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Mark Shwartz, News Service (650) 723-9296; e-mail:

Beyond slogans: Researchers, students and alumni venture to the Amazon in search of alternatives to rainforest destruction

Well-meaning efforts to prevent rainforest destruction in South America's Amazon basin often neglect the plight of indigenous and local people who depend on the land. But it turns out that conservation and community development can go hand in hand. Stanford researchers are evaluating projects designed to protect the Amazon rainforest and still bring jobs and money to local communities.

"Conservation is a social process," said William Durham, the Bing Professor in Human Biology in the Department of Anthropological Sciences. Durham is writing a book on the social issues tied to rainforest conservation.

"Have we learned enough from lessons of the past and from local and indigenous people to make these projects last?" he asks.

To assess conservation and development projects firsthand, Durham and postdoctoral fellow Amanda Stronza led a field seminar of Stanford students and alumni to the Tambopata rainforest in Peru during spring break. The seminar organized jointly by the Department of Anthropological Sciences, the Program in Human Biology, the Stanford Alumni Association Travel/Study Programs and the university's Continuing Studies Program was the culmination of a 10-week course on rainforest conservation and development. Thirteen undergraduates and three graduate students were selected for the expedition. Alumni watched a parallel course on video or attended evening classes on campus.

Durham established the field seminar series in 1992 after receiving a Bing Fellow Award for Excellence in Teaching. Stanford donors Peter and Helen Bing also help undergraduates meet the cost of the expedition each year, and the Alumni Association Travel/Study Program assists by waiving overhead costs for the seminar.

Rainforest friendly

According to Durham and Stronza, traditional farming methods have inspired one model of rainforest-friendly development. The acidic Amazon soil lacks many nutrients essential for growing annual crops such as maize, rice and manioc, a foot-long tuber that is a main staple in the region.

"Manioc reminds you of a potato, except everything you like about the taste of a potato is intensified," says Stronza.

To support manioc and other annuals, indigenous farmers use a technique called "shifting cultivation." They begin by clearing two acres of forest. Burning the vegetation puts nutrients back into the soil and helps control weeds and pests, Durham says.

The farmers then plant a mixture of manioc and other annuals, along with various fruit tree seedlings. After three to five years, the annuals have exhausted the soil's nutrients, but the fruit trees will have matured. The farmers harvest the secondary crops of papayas, peach palms and nuts for up to 20 years before the land is burned again and replanted. As a result, farmers can stay in the same general area for many years without having to burn deeper and deeper into the rainforest.

Developing markets for secondary fruit and nut crops could encourage this type of sustainable management and allow local people to oversee the regrowth of the forest, Durham says.

During the trip in March, the Stanford group visited one such cultivated clearing, or swidden field. "There are more bugs in an old swidden than anywhere else in the Amazon," Durham recalls. "It's because of all the flowering fruit trees."

Eco-tourist lodge

The seminar participants visited a second site of conservation and community development: the eco-tourist lodge Posada Amazonas. Ownership of the lodge is split evenly between the Ese'eja Native Community of Tambopata and a tour company in Lima called Rainforest Expeditions. After 20 years, the community will vote on whether to renew the company's contract or take full responsibility for the lodge.

Advocates say that eco-tourism can generate substantial income for a community while leaving the rainforest ecosystem virtually untouched an idea that intrigues Thomas Kohnstamm, a graduate student in Latin American studies. "If eco-tourism is going to affect conservation," he says, "it has to give substantial benefits. I wanted to know what are the obstacles? What stands in the way?"

To gauge the economic and social impact of the Posada Amazonas enterprise, Kohnstamm spoke with managers and workers at the lodge. So far, he says, joint ownership between the community and the Lima company seems to be working well. The lodge is already profitable, notes Kohnstamm, but after three years of operation, it is too soon to judge its impact on the environment or the endurance of the project.

Full ownership of an eco-tourism lodge sounds nice in theory, says Kohnstamm, but many native people haven't been trained in the marketing skills necessary to maintain the tourist end of business. Partnering with established companies gives communities the chance to learn these skills, he says.

Posada Amazonas works well in another way: It preserves the cultural integrity of the Ese'eja by separating the village from the lodge. Kohnstamm points out that the separation relieves the community of the pressure of putting their culture on display for foreign tourists.

Stanford explorers

The Stanford group stepped gleefully into the shoes of eco-tourists when they explored the Tambopata rainforest. When Kohnstamm climbed a 60-foot tower, he was struck by the huge columns of mist rising over the canopy. "It was like looking at one giant organism, breathing for the planet. The sheer amount of water was incredible."

Others were equally awestruck.

"You hear the howler monkeys, frogs, cicadas, crashing of trees, branches falling, rain pouring there's just so much ambient sound," observes Roma Hammel, one of three high school teachers who received scholarships for the program.

"The first few nights, going to sleep was something of a chore," recalls Becky Blanchard, a junior anthropological sciences major. Huddled in tents, the students heard a creature crashing through the underbrush and snuffling loudly. "We really thought that it was a pig. But nothing sounds like the size it really is. It turned out it was a bamboo rat that makes pig-like noises."

In the early evenings, students presented papers on their research to the older participants the "overgrads," a combination of alumni and their families and friends. A sheet tacked to the wall of a thatched roof hut served as a screen for the overhead projector during the evening seminars. "You could see smoke coming off the transformer and the audience slapping bugs as you were talking," Blanchard recalls.

According to Durham, a good-natured rivalry sprang up between the overgrads and the undergrads. The students were experts on specific topics, but the overgrads fired hard and relentless questions at the speakers, he notes: "Each seemed to be saying, let's do our best to show them what our generation can do."

But the conflict was only skin-deep.

"You know what my husband said to me 10 days after we got back?" confides Sharon Kelley, wife of alumnus Tom Kelley (MBA '67). "He said, 'The best thing about the trip was the students.' He wasn't as excited about tramping around in the mud as I was, but he said it gave him hope to see students knowing so much more about the rainforest than we did back then. Perhaps they will be able to change things for the better."

This article was written by science writing intern Katie Greene.



By Katie Greene

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