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An Amazon Experience
Full Field Update #1
With expeditions to Australia, Africa, and Europe complete, it’s hard to believe we are already on Expedition 4 in South America! As Team Earthducation considered where to visit for Expedition 4, we ultimately decided to focus on several of the world’s most intriguing and unique regions – regions that play vital roles in the overall health of our planet: the Amazon, the Atacama Desert, and Patagonia. These regions are also highly impacted by climate change, and house communities that are continually seeking out ways to adapt to and protect their changing natural environment from rapid industrialization and natural resource exploitation.
In our first few days in the field, we’ve been welcomed into three inspirational communities in Peru: Villa María del Triunfo in the hills outside Lima; and Neshuya and San Rafael, in the Amazon basin surrounding Pucallpa. In all three communities we’ve encountered some similar themes echoed in earlier trips, including the important role that education plays in urban, rural, and indigenous communities alike. The Shipibo community we visited in San Rafael also shared with us the critical role that traditional ecological knowledge and traditional education are playing in sustaining both culture and the natural environment in their village.
Day 1: October 20
After working literally for months to plan out the expedition, to be here is a pure delight! We arrived in Lima after 13 hours of travel. Located on a desert coast overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lima is the capital and largest city in Peru, with a population of approximately 9 million. It is the fourth largest city in the Americas, behind São Paulo, Mexico City, and New York City.
When we arrived at the airport we were greeted by Juan Zacarías, who promptly drove us to our hotel in the Miraflores district, located within a block of the Pacific Ocean. The streets of Lima were crowded with cars, motocars, and dancing lights.
Juan traveled with us during all our time in Peru, providing insight, guidance, and translation assistance. We want to sincerely thank Juan, as well as Nina Fogelman at Ancient Summit, for their help with our visit to Peru.
Day 2: October 21
Following a short night’s sleep, we traveled through Villa El Salvador to Villa Maria Del Triunfo, which sits atop a large hill south of Lima. As we drove, we passed many small homes built into the sides of the hills. Juan explained that about 20 years ago, large numbers of people moved to this area from regions across Peru, seeking refuge from terrorism that was occurring throughout the country at that time. The effects of this massive migration continue to be felt, as Lima struggles to provide employment, electricity, fresh water, and sewer services to both the city and the surrounding regions.
At Villa Maria Del Triunfo, we met with Artemio Alfaro, vice president of the local Agriculture Association, along with many members of the association who work on a fog harvesting project. Fog harvesting has been around for more than 100 years. The Villa Maria Del Triunfo fog harvesting project was sponsored by USAID, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
With an annual precipitation of less than half an inch, rain rarely falls within these regions on the outskirts of Lima, but dense fog is a common occurrence here during the winter months, from June through about November. Tall fish-net-looking screens are thus placed on top of the hills to literally “catch” the fog. The dew of the fog drips down the net into a half-pipe that flows into a canister. Although fog harvesting cannot be relied on for water year-round, we witnessed firsthand the incredible benefits it provides to communities such as Villa Maria Del Triunfo.
Artemio showed us photos from only five years ago when the region was nothing more than dry desert. Now, the area is lush green with aloe vera plants growing from the irrigation from the water collected from the fog. Although there is a filter on each collector, the water is not yet fit for drinking. Researchers from the local university are studying the water collection process, with the hope of creating drinkable water in the future. At this point, the water provides the opportunity for the local association to grow plants that can be sold locally.
We concluded our fog harvesting tour and were welcomed to Artemio’s home for an association meeting with the locals and also our first taste of Inca Kola – a local drink that tastes like Mountain Dew – which seemed fitting considering where we were!
After an extraordinary day exploring the fog harvesting practices in Villa Maria del Triunfo, we returned to Lima and packed our gear for a 1-hour flight to Pucallpa (population approximately 200,000), a port city on the Ucayali River, a major tributary for trade and travel on the Amazon River. With access to the Amazon River and a highway to Lima that was completed in 1945, Pucallpa’s economic isolation from 1840 to 1945 has disappeared and the city has become a major center for the commercialization of regional products (primarily bananas, yucca, and lumber) throughout the rest of Peru. Pucallpa would be our point of departure the next day for our visit to the Amazon jungle. We arrived at our hotel, sent the daily update, and turned in for the night – a night’s sleep that we never expected would pay off tenfold in the jungle!
Day 3: October 22
After breakfast in Pucallpa, Juan Zacarías’ friend Hernan, a journalist in the city, informed us of a meeting in the nearby village of Neshuya to discuss the negative impacts of cocaine production and trafficking between villagers and the Peru National Police Antidrug Force. Excited to learn more about this meeting and drug trafficking in the area, we jumped into a government truck and were escorted by an Antidrug Force guard to Neshuya, an hour’s drive outside Pucallpa.
Once we arrived in Neshuya, we visited the town hall where the meeting was about to take place. The room was filled with approximately 100 villagers who attended to meet with the Peru National Police. We learned that in the jungle outside the village of Neshuya there is an ongoing issue with coca leaf harvesting for the production of cocaine. In addition to harvesting the leaves, locals have also moved toward the internal production of cocaine rather then sending the leaves to other countries for production, thus making more money and avoiding lost income.
Before the meeting we met with Juan Silva, the Commandant of the Peru National Police, and members of his Antidrug Force. Their goal is to educate members of the community on the negative impacts cocoa leaf harvesting for cocaine production is having on the village, as well as the country of Peru. After the meeting, elders from the community were given bags of groceries (including toilet paper, fruits, and cola products) to bring home to their families and share the important information from the National Police.
When the meeting ended we had the opportunity to explore the streets of Neshuya, where we met three young schoolchildren (ages 13-15) on their lunch break. We interviewed them and learned that they believe in a balance between informal education from their families and more formalized education from the school. They also shared with us that their favorite thing about living in Neshuya is the proximity to the jungle for relaxation and play (mostly swimming and hiking). Protecting the jungle environment, as they discussed, is a vital component for the future of Neshuya.
As we continued down the main street we found the local secondary school, El Monte Alegre nivel secondario. We were invited to take a brief tour of the school and simply say hello to the students. The first sight we experienced was a large mural painted on the clay wall of the school that depicted deforestation of the Amazon for lumber production, a reminder to the students about the importance of preserving the Amazon environment. We captured a few group photos of the students and made our way back onto the main street.
We then returned to interview Juan Silva, Commandant of the Peru National Police, and learned he would become Colonel of the Peru National Police on January 1, 2013.
However, for this transformation to occur it will take 2 to 3 years of work, as well as years of lost income from cocoa leaf harvesting. It is thus proving difficult to implement since many villagers survive day-to-day, using their daily income solely for food and shelter for their families.
After our interview with Juan Silva, we returned to Pucallpa to make our way to the port of Cupullca, where we would catch a motorized canoe to Masisea. The port was bustling with activity as people of all ages loaded and unloaded goods to their boats or sold goods from small huts along the river, and the sounds of boat motors and motocars (motorcycles with three wheels and a seat in the back) filled the air. We balanced our way into the boat with many smiles, having no idea what we would experience as we traveled along the massive Amazon River, more than 4,000 miles long and over 35 miles wide in locations. The rainforest along the Amazon provides more than 20% of the world’s oxygen, which is why it is often called the “lungs of the planet.”
Our “sailor” handled the boat adeptly as he navigated out of the port and headed south for the two hour ride to the community of Masisea. The Amazon was rolling with eddies everywhere. It reminded us of the Mississippi River, but much wider. The boat struggled at times going upstream but there wasn’t a moment of boredom as we watched the other boats hauling bananas and petroleum and took in the many other sights on and along the river.
We moved off the main channel of the Amazon to a narrow waterway through tall grasses, finally arriving in the port of Masisea. As we approached the port, we again experienced sensory overload as numerous individuals came down to help us with our gear. We were soon on our way in motocars, driving along the dusty roads with jungle to our right and left. We arrived in the town of Masisea about twenty minutes later, and stayed there in a hostel overnight.
Day 4: October 24
Morning began with breakfast at a small café attached to a local family’s home. We had eggs and coffee and were off to the community of San Rafael, about 25 minutes by motocar. As we traveled down the dusty roads, other motocars zoomed by with horns blasting when someone was approaching and wanted to pass. San Rafael is the newest community outside Masisea, established in 1975 and with a current population is 413. We passed many thatch-covered huts as we drove to the center of the community where all the residents were gathered and finishing breakfast. Fernando Guimaraez, the community leader, known as “the boss,” welcomed us and introduced us to many of the community elders. He also let us know there would soon be an official presentation welcoming us.
Marwin believes that education is the future for sustainability within the community. The informal education he received from his elders has always been important to him, he said, but now with the changing climate and environment, he felt a great need to learn additional ways to feed the community and earn income.
We next visited a large hut in the community’s center where we were invited to sit at a front table with Fernando and other community elders. They made a formal presentation welcoming us to their community and also thanking us for our interest in them and their lives. The national anthem was sung followed by a beautiful song to welcome us.
After the presentation we were invited to visit the local elementary and senior high schools, with a student population of 21. The schools had concrete walls and metal roofs. Students smiled as we spoke with Adelia Urquía Jimenez, the “mother of the school” who had been in the community for 21 years and substitute-taught when the teachers were absent. Adelia shared that her love for the young children keeps her hopes up for the future of the community. The elementary students completed a lesson as they wrote on the chalkboard. There were no books.
After our visit to the elementary school we walked about 100 feet to the secondary school where we were fortunate to speak with Ruperto Pinedo Silvano, the school’s director, as well as two students: Gil Jonas Zavaleta Torres, 18 years old, and Lizbeth Sampayo Cruz, 16 years old. Gil shared with us some of his feelings about the current educational system. He felt the teachers, who are not from San Rafael, did not care about the people there, noting, “They go into the city to receive their paycheck and do not return for sometimes two weeks. They don’t care about us and our education.”
A block away from the school we were invited into a home where a 29-year-old young man was lying on the wooden floor with his mother and family surrounding him. He had been hurt more than 2 months ago while away from the village working in the jungle. We learned he was carrying a large load of lumber when he fell and injured his back. After he was transported back to the village, the local shaman began treating him with natural medicine from the jungle.
We offered to take the injured young man to Pucallpa on our boat, and he agreed. Hernan, the journalist we had met in Pucallpa, was going to work with the local hospital to try to get help for the man. The young man’s mother gave our team some beautiful necklaces and bracelets and thanked us for sharing his story. However, as we left the village, the family decided it was better he stay in the village until he is in an improved state for transport.
As we left the young man’s hut, a surprise lay just ahead for us. We walked toward a tributary of the Amazon and saw two long wooden canoes waiting. We were ushered into the canoes and paddled to a spot where a group of children waited. As we arrived there, the children jumped into the lily-pad-filled water. Their laughter and joy filled the air as they did flips and splashed about in the water.
After the laughs, we were taken to meet Guillermo Fasabi Silvano, a fisherman who had lived in the region for all of his 55 years. He and a young boy grabbed a fishing net, climbed into a wooden canoe, and paddled out to the middle of the river. He soon had caught numerous pirhana (about 8 per throw). Guillermo observed that fishing within the region had changed greatly because of overfishing, so that there are not as many fish now as past years, making it more and more difficult to provide for his family within this region.
Fernando, the leader of the community, agreed to provide us with a formal interview as we sat underneath the trees. Fernando discussed the importance of education and his wish for the children of his community to attend a university like we have. He noted, however, that at the current pace of change it simply will not happen as they have no money for these opportunities. He also noted that the community is struggling not only with opportunities for education, but with pollution from numerous oil companies that has detrimentally impacted their fishing and their land.
The heat today was at times unbearable. We were all sweating as temperatures soared into the 90s F and humidity was extremely high. We drank as much water as we could and traveled back to collect our bags before making our way once again to the port in Masisea. As we waited for our boat to arrive, we watched everything from live chickens to bananas being unloaded from the boats. We then boarded our own boat and enjoyed a much faster ride back to Pucallpa than we’d experienced on our way there, as we were traveling downstream.
Please share your perspective on the EnviroNetwork! Our goal is for people around the world to share their ideas on how education and sustainability intersect. For example, what do you believe is the importance of education and how does education, be it from a formal school or your parents and elders, impact your ability to sustain your way of life? We would like EVERYONE to participate. No matter if you are 13 or 90 years old, we want to see you on the network!