Students learn about environmental issues in Peru for service-learning class

For four geography undergrads, spring break 2011 wasn’t about a week off from class work. Arguably, it was the busiest week of their semester as they set up still cameras to photography wildlife in Peru’s rain forest, toured the ruins of Machu Picchu and met the Peruvian minister of the environment.

The activities were part of a service-learning field trip to various sites in the South American country as part of the semester-long GEOG 493, “Environmental Issues across the Americas.” The course, led by geography senior scientist Denice Wardrop and research associate Joe Bishop, consisted of classroom instruction before and after the trip with the goal of publishing a scholarly paper based on the students’ research findings.

“This class is a great example to show how place matters,” said Bishop, who’s been taking Penn State students to Peru with Wardrop for five years. “You have to understand the geography of where you are in order to address an environmental issue.”

The geography students were seniors Kyle Martin and Andy Stauffer, junior Mallory Henig, and sophomore Jackie Dougherty. Three students from Penn State’s Altoona campus also were enrolled in the class, which was in Peru from March 3 to 13.

The itinerary had the group visiting the Peruvian rain forest in the Tambopata National Reserve near Puerto Maldonado for the first half of the trip. For the second half, they visited Cuzco and Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains.

“The rain forest was more about data collection and experiencing nature,” Stauffer said. “Machu Picchu and the highlands segment were more about experiencing the local cultures.”

They did fieldwork on two research projects they developed in class during the weeks leading up to the trip. The projects focused on ecotourism and local, small-scale gold mining.

“It was a real privilege being able to perform fieldwork for a professional project of our own design,” Martin said. “Bridging the gap between the classroom and real life application was a great experience for all of us. It was hard, but it felt good to do field work for our own project.”

For the ecotourism project, the group’s research looked at human impact on the wildlife presence around two eco-lodges, the Tambopata Research Center (TRC) inside the national reserve, and Posada Amazonas, which is outside the reserve. In all, the group spent two days at each lodge, where tourists stay to see a variety of animals like macaws, monkeys, giant river otters, caimans, among others.

To research potential human impact on wildlife, the group installed two infrared, motion-sensitive cameras along two trails near each lodge to take pictures of wildlife. In both locations, one trail is highly used and the other is less frequently used.

The overarching research question asks if there is a relationship between the trail use and wildlife sightings, and if so, if the relationship is similar when comparing the two lodges.

So far, the cameras have snapped photos of wildlife including a puma, a jaguar, a tapir, a peccary, an agouti, a guan and a red brocket deer. The cameras will keep taking photos until the end of the semester when the cameras will be donated to the lodges.

“Work from the eco-tourism research project is twofold,” Stauffer said. “It was an experience for us undergraduates to have a research experience and write a paper on it. More than that, it’s a service-learning project. The lodges can use what we collect from the camera traps.”

In addition to the fieldwork, the group took a six-hour boat ride on the Tambopata River. Among their stops were an agro-forest that supported the local communities. They also went to an oxbow lake to see wildlife.

“We went out on a raft to view the wildlife and were lucky enough to see birds, including a hoatzin, and a black caiman, as well as the resident family of otters,” Dougherty said. “After the otters retreated we fished for piranhas using raw beef as bait. You could feel the fish tug as they all attacked the meat.”

For the gold mining research, the group interviewed locals who were familiar with the legal and illegal gold mining activities in the area of Puerto Maldonado.

“I liked the gold-mining project because I was interested in more of the human and social impacts,” Henig said. “There are also many environmental impacts effecting the rain forest and Amazon River from gold mining and it was great learning about it firsthand.”

The resulting project will be a question-and-answer article on how the students’ perspectives have changed on the issue of small-scale gold mining after interviewing locals knowledgeable on the topic.

“My perception originally was that the government was forcing them to work without resources,” Henig said of the miners. “The miners aren’t getting resources because they’re not paying taxes. They’re not helping the town where they’re working.”

The miners had been protesting a crackdown on their activities and regulations by federal officials, namely Antonio Brack Egg, the minister of the environment.

“The complexity of the gold mining issue fascinated me,” Martin said. “There are many sides and differing opinions about gold mining, and trying to get to the bottom of the issue is interesting.”

For the second part of the trip, the group went to the Peruvian highlands. Their excursions included tours of Machu Picchu and Cuzco.

Dougherty said she was impressed by the knowledge of their tour guide at Machu Picchu, the terraced 15th-century Inca site about 8,000 feet above sea level.

“Every building had a role in their society, whether it was a temple or house or meeting area,” she said learned. “Despite the years, the structures were all still intact, and it was amazing to walk through such a historical sight.”

In Cuzco on the last day, the group stumbled upon a lesson in human geography as they learned how the locals defined poverty. Dougherty said she was told that to be considered middle class, a family would lack two of the following: housing, education, adequate salary, electricity, and plumbing.

“Initially, this seemed so drastic. These things that we take for granted every day are not necessarily guaranteed to people here,” Dougherty says. “But it really opened my eyes as to how people in other countries live their lives and how fortunate we really are.”

From Cuzco, they left for Lima to fly home. But before they left the country, they had dinner with the environmental minister, Antonio Brack, with whom they were already familiar because of the gold miners protesting his attempts to regulate their activities.

Henig said Dr. Brack was very up-front about the mining issue during the hour her group had with him. She said the face-to-face time with him was an important learning experience.

“I realized you definitely have to hear both sides of the story,” she said. “He was definitely trying to do a good thing.”

Once back at Penn State, Stauffer, Martin, Henig and Dougherty continued to analyze the data the cameras are capturing, and they’ll start to draw conclusions. Their goal is to write a scholarly paper on their findings.

Looking back, though, the trip was more than an educational experience for them.

For Stauffer, who’s going to graduate school to study GIS after he graduates in May, the Peru trip was valuable because he learned how to start doing research and how he can function as a researcher.

“It prepared me to take leadership roles on some parts of the project and be a workhorse on other parts,” he said. “It helped me identify my individual strengths and weaknesses.”

For Henig, who will be a senior in 2011-2012, the experience inspired her.

“The service trip to Peru will always be one of my favorite memories from my undergraduate career,” she said. “I think that this trip definitely made me realize that I want to continue doing similar research in the future and travel to more countries to help out with other environmental and social issues.”