Waking up every morning sore, blistered, and bitten may not sound like that much fun, but for Morgan West ’13 (Huntington Beach, Calif.) it was the experience of a lifetime living among the indigenous Shaur people of the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador.
Through Lafayette’s chapter of Alternative School Break (ASB), West led an interdisciplinary team of students on an intense seven-day service experience over winter break in the rural community of Arutam. This is the 18th year that ASB students have traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad for community service projects. Also during the break, student teams worked in Managua, Nicaragua, Camden, N.J., and Boston, Mass.
The Ecuador trip was organized by FUDECOIPA, a nonprofit community-based NGO whose aim is to create sustainable development in the indigenous communities of Pastaza, the country’s largest province located in the Amazon rainforest. The foundation owns and manages the 2,200-acre Arutam Rainforest Reserve and provides tourism, volunteer, and research opportunities within the reserve and the Shuar community.
Although the students travel with a faculty adviser, the trip is planned and implemented entirely by the students. The team put in a lot of hard work hauling huge wood planks through the rainforest; clearing and leveling forested land; digging trenches, and collecting and planting medicinal plants. The main goal was to complete construction of an ethno-botanical garden. Ethno-botany refers to the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants. The garden will provide the basis for a new medicinal garden that will supply the newly constructed community clinic with plants used for the various treatments.
West, a neuroscience major, learned first-hand how the Shuar live, simply and without easy access to technology. She also came to appreciate the intense labor it takes to sustain a community that exists in harmony with nature.
“We were living with and directly interacting and learning about the Shuar culture as they taught us how best to help them. I never learned so much and felt so indebted to a group of people,” West says.
The life lessons that West acquired while in the rainforest will remain with her forever. She “was amazed at the sheer happiness of the people in the community and how they lived and breathed the rainforest. The Shuar community found harmony between human life and the world that we were blessed to be placed on, which I now believe is the key to happiness. This balance and equanimity between self and nature brought happiness and joy to the community. I hope to be able to find this for myself at home, and spread that message to others in hopes that together we can make it a reality for our culture as a whole.”
Other students on the trip included John Bachner ’11 (Marblehead, Mass.), Julia Ben-Asher ’14 (Maplewood, N.J.), Camille Borland ’13 (Verona, N.J.), Giang Bui ’13 (Hanoi, Vietnam), Stephanie Codos ’11 (Warren, N.J.), Emily Defnet ’13 (Pottstown, Pa.), Katie Leto ’13 (Chatham, N.J.), Kelly McNulty ’11 (Dresher, Pa.), Ryan Shroff ’12 (Mumbai, India), Alana Siegel ’13 (Woodbury, N.Y.), and Chris Vinales ’13 (New York, N.Y.). Luis Schettino, assistant professor of psychology, served as the trip’s faculty adviser.