Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008

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Filmmakers Sean Fine ´96 and his wife Andrea earned an Academy Award nomination for their powerful documentary, but they want audiences to focus on the children of war-torn northern Uganda.

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CC Online Exclusive: Reflections on Peru

CC Online Exclusive: Reflections on Peru

Varun Swamy ´01, now a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University, joined Manuel Lizarralde, associate professor of anthropology, as co-teacher of a month-long Tropical Ecology and Ethnobotany field course.

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by Varun Swamy ´01


SATA goes “ethno” in the Amazon rainforest


One cold, dreary February morning in Durham, N.C., last year I was struggling to find the inspiration to write my doctoral dissertation on tropical rainforest ecology while sitting through the temperate winter, when I received an unexpected phone call from an old friend in Connecticut. It was Professor Manuel Lizarralde, who wanted some help organizing the SATA Peru program for the fall semester. Having spent several months over the past five years conducting field research in the lowland Peruvian Amazon, I excitedly offered up a barrage of suggestions and contacts. By the end of our conversation, we had put together a preliminary itinerary for a month-long Tropical Ecology and Ethnobotany field course. Then Manuel asked the question that made my year: Would I like to co-teach the class with him? “Absolutely!” I responded, unable to resist the chance to return to my home-away-from-home.

Eight months later, I was back in the “navel of the universe” – Cusco, the erstwhile capital of the legendary Incan empire, a world away at 3,300 meters up in the Andean heartland – with Manuel and 11 enthusiastic, open-minded and cheerful young Conn undergraduates. Our four-week natural and cultural odyssey would descend through the ethereal, mist-cloaked cloud forests of the eastern slope of the Andes to the lush green Amazonian lowlands of the Madre de Dios river basin in southeastern Peru, where we would travel the chocolate-colored waters of the sinuous tributaries of the "Mother of God," spending short stints at multiple sites as we meandered our way across the basin.

I was excited for the opportunity to interpret and convey the incredible natural beauty and complexity of the Amazon rainforest to the students in situ; I also wanted to expose them to some of the less attractive realities of the Amazon Basin in the 21st century, where the recent arrival of a disorderly market economy that is eager to extract its vast reserves of natural resources is causing a rapidly increasing ecological and socio-economic impact in unprotected areas throughout the basin.

And I hoped to expand my own understanding of the rainforest world, which was lacking a human dimension: In all the months I had spent gaining a profound appreciation for its ecology, I had barely gotten to know its indigenous residents, the Matsigenka people who live in three small communities deep in the heart of Manu National Park, which protects more than 20,000 square kilometers of pristine neotropical rainforest in the headwaters of the Amazon Basin.

Thanks to Glen Shepard, American anthropologist extraordinaire, who has studied, lived and worked closely with Matsigenka for more than two decades, the students, Manuel and I had an immensely enriching exchange of culture and knowledge with a group of Matsigenka participants during our stay in the Manu river basin. We spent most of our time doing some fascinating ethno-ecological documentation: how the Matsigenka identify and classify species of trees and habitat types, and how that knowledge varies by age and gender; the myriad uses and properties of virtually every rainforest plant; their knowledge of the vocalizations and diets of almost 200 rainforest bird species, and of the vertebrate consumers of the fruits and seeds of more than 300 rainforest tree species.

An underlying theme to all these projects was to examine how the information they provided compared with the information available through Western scientific literature. I was completely bowled over by the results and humbled by the depth and breadth of their understanding and knowledge of the tropical rainforest that is their backyard. It left me wondering how much more could be learned about rainforest ecology by collaborating with indigenous groups like the Matsigenka who still live in their original natural environment and largely follow traditional lifestyles, and how we´ve barely scratched the surface of the potential that exists.

Our cultural interactions with the Matsigenka provided a more complete picture of life in the rainforest. We learned how they prepared tobacco snuff by roasting fresh leaves over a fire and powdering them along with the bark of a rare tree that smoothens the harsh nicotine, and then experienced a nicotine high the Matsigenka way: by having it blown straight up the nose through the hollowed-out elbow joint of a razor-billed curassow! We watched them make string from the inner bark fibers of a Cecropia tree, dye it with a variety of natural pigments obtained from different kinds of freshly crushed leaves and fruits, and hand-weave it into beautiful handbags. And they shared their masato – fermented manioc beer that´s surprisingly tasty, given that it looks like rotten, badly mixed baby formula – and we learned some age-old Matsigenka drinking songs.

The undisputed highlight of our stay with the Matsigenka – participating in an ayahuasca ceremony – fulfilled a long-cherished dream for me. We helped prepare the ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, the legendary "vision vine" of Amazonian cultures) and ceremonially consumed it with the Matsigenka. It is impossible to describe the incredibly vivid visions and flows of thought we experienced as we lay side-by-side in the dark and journeyed individually through our unfettered subconscious minds, further stimulated by the soft lilting chants and high-pitched string bow notes of Matsigenka music.

Our natural and cultural odyssey wound to a close in the bustling rainforest frontier town of Puerto Maldonado with a visit to the nearby indigenous Esa-Eja community of Infierno. There we learned about a successful and profitable partnership between a private ecotourism outfit and the Esa-Eja, based on a jungle lodge built on their communal lands by the Tambopata River and operated largely by the Esa-Eja.

At the end of the visit, we asked ourselves: What is more important, a reliable source of income and access to modern education and health facilities, or the retention of traditional culture, knowledge and language? Does gaining one unavoidably lead to the loss of the other? This Esa-Eja community clearly valued the former at the expense of the latter. However, hundreds of other indigenous groups across the Amazon Basin are struggling to come to terms with these issues and decide what´s best for their future, and haven´t quite figured it out yet, just as we weren´t able to decide after our brief trip.

Throughout the short flight from Puerto Maldonado back to Cusco, I reflected on how our lives had been immeasurably enriched and our perspectives broadened through four weeks of intense learning, sharing and living in the rainforest. I can´t wait to do it all over again with another group of Conn students – I hope many more times for years to come!

Varun Swamy ´01 has been conducting field research on rainforest ecology in the Peruvian Amazon since 2003, working towards a Ph.D. from the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, Durham, N.C. He will obtain his degree in May and continue his field-based research in the Peruvian Amazon through a postdoctoral position supported by a three-year National Science Foundation grant recently awarded to him and his dissertation advisor and research collaborator, Dr. John Terborgh. Varun can be contacted at vs12@duke.edu.

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