Tales from the Amazon

I just returned from another excursion to the remote tropical rainforest of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in eastern Ecuador. I was heading a group of eight science educators ‘-‘- those who directly train students to become science teachers ‘-‘- from different universities in the nation. I was awestruck once again by the beauty, the ecological stories and mysteries, the astounding richness of life there. But I also returned more concerned than ever.

This remote region of the northwest Amazon is one of the most profound biological treasures of the earth, featuring an astounding variety of plants, fungi and animals. More than 10 species of monkeys pass through the 1,500-acre sanctuary. Nearly three dozen palm species in the region are known with many other plants yet unidentified. The numbers of frogs and other amphibians exceeds most any other place on earth. The Tiputini River is speculated to have more than 2,000 species of fish. And ongoing images from the National Geographic Society-supported ‘camera trap project’ at Tiputini show that eight individual jaguars pass through the area regularly. This haven for life in all its grandeur is in part due to Tiputini’s proximity to the Yasuni National Park, which at 9,820 square kilometers is roughly equal to the size of Vermont. Directly across the river, this vast region of over one million acres features no roads and little or no villages. Indeed, just to get to Tiputini can take several hours by motorized canoe.

The threat to this region and its array of crucial ecosystems is mainly the encroaching petroleum companies. With oil now discovered below Yasuni, several petroleum operations seek to expand and drill in this wilderness. Already the noise of the oil pumping about 12 kilometers from Tiputini can be heard, eerily mixing in with the whooping calls of frogs, the chattering of cicadas and the lion-like roars of the howler monkeys. With oil exploration come not only the potential of spills and damaging river boat traffic but significant removal of forest land, creating fragmented habitats. Stored underground methane must be burnt off, often resulting in a 24/7 flame in the forest that kills uncountable numbers of insects so critical to food webs and pollination. A bitter irony is that the number of barrels of petroleum extracted from the region over a year would still only meet United States’ energy needs for less than a week.

Nevertheless, why be so concerned here about distant rainforests? Without the diverse transpiring plants releasing water continuously near the equator, low pressure systems far to the north and south will not have the moisture we all depend upon for crops, drinking water and local ecologies. The rainforest helps counter climate change by acting as a significant carbon sink, using carbon from the atmosphere in photosynthesis. It further serves as a vast gene bank, where original genes of plant lineages ‘-‘- many of which feed the world ‘-‘- reside. With the mismanagement of plant crops and climate alterations, we cannot afford to eliminate these original genomes. Medicinal plants, well-known by the indigenous Waorani peoples, abound in Yasuni area; the cures of many ailments remain undiscovered, yet they are being wiped out with rainforest encroachment.

The Tiputini Biodiversity Station has particularly strong connections to Boston University. Operated by the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, BU was a supportive collaborator from the start largely due to the efforts of BU biology professor and world-renowned bat expert Tom Kunz. Over the years, scores of students have been and continue to be greatly inspired by intensive study at the station as part of their BU degree programs.

Through BU’s Center for Ecology and Conservation Biology center coordinator Freya Hendrickson and I ‘-‘- with the vision and support of sedGreen and the International Symbiosis Society ‘-‘- have initiated Tiputini Support Group. This effort raises funds and energy from students, faculty, Tiputini alumni and concerned citizens everywhere to help strengthen the station. For example, funds can help develop low-tech alternative energy at the station, such that it is less dependent on petroleum in its operation, while fostering other projects.

While it is unrealistic to put a quick halt to petroleum operations in the Yasuni-Tiputini region, strengthening the Tiputini Biodiversity Station through the Tiputini Support Group, continued visitations of the station by researchers and students and actively spreading the word about the region and its threatened situation are critically important to build leverage in future interactions with the petroleum companies and Ecuadoran officials.’

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One Comment

  1. Hi Douglas,<p/>I have had the pleasure of reviewing Patti Paulson’s (Professor of Science Education, Bethel University) pictures and reflections upon her return from the Tiputini Biodiversity Station. Aside from the warmth of the support of the staff such as Jose and the incredible diversity of the plants and animals of Ecuador, I was touched by the reflections concerning the future of the Ecuador environment. As Patti slept to the wonderful sounds of nature each night, she was distracted by the constant mechanical pumping of the oil wells. Bottom line……. we have the opportunity to conserve fuel here in the USA while providing support for the continuation of the flora, funta, and animal diversity of Ecuador. Thank you for providing this rich experience for science education professors who will forward their insights to the future generations of our college students. Best wishes.