2019 UW Exploration Seminar: Andes to Amazon: Biodiversity, conservation, and sustainability in Peru

flyer for 2019 Andes to Amazon study abroad

Location: Cusco, Peru
Academic Term: Early Fall
Dates: 08/26/2019 – 09/21/2019
Estimated Program Fee: $4,370
Credits:5

Program Description

Our program examines conservation and sustainability issues in a biodiversity hotspot of global importance: southeastern Peru. The first week of our program takes place in the relatively arid highlands surrounding Cusco. We examine current and past human land-use practices and their impact on biodiversity. This portion of the program includes visits to Machu Picchu, a women’s weaving cooperative, local fruit and vegetable markets, an organic farm and environmentally focused school, Week 2 and 3 takes us to Manu National Park and Biosphere Reserve where we lodge at biological field stations, both in mountain forests and remote lowland forests. We immerse ourselves in ecological exploration of pristine forest ecosystems and park buffer zones. Basic taxonomy of plant and animal groups will be discussed, as well as techniques for conducting biodiversity surveys. We continue our ecological studies, but also look at the impacts of various human activities (road building, gold mining, cattle ranching) on biodiversity, and explore the ethical and philosophical dimensions of those impacts. For most this is a first foray into the tropical forests, and the sheer diversity of life is overwhelming. Becoming acquainted with the intricacies of tropical forest biodiversity is the first step to understanding what stands to be lost. Ultimately the course examines various stakeholders in biodiversity conservation and exploitation, considers how cultural factors shape environmental attitudes and practices, and discusses compromise solutions that might prevent or slow the future loss of biodiversity. Southeastern Peru is recognized as a biodiversity hotspot of international importance. It is also facing huge anthropogenic pressures from population growth and habitat loss, to oil exploitation, to road building, to mining, and climate change. Ecosystem changes are palpable. Yet these ecosystems are some of the least well understood in the world. We allow our students to become intimately familiar with tropical ecosystems and the pressures facing them. The techniques used to study them are best learned in the field setting, and the unique challenges faced by this region can only be understood by field observation and experience. By spending a week in each of three different locations, we give students exposure to the best available cross section of ecosystems and conservation issues. In the Sacred Valley, the most important agricultural area in southeastern Peru, we visit a current farm and past farms (of the Incas), as well as participate in a dying and weaving project that uses alpaca wool and natural plant and animal based dyes all from the local area. On hikes, we examine these organisms (the sources of wool and dyes) in their environment and look at the impacts (sustainable or not) of local land use practices on the natural ecosystem. By exploring three ecosystems we begin to understand how the Andes create the climate the zones we travel through, and how each ecosystem is linked to the other in the landscape. Our second two weeks are spent immersed in natural history study at 2 field stations-one in a remote wilderness setting, and the other occurring at the interface of wilderness and moderate-to-high impact human land use. These sites are ideal for understanding tropical ecosystems in their natural state and examining first-hand the impact of modern human encroachment. Again, it is only through immersion that one can truly understand the magnitude of what is being lost and the importance (and difficulty) of brokering compromises for conservation and sustainable use. Every field station we visit has a unique community of researchers, actively engaged in the most current tropical research. This is an unparalleled opportunity for students to interact with and hear lectures from the most up-to-date ecological science available on this region. It is also a great way for students to think about possible careers. The fees we pay for room and board at field stations go directly to land conservation efforts of the agency owning the stations. At two of our sites, our students may also have the opportunity to conduct environmental education outreach projects for local elementary school students. These students come from underprivileged backgrounds and their families directly benefit from the use of the natural resources we are studying. They also suffer directly when these resources are depleted. This is an unparalleled opportunity for our students to understand first hand what it is like to live in and depend upon the ecosystems we are studying. The students they teach stand to benefit from gaining a scientific and international perspective on the importance of the ecosystems they live in, as well as encountering positive role models who care about their well-being. Basic well-being is a legitimate concern, for example, in areas where children are forced to live among gold-miners in physically dangerous and toxic conditions, as well as social environments that can be psychologically detrimental to them. In the Sacred Valley we will have many obvious interactions with the local community from the restaurants we use, to a service project conducted at a school we visit, and the project we undertake with the women’s weaving cooperative. In all cases, the money we bring in is important for their well-being and survival, and provides means of living that do not directly depend on the unsustainable depletion of biodiversity. Undoubtedly, fostering friendly interaction between our students and Peruvian citizens has positive ramifications for both sides. But, UW students probably benefit the most of all on our course, as we allow them to experience Peruvian culture as a more of a participant than a tourist. As a course, we are especially careful about ensuring that our students portray the best possible public image for UW. We are also extremely conscious about our personal and group resource use. We refuse to buy disposable packaging and always travel with reusable Tupperware, bags, and water bottles for such purposes. We try to minimize the use of fossil-fuel powered electricity and vehicles whenever possible as well. We minimize electricity and water use (for non-essential things like showers and laundry), and try to eat locally grown food. We encourage the avoidance of meat, especially beef that is raised by destroying the rainforest we study. All of these simple actions on the individual level add up to significantly reduced group impact. We calculate these impacts as an exercise during the course. Our calculations can serve as a model for other tourist groups and a personal learning experience for how we might live our own lives beyond the course.

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