I am a PhD Candidate at the University of Washington and co-founder and board president of Wild Forests and Fauna. I study land change science and forest conservation in the Americas. As part of my PhD research, I am currently conducting a study field study in Madre de Dios, Peru designed to develop new methods to identify conservation priorities and target conservation activities.
One of the most important lessons we learned during our trip to the Las Piedras is about the power of community and a shared mission. Some of our fondest memories stem from the connections we were able to make with people living and working in the Las Piedras watershed. Hearing the impassioned stories of these people reminded us why we were on this journey and had many of us thinking about how to continue our own personal journeys after the trip ended. On the first leg of our trip in Puerto Maldonado we had the opportunity to hear from a few speakers. Their stories helped us begin to understand the extraordinarily diverse issues in this region of the world.
Upriver, our gaze focused on the Las Piedras, we were finally in the region we had begun studying months beforehand. We worked with ArcAmazon’s Las Piedras Amazon Center, the native Amahuacan tribe of Boca Paramanu, Hoja Nueva, and the people of the small town of Lucerna (All of which you can learn more about on the Our Partners page of our website). Many members of our team had never studied Spanish, thus interacting with the native people we met could be a challenge. Thankfully, we learned when two people share a passion, language barriers suddenly become less intimidating. Our team communicated through translators and some with varying levels of Spanish, but we also communicated through sports, dancing, a desire for education, and celebration.
One of the most impactful groups we were able to learn from and with was the Future Leaders/Innovadores of Madre de Dios. This group is sponsored by Wild Forests & Fauna and, like us, they are from a wide variety of backgrounds and all passionate about the environment. We joined them at LPAC for a series of lectures and activities focusing on the environmental impact of the Amazon and how we can work together to build a brighter future.
For the vast majority of our group this trip was the first experience in a jungle environment. For some it was also their first experience without access to a cell connection and internet. We were all visibly unnerved during our first few nights in this new environment. Everything was unfamiliar. Thankfully, with the people we met along the way willing to guide us, we were able to settle into a routine at LPAC. We began to relax and become truly acquainted with the jungle. Things such as the noises, smells, weather, how to maneuver a trail, and general way of life began to feel familiar.
The passion of the people we met and worked with was palpable. So much so, that it increased and solidified our own passion for this forest and its people. A few members of our group are already making plans to return and find more ways to use their skills to develop solutions to the destruction in this region.
By Samantha Wilson, Executive Project Manager; Jason Swartz, Director of Photography & Formatting; Sylvan Greyson, Director of Writing & Editing; and Atticus Rice, Director of Editing & Style.
It begins to rain shortly after you start out on the trail, unsurprising given the heavy clouds that have been creeping up over the canopy this afternoon. Everything around you is saturated with water already, the rainy season in Madre de Dios, Peru often bringing over 400mm of rain per month. Having only just arrived in the rainforest, it still takes you a couple minutes to orient yourself in the immensity of these surroundings. It is an environment that forces its presence to be known and felt, no avoiding the deluge of sensations you encounter with each step into the forest.
Eyes are greeted with a textural tapestry as you try to peer further than the forest’s edge. It feels as if you must walk with eyes forced wide in order to drink up the layers of vine against leaf against spiny bark. But it is not the eye-opening feeling of a city’s neon colours and cloud-topped towers. Instead, it is a glowing green landscape, growth spreading from every cranny and sunny spot, pushing your eyelids open in order to more fully understand it all.
But the sensations of standing as a small human in this forest are incomplete without the sound of rain as it topples from the sky, first onto the leaves and branches above you and then down further still to splat onto your head and shoulders. Through the wild crackling of rain, you hear a distant throaty clamour: howler monkeys hooting out their warning chorus. And beneath it all, you realize, is the whine of a mosquito, undeterred by the rain.
Returning from your ear drums to the feeling of your body as a new sprout among the old-growth and the buttress roots, you notice that while standing in one spot, your feet have sunk down, and your rubber boots are now surrounded by a cool gritty cushion of mud. You try to take a step forward and nearly fall out of your boot, slurpingmud behind you as you move towards drier ground. But nothing is truly dry, you have to remind yourself, as you notice how your rain jacket adheres to your skin, sweat on one side and rain on the other.
You’re brought back to your muddy boots as you take a deep breath through your nose and get a sudden whiff of some tangy putrid Amazon mud. Another breath in reminds you of your newfound mushroom obsession, the wild tendrils and fibrous sponges giving the air a subtle hint of their nutty scent.
You take stock one last time of all that’s around you and then head out on your squelching way, buoyed by the keenness of sensation that the forest lures from you and by the taste of maracuya juice whose biting sweetness lingers from lunch. It’ll be another glorious day of muddy boots and buttress roots.
Sixteen students led by Dr. Jason Scullion had the unique opportunity to visit the Las Piedras region of Peru this past January. Amazing friendships were made within the McDaniel group, with the Peruvians we came into contact with, and with the international researchers and volunteers at ArcAmazon, the outpost where we spent the majority of our time. Eye opening experiences, whether positive or completely shocking, defined this trip for those 16 students who were fortunate enough to explore the Amazon Rainforest. These are some of the experiences we had during our awesome experiential learning course…
Day 1: January 2nd, 2018
The excitement built as we finally began making our journey to Peru. Already off to a rocky start with Dr. Scullion stopped by security!
Day 2: January 3rd, 2018
After four flights, restless sleep, and lots of airplane snacks, we finally made our way to Puerto Maldonado. Culture shock set in as we entered what seemed like a different world. From the market to our hotel, everything was very different.
Day 3: January 4th, 2018
After a night in the city of Puerto Maldonado, we woke up to our first Peruvian-style breakfast. We took a boat ride to Passiflora Camp, a local chakra or farm, where we got our first taste of ecotourism and Peruvian agriculture. Watch out for the mud! And a big plus was pizza for dinner!
Day 4: January 5th, 2018
This was our first introduction to the actual rainforest. We took a boat ride to Boca Paramanu, an indigenous community, and were welcomed by the community. We ate lunch, explored the community, our platforms, and had our butts handed to us in volleyball and soccer. What a great time!
Day 5: January 6th, 2018
We woke up very early for our first hike, rainy ponchos in hand, through the jungle. We got a tour of the agriculture, tried many different fruit, saw the diversity of the rainforest, and got trapped by a flooded path. We had to improvise and swim/raft across.
Day 6: January 7th, 2018
The unrelenting rain gave us a slow start to the morning. However, it gave us the chance to spend time with the matriarch of the community and learn how to weave. After lunch, we were given a tour of the medicinal plant garden by the village shaman, Alberto.
Day 7: January 8th, 2018
The TFO crew had the chance to split up and try different things! One group went on a long but BEAUTIFUL hike through the privately conserved concession, while the other group joined Luis for a chance to learn traditional harvesting and preparation of palmitos (palm hearts). We all met and enjoyed a delicious lunch at Walter’s home.
The evening was filled with celebration, as it was our last night with the community. We gathered for good food and danced the night away!
Day 8: January 9th, 2018
It was hard to finally leave Boca, as we had made such great connections with the community. But, we were off and on our way to the Las Piedras Amazon Center. A long, but enjoyable, 6 hour ride up-river.
Day 9: January 10th, 2018
We started our journey months ago with planning and packing, but today we got the chance to really see everything in person. Months ago before arriving we saw a picture of an overlook of the LPAC concession, and today we climbed up the steep path and saw with our own eyes. It was breathtaking. The Amazon rainforest as it was supposed to be: conserved, protected and thriving, extending for miles in either direction.
Each group got the chance to break up and meet with their research partners at LPAC. With interests ranging from spider monkeys to macaws and everything in between, we had great mentors through our projects.
Day 10: January 11th, 2018
This day started and continued to be a RAINY day! That didn’t stop the TFO crew as we continued to work on and develop our projects. A group of us had the chance to go on the waterfall hike, where we ended at the mouth of a beautiful waterfall. Little did we know that we would be repelling down the side of it! Later we had the chance to go to a cocoa farm at the local community of Lucerna and see how chocolate is made.
Day 11: January 12th, 2018
The highlight of today was the macaw clay lick. It was truly a beautiful sight! There were over one-hundred macaws enjoying a social gathering as they also consumed vital minerals by licking the clay wall. It was a surreal experience seeing so many endangered animals in the same place, protected.
Day 12: January 13th, 2018
Today the TFO crew had the chance to go to Lago Solidad. This was a beautiful lake with an island in the center. We got the chance to explore the island, climb inside a massive strangling fig tree, and raft across the water. Too bad we missed the otters!
Day 13: January 14th, 2018
Today was the start of the Innova Summit! We eagerly prepared and waited for the Innovadores to arrive. The Innova Summit is meant to bring people together who are like minded in protecting the environment and help give them the tools to do this. The Innovadores were all the Peruvian members of the summit. We also had the first of our amazing, and thought-provoking, TEDx talks.
Day 14: January 15th, 2018
We got to learn and understand more about ecology through one of guest speakers. The Innovadores then went to explore the cocoa chakra that we went to previously, while we went on a hike to look at, and collect mushrooms. We even collected a variety that we could cook and eat later on that evening!
Day 15: January 16th, 2018
Another rainy and dull morning was ahead of us. But, one of our TFO crew members gave a great workshop on sensory walks! We also had the chance to work in mixed groups with the Innovadores and create stories for our story slam competition. Even through the barrier of language, we had a great time and created even better stories.
Day 16: January 17th, 2018
We had a sad day. We visited a nearby non-profit called Hoja Nueva. To reach their base camp we had to hike through a deforested section of the forest. It gave us all more of a perspective on what we are trying to protect by allowing us to see what kind of destruction is happening. The sight of the burned forest is hard to forget.
We returned and continued working on our stories. We had our competition, which was truly competitive and fun! We then celebrated our last night together with music and food. The Innovadores became a second family for us.
Day 17: January 18th, 2018
This morning was a sad morning as we bid our final farewells to The Innovadores. We were able to take pictures together and exchange contact info. Since then we have been able to connect with them and exchange pictures and memories.
The rest of the day was a work day that allowed us to finish up our projects and prepare to leave the next morning. Some of our students had the chance to pick up the camera traps with Sam Zwicker. She then went through the footage and showed us some amazing clips of animals in the forest!
Day 18: January 19th, 2018
We had a very early start at around 4AM. We got up, packed the last of our gear, and ate breakfast. We had to say goodbye to Daisy and Carmen, our two amazing cooks, and the staff at LPAC. Then we were on our boat and headed back to Puerto Maldonado.
After our long journey back, we arrived into a bustling city. Pope Francis was in Puerto Maldonado visiting the city. We were able to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the more active city, the nightlife, and enjoyed a meal from an amazing chef who had cooked for the Pope that morning. It was a great end to an amazing trip.
Day 19: January 20th, 2018
This morning was our very last morning in Peru. We began packing and preparing for our long journey home. This would entail 3 flights and about 24-hours of travel time. Some of us went to the market to get last minute gifts for family and friends, other explored the city for one last time. All together, we were excited to head home, but sad to be leaving.
Day 20: January 21st, 2018
We finally landed in Baltimore, after a long day of flying. We were exhausted but happy to have made it back safe and sound. We all had the chance to look back at what we did and why we did it. We thought about what we took out of the trip and what we will always remember.
The Forest Online was an amazing experience. We had the chance to make a difference and support ecotourism and help to conserve the Amazon Rain Forest. At a more personal level, we took away perspective and understanding. We were able to connect first-hand experience with knowledge to create a better understanding on the environment and our roles in it. Many of us would even say they found their happy place out there. Needless to say, the forest made each of us a better person.
McDaniel College students from all academic disciplines and backgrounds are needed to build an interdisciplinary team with a range of skills and interests. We will work together for 8 months, go to the Amazon rainforest for Jan Term 2018, and design and launch a public interest media project. Interested?
Attend the Information Session on March 1st at 4pm (Hill Hall 110)
This year-long course explores the diversity of people and nature through the lens of the Amazon rainforest. In this second iteration of the Forest Online, we visit the rainforest of Peru’s Las Piedras watershed to understand the changes taking place and to gather stories about the region’s people, cultures, and forests. Along the way, we will meet farmers, conservationists, scientists, young leaders, and indigenous people. The culmination of our travels and research is a collaboration with local and international organizations to design and launch a media project.
The Forest Online is a unique interdisciplinary course of McDaniel College, featuring a two-credit January term trip to Perú, bookended with seven-week one-credit seminars in the fall and spring. The course fulfills International (Western) and Scientific Inquiry McDaniel Plan tag and is part of the Encompass Distinction. Students from all academic disciplines and backgrounds are being sought to build an interdisciplinary team with a range of skills and interests.
THE LOCATION AND ITINERARY
The heart of the class is a three-week trip to Perú to explore the forests and communities of the semi-remote region of Madre De Dios and the watershed of the Las Piedras River. Our itinerary includes visiting the region’s bustling capital of Puerto Maldonado and staying at two rainforest sites, the Las Piedras Amazon Center (LPAC) and the native community of Boca Paria Manu. At each site, we will engage in scientific research, media development, and intercultural learning. In Boca Paria Manu, we will learn from native people how they use rainforest plants and make a living from the forest. At LPAC, we will work with young Peruvian leaders on a collaborative project designed to advance local-to-global sustainable development.
To arrange an interview, email Dr. Scullion (email@example.com) ~100 words that explain (a) why you want to participate and (b) what you would bring to the team?
Imagine a small Peruvian farming community where people still live as their ancestors have for countless generations. Now imagine the change that would come from placing a busy international airport directly next to this town. Each morning, instead of farm animals welcoming the sun, it is jumbo jets full of international tourists.
How would you feel if you lived in this town?
How would your personal personal health and traditions change?
These are the questions facing the people of Chinchero, the ancient Andean community that our team recently visited.
Our experience in Chinchero was one of traditional weaving, impressive Incan ruins, and the wild ambience of the Andes mountains. If we were to return to Chinchero in a few years, our tourist experience will be much different, but more importantly, by this time, the people who live here will know what it means to sacrifice for their country. The fate of Chinchero’s residents is just one example that cuts at the heart of the vexing question facing the developing world in the 21st century: Progress, but at what cost?
As the Forest Online team journeys through Peru this January, the questionable value of progress is recurrent. We face this question again and again, as like most developing countries around the world, Peru is undergoing rapid industrialization and modernization. In particular, the near universal desire of Peruvians for progress, i.e., economic growth and development, is being answered with new dams, highways, and the loss of natural species and ecosystems to new farms and communities. The benefits of Peru’s progress are often great for the majority of its citizens–better health, wealth, and the many other benefits that come from living a modern 21st century lifestyle. On the flip side, as economists often say, “there is no free lunch.”
Someone must pay for this progress.
In many cases, that “someone” is poor communities, minorities, and the many other species we share the planet with.
This story of Peru’s progress is being replayed over and over across developing Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As a scientist and conservationist, I’ve seen this consistent reality as I travel to the earth’s last forest frontiers. Witnessing these changes unfold firsthand via rainforest destruction and species loss is heartbreaking. At the same time, I am not interested in relegating nations or people to permanent poverty. They want to live how we do in the United States.
Who can blame them?
I often wonder, is there no better way? Must we destroy all that is wild and beautiful so that one of earth’s species can live better? Must progress trump the multitude of values intact ecosystems and ancient cultures provide?
Ideally, we can find a middle path where development and conservation coexist and mutually benefit each other. This outcome is not impossible.
In fact, we see the middle path being played out around the world. For example, in Costa Rica, a vast eco-tourism industry has lead to national prosperity and increased protection of its tropical forests. And in Mexico, local governments are paying poor farmers to preserve their forests to protect national water supplies. Yet, in many cases we must be honest and accept that a middle path may not exist. Some places must be left undeveloped to maintain their natural integrity and other places must be destroyed for the urgent needs of people.
In cases where win-win outcomes are not possible, the question becomes how to decide the fate of species and people? What are the variables we should consider? How do we place a value on species and cultures that may be lost in our pursuit of progress? Who should decide? As we journey deeper into the Amazon these questions will increasingly confront our team through the lens of local people with names and children to feed. With species that are among the last of their kind. And through wild rainforests that are extremely rare and only increasingly so.
In short, the true cost of progress–and whether it is worthwhile–will be continually in our faces, in our hearts, and in our minds. We look forward to continue examining this question as a class. I trust we will all get closer to an individual understanding of the true cost of progress. Our answers may be too late to find a better solution for Chinchero, but perhaps some day down the line we will have learned from this journey–and it will allow us to play a part in advancing true progress.
And per the design of the course, we believe this learning can lead to personal action, and that our stories can be a powerful force to change the world.