Posts Tagged ‘undergraduate’

Teachers Connect to the Amazon and Bring the Experience Home

Project Amazonas’ inaugural teacher institute, Hands-on Amazon for Educators, was held in Iquitos, Perú and at the Santa Cruz field site on the Mazan River in July 2012.  The enthusiastic teachers from five states hooked up in the Upper Amazon to embrace the opportunity to bring the rainforest and its people back home to their science, social studies and English classrooms.  Course leaders were tropical biologist Devon Graham, Ph.D. and science teacher Don Dean.

Miscellaneous jungle meat, here, mostly yellow-footed turtle parts

Houses showing water line

The experience began and ended in Iquitos, Perú, a fascinating place: founded by Jesuits in 1750, the most inland port in the world with access to the sea (3600 km from the Atlantic); the largest city unreachable by road; shaped by the rise and fall a rubber boon.  The rapidly-growing city reveals its unusual history in a mix of modern conveniences and deeply-rooted jungle folklore and culture.  Iquitos lies on the flood plain of the Itaya River near its junction with the Amazon.  The remnants of the rubber boon at the turn of the 20th Century are evident along the Melecón: former houses of rubber magnates and social clubs on the riverside boulevard, many with their 100-year old porcelain tiles still intact.  Juxtaposed is the sprawling district of Belen, where more than a hundred thousand people live hand-to-mouth.

In a morning visit to the Belen Market, the group was introduced to this strange juxtaposition of rich and poor, rainforest foods and tradition, cheap imported fabric and plastic.  A walk through the sprawling alleys is an assault on the senses.  In 2009, a survey of the market (Paredes and Mejía) counted 89 types of fruits, 56 types of fish, and 60 types of “bush meat” from animals (including turtle parts, armadillo, woodpecker, monkey, peccary, tapir and sloth) extracted from the neighboring forests.  Add to this a huge variety of medical plants, concoctions and a healthy dose of superstition.  The consumption of bush meat, as well as an increasing tourist desire for souvenirs (blowguns adorned with scarlet macaw feathers, monkey skulls, etc.) has taken a significant toll on the wildlife.  The teachers descended the short distance to the flood plain where families live alongside the squalor, plastic waste and riverlets of fecal-contaminated gray water – adults and children playing soccer and volleyball (very popular and played quite skillfully), little ones running and playing.  Surprisingly, one does not notice a degradation of health despite the unsanitary conditions.  In the dry season from May to October, the alluvial fields support beans, squash, watermelon, rice, cucumber, local maize and other crops.  Some of the houses are built on logs that rise with the water, but most are plugged into the mud, and life in the rainy season is a daily matter of laying out planks and moving possessions and sleeping quarters higher and higher, like a swimming dog trying to rid itself of fleas.

Home remedies and folklore.

Before leaving the city for the field station, the teachers visited Pilpantuwasi, an animal sanctuary and butterfly “farm”, and well as the manatee rehabilitation center of IIAP (Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonía Peruana), two champions of research and preservation.  Expat Austrian Gudrun Sperer spent seven years researching neotropical butterflies and parleyed her passion into a large reserve and education center, meticulously cultivating the specialized plants needed for each species of butterfly.  At IIAP, the gorgeous plump animals take water lettuce from the hand.

The trip to the wild begins at the small port of Bellavista on the Nanay River where it meets the main branch of the Amazon.  The Nanay is a blackwater river, low in nutrient and high in tannin, while the Amazon is a whitewater river, muddy brown in appearance due to suspended sediment.  The commercial ports are closer to town; Bellavista serves more for personal transport and day trips, and is a great place to grab some fresh grilled fish.  Fresh, as in caught within the hour.  It’s a 40-minute speedboat trip down the Amazon to an isthmus that leads to another small port on the Mazan River.  Upon arrival, the group is descended upon by a dozen or so “porteros” – men and boys clamoring to haul your stuff to their motocarros, motorcycles with a cab seating three and basic multi-purpose transport vehicle.  On the bank are all types of miscellaneous people and things to be transported one way or the other, heaps of bananas and plantains, a reluctant, squealing pig.  A ten-minute motocarro ride along a narrow scenic road brings the group to the Mazan River, where, after stocking up on water and last minute provisions (which might include adult beverages), they board the boat for the field station, another 40 minutes up the Mazan River. 

The evidence of pervasive logging, legal or otherwise is obvious: lumber mills spewing sawdust into the river, plastic tents and families atop log rafts floating downstream.  Legacy trees are felled to supply the needs of Iquitos as well as for export as raw timber for building material, furniture, pulp or veneer.  The teacher keep a watchful eye for pink dolphins and river otters.  Along the river, families tap the land with slash and burn subsistence farming and live in “tumbos” constructed of palms and other local materials.  Despite the appearance of civilization, less than a kilometer behind their homesteads lies the primary rainforest.   Another twenty minutes to the field site.

Always willing to take one for the group, Devon demonstrates how ants protect their nests.

The 600+-acre tract is owned and managed by Project Amazonas and bounds another large area of untouched rainforest.  The site is frequented by rainforest enthusiasts of all types: herpetologists, tropical fish collectors, bird watchers and researchers.  Joining the teachers on the course at the field station were two medical students from England and a post-graduate sociology collegiate from Tulane University.    Toward the end of the four-day visit, Dr. Marty Condon of Cornell College, whose team was researching interactions between insects and wild cucumber flowers set up shop at the field station.  Food at the field station was prepared by Iquitos’ own Danillo, master chef.

At the field station, the group explored the rainforest on guided walks led by Dr. Devon Graham.  Devon is accustomed to probing nests of social insects, tarantula holes, grabbing snakes, whatever – his knowledge of the rainforest is long and deep, so he’s not afraid to make a point for the purpose of education or entertainment.  None of the bites have been life threatening, so far, although the area is known for its venomous bushmasters.   Devon has a profound knowledge of plant families, although he would say that his expertise lies in birds and fish.  Although the area has among the highest diversity of plants and animals in the world, the best viewing comes with a little patience and stealth rather than noisily trudging through the forest, machete in hand.  Rest for a while near the clusters of heliconia in bloom and the hummingbirds and other friends return.  Nighttime hikes are the most productive.

A blue and gold macaw startles Sherry.

Butterflies are specialized for niche plants.

In keeping with the spirit of the mission of Project Amazonas to preserve and protect the rainforest and its people, the course participants eagerly planted seedlings of high-quality woods and fruit trees: kapok (Ceiba spp.), marupa (Simarouba amara), wild Amazon grape (Pourouma cecropiaefolia) and passion fruit among many others.  Coconut palm and coffee were also planted; although not native, they are mainstays of the tropics and part of another initiative to make the area completely self-sufficient.

When teachers and children meet, foreign cultures don’t matter, there is no language barrier; all boundaries dissolve.  In addition to exploring the jungle flora and fauna, the time spent with youngsters was precious. Our visit to the school in Santa Cruz happened on Peru’s Independence Day and the children were dressed for the festivities.   The teachers from the institute (who just showed up without invitation) were welcomed by the mayor and town elders, who offered the traditional masato toast (fermented yuca, an acquired taste, or not!).  The village of about 100 families sports a school for kindergarten through high school for students, whose daily commute can be up to an hour by boat, no public transport available.  Despite the Spartan furnishings, the similarities between their classrooms and their American counterparts are stunning: posters on the environment and systems of the human body, alphabets illustrated with animal pictures, classroom rules.

Village school – not so different

While waiting for our return boat at the school, Donnamarie Polak, a fifth grade teacher from Ohio, urged the children to bring her one of their school books.  The children were spellbound listening to the gringa read to them.  Although the pronunciation was unique, they hung on every word.

No language barrier: Santa Cruz family enjoys a picture puzzle with British medical student Eleanor and Donnamarie.

Sherry, the lone English teacher and who had been coerced by her science teacher colleague to join the trip, inspired everyone in evening sessions of “Jungle Haiku.”  After the course, most of the teachers took advantage of the travel opportunity and headed to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, just two of the many, many gems in Perú.

So, the experience left the teachers richer and excited to bring to bring the lessons home.  The rainforest is under attack, shrinking in size and diversity at an alarming rate.  Now is the time to apply the lessons in our classrooms.  It’s not certain will benefit more: the teachers, the local children or the investment at home in the diversity and future stewardship of the rainforest and its people.

The next teacher institute is scheduled for July 17-24, 2013.  The course carries four semester undergraduate or graduate credits.  If you’ve got a sense of adventure or know someone who wants to bring the rainforest and its culture to the classroom, please visit

  http://ptonline.org/hol/amazon/         or contact     don@projectamazonas.org