Deep in the Amazon

Students and Faculty Help Save a Way of Life

English MingaChelsea Comeau MA ’13 (left) writes the English alphabet for Achuar children in the Amazon. Photo by Carol Lima MA ’13.

This summer, 12 graduate students and two professors from USF traveled to the remote Amazon jungle, on a mission to help an ancient, indigenous people fight for survival. The threat? Development by multinational petroleum corporations. The solution? English.

The people, the Achuar, believe that learning English will help them build alliances with the outside world, spur local economic development at the Achuar-owned and -operated Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve, and save both their land and their culture.

“They see ecotourism as the key to their cultural survival because it provides an alternative to oil and mining exploitation,” said Susan Roberta Katz, a professor in the School of Education’s International and Multicultural Education Program. Katz and Adjunct Professor Onllwyn Dixon led the trip.

There are approximately 7,000 Achuar living in dozens of farming and hunting communities along the Ecuador-Peru border. They lived in virtual isolation until the 1970s, escaping exploitation by the rubber industry that affected many other native people earlier this century. But today, even the Achuar’s remote corner of the world is suffering from encroachment as oil companies try to gain a foothold.

In July, the Achuar convened an international Minga—or collaboration—of Achuar teachers and invited Katz and the rest of the USF team. Together, they developed a first-of-its-kind English-language curriculum for Achuar youth, based on native myths, cuisine, art, and community life. As teaching tools, USFers introduced storytelling, songs, and Total Physical Response (learning language through movement)—adding to Achuar teachers’ demonstration and lecture approach. 

Pam Ly ’12, one of the USF students who traveled to the Ecuadorian jungle, called the trip a rare and valuable experience. “I am very grateful for such an exceptional opportunity to work alongside Achuar teachers and to develop new teaching methodologies that may help sustain and preserve the Achuar culture.”

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