By: Shannon Reaves
Special thanks to Mylan Pharmaceuticals for their 2005 sponsorship.
On May 15, 2005, eight students and one professor from a Salem University class, International Perspectives on Environmental Issues, boarded an airplane bound for Ecuador . The trip was to be the culmination of months of study in the areas of environmental impact, environmental activism, and group conflict resolution.
Professor Jennifer Osha, Director and Founder of Aurora Lights, Inc., summed up the group’s two-week mission to Ecuador : “I wanted the students to gain an international perspective on issues of both environmental and social concern. I also wanted to get my students out of the country.” Aurora Lights is an environmental/social action group that promotes a healthy relationship between human communities and the natural world they occupy.
In preparation for the trip to South America, the group of soon-to-be travelers worked very hard to ensure their goals would be met. Two camping trips and a hiking trip were arranged where they practiced group work and survival skills. For some members of the group these were first experiences with camping. Osha and another member of the team received Wilderness First Responder training in order that they might be better prepared for medical emergencies in the isolation of the deep jungle. And to help raise funds, the creative bunch organized stromboli sales on and around the university campus.
During the trip each of the students was to conduct a project related to his or her major. For example, Danielle Henry, a junior majoring in biology, concentrated her studies on alternative clean-up methods for oil spills caused by Texaco in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Helen James, also a junior in biology, chose five medicinal plants and researched their use by both the local Huarani people and modern doctors.
The first phase of the trip took place in the Sierra, the mountainous Andean region where the capital, Quito , lies. The team traveled to Baeza, a small town about two hours to the east of Quito . There they met with the group CEMPROC, an organization whose purpose is “to promote peaceful conflict resolution and train local leaders in Latin America and the USA with the skills to become peacebuilders within their communities.” The class spent a week learning about the flora and fauna of the cloud forest. They also visited the site of a major oil spill and interviewed the local people about the consequences of the spill on their land and livestock.
Salem University student Amanda Nichols said, ” I can apply the conflict resolution skills we learned from CEMPROC to the similar environmental circumstances in West Virginia . The time spent with CEMPROC in the mountains was beneficial…because I was able to learn facts, statistics, and problem solving methods directly related to the decaying environmental well-being of the Ecuadorian rain forest.”
The educational aspects of this first half of the trip were not without their moments of beauty. The group took field trips to take in mountain vistas and the surrounding cloud forests. As Danielle Henry put it:
“We hiked through rivers and streams, sought rare birds in their habitats, observed lush greenery that hardly fit my imagination of what the rainforests surrounding the mountains should be.”
During the second phase of the trip, the Aurora Lights “ambassadors” took a journey into the low Amazon Basin jungles where they were to meet up with the native Huarani indians. The Huarani had invited the Aurora Lights members to come to their home because of the similarities that exist between the indians’ long-standing struggle against the oil industry in the Amazon and Aurora Lights’ continued efforts against mountaintop removal in the U.S.
A small propeller plane needed two trips to carry the group and their guides. The flight itself was a breathtaking event. Flying over the unbroken blanket of lush green trees, it took a moment for the passengers to see the small field that was cut into the greenery. The pilots prepared the aircraft for landing and plunged down into the forest, where water and grass splashed up, momentarily hiding the plane from the world. When the airplane came to a stop and the team had disembarked, the Huarani men, who had been waiting, pressed out from the shadows of the trees. They stood only as tall as the shoulders of most of the group, and were tightly muscled, quiet men wearing old t-shirts and bermuda shorts. Their feet were bare.
In the Huarani camp, the men and women live separately. The men were the hunters and fighters of the camp while the women looked after the children. It became obvious on the team’s treks through the woods and paddling in dugout canoes on the Shiripuno river how much of a man’s stature in the Huarani community was based on his strength and ability to provide.
The team visited two different Huarani communities, and in each community the travelers and their hosts shared stories. The Huarani told the team about their community’s growing anger over oil spills and the lack of proper clean-up procedures. Many of the Huarani elders were absent, having already left to put themselves physically in the path of the growing Texaco-Shell road, to prevent it from pushing further into their territories. In return, students described mountaintop removal in West Virginia , making models in the mud to illustrate the tragedy that claims entire mountains and valleys.
Throughout the trip the students were learning valuable individual lessons they could carry home with them. The team slept in tents during their week in the hot, humid jungle. They were outside their normal realm of operation and witnessing how other lives impact the world and are impacted by it.
In the second village, before parting with their new friends, each member of the group was gifted with a Huarani name. The perceptive names the travelers were given made it very clear that their hosts had paid close attention to the character of each team member. One student, Zach Welch, was dubbed Iteka, which means “tree” in the Quechua language. Jennifer Osha was called Yero or “mother of jaguars.” Amanda Nichols was named after bamboo.
After spending seven days in the Amazon, the group finished their journey with what they called a Toxic Tour: They saw oil pits that were considered relatively “clean” but continued to dangerously pollute the surrounding land and water. They saw farmers unable to grow their crops, fish floating dead in their rivers, and children whose growth had been stunted by living in such close proximity to hazardous materials.
This last aspect of the adventure put everything into perspective, ensuring that, long after they boarded the plane bound for the U.S., the ambassadors would not lose sight of the very real effects of industry gone unchecked in the world abroad and potentially so at home. Since their return, the Aurora Lights team members have made presentations showing what they witnessed and learned from their excursion. Even now they are still in contact with the Huarani.
” The time I spent in the jungle was a firsthand look into the lives of the people who are being affected most by the oil company’s rampage,” said Nichols. “The time spent with the Huarani meant much more to me than facts and statistics, however, and the lessons I learned from them can be applied to fighting big business as well as living life. “
Salem student Helen James summed up the adventure best, saying, “The overall value was the cultural aspect. Being able to connect and interact with people whose lives and dreams are so much different than yours is a unique experience.”
In the end, the Ecuador trip proved to be an immense success. Our nine travelers ventured outside themselves and their own priorities to achieve an understanding of environmental issues at work on a global scale. The saw how even the legendary green strength of the Amazon has great need of its human protectors and they recognized new value in the roles they can play, even working to protect small towns in rural West Virginia. Best of all, the lessons they learned during the trip are already beginning to reach far beyond themselves as they begin to share what they learned with others.