There is some flexibility in the time allotted for questions and answers, depending on the difficulty and relevance of the issue for the speaker.

4) Critical feedback. This exercise provides critical feedback to participants on their own projects. Most of them do not have a diverse forum of this type where they can receive criticism in a friendly and professional manner. Our experience has been that most participants have no trouble accepting suggestions for project improvement from instructors and other participants, and that these result in major improvements both in their conservation projects and in their critical thinking. Often, institutions have sent people to the course explicitly to obtain advice on particularly important projects. One of the project-related problems that we have helped participants solve is their use of statistical tests, which are often chosen because they are familiar rather than appropriate. Another problem is that, in many projects, the design and the question are only weakly linked. Some participants have gathered data that do not answer the question, and there is often confusion about sampling units, experimental units, sample sizes, controls, and treatments.

5) Analysis of problems. The participants become familiar with 20–30 research and/or management projects from a wide range of conservation areas. Some of these are similar in some ways. More importantly, the students are encouraged to take part in the analysis of different issues by framing questions, revising project design and execution, assessing data, and communicating their findings.

Methodological tools

Guided exercises

After the conceptual component of the course, the instructors design short projects with different taxa to demonstrate certain aspects of experimental design and various sampling methods. These exercises take four to five days (mornings), and groups of four to six students are rotated every day with a different exercise and instructor.

The projects often involve a comparison of communities and/or populations in managed and unmanaged sites or sampling along environmental/disturbance gradients. Methodological issues such as random allocation, spatial distribution and interspersion of samples, and distances between sites are addressed. The data are collected and used to carry out statistical analyses.

At the end of the exercises, the participants have completed projects involving at least five taxa from among plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. They have also spent time in the field with every instructor, talking about sampling and experimental design problems particular to the different taxa. In turn, they obtain "real" data that are distributed among the groups, who use them to prepare figures and select statistical tests. The data are also used to introduce some of the statistical tests.

Review of sampling methodology by taxa

Because the guided field exercises use only one or two techniques for each taxon, the instructors present classroom lectures on alternative techniques for assessing populations or communities and monitoring taxa in their own fields of expertise. Participants are provided with selected examples to assess and monitor plants (Goldsmith 1994, Hutchings 1994, Bullock 1996), insects (Southwood 1978, Samways 1994, Sparrow et al. 1994), amphibians (Heyer et al. 1994, Olson et al. 1996), birds (Bibby et al. 1992, Geupel and Warkentin 1993, Johnson 1995, Ralph et al. 1995, Gibbons et al. 1996), and mammals (Norton-Griffiths 1978, Eberhardt et al. 1979, Burnham et al. 1980, Sutherland 1996, Voss and Emmons 1996, Wilson et al. 1996). The biases of certain techniques and the use of complementary methodologies are particularly emphasized.

Analytical tools

Statistical analyses and ecological indices

One of the course requirements is that participants be familiar with basic statistics. However, most students have learned statistics only superficially and with nonecological examples. Many are afraid of using statistics. One of the main obstacles is a lack of real understanding of experimental design. We focus on teaching participants how to frame questions and choose appropriate tests (Bart et al. 1998, Dytham 1999).

We conduct an overview of basic concepts in statistics and provide participants with two keys to statistical tests and procedures (Heath 1995, Dytham 1999). These keys are used throughout the course, both in local exercises and in personal projects. The most important aspect of this section is the selection of the appropriate statistical analyses (Dytham 1999). To provide examples, we choose the appropriate statistical tests for several of the participants' projects, taking the students as a group step by step through the keys.

Before any statistical analyses are chosen, we emphasize the need to find patterns in the data using graphical exploration, and we present examples of common mistakes researchers make when using figures. Depending on the sophistication of the statistical training of the participants, we may engage in step-by-step analyses (with hand calculators or computers) of basic parametric and nonparametric statistical tests. Even participants with little experience in statistics lose their fear and are motivated to continue learning once they are able to carry out tests by themselves. We also present and discuss ecological indices of similarity and diversity (Krebs 1999) and provide an introduction to multivariate methods. The participants are given free software for conducting analyses and a Web site address from which they can download more free software to carry out ecological analyses.


The last component of the course consists of the integration of all the previous components (Fig. 2). After the guided exercises and the collected data have been analyzed and discussed, the participants reunite in groups of two to four based on their areas of interest to develop their own projects based on the insights, skills, and observations they have acquired in the four earlier sections. They are required to present a group project proposal to the larger group for feedback before they begin collecting data. Once they have made any necessary changes, they have three days in which to execute their plans, obtain data, analyze their findings, and write up their results. On the last day of the course, the students communicate their results to each other and discuss them as a community of scientific colleagues.



The account of the course portrayed above resembles later versions of the course more than earlier ones. Every course has been different, because we have been adaptively adding and removing content, dynamics, and instructors. Several aspects have evolved, and others are still evolving. I will discuss some of the problems and limitations we have encountered, including some that the participants themselves pointed out to us.

Time constraints

The course is short for the amount of information and activities it covers. We have increased its duration by several days, but even 16 days is too short a period. The schedule is full from early in the morning to late at night. Although we have tried to open some time for less structured activities, they are still very limited. The course would benefit from open time for participants to read, discuss, and socialize.

Instructor gender bias

Most of our instructors have been male. Every course has had female instructors, but they have always been in the minority. We have tried unsuccessfully to improve this balance. Because approximately half of the participants are female, it is important to balance the sex ratio of the instructors as well.

Moving location

The course takes place in a different location every time, in part to provide better access to different countries, although the location also depends on who organized the course. However, there are several problems with this practice. Some of the sites do not have the most appropriate logistical conditions for teaching. We have often had to improvise a classroom. Living conditions have ranged from spartan to luxurious. Furthermore, one advantage of biological stations is the presence of researchers and their ongoing projects; it is also easier to identify productive field exercises in that setting. Several of the courses have been conducted in ecotourism lodges in locations where instructors were forced to come up with potential exercises with little previous information.

A lesson in anthropology

We have also learned that inaccessibility to potential distractions is of paramount importance. If the course is located relatively close to civilization, participants cannot resist the temptation to investigate the cultural and social life (i.e., bars) of the host country.


Although the need for training in conservation is widely acknowledged, it has been difficult to obtain funding for the course and overcome some of the limitations noted above. Limited funding prevents some participants from attending. We are also short on audiovisual aids, computers, and field equipment for the exercises.

Measures of success

International collaboration

The courses have resulted in great experiences of collaboration in all phases from organization to instruction to planning the next course. Four of the courses have been the initiative of instructors (Quito, Ecuador; Tambopata and Arequipa, Peru; and Bluefields, Nicaragua). The first course in the city of Quito included only the first four components; we did not have enough financial resources to take the participants to a field site. The other five courses (Guanahacabibes and Bacunayagua, Cuba; Choco, Colombia; Rucamanqui, Chile; and Cerro de la Vieja, Panama) were the initiatives of former participants.

Incorporation of local expertise

Because many of the participants are well-established professors, researchers, and managers, they often have valuable experience with local systems and subjects or with various taxa. We take advantage of this opportunity to enrich sections of the course. In several cases, participants from earlier courses have become organizers, instructors, and assistants in later courses.

Student diversity

The diversity of cultural and professional backgrounds, levels of experience, and interests contributes immensely to our ability to approach issues in a comprehensive fashion. The participants form a micro-community of diverse interests and outlooks in which issues can be explored from different points of view.

To date, more than 280 participants from 21 countries have enrolled in our course. Many have continued their training by pursuing graduate studies; others have gone on with their professional lives. Our course is fairly short and includes a strong selective element. When they enrol, our participants are already actively engaged in conservation projects and highly motivated, with various amounts of experience. As all teachers know, it is difficult to evaluate success in education.

Improved project design

We usually assess participants at the beginning of the course and at the end using a questionnaire. We also ask them to evaluate the various aspects of the course, and their feedback has contributed greatly to course development. Our main measure of success is the fact that, when the course has been given in the past, most (99%) of the research and/or management projects that the participants brought with them for analysis were considerably improved by the input of instructors and other participants. Some students had to change their project objectives, because the data gathered did not allow them to answer the relevant questions. Others had to modify their design and/or analyses. In the most recent course, we heard the following comment from a participant: "Only the second day of the course, and I can see that my project is all wrong!"

Increasing demand

Soon after each course is announced, we normally receive a large number of applications, often more than 100 for only 25–40 spaces. Although this is in part a reflection of the lack of similar training opportunities (especially in terms of content and cost), many prospective students apply because our course has been recommended to them by former participants.

New course initiatives

At the end of every course we have given so far, two or three participants have volunteered to organize the course in their home countries. Five previous courses have been the initiatives of former participants. We have also received other course proposals from participants in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Post-course collaboration

Participants continue to communicate with each other long after the course ends and collaborate both formally and informally. For example, several participants from Cuba and Venezuela spent time as research volunteers in the Galapagos Islands with participants from Ecuador.


Parallel to our course, "Design and Analyses of Projects to Manage Biological Diversity," I have been involved as an instructor in other courses for Latin Americans in Mexico (WWF-Mexico in Oaxaca, Colegio de la Frontera Sur in Chiapas, SEMARNAP in Quintana Roo), Guatemala (Tikal National Park and Universidad de San Carlos), Peru (Universidad Ricardo Palma), Ecuador (Fundación Ecológica Arco Iris), and the United States (the Smithsonian's course in assessing biodiversity and monitoring for adaptive management). My experience indicates that the problems confronted by conservation professionals throughout Latin America are very similar. Recent concepts, new tools, and specialized journals do not make their way to the people conducting conservation projects. Furthermore, formal training often lacks an integrative approach to methods of problem solving that include critical and creative thinking, experimental design and analysis, the communication of results to general and specialized audiences, and professional ethics (Galindo-Leal 2000). There is an urgent need to deal with the training of the professionals who make daily decisions but have no access to information or no education beyond the undergraduate level. I suggest that the combination of ingredients in this course, particularly the integration of real information relevant to the participants, provides a dynamic and powerful way to carry out this type of training.


Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a comment, follow this link. To read comments already accepted, follow this link.


I am very much indebted to Lee Gass for all of his thorough comments on the manuscript, and for making me his partner in education throughout my graduate years. Some of the ideas put into practice in my courses originate from that time.

The field course could not have been developed without the motivation and participation of my friends and colleagues. They have responded with exciting initiatives, unconditional organization, and inspirational teaching. I would like to thank the core group of instructors: Mauricio Guerrero (Fundación Ecológica Arco Iris, Ecuador), Antonio Salas (Universidad Ricardo Palma, Perú), Finbarr Horgan (University of New Brunswick, New Brunswick, Canada), Jorge Ferro (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, Cuba), and Marco Rodríguez (Université du Québec, Quebec City, Québec, Canada). Many other instructors have provided much-needed support, and I am indebted to Claudio Méndez (Universidad Nacional de San Carlos, Guatemala); Manuel Weber (Colegio de la Frontera Sur, México); Vivian Paez, María Isabel Lopera, and Alicia Uribe Toro (Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia); Catalina González Arango, Federico Alvarez, Brian C. Bock, Jaime Polanía, and Oscar Efraín Ortega (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Colombia); Jorge Aubad (Empresas Públicas de Medellín, Colombia); Alina Pérez Hernández and Mario Gutierrez Padrón (Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, Cuba); Tomás Manuel Ramos Calderón (Universidad Pinar del Río, Cuba); Armando J. Urquiola Cruz (Instituto Superior Pedagógico, Cuba); Ramona Oviedo Prieto (Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática, Cuba); Juan Carlos Ortiz and Luis Parra (Universidad de Concepción, Chile); Ana Rosa Young (Forestal y Agrícola MonteAguila, Chile); Astrid Ulloa (Instituto Nacional de Antropología de Colombia); Diala López Lau (Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas del Caribe Nicaraguense, Nicaragua); and Gretchen Daily, Carol Boggs, and Paul Ehrlich (Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA). As instructors and organizers, all of these people share the greatest responsibility for the success of the courses. Working with them has always been a pleasure and a source of inspiration to me.

I am indebted to Paul Ehrlich and Carol Boggs for trusting my judgment and supporting me throughout the organization and operation of the field courses. Carol Boggs, Ana Rosa Young, Antonio Salas, Robin Lyday, and María de los Angeles La Torre Cuadros provided many suggestions for improving this manuscript. Financial support for the courses has come from a variety of sources including The Hewlett Foundation, the Koret Foundation, Peter and Helen Bing, the Corredor Biológico del Atlántico (Nicaragua), the Fundación de Ciencia y Tecnología del Ecuador, Forestal y Agrícola Monte Aguila (Chile), Wasai Lodge & Expeditions (Peru), El Parador del Colca (Peru), the World Wildlife Fund-Centroamérica, The Nature Conservancy-Panama, Conservation International USA, the Instituto Panameño de Turismo (Panama), the Fundación para la Conservación de los Recursos Naturales (Panama), the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland).


List of participant countries and institutions.

Comisión de Investigaciones Científicas de Peia
Consejo Nacional de Investigación Científica
Ingeniería y Asistencia Técnica, S.A. (IATASA)
Instituto Nacional de Investigación y Desarrollo Pesquero (INIDEP)
Universidad de Buenos Aires
Universidad de Córdoba
Universidad de Salta
Universidad Nacional de la Plata
Universidad Nacional del Comahue
Colección Boliviana de Fauna
Grupo de Extensão em Sistemas Agroflorestais do Acre - PESACRE
Universidad Católica Dom Bosco
Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agrarias (INIA)
Museo del Mar
Servicio Agrícola y Ganadero, Ministerio de Agricultura.
Universidad de Chile
Universidad de Concepción
Corporación CIER
Empresas Públicas de Medellín
Escuela de Ingenieros de Antioquia
Fundación Neotrópicos
Instituto de Ciencias Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Municipio de San Onofre
Parque Nacional Utría
Pontificia Universidad Javeriana
Universidad de Antioquía
Universidad de Medellín
Universidad del Chocó
Universidad del Quindio
Universidad del Valle
Universidad Dist. Fco José de Caldas
Universidad Nacional de Colombia
Costa Rica
Asociación Conservacionista de Monteverde
Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBIO)
Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica.
Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica
Area Protegida “Cayo San Felipe”
Centro de Investigaciones de Ecosistemas Costeros
Centro Nacional de Areas Protegidas CITMA
Centro Oriental de Ecosistemas y Biodiversidad (BIOECO)
Cuerpo de Guardabosques. Cayo Sabinal
Delegación Territorial CITMA, Villa Clara
Delegación Territorial CITMA, Camagüey
Delegación Territorial CITMA, Matanzas
Delegación Territorial CITMA, Pinar del Río
Estación Ecológica Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario
Estación Radar La Bajada, La Bajada, Sandino, Pinar del Río
Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática
Instituto de Ecología y Sistemática, CITMA
Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente
Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra del Rosario
Reserva Ecológica Varahicacos
Unidad de Medio Ambiente. Sancti Spiritus
Universidad de la Habana
Universidad Pedagógica Santi Spiritus
IBIS-Dinamarca/Racimos de Ungurahui
Asuntos ambientales, Presidencia de la República
Jardín Botánico Nacional
Centro de Datos para la Conservación (CDC) Ecuador
Corporación Ornitológica del Ecuador, CECIA
Estación Científica Charles Darwin
Fundación Ecociencia
Fundación Ecológica Rumicocha
Fundación Natura
Ministerio del Ambiente
Parque Nacional Galápagos
Parque Nacional Podocarpus
Pontificia Universidad Católica
Universidad de Lasuay
Universidad en Greifswald
Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza, CATIE
Centro de Datos para la Conservación CECON- USAC
El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR)
Instituto de Investigaciones Químicas y Biológicas, Universidad de San Carlos
Universidad San Carlos
Colegio de Postgraduados, Montecillos, Texcoco
El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR)
Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Instituto de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Instituto Manantlán de Conservación de la Biodiversidad (IMECBIO)
Profauna A.C.
Pronatura Península de Yucatán, A.C.
Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos
Secretaría del Medio Ambiente, Recursos Naturales y Pesca (SEMARNAP) México
Sociedad para el Estudio de los Recursos Bióticos de Oaxaca, A.C. (SERBO)
Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León
Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán
Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU)
Centro Universitario Moravo, Bluefield Indian and Caribbean University (BICU)
Fundación Cocibolca
Fundación para la Autonomía y Desarrollo de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua (FADCANIC)
Ministerio de Recursos Naturales (MARENA) Areas Protegidas Bluefields
Universidad Centroamericana de Nicaragua (UCA)
Universidad del las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN-Bilwi)
Universidad del las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN-Bluefields)
Universidad del las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN-Siuna)
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua
Asociación para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, ANCÓN
Universidad de Panamá
Universidad de Puerto Rico
Fundación Moisés Bertoni
Colegio de Biólogos del Perú (CBP)
Defensa de la Naturaleza
Instituto del Mar del Perú (IMARPE)
Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales (INRENA)
Instituto para la Conservación del Medio Ambiente. (INCOMA)
Prodefensa de la Naturaleza Arequipa (PRODENA-Arequipa)
Reserva de la Biosfera Ría Lagartos
Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca
Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM)
Universidad Nacional de San Agustín de Arequipa (UNSA)
Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos
Universidad Nacional San Antonio Abad del Cusco
WASAI Lodge & Expeditions
Puerto Rico
International Institute of Tropical Forestry, USDA Forest Service
Universidad de Puerto Rico
Universidad de Puerto Rico, Río Piedras
Universidad de Valencia
Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM)
Fundación para la Defensa de la Naturaleza (FUDENA)
Universidad Central de Venezuela
Universidad Centro Occidental Lisandro Alvarado
Universidad Simón Bolívar


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Address of Correspondent:
Carlos Galindo-Leal
Senior Director
State of the Hotspots Program
Center for Applied Biodiversity Science
Conservation International
1919 M St. NW, Suite 600
Washington, D.C., USA 20036
Phone: (202) 912-1821

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