Varsha Vijay, 22, Coralville, IA
Empowering Amazon Tribes with Information
In an effort to help combat oil extraction and deforestation in the Amazon, Varsha started Fortificando el Intercambio (Strengthening the Exchange) to share academic findings about the rainforest with the Waorani tribe in Ecuador. By improving the Waorani tribeís access to the latest science about Amazonian ecosystems and equipping them with GPS and other mapping technologies, Varsha is helping the trip and local NGOs to better watchdog the oil and logging industry. Varshaís work with the Waorani is helping to preserving the culture of the tribe and conserve the plants and animals of this biodiversity hotspot.
When I was a kid, I was really into National Geographic. I grew up in Iowa and I knew I had to visit these places! For the longest time, I didnít know how to get there. Iíve read about it - but itís impossible to know enough. The articles leave you with more questions than answers.
I had the chance to study conservation biology and preventing species extinction.
I had the chance to work in a National Park in Madagascar and I realized you canít really study animals outside of the context of the people living beside them - who are struggling and living in poverty. I saw this as a challenge: how do you tell the story of what the indigenous peoples were thinking about the animals?
I always wanted to go to the Amazon. I had to make that happen. The first time I went, I went with a native Spanish speaker, because I did not speak Spanish or any indigenous language. I was working with the Waorani tribe.
The first thing I worked on was using GPS technology to map out the important locations in the area. The initial step was to help the indigenous people understand this technology and let them dictate the important locations. It became an idea of an exchange of knowledge: giving weight to the indigenous knowledge, as well as making the indigenous people aware of the scientific research that exists. Hopefully this would improve their quality of life.
Pretty soon, I was going into the Amazon alone. It was a challenging environment! The thing that amazed me was how easy it was for (the Waorani) to walk through the forest. They would easily walk across skinny logs above raging waters. I was also amazed by the amount of knowledge these people had in their own language.
My current project is creating a guide to their medicines. My hope is to record cultural knowledge - things that the elders know but the young people donít. This also opens up a means of income for them, and creates a conservation epic.
I want to study how people can look at conservation through their own health. Conservation is kind of a meta-idea that we have in the West, because we are not struggling to survive. How can you think about conservation when youíre worried about your familyís health or getting basic education?
This tribe was contacted fairly recently. Through thinking about how things were different when their grandparents were around - when the forests were in tact, when they used medicinal herbs... before pharmaceuticals were introduced. I think this is a good stepping off point for talking about conservation.
Getting a Brower Award is a huge honor. In the past, Iíve funded most of my work through external sources. This award will help me get the word out about this area of Ecuador, especially since this area is struggling to fight against oil companies.
Itís an appropriate time to get this award - because people will start to make connections between this area and the rest of the world. Things are so much more global now. This tiny place is very connected to the oil that we put in our cars.
All this just started with an idea that inspired me.