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.
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