The Power of Partnerships in the Amazon

Field Notes From the Amazon

by Dr. Nancy Trautmann, founding board member of the Morpho Institute

As an environmental scientist and educator, my career has centered on helping educators reach beyond lectures and textbooks to engage students in investigating real-world environmental science issues. When I traveled to Peru in 2015 as a faculty member for the Educator Academy in the Amazon, I expected to marvel at the beauty and diversity of birds and other wildlife.

The Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: The Morpho Institute

I hadn’t anticipated becoming inspired by people who live deep in the heart of the rainforest.

Imagine a landscape with no roads or bridges, where transportation occurs in boats of all sizes navigating on huge turbulent rivers and smaller tributary streams. Viewing houses perched on stilts along the riverbanks, I wondered what it was like to live there, so far from what I considered to be the comforts of home. Seeing a small child paddling a low-lying dugout canoe, I wondered if she was heading to school or to collect provisions for her family’s next meal, and how such a young child could safely navigate on her own. Observing families laying out fishing nets or tending to riverside rice paddies and banana patches, I questioned whether their diets consisted entirely of food that they gathered and grew on their own. Realizing how far we were from a hospital or even a rural health center, I pondered what sort of treatment is possible when someone gets sick or injured.

Rivers are roads in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo credit: Kelly Keena

Our expert guides from Explorama Lodges not only protected us from rainforest-related illness or injury, they also related tales of having grown up in remote rainforest villages. Hearing how shaman-prescribed remedies heal maladies ranging from waterborne parasites to venomous snake bites, I gained appreciation for villagers’ deeply-rooted ways of understanding the rainforest. Called “traditional ecological knowledge” or “TEK,” this type of expertise is based on culturally-specific and time-tested natural history observations and beliefs. Over the past few decades, TEK has gained respect among conservation professionals who recognize the power of ecological wisdom built through lifetimes and generations of people who live in close association with the land and depend on its resources for survival.

How can we protect the Amazon?

Working with One Planet, a nonprofit that partners with indigenous and traditional Amazonian communities, we at The Morpho Institute have been privileged over the past few years to learn from indigenous Maijuna people about their livelihoods and conservation practices. The Maijuna are an endangered group consisting of only about 500 individuals spread across four communities in a remote area in northern Peru. After decades of going hungry as their rainforest resources were plundered by loggers and poachers, in 2015 the Maijuna were relieved to see the Peruvian government create a 391,000-hectare regional conservation area that represents a significant portion of their ancestral homeland. Empowered with co-managing this reserve, the Maijuna are collaborating with scientists to plan, implement, and assess the effectiveness of conservation practices designed to sustain their traditional ways of life for generations to come.

Maijuna Community Leader
Maijuna elder, Sebastián Ríos Ochoa. Photo credit: Will Martinez

From the heights of Explorama’s Canopy Walkway, Educator Academy participants not only can gaze directly into rainforest treetops, they also can view over the tops of the trees to see miles of rainforest stretching in every direction, unbroken by any signs of humans. How is this possible? Facing one direction, the land is protected by Explorama Lodges and small villages which partner with CONAPAC, a nonprofit that promotes community-based rainforest conservation in the Peruvian Amazon. Facing in the opposite direction, the land is part of the region maintained by the Maijuna.

View from the ACTS Canopy Walkway. Loreto, Peru

We have been fortunate to partner with Maijuna leaders in developing workshops in which community members demonstrate how they sustainably fish, farm, hunt, raise bees, and create traditional handicrafts. Welcomed into their homes and daily lives, Educator Academy participants have gained into perspectives and ways of life so different from our own.

Despite their dedication to sustainability, the Maijuna face a perilous future because of plans by the Peruvian government to build a 130-km-long road and 10-km-wide development corridor directly through the heart of their homeland reserve.

We at The Morpho Institute are joining forces with One Planet, World Rainforest Day, Rainforest Partnership, CONAPAC and other organizations to fight this threat. Join us in working to build a more sustainable, empowered, and just future by protecting the livelihoods of the Maijuna people and preserving the global ecological benefits on which all of our lives depend.

What can you do?

  • Teach with our Sustainability and Conservation Curriculum Resources, which highlight the Indigenous Maijuna’s conservation story as a case study to engage K-12 students in grappling with complex real-world issues related to resource use, human rights, and conservation needs. 
  • Come to the Amazon and participate in The Morpho Institute’s transformational professional development experiences.
  • Donate to support teacher scholarships and The Morpho Institute’s other Amazon conservation initiatives.
Morpho Institute Board Members, Dr. Kelly Keena & Dr. Nancy Trautmann
with Maijuna community leaders, Jorge Machoa Siquihua & Victorino Rios Torres. Photo credit: The Morpho Institute

For further Info

Trautmann, N.M., and M. Gilmore. 2019. The Maijuna: Fighting for survival in the Peruvian Amazon. Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (Autumn 2019), no. 46. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

Trautmann, N.M. and M.P. Gilmore. 2018. Educating as if survival matters. BioScience 68: 324–326.

Author Note:

Dr. Nancy Trautmann recently retired as Director of Education and currently serves as Visiting Fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, focusing on teacher professional development and curriculum development related to biodiversity conservation. Her passion lies in introducing people to the wonders of the natural world and helping teachers go beyond textbooks and lectures to get their students involved in conservation-related investigations and projects. She has published 10 books in collaboration with teachers, on topics ranging from biodiversity to toxicology. Publications by NSTA Press include a manual on citizen science and four environmental science research manuals. A recent book, Birds Without Borders, won the top educational award from the Association of American Publishers for supplemental science curricula in 2016.

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