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Community-based Ecology Education and Resource Monitoring

At the Pimm Group, our stated purpose is “A Future for Species Preservation and Conservation.” And we understand that people are the key to long-term success. So we are very proud when one of our own is directly on the front lines — in this case, Ciara Wirth. She is working with the Waorani, an indigenous people who live in one of the world’s most biodiverse places, the Ecuadorian Amazon.

We wholeheartedly offer our collective congratulations to Ciara who has just been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to spent the next year with the Waorani. She spent spent the last two summers working with the Woarani in the Ecuadorian Amazon and was awarded the Fellowship based on her Statement of Grant Purpose (see below). Ciara will also graduate next month from Duke with Honours.

Ciara Wirth, Ecuador, Education
Community-based Ecology Education and Resource Monitoring
The Waorani People of the Ecuadorian Amazon are composed of around 3,000 individuals distributed among 38 communities in what are now Waorani Territory and the Yasuni National Park. These regions were named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1989 in recognition of their extraordinary cultural and biological richness.

Less than 60 years ago, Waorani society was seminomadic, egalitarian, and composed of small, nuclear familial communities of 10-30 people. They relied entirely on hunting, gathering, and keeping small manioc plots. Today, improved hunting technology, the shift from semi-nomadic to sedentary lifestyle, population growth, and the sale of meat all threaten the species on which the Waorani subsist.

In a series of interviews I conducted in 16 Waorani communities between May 5th and August 1st of 2009, the overwhelming majority of parents and elders indicated they would like future generations to maintain and continue to subsist primarily from the forest. Most individuals expressed concern about game scarcity. Despite their awareness, there was no consensus regarding how to address this problem or its origin.

I propose to develop an ecology research course for Waorani secondary school students, piloted in the Waorani community of Ñoneno. Ñoneno was selected because of its large population of students ages 15 to 24 yrs interested in the project, overall community support, and its interesting and convenient location. It is a 2hr canoe ride from the new Ministry of Environment Station, which has a health facility and is a 4hr bus ride from the nearest airport.

The principal objectives of this course are: (1) to explain the field of ecology studies and how it might be utilized by the community to both address questions about changes in resource availability and inform extractive practices, (2) to guide Waorani youth through the process of scientific inquiry and aid in their own experimentation utilizing the scientific method, (3) to empower Waorani youth to conduct research within their territory critical for informing community resource use decisions, (4) to facilitate community discussions on appropriate resource use and what should be done if these statutes are violated, and (5) to refine this course as an ecology curriculum model which could be utilized in other Waorani secondary schools.

This summer I observed primary and secondary school classes in various Waorani communities, as well as student independent project presentations. All courses were strictly lecture based, coursework primarily involved rote memorization, and students were very nervous and uncomfortable with presenting.

Parents in all communities told me they were concerned about high drop out rates in secondary schools, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, suicide, cultural depreciation among youth, and paucity of Waorani university graduates. Students attributed these concerns to teacher absence, rudimentary instruction, and boredom.

It will be critical to encourage student interaction, fortify student math and writing skills, and foster student confidence and cultural pride in order to achieve the five course objectives and address the existing community education concerns. This course will have a lecture component but will principally involve lab and field work to encourage student involvement.

In my experience, Waorani youth can be very shy and it will be important to facilitate an open and trusting environment in class. I think this could be achieved by asking students to teach me about their forest so that there may be a role reversal where they will be the teachers and I the student.

The community of Ñoneno has indicated it would like this course to be offered for 45 minutes, three times per week during the natural science time slot already scheduled into the school day. Secondary students and their parents are aware that most field work needs to be conducted outside the class period and are committed to the extra time.

The formal school year for the Waorani Indigenous Bilingual Education System begins in September and ends July, with a month long break in December. In August, I will work with the students and with the community to discuss and solidify course formatting, scheduling and expectations.

From my site visits this summer, I observed great variation in math and writing preparedness. I will run short computer typing skill courses and English classes a few times a week in the evenings. Research project questions will be designed so that analysis will not involve statistics any more complicated than size class and frequency distributions. Student input will be an important theme throughout the course.

From September through November I will expose students to various neotropical ecology theories and field study methods pre-identified as relevant to Waorani territory through consultation with field experts. Throughout the course, students will have the opportunity to provide feedback on the course design, which will aid in revising this education model for other communities. Once a week, students will be encouraged to teach the natural science course for primary school students, focusing on concepts or ideas they found most interesting in the course.

Student confidence in Waorani territory seems to be tied to cultural pride. Students will be encouraged to investigate and articulate past and current Waorani traditional ecological knowledge held by their community. I will ask them to recommend how it could be best integrated into the course material and how it should be delivered. I will also attempt to build students’ confidence in their ability to do research.

Starting in October, I will teach the experimental method and all its elements through a series of six class projects and one long group project. Each of the six class projects will be directed by a visiting anthropologist or ecologist who is working in Waorani territory or in similar regions. Dr. Flora Lu, Dr. Laura Rival, Dr. James Yost, Javier Torres, and Santiago Espinoza are possible candidates.

In all projects, students will identify a question, develop a hypothesis and methodology, collect and analyze data, and write a report discussing results and recommendations for some type of community response. Data analysis and reports will be worked through as an entire class.

From January to March, groups of students will have the opportunity to identify their own question and work on independent research projects.

At the end of both class and group projects, students will hold community meetings where they discuss the rationale for their project, their methods and findings, and appropriate community responses to findings. This project is founded on a solid history of personal investment.

By the time I start this project, I will have spent countless hours of every school year in Skype conversations with Waorani collaborators in Ecuador planning summer work, writing project and research grants, reviewing my field notes to expand my vocabulary in the Waorani language, and researching related texts.

I am fascinated by the resource challenges in Waorani territory, and how these are influenced by multinational industries, NGOs and Waorani cultural context. I developed strong friendships with many Waorani and feel a special commitment to this group of people. Six months spent in Waorani Territory have been pivotal in focusing my career interests.

I have transitioned from holding a general interest in ecology and indigenous rights to becoming incredibly passionate about the indigenous led resource monitoring and management, facilitated through scientist collaboration and ecology research education. I hope to continue working with the Waorani people on these topics in my Ph.D.

Posted in: conservation

1 Comment on "Community-based Ecology Education and Resource Monitoring"

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  1. Wow, thanks. I’ve been hunting for something like this forever. I wish there was more info about this. Greatly appreciated

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