Noisy, Green, and Inspiring – Los Amigos

October 22, 2010

Sarah FedermanCICRA intern Sarah Federman relates her experience working at the Los Amigos Biological Station.

Sordid little detail: bugs (although I prefer the Spanish term, bichos – the sound of the word describes more fully my feelings than the hard ending of “bug”) have made off with the rubber parts of my earphones. I am not pleased. However, this is a price I am more than willing to pay to live and work at the Amazon Conservation Association’s Los Amigos Biological Station (known as “CICRA” in Spanish).

I wish I could package the sounds here – trills, screeches, squawks, growls, chirps, clicks, the mechanical hum of cicadas, and the steady patter of the swarm of wasps which flies repeatedly into the metal screens behind me. A flock of birds lives outside the dining hall. When they call, it is like listening to drops of water falling into a metal bowl.

To reach CICRA you must travel up the Madre de Dios river in a motorized canoe for anywhere between five and eight hours. The ride is amazing, opening up a scene of conflicting ideals. The wide river stretches sinuously below an imposing and mysterious wall of shining greens and browns reaching into the glaringly blue sky (or, as the rainy season sets in, the slate grey of an impending downpour); here it is easy to imagine nature as Nature. Below the wall of green, the water is littered with piles of discarded rocks upon which crouch men, women, and children. They sift and add to their ever-growing islands of refuse, which, with time, become archipelagoes of unrealized aspirations. At moments, though, hidden within the chaff is a whisper of gold that glints with the promise of paradise.

It would be easy to condemn one of these “ideals,” especially when presented with a literal divide at one point during the ride: a conservation concession beyond the bank of the river, with mining on the water. I wonder, though, if there is something more, some entanglement of these two seemingly irreconcilable experiences of the environment. It is this itching question, regarding the contents of the space of friction between two traditionally opposed realities which drives me to study not just ecology, but take a more interdisciplinary route of study.

One of the best perks of the job is that I get to organize and teach sábados científicos (Science Saturdays) at the closest town along the river. I was able to coordinate with the town’s teacher to create a year’s worth of lesson plans to complement the students’ scientific curriculum. The children are quite young, so sábado científico classes have a strong emphasis on combining group work, play, and knowledge of local biodiversity and ecosystems with the aim of promoting a sense of communal pride and protectiveness over local flora and fauna. Students often work in teams to solve questions, find and identify useful plants, or act out parts of an ecosystem; in this way we create a positive association between learning, play, and the amazing natural world in which we live.

ACA provides me with the perfect outlet for continuing and improving my passion for ecological investigations. I am allowed time to work with visiting researchers, allowing me to gain valuable field experience and skills, and to design and implement my own research projects. Thus far, I have designed two which I find quite interesting. The first is to monitor butterfly diversity with standard baited traps on an altitudinal gradient between ACA’s cloud forest station (Wayqecha) and CICRA, focusing on fruit feeding Nymphalidae butterflies as indicators of overall butterfly diversity. This investigation is primarily a “teaching study” maintained by students and volunteers with the intent to create opportunities to gain experience and learn field skills in the tropics. The second project is more of an independent investigation which compares vegetative regeneration in pristine and human-altered sites.

Thus far my work at CICRA has greatly expanded my array of field skills. I am confident that these important skills will further my goal to implement meaningful change as a professor or within a conservation organization, researching and educating on the subjects of ecology and conservation.

(Photos by Rick Stanley and Gabby Salazar)