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Volunteer in Ecuador
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Volunteer in Ecuador

Work with an Indigenous Amazonian Community

Coco and I had prime seats at the front of the bus as we waited excitedly to begin our 7-hour journey from Quito to the Amazon jungle. Two days ago we had met for the first time at our orientation in the office of the Jatun Sacha Foundation. We had both signed up to volunteer for two weeks in an indigenous community called Tsurakú. The people are called the Shuar; we were told that they are famous for making shrunken heads.

All the volunteers in the Jatun Sacha lodge were college students in their early twenties. Most were studying a subject related to indigenous people. One of the directors of Jatun Sacha, Marlon, described in slow, clear Spanish the community and our projects. Tsurakú has about 350 people, most of whom marry their first cousins, so there are few more than 30 families. The men usually have two or three wives. The Shuar are traditionally semi-nomadic; they farmed using the slash and burn technique, moving from place to place as the soil lost its fertility. Since Tsurakú is a permanent village, the people are learning sustainable agriculture. Now that they are also part of a monetary culture, they need ways to earn money. That’s where Jatun Sacha and the volunteer program come in.

The main goals of the program are to help the community develop sustainable food sources, develop a sustainable reserve for the mahogany trees, and assist in the development of Tsurakú into an ecotourism site.

The families have a house in the community and also a portion of land outside the community where they grow yuca and papachina, a type of potato. Next to the high school, there is a vivero, or nursery, where mahogany and fruit trees are grown from seed to be transplanted to the plots of land.

There is also a sendero, or hiking trail, behind the school. The hope is that tourists will come to Tsurakú to learn about the jungle. Native plants, with signs that include the Shuar and Spanish names, are placed along the trail. The students hope to become guides on their sendero one day, and the volunteers help in the English classes.

On my last day of volunteering, my morning project was to go with two other volunteers to deliver signs for the medicinal garden and gather missing information on some plants from Antonio, the community medicine man or shaman. As he led us from plant to plant, he told us their names, how they were used, and what they could treat.

My short stay only allowed me enough time to begin to learn about what the community is trying to do. Longer placements of three and four weeks are available.

Jatun Sacha is a nongovernmental organization that is dedicated to the conservation of ecologically important habitats, environmental education, and community development in Ecuador. Volunteers can choose among eight biological stations that range from the cloud forests to the Galapagos Islands. Contact volunteer@jatunsacha.org for information about relatively low costs, which depend upon length of time volunteering and program in which you participate. Meals and lodging are included. Jatun Sacha also offers internships and other environmental projects for students and professionals. For more information, visit www.jatunsacha.org.

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