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Field visits in the Amazon – More from Maya Swope

A piecemeal houseboat floats on the Amazon river. The deck is surrounded by a railing, and red flotation devices are visible on the bottom.

Photo credit: Jack Buettner.

We’re lucky enough to have three student bloggers from the Community Internships in Latin America program in Ecuador this semester. You’ll have the chance to hear from all three over the next few months! This week, Maya Swope, a Macalester College student majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography returns to the blog. You can read Maya’s previous post here.

Out of the city, into the jungle: our HECUA trip into the Amazon

By Maya Swope

As we walked from the runway to the terminal in Lago Agrio after our 30 minute plane ride from Quito, the hot, humid jungle air was the first that let me know I was finally in the Amazon. We passed through the waiting room that made up the airport, boarded our bus, and headed east. On this first day here, as we travelled by bus and boat towards the entrance of the Yasuni National Park, we learned about the pollution and human rights abuses perpetrated by oil companies. Since the mid- twentieth century, with the blessing of the federal government, much of the Ecuadorian amazon has been under siege from foreign and domestic oil companies. Many indigenous groups in the eastern part of the country were forced off their land, and others still suffer from polluted water, soil, and air. Though many of the most famous cases happened decades ago, oil drilling continues in earnest, bringing along with it unjust land grabs and  contamination of the rainforest and nearby towns.

A pool of toxic sludge sits in the middle of the Amazon rain forest.

On the “toxic tour,” we visited this holding pond of contaminated, carcinogenic water from oil drilling. As the picture shows, there is no lining, which means it can seep down into the soil and groundwater. When it rains too much, ponds like these overflow into nearby rivers.

Nearby, we met with a farmer who told us he and his family had lived in the area for years before they discovered that their water and land were full of carcinogenic chemicals. He lost his wife to cancer a few years later. Now, he can’t farm his land, and says that the only other employment option is to work for the oil company that has caused his family so much harm. According to our guide, if people in the rest of the country could see how bad it really is here, there would be all sorts of protests.

At first, it was shocking to see the damage and to hear the stories. As I thought about it more, however, I started to realize that I did know that this sort of thing was happening. (If there is one thing that stands out from my liberal arts environmental studies classes, it is that human rights and environmental abuses are coupled pretty darn closely with large industries of all sorts.) This was just the first time that I had had to confront it so directly, the first time I had seen such obvious contamination (with little attempt at clean-up) in person. It is a hard thing to confront the direct externalities of this global system of which I am a part. That day, I think everyone came away feeling saddened and angered, and with little idea of what we could do to help.

After that first day, the focus of the trip shifted to learning about the biodiversity in the Amazon. We stayed at the a scientific research station on the Tiputini river in the north/central park of Yasuni National Park. During our three days within the park, we spent much of the time hiking through the muddy forest, stopping frequently to learn about the flora and fauna our biologist guide Nina pointed out.  I was fascinated by all of the interesting biological processes at play! Did you know that some trees “walk” over time as they grow new roots in the direction that will best help them get nutrients? Or that there is a species of tree that is home to lemon-flavored ants? (Yes, we ate them!) I was expecting that the scientific/ technical Spanish would be hard to understand, but it was surprisingly easy because many of the species and processes have names based in Latin– so they sound really similar to the vocab I know in English.

map of the Yasuni in Ecuador

(map from pbs.org)

long boats docked on the Amazon river

The Tiputini River, seen from the dock at the research station.

One of the highlights of the trip was climbing a 30-meter metal tower so that we could look out over the rainforest canopy. It was a little scary, especially since I was a bit dizzy from my Malaria pills, but the view was incredible! The world up there is so different from that of the forest floor– you can feel the wind and rain, and see a whole different set of species. We got to see a few different types of monkeys, as well as birds like colorful macaws and large hawks.

The view from two thirds of the way up. Some classmates enjoy the view at the top of the tower.

The next day, we spent the morning in a small boat down the Tiputini River. Our guide and boat captain was a Huaorani man, who pointed out birds and monkeys as we motored down the river. (The Huaorani are an indigenous group that live in and around the national park.) After about 2 hours, we got out and went for a short hike to a mud hole– there was a scientific name for it, which I already forgot– that was especially rich in nutrients. According to the guide, many animals lack vital nutrients because the rainforest soil is lacking in important minerals. Animals from jaguars to butterflies come to places like these to get nutrients from the mud. The group of 20 of us hiking was more than loud enough to scare away wildlife, but we did see many beautiful butterflies, and even found some jaguar tracks. Among other things, this hike made me wonder if maybe I should have majored in biology.

Students looking at a spider in the lush, green Amazon rainforest.

Me and program-mate Radhika investigating a spider. Photo by Izzy Nathanson.

By the last day, I think a lot of the group was ready to head back to the city and to get away from the mud, humidity, and mosquitoes, but I felt as though I could have stayed there forever. Luckily (?) for me, the airline overbooked our flight back to Quito, and put us up in a hotel in the city of Coca. It was probably the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in (think hot tub/ sauna, koi pond, fancy meals, etc.), and everyone seemed happy to hang out and enjoy the comforts.

For an environmental studies student, staying at a scientific research station in the Amazon rainforest was like a dream come true. After years of learning about it, to be able to visit this legendary place in person was incredibly exciting. The biodiversity is just as amazing as expected, and the resource politics were even more complicated than I had known.

As a whole, this trip was both aggravating and inspiring (the perfect recipe for action?). Now, I carry away from this experience a broadened appreciation for the Amazon, and guilt and anger about the injustices I saw. Still, I’m excited the work of many groups (check out Acción Ecológica!) fighting for this region, and the positive strides they have made.

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