Familiar Strangers in the Forest

IMG_2054Deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle, an eclectic group spread across rough-hewn benches on a packed-earth floor, sipping fresh-made tea. They were gathered at a new site for conservation and education, the Las Piedras Amazon Center (LPAC). Rain drummed against a large tarp roof as the group of participants, from all over the world, sat elbow-to-elbow:

  • Twelve American college students, from many different disciplines
  • Nine Future Leaders—young Peruvian professionals and college students
  • Six local partners, from scientists to support staff
  • Two volunteers from Europe, accomplished professionals eager to share their expertise

The participants were gathered for a two-day workshop, focused on learning and telling some of the stories of the Madre de Dios rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on earth. They were gathered to dialogue across political and cultural borders–an important task, requiring both small steps and big leaps of confidence.

The conversation focused on the intersection of ecotourism, sustainable farming, and wildlife conservation and kicked off with a panel discussion led by Dr. Jason Scullion (president of Wild Forest and Fauna), Luis Garcia (president of ARCAmazon), and Romulo (president of Palma Reale). Each panel member shared their nonprofit’s history and its mission.

They explained afresh that the challenges each of their organizations face share many commonalities: their dedication to the region and its diversity, the momentary setbacks their missions have faced, and what they hope to achieve. At each step of the way, they answered many student questions–about sustainability and opportunities, about environmental impact and networking potentials, about the rainforest and its inhabitants.

The incredible work showcased was invigorating; the interest in everyone’s faces was clear. Each new facet of the discussion hinted at the enormous promise the Las Piedras Amazon Center has for bringing far-flung people together.

For the next day of the workshop, everyone moved around and joined one of five different teams. Their objective? Simply to “tell a story, focusing on first impressions of the rainforest with the outside world.”

Introductions began, conversations started. As each group set to work, the writers had to work through different expectations of storytelling, different languages, different experiences and beliefs. Together, they wrote their stories in both English and Spanish, refining them in multiple stages with additional facts and context.

There was back and forth between people who had just met each other for the first time, brought together in an unfamiliar environment by their admiration for the beauty and thrill of the wild. There was a lot of awkward translation and searching for words, sustained by friendly smiles and genuine interest in how the other person saw the world. And as they worked, they discovered how many commonalities they had with each other, how familiar these former “strangers” began to feel.

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The workshop leaders initially thought that everyone would focus on their own stories, their own experiences. While those factors influenced the participants’ storytelling decisions, what was written was more imaginative, more surprising, than they first expected.

Read them here for yourself:

Of course, it’s hard to change the world in just two days of workshops. But stories were written on more than just paper as people shared email addresses and social media contacts. New narratives were written and the groundwork laid for many sequels to come–relationships that would give rise to new plotlines bridging continents, new character arcs in the endeavor to conserve the rainforest and support its inhabitants.

Can Conservation and Development Coexist?

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?

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These are the questions facing the people of Chinchero, the ancient Andean community that our team recently visited.

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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.

Recently Cleared Jungle, Matto Grasso, Brazil.Recently Cleared Jungle, Matto Grasso, Brazil.Carlos Perez
Brazilian rainforest converted to agricultural plantation. Carlos Perez

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?

Rubber Tapping, Brazilian Amazon.Thomas J. Müller
Rubber tapper who depends on intact forests to live. Robert Muller.

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.

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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.

From Maryland to Peru

This January, a team of twelve students and two instructors will leave the state of Old Bay and journey to the invaluable rainforest of Peru to study conservation and ecotourism–and write all about the expedition.

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In the meantime, we’ve been studying and writing about 58 acres near campus–the Singleton-Mathews property, which we’ve decided is “McDaniel’s best kept secret.” You can learn about its history, its natural attributes, and its potentials here. Recently approved for a new re-forestation project in cooperation with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the Singleton-Mathews property is an interesting local microcosm of the larger international issues we’ll be exploring with ARCAmazon, home to over 12,000 acres set aside for research and conservation in the Las Piedras region of Peru.

20Whether it’s in the rolling hills of Maryland, or amidst the towering trees of the Peruvian Amazon, we’re working to bring awareness about the beauty and the importance of the world around us. Bookmark this page to stay up to date with our travels!

ARCAmazon–our destination–is home to over 11,000 acres set aside for research and conservation

Note: Many of the awesome photos of the Amazon on this site are featured courtesy of award-winning photographer, Thomas Haney, who guest-lectured for our course. More of his photographs can be viewed at his website.

The Tourist Gaze: Unrealistic Expectations

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http://www.nathab.com/central-america/costa-rica-adventure/

Lucy and Elizabeth write about their thoughts on the benefits and concerns associated with Ecotourism, a rapidly expanding industry, which ARCAmazon will utilize in order to conserve the Peruvian Rainforest.

As government officials construct the Estrada de Pacifico, an extensive highway plan which extends from Brazil through the rainforest to the coast of Peru, many environmentalists are concerned about the effects the road will have on the Amazon. Constructing such a road will lead to higher rates of deforestation, which already destroys more than 150 acres lost every minute of every day. The highway could also increase the threat of gold mining illegal logging extraction of the forest resources there is also the threat of farmers entering the forest and using slash and burn agriculture, to destroy mass amounts of trees and natural habitats, to create nutrient rich soil for farming.

Without a plan for conservation and protection the future of the Amazon rainforest remains in jeopardy. By utilizing the resources of scientific experts, and collaborating with community members organizations like ARC Amazon can play an effective and significant role in the protection of the rainforest. It is crucial that ARC Amazon is aligning themselves in the best way possible both ethically and environmentally as they introduce tourists to the Peruvian jungle. Ecotourism provides ARC Amazon the credentials to be an environmentally friendly tourist destination, which will appeal to both environmentally concerned enthusiasts and explorers alike. To advertise as an ecotourist destination, It is essential that ARC Amazon creates sustainable profit while educating and promoting the values of conservation and research.  Fortunately the Amazon rainforest provides numerous opportunities for  ARC Amazon to fulfill the criteria of being an ecotourist friendly centre.

Continue reading “The Tourist Gaze: Unrealistic Expectations”

Fauna are Fun-a

As the title suggests, the animal population of the Amazon is awesome–both in scope and fascinating variety. There is a plethora of species who make the Peruvian Amazon their homeland. Actually, to be a little more specific, there are over 10 million species of plants, insects, and animals–that we know of!–in the Amazon. Such ecological diversity is overwhelming, but also inspiring. Three of us in the the Forest Online decided to focus on learning about some of the animals in the Amazon, and we each wrote a post about the animal we selected, exploring their histories, their quirks, their importance

SAVE THE JAGUAR, SAVE THE FOREST

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“I’m keeping my eyes open for the Jaguar because this animal is the symbol of the rainforest. It lives and hunts alone, and is on the struggle in the fight for his life”

The sun rises and sets each day in the Peruvian jungle, and it is the survival of the fittest who see the dawning of each new horizon. Among this lush and vibrant expanse of green rain forestry includes the most abundant sanctuary of biodiversity on the planet. Home to over 1900 species of birds, 500 species of mammals and 300 species of reptiles, it is those that distinguish themselves among the masses that climb their ranks.

Continue reading “Fauna are Fun-a”

People and Planet: Reconciling Conservation Goals with the Needs of Communities

Leaders of two different conservation initiatives in the Las Piedras hanging out with two of the younger members of the Lucerna community
Leaders of two different conservation initiatives in the Las Piedras hanging out with two of the younger members of the Lucerna community (Photo Credit: Casey Kelahan)

“Environmental problems are really social problems anyway. They begin with people as the cause and end with people as the victims.”  – Edmund Hillary

Casey: From the moment that we first sat down to decide on what we would discuss in our blog post, Luke and I knew immediately that we wanted to focus on Lucerna, the community immediately adjacent to ArcAmazon’s Las Piedras Amazon Center. For me, this was driven by a fascination with the dynamic between Lucerna and ArcAmazon, and how their relationship acts as a microcosm of the global challenges of conservation on the frontier. For Luke, well, I’ll let him tell you!

Luke: All of these environmental issues that organizations like ArcAmazon are tackling, at the end of the day, are about people— the people who live there that are affected by all of these things. It’s the community that is impacting the local forest, and on a larger scale, the world. Someone is chopping down these trees and someone is trying to protect them. I want to show both of these stories. 

Map from Wild Forests and Fauna showing the ArcAmazon concession and its proximity to the Lucerna community.
Map from Wild Forests and Fauna showing the ArcAmazon concession and its proximity to the Lucerna community.

Continue reading “People and Planet: Reconciling Conservation Goals with the Needs of Communities”

Ecotourism: From the Rolling Hills of Central Maryland to the Rainforests of Peru

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From Carroll County Dept. of Recreation & Parks

For two Environmental majors with an avid interest in nature and love for travel, a class preparing us for an adventure in Peru is the ideal academic setting. That trip, however, is not until January and we need to find our nature fix elsewhere to unwind from academic, extracurricular, and social stress during the semester.

Fortunately, we (Cris and Jase) have convenient access to a local park called Hashawha Environmental Center, which we use as a way to enjoy nature and de-stress.  Just a few weeks ago on a beautiful Maryland autumn afternoon, we found ourselves lost in nature at Hashawha, both figuratively and literally (We both love adventure but unfortunately neither of us have particularly strong navigational abilities)!  Not only does Hashawha provide a beautiful natural setting for the general public to enjoy, but it also serves as a unique way to preserve the native flora and fauna of the east coast of North America found specifically in Carroll County.

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Photo by Jason Swartz (Hashawha Environmental Center)

Continue reading “Ecotourism: From the Rolling Hills of Central Maryland to the Rainforests of Peru”

Our Planet, Our Future: the Promise of Singleton-Mathews Farm

As preparation for our January trip to Peru, our class has been visiting a large property a few miles off campus owned by McDaniel College. Below, Casey, Elizabeth, Ian, and Becca share what they found.

One of the two ponds on the Singleton-Mathews farm. Photo credit: Elizabeth Mann
One of the two ponds on the Singleton-Mathews farm. Photo credit: Elizabeth Mann

“The acquisition of the Charles S. Singleton farm in 1988 [by McDaniel College] makes possible the fulfillment of a desire by Dr. Singleton and Marthiel Mathews as well as being a challenge to a college community–a challenge to move toward a new venture in which success can be measured in some very unusual instructional and agricultural terms.”

[George A. Grier]

If you are reading this post, you most likely belong to one of two groups:

Group A: The group of people who already know about Singleton-Mathews farm and are currently thinking something along the lines of: “Wow, those are some inspirational words, Mr. Grier! And what a challenge it is!”

Group B: The somewhat larger group of people who know little to nothing about Singleton-Mathews farm. In which case, you may be thinking something like: “What? McDaniel has a farm?? I’ve been here for (insert number of years that you’ve been here) years and I didn’t know that McDaniel was in possession of an entire farm?

To those in the second group: don’t panic! We, the Forest Online class, are here to clear up any confusion. If you haven’t already read the blog posts from other groups about the history and the natural history of the space, you can check them out here and here, respectively. In this post, you’ll be learning all about the future of the farm (So if you belong to the group with some prior knowledge– don’t leave just yet! There will still be some great information in here for you.)!  

Continue reading “Our Planet, Our Future: the Promise of Singleton-Mathews Farm”