Study Abroad

The most biodiverse place in the world – Alexa in Ecuador

Each semester, one student from each HECUA program abroad takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Alexa Jokinen will be HECUA’s student blogger for the Community Internships in Latin America program this spring semester. Alexa is a sophomore at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, double majoring in elementary education and Spanish. She will graduate in the spring of 2020, and hopes to become a bilingual elementary teacher. Read on for Alexa’s second post, a report on the CILA field visit to the Amazon.

Descending from the mountains into the region of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest was filled with drastically changing, beautiful views. From the fading structure of the mountains with intense foliage, stirring rocky rivers, rushing through the valley, and quiet towns, we all seemed to be staring out the windows. Hours passed and when the windows opened, we were suddenly greeted with intense humidity, flat lands, flora, fauna and rivers that were tinted with the color of the earth.

First on the agenda was a “toxi-tour.” In the Amazon, there are valuable petroleum deposits. Specifically in Ecuador, these petroleum deposits give life to the economy. Here is the issue – the damage petroleum extraction does to flourishing environment is completely devastating. The struggle of finding a solution is even more devastating. What should a country like Ecuador do? A country that is economically funded by the market of petroleum, but also a country that contains the most biodiverse area in the entire planet.

A small wooden house sits at the edge of a sludgy pond in the middle of the rain forest.

Located in all of the active petroleum blocks, “mecheros” are the mechanisms that burn off the gas that is created from petroleum extraction (picture below). 24 hours a day, and 7 days a week, the mecheros are burning toxic, harmful gas into the skies above the communities that live only kilometers away. They have been burning for years. Filling the atmosphere with excess gas and chemicals. When it rains, the clouds pour out acid rain onto the communities below – communities that are suppose to use this water to sustain themselves.

Two tall metal tubes stand side by side, shooting flames up into the sky.

Not only did we see “mecheros,” but we saw rivers and expulsion pools of contaminated water from the extraction process (picture below). Our walks to these locations were hushed, the quiet moments were interrupted with questions of why. Questions of how this could be happening. Questions of the effects on the communities. We were all in shock. These jungles are not flourishing – they are perishing.

A pool of filthy, brackish water flows amongst tropical foliage.

Human consumption is a serious issue, especially in America. Little do we know that our day to day patterns of consumption are destroying an area not only important to Ecuador, or South America, but the entire planet.

The Amazon contains 60% of the planet’s trees, 25% of the planet’s animal species and 1/3 of the planet’s rainfall. These numbers are insane. The Amazon is a crucial region for the world, a region that maintains our planet’s equilibrium.

A boat ride and an hour and a half truck ride away, we arrived at Yasuní. Yasuní is a small part of the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest. Although it is small, it has the highest number of different animal species, 44% of the Amazon’s birds, as well as more species of trees than the entire amount of species in North America. Along with the flora and fauna, Yasuní is home to the indigenous Waorani, people who live connected to the jungle, speak their own language (Wuao Terero), and are extremely intelligent with uses of plants for things like medicine and daily items.

Days in Yasuní were spent hiking in the jungle and learning about the different plants lining the jungle floor, dodging the haze of insects flying around us, and viewing the vines and trunks of tree towering up to the canopy of the Amazon. We also spent our time eating fresh Amazon fruits, like cacao (picture below), inching closer and closer to large tarantulas frozen on the jungle floor, and making sure to not get too stuck in the “lodo” or mud that was present on all of the trails (rubber boots extremely necessary).

A hand holds a half eaten cacao fruit, creamy white seeds extending out of the tough yellow shell.

The trick to seeing different animals, was to walk in silence through the jungle. Minutes into our last hike of the trip, we looked up and saw the branches of the trees shaking and dancing. Everywhere we looked, there was quick movements. “¡Monos, monos!” A pack of about 50 spider monkeys was flying through the trees and following the trail we were walking on. Everywhere we looked, we could see a little paw or tail clinging onto the branches. Experiences like this are almost indescribable – kind of like something you only see in the movies, or maybe even dream about.

Of course we had to enjoy one of the rivers of Yasuní. We spent hours cruising Río Tiputini with our indigenous Waorani guides. Our guides had the best knowledge of the jungle and the animals. Not just about the animals, but where they are. We would be cruising down the river and from kilometers away, a guide would spot a rare species of bird, or a pack of monkeys in the trees. We got lucky, spying toucans, parrots, and birds only present in the Amazon, soaring across the river. Another one of those once in a lifetime experiences.

Bird-watching in the Amazon is a definite must. In order to be at the level of many of the Amazon birds (the canopy) we climbed straight up the “torre.” A tower that ascends to the canopy of the Amazon. I’d love to say I spotted a jaguar or a puma lurking around the jungle, but the amount of species we saw over our time in the Amazon, was incredible, and hard to put into words.

Seeing the beauty of the Amazon, in comparison to seeing the intense contamination of certain parts was difficult, confusing, and frustrating (to say the least). Although it may sound cliche, the future of places like Yasuní are in the hands of consumers, like us. After visiting an admirable place like this, walking the jungle trails, and experiencing the wildlife, some serious personal reflection is critical.

“Sólo cuando el último árbol esté muerto, el último río envenenado, y el último pez atrapado, nos daremos cuenta de que el dinero no se puede comer.”

“Only when the last tree is dead, the last river is poisoned, and the last fish is trapped, we will realize that money cannot be eaten.”

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