Two Taft science teachers learn from the Maijuna people of Peru.
For thousands of years, the Maijuna have lived in one of the most biologically rich and ecologically diverse regions of the world. Threatened by unregulated and unsustainable logging, the Maijuna are working to protect, conserve, and restore their corner of the Amazon rainforest—with some success. Science teachers Amanda Benedict and Michael McAloon traveled to northeastern Peru to learn from the Maijuna, and to bring those lessons back to Taft.
There are no roads or highways carrying travelers to Iquitos, Peru. It is, in fact, the largest city in the world that can only be reached by boat or air. Long inhabited by the indigenous people of the region and later colonized by early conquistadors, Iquitos is an island city steeped in history, yet central to the future of the Amazon rainforest. It is a gateway to some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, and it is where science teachers Amanda Benedict and Michael McAloon boarded a boat and began their 10-day journey into a remote region of northeastern Peru.
Low-slung, pontoon-like boats ferry passengers up and down the vast Amazon River and its tributaries. The experience is one that awakens all of the senses: pink dolphins splash in the river alongside the boats; songs of the more than 1,500 species of birds in the Amazon Basin fill the air; monkeys, insects, and a plethora of plant species—some waiting to be discovered—provide visual, olfactory, and auditory wonder. Benedict and McAloon traveled nearly 100 miles by boat, through the rainforest, up the Amazon, north to the Rio Napo, then deeper still into the Peruvian forest along the Sucusari River. Their destination: the ancestral homeland of the region's indigenous people, the Maijuna, who would teach them about conservation in one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world through a course developed specifically for independent school teachers.
Inquiry, Conservation, and Sustainability in the Amazon Field Course is a pilot course sponsored by Amazon Rainforest Workshops LLC, and its travel partner EcoTeach and the nonprofit One Planet. The program was proposed by Dr. Mike Hill from North Carolina's Asheville School after attending an Amazon Rainforest Workshop program in July 2017.
"I was wowed by the people and the place," Hill explains. "Before I left, I begged Amazon Rainforest Workshops director Christa Dillabaugh to let us start a new program in March just for independent school teachers."
Dillabaugh worked with Hill and Millbrook School's Ava Goodale to build a curriculum that would meet the specific needs of independent school teachers working at the secondary level. McAloon and Benedict, along with a dozen faculty members from the Asheville and Millbrook schools, made up the inaugural class. It was, says Hill, "an opportunity to immerse oneself in the areas of emerging conservation programs, indigenous cultures, and tropical rainforest ecology, all in the most amazing ecosystem on the planet with an incredible group of people."
Notes Benedict, "The course in Peru explores rainforest ecology and the interactions of humans with that ecosystem. In signing on, our objective was to learn how the Maijuna are doing sustainable agriculture and working with the government to promote conservation of the natural resources they are so dependent on—topics that are immediately relevant in our classrooms, and which also tie in with what kids learn in AP Human Geography and what they learn in AP Environmental Science. It is one of those interdisciplinary moments that brings everything together that we've been talking about all year."
Conservation & Sustainability
For thousands of years and across many generations, the vitality of the Maijuna people has been inextricably intertwined with the natural resources of the region: life and livelihood, strength and sustenance, security and survival come from the forest, the rivers, and the land—nearly one million acres of it. At one time, the tribal population numbered in the thousands. Today, fewer than 500 Maijuna remain, living in four separate villages in a large, forested area between the Napo and Putumayo rivers.
"Loggers came in and took over their area of the forest," Benedict explains. "The deforestation altered the ecological systems in the area; the loggers killed their fish and hunted their animals. The Maijuna have really done an amazing job pushing back and requiring the government to acknowledge their needs in this area."
In 2006, the four villages came together to petition the regional government for the authority to manage their ancestral land. Their goal, McAloon notes, is to help the government understand the importance of the land to their culture and their survival, and to establish real conservation efforts in the region that would preclude not only the continuation of nonsustainable logging practices, but the construction of a road through Maijuna land.
"The government is still pushing for the road," says McAloon, "which would be disastrous. It creates a disruption of the corridor, destroying communities and wildlife. Still, protection of the area is something the Maijuna have had to defend."
Their conservation efforts are notable for both their innovative methods and their measurable impact: in 2015, the government of Peru granted protected status to 977,600 acres of Amazon rainforest, establishing the Maijuna-Kichwa Regional Conservation Area (RCA). It is an area 22 percent larger than California's Yosemite National Park.
"All four villages are continuing their efforts to conserve their forests and to conserve their community," notes Benedict. "The Sucusari village works most closely with outside groups—those are the people we worked with. We spent a lot of time asking questions, letting them answer, listening to translation, trying to bridge connection. We did many different things with them, just learning how they are able to live in this environment and sustain it, and how they are protecting it from the Peruvian people who don't fully understand its value."
Benedict and McAloon visited agricultural areas within the forest—spots where yucca, bananas, and pineapples are grown and harvested.
"We spent time with a woman named Luceli who is actually grafting cacao from native cacao to produce a hybrid species that is more robust," says Benedict. "They are able to sell that in Iquitos, and also keep some as a kind of candy for themselves. They also use sustainable methods to harvest chambira palm, which they use to craft and sell as art."
The Maijuna have begun using biosand filters to convert water containing biological contaminants into safe drinking water, are cultivating stingless bees through sustainable apiculture to both revive the bee population and produce medicines and sweeteners from their honey, and have adopted more sustainable fishing practices.
"One of the more common fishing methods among indigenous groups used to be the use of rotenone, which is a very toxic compound that occurs naturally in some tropical plants," Benedict explains. "They would basically just poison all the fish, then collect them. Now they use fishing line and are conscious of where they are fishing and what they catch to avoid overfishing in any one area."
They are also bringing technology into their conservation efforts.
"Maijuna hunters are using a GPS tracking feature on their rifles that allows them to monitor where they find and capture different animals," McAloon says. "It is a tool that helps them avoid overhunting and also track the return of some animals to specific areas. Hunters share that information with one another in an effort to help sustain the resurgence of some animal populations that were driven deeper into the forest by the loggers, and to prevent overhunting in areas commonly hunted by different groups."
Perhaps one of the most meaningful initiatives undertaken by the Maijuna is participatory mapping. The inclusive, collaborative, and ongoing project brings communities together to create hand-drawn maps of their land and resources. Pictorial icons mark bountiful fishing sites, set boundaries, identify hunting areas, and pinpoint culturally significant locations. The project is both important and empowering.
"The Maijuna are still working to gain legitimacy—to prove that they use their ancestral lands for sustenance, and that is also a historic and culturally important area for them," explains Benedict. "Participatory mapping was one of the tools that gave credence to their ability to ask that their land be designated a protected conservation area."
Ethnobiologist and George Mason University Professor Dr. Michael Gilmore has worked extensively with the Maijuna and took the mapping project to the next level, visiting the sites on the map and fixing their locations using handheld GPS units.
"Having these types of data to show the government was very important to the Maijuna petition that ultimately established the Maijuna-Kichwa conservation area," notes McAloon.
Into the Forest
In their final days in Peru, Benedict and McAloon journeyed deeper into the forest to continue their scientific inquiry at the Amazon Conservatory for Tropical Studies (ACTS), an open laboratory for scientific research, education initiatives, and sustainability projects. It is also home to one of the largest canopy walkway systems in the world, running more than 500 yards though the treetops and rising to a height of nearly 120 feet at its peak.
"We spent a lot of time up in the canopy—we were up and down maybe four times a day—early in the morning, late at night in the dark, two or three times in the afternoon," says Benedict. "It offers a completely different view of the forest and is a place where we engaged in more in-depth research and discovery."
Research and discovery included biological sampling, identifying birds, and trapping insects. They also laid the groundwork for additional scientific study in the region by setting camera traps. More camera than trap, the devices use sensors and cameras to capture images of animals as they move through the forest. Most shoot both still images and video throughout the day and night.
"Mammal observation through camera trapping is something new there," says McAloon. "The presence of certain animals in an area is an important indicator. We set cameras in the colpa for the first time, in a mineral lick. Animals visit the lick for its nutrients. But no one knows how the animals know it's there and which animals visit it—is it just tapir, or peccaries, too? Now that the loggers are gone from the conservation area, what animals are coming back, what populations are recovering? Are poachers entering the area? The data from the camera traps should answer some of those questions and help lead to more sustainable hunting practices."
The data from the traps set by Benedict, McAloon, and their teams will be recovered in July, when the next group of teachers visits the site. "The camera traps are really interesting science and really important science," says Benedict. "They should provide meaningful data to show that the conservation efforts are working, that the forest and the forest life are coming back in the areas where the Maijuna have done the conservation work."
Pedagogy, Collaboration, Connections
The foundational tenet on which Hill and Goodale built their course for independent school teachers in the Amazon was this: Educators need opportunities to participate in inquiry themselves in order to incorporate inquiry methods in their classrooms. For 10 days, Benedict and McAloon were students in a hands-on, experiential classroom without walls.
"One of the faculty members on the trip was David Pearson. He is an incredibly brilliant, amazing teacher and traveler who led a lot of sessions on student-directed, active learning," says Benedict. "We already know that if kids are active they're learning more. But doing this gave us lots of ideas on how to better integrate and make connections. Mike and I were both very excited about bringing some of these ideas and experiences into our classrooms."
And they have.
"We're learning about plants and fungi in Accelerated Biology, so I took students outside to find some and tell me what they're like," says McAloon. "They identified structures, they found mites living inside little tiny snail shells that were in the mosses—they got excited. I just let them look at everything and do observations like we did in the canopy."
Both teachers have also altered their assessment strategies to include collaborative student experiences, while Benedict has also incorporated a flipped classroom model into her teaching.
"I've given the kids the instructional material to consume as homework. In class, then, we can start with a 10-minute plant observation, integrating the things that we've talked about and they've read about. I ask them to identify the stem, the leaf, likely location of the stomata, and to talk about how the plant system works. So they're seeing real things, rather than just looking at pictures of things. It is about making the content come alive for them in a more meaningful way. I think I got an injection of excitement through this trip—I'm inspired."
Which, says McAloon, translates to a more meaningful learning experience for Taft students.
"I think it's incredibly important for our students to see enthusiasm coming from our teachers—then they get excited themselves. At the end of the day they will remember how buying a mahogany table or buying pepper affects the rainforest, and the people we spent time with and who made such an impression on us who have lived there for so many generations."
Both Benedict and McAloon are eager to see how the pilot program grows in the coming years, and look forward to having a hand in its development. They also hope more Taft teachers will consider participating in the course.
"We had a lot of pedagogy sessions and a lot of time to think and collaborate as teachers about how we can integrate everything we experienced into the classroom," says Benedict. "To me, the power of this trip was getting a bunch of teachers together to have a meaningful experience and think deeply about the connection our kids can have to the content they're studying. A lot of teachers can benefit from that—I could see Spanish teachers, Human Geography teachers, other disciplines going and benefiting from this trip. The way that Taft supports teachers in doing these kinds of things is really powerful. This is what keeps teachers passionate about their subject— being able to go and do the things that they teach about. It is something that Mike and I are both very grateful for."
BENEDICT'S travel was funded by the Davis Fellowship. Established in 1997 by Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey D. Davis and their daughter, Whitney J. Davis, Class of 1997, the Davis Fellowship promotes excellence in teaching by encouraging faculty members to pursue cultural and scholarly experiences through international travel and study in order to broaden and deepen their capacity as classroom teachers.
MCALOON traveled with sponsorship from the Won Family Endowment for Service and Cultural Knowledge, established to provide faculty an opportunity to enhance their knowledge of international culture with preference for projects in South Korea or Nepal.
Example of a hand-drawn Maijuna map (from Gilmore and Young 2010). Only a small portion is reproduced here to protect Maijuna biocultural resources and intellectual property. Reproduced with Maijuna permission. From: Gilmore, Michael P. and Jason C. Young. 2010. "The Maijuna Participatory Mapping Project: Mapping the Past and the Present for the Future." In Perú: "Maijuna, Rapid Biological and Social Inventories Report 22." Eds. Gilmore, Michael P., Corine Vriesendorp, William S. Alverson, Álvaro del Campo, Rudolf von May, Cristina López Wong, and Sebastian Ríos Ochoa. pp. 233–42. The Field Museum. Chicago.
PHOTOGRAPHY provided by Amanda Benedict and Mike McAloon and other trip participants.