The Amazon Field School

A Wilderness Learning Odyssey

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One of the lodges at Calanoa, roughly two hours west by boat from Leititia, Colombia.

A few years back I founded an interdisciplinary arts program for university students. That program no longer exists in its original form — but, for a few brief years, it thrived. One of the program’s signature offerings was the Amazon field school, which immersed learners in a multitude of interdisciplinary and cultural experiences focused on the landscape, people, and ecology of the Amazon region.

A Purposeful Journey

Internationalization of curriculum prepares learners for an increasingly interdependent and interdisciplinary world, facilitates their understanding of other cultures, and fosters effective living in the global community. Learners who travel acquire knowledge and skills useful in the global community, increase their access to learning and employment opportunities, and promote international projects, institutional linkages, and community development.

The field school offered learners the opportunity to engage in intensive interdisciplinary field study in the Amazon Rainforest. They participated in cultural and creative immersion activities, assisted with community development and conservation projects, and contextualized their field learning by classroom-based analysis and critical reflection before and after their field experiences. Learners developed interdisciplinary skills in creativity, academic inquiry, ecology and conservation, cultural awareness, environmental design, and community development. They became familiar with various expressive modalities of the Amazon region (e.g. writing, music, movement, fine arts, materiality, theatre, storytelling, etc.), and they explored the application of those modalities in an integrative learning environment.

Sustainability and Ecology

The field study site, Calanoa Natural Reserve, is committed to the conservation of the biological and cultural diversity of the Amazon rainforest and has initiated long-term community development projects with six Indigenous villages that share their traditional territory with the Amacayacu National Park in the Colombian Amazon. These projects, which are interdisciplinary by nature, are focused on issues such as education and cultural memory, identity and arts revival, community health, materiality, traditional uses of medicinal plants, food security and alternative ways of sustainable use of diversity, and innovative design solutions for sustainable livelihoods.

During the two-week international field school experience, learners went on field trips to visit many ecological, cultural, and historic sites. Guest lectures by local instructors and experts in the host country complemented lectures by field instructors. The onsite hosts and guides were the founders of the Calanoa Project, Marlene and Diego Samper, who facilitated all the visits and activities.

Locations

The field school included three primary sites in Colombia: Bogota, the capital city of the country situated high in the Andes mountains; Leticia, a town on the Amazon River that serves as the main centre for supplies and services in the region; and Calanoa, a facility on the banks of the Amazon River that was our base camp and main site of study. There were also short excursions from Calanoa to local Indigenous communities along the river. With a population of about eight million, Bogotá sits approximately 8,660 feet (2640 m) above sea level in the Colombian Andes region. Orientation is relatively easy, as the mountains to the east are generally visible from most parts of the city. Bogotá is a city of contrasts, and as such it offers a unique experience to its visitors, who find a hectic balance between the new and the old, the peaceful and the frantic. Bogotá is a city with many layers. From internationally recognized universities to regional offices for multinational companies, Bogotá is Colombia’s business and political capital and is a world-class urban destination.

We flew from Bogotá to the town of Leticia on the Amazon River. In Leticia, we stayed at the residences of the National University of Colombia (Amazonas). Leticia has approximately 33,000 inhabitants and is located at the point where Colombia, Brazil and Peru come together in an area called Tres Fronteras. It is Colombia’s southernmost town and one of the major ports on the Amazon river. We traveled from Letitia by boat 60 km up the Amazon River to Calanoa. Calanoa is located in the middle course of the Amazon River, 1,100km from Bogotá, 3,360 km from the mouth of the Amazon and 3,660 km from its source. The Calanoa Natural Reserve is at the very heart of the Amazon forest, yet easy to access, and its surroundings are an endless source of marvel. It is a low-impact, small-scale settlement. The Calanoa Project is an initiative by Marlene and Diego Samper that aims to contribute to the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in the Amazon region by providing a setting that integrates art, design, architecture, scientific research, communication, community education and sustainable tourism. The Calanoa Project is based in a private natural reserve beside the Amacayacu Natural Park and close to Indigenous villages of the Tikuna, Cocama, Huitoto and Bora people.

The Calanoa Project works with the Indigenous villages that are around the Amacayacu Natural park, supporting educational processes, the conservation of biological resources, sustainable economic practices and the preservation of ancestral knowledge and cultural practices. Calanoa provides an ideal setting for the development and implementation of innovative design for the humid tropics. The building of the settlement has been a laboratory for natural and sustainable architecture, research into traditional techniques, local materials, wood and natural fibers, raw earth and ceramic, landscape architecture, alternative energies and water treatment. The hub of this conservation project is 125 acres of land — the starting point for a natural reserve and a collection of tropical fruits, medicinal and useful Amazonian plants for a self-sufficient settlement. Hundreds of hardwood trees, fruits and palms have been planted in order to supply food, fibres and building materials. A grid of trails and wildlife observation towers facilitates the study and contemplation of the forest for researchers and visitors.

Reflections from the Amazon Field School 2013

This was a life-changing experience for me. I believe that university should have more of these classes which offer different learning opportunities for students. Participating in this course was even more interesting while being on location in the Amazon. This further enhanced the experience by allowing students to get out of their comfort zones and be exposed to new environments. As a result students were able to tap into themselves and develop personal skills that may never be developed in a regular classroom setting. I felt like I was working on my development as a person and not just focusing on hard skills. I believe that in traditional classroom settings students rarely get the chance to focus on themselves and are not fully engaged. I would recommend this course to anyone looking to experience something life-changing and with much personal growth. Being a part of this course while being in the Amazon rain forest is something I will never forget.

Field School participant

Before making the decision to travel to Colombia I carried a burden in my heart that prevented me from feeling completely satisfied with my experience as a student. The routine I developed, reading books and attending lectures, was no longer fulfilling so I shifted my focus toward finding a way to be a part of something more, something great. The Amazon field school was just that. Being a member of the Amazon field school program not only provided an opportunity for me to be a part of a life-altering journey, but it also changed how I view education. Furthermore, being a member of the program offered more than an opportunity to learn about Colombia and its culture, it also provided me with a safe outlet to break personal boundaries and increase my self-awareness. By participating in the Amazon field school I acquired knowledge not only about Colombia but also about myself and recommend that students who are searching for direction (in their personal lives or in their studies) partake in the Amazon adventure.

Field School participant

The Amazon experience allowed me to flow like the river itself, in such a form where each day was lived fully and intensely. It inspired me to create more, and use the living spirit of the forest as my vessel of expression. Getting long hours of sleep, waking up early and rested, ready to encounter a new day. The air was constantly electrified by sounds from nearby nocturnal wildlife. It was interesting to notice the Yin and Yang in the forest, for which by day and night are were completely different. I am both humbled and awed by all the generous, intelligent and creative Colombians that we met along this journey. It was a heart-guiding experience for most of us. The opportunity to experience this is something I will be eternally grateful for, and I encourage further Colombian and jungle field schools. For me it was an extremely rich experience. I gained knowledge on the biodiversity of Colombia, experienced the wild, thriving nature for myself, and gained creative inspiration that will direct me on multiple levels of my life and academics. I indulged in various local Amazonian artistic media, while also learning about the politics and social issues of Colombia as well as the ecology of the land. I came back with a new drive and broadened perspectives. I came back with a new layer of skin and soul that share the same storytelling nature as the layered trees.

Field School participant

The Amazon field study was an ambitious endeavor to give students a transformative experience. This adventure to Colombia is something that I will never forget. When I started at university I had a goal to further educate myself, I never thought that my time at university would also lead to such an amazing experience such as this. I thought University would be a place and time for me to grow in a sense of education, however this field study helped me to grow as a person, which I believe in combination with my education I have received will help me to be successful in my future after I graduate. It is because of this program that I have become a more rounded student, with not just in classroom experience but a more international perspective. Which is what I believe will help me to go further in both studies and career goals. Sometimes it takes straying from routines and pushing yourself past where you thought your limits were to help further develop yourself. This is what the program does; it gives you that push past the routine and into the unknown. It is a program that allows for one to further develop themselves in ways most traditional education doesn’t.

Field School participant

We hiked through the Amazon rainforest with shaman guides, sometimes during rainstorms; we had an evening boat ride down the Amazon with nothing but the stars and galaxies to light our way; we met with professionals and locals to hear their tales of social responsibility, global issues, and magic; and we witnessed countless rainbows, sunsets, and thunderstorms, showcasing the diversity and complexity that is the Amazon. I remember on the boat ride to Calanoa there was an intense thunderstorm – lightning bolts illuminated the night sky as fireflies danced between the trees – and all I was thinking was: the adventure has officially begun. I learned so much about myself, about Colombia, and about the world around me. Ultimately, this was an experience I will never, never forget. It was expensive, it was terrifying, but it was exciting, necessary, and infinitely rewarding. I will recommend this field school to whomever I can for as long as I can.

Field School participant

In Colombia, I went on an amazing journey — and not just within the trip itself but also an emotional roller coaster. I experienced so many eye-opening things that I have difficulty putting it all into words. One of the things that I really wanted to do when I was on this trip was to go into it without letting fear stop me. There was no doubt that I had fears and anxieties about what I was getting into but I realized that this was an opportunity of a lifetime and a chance to make as many memories as possible. I wanted to do everything and experience everything because I knew I would regret it if I didn’t. I tackled my fears while I was there and it has given me a new sense of courage now. It was frightening enough just to decide to go to the Amazon in the first place knowing that I would be in a truly unfamiliar environment. I didn’t know how I would feel while I was there. I felt that I pushed myself to be brave and not worry about the outcome as much and I always ended up realizing that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I surprised myself with how I reacted emotionally to the situations I was put in. Even though overall I had anxieties there was something internal pushing me to be brave. It was a feeling that I had never experienced before.

Field School participant

During this field school I learned that I don’t know very much about the world, but I know I really want to. Colombia made me realize that university alone does not shape you into knowledgeable person. Experiences such as this are essential to being a better-rounded person. This experience exposed me to so many avenues of study that I was not aware of, and many that I am genuinely interested in. This is the first course in my 6 years of university where the grade was not the focus of my study. I believe that this is the reason why I fully engaged in the process and the journey. Our group reflections helped me break out of my shell. They were an important part of this process for me. I was shocked at the way I was able to speak to the group. I was much more open than I am used to being. It was not just about facing fear, it was about trusting others. Something I feel I had lost. Now, I want to only associate myself with things I believe in and things I am proud of. I want to see the world. If Colombia alone has taught all this, I can’t imagine what seeing the world would do. Life is a journey, and I think that mine is finally taking off. I want to have more of these experiences; they are priceless lessons; an entirely different type of education.

Field School participant

I now know a calm peace within myself like I have never known before. Spending two weeks walking side by side the group, every day has been the catalyst for this. I realize now that I cannot move forward alone, I must engage and be part of the greater whole in order to realize any true and lasting meaning. Our group and the people of Colombia, the Amazon and certainly the villages have shown me that it is possible to be happier with less. Watching the children of the village on the football field proved this to me. We are all connected. I can now feel the connection after living it, it came from the Amazon and the people — it was not there before we left Canada.

Field School participant

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Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.