Star Glow

People and Programs

Service Learning:
Safe Passage on the Ucayali

September 2012

On a mission to aid villagers in the heart of the Peruvian Jungle, a student is stretched beyond her comfort zone.

Angie Fuhrmann was deep in the jungles of Peru, perched in a taxi boat heading upstream from the city of Pulcallpa to the small village of Santa Rosa de Dinamarca. There she would complete her graduate internship in International Development Interdisciplinary Studies at Colorado State University.

Angie Fuhrmann

The Ucayali River’s currents were strong - the trip had already taken six hours. There was plenty of time for  Fuhrmann to take in her unfamiliar surroundings. The river was wide, the color of mud. The dense understory of jungle pressed close to the banks and gave off a pungent smell of decaying vegetation.

White-necked herons and oriole black birds startled from the mangroves, their plumage vivid against the brown of the river and the towering, gray trunks of Moriche palm trees.

Fuhrmann’s mind drifted to what lay ahead. She was to spend a month with the tribal leaders from Santa Rosa de Dinamarca and other nearby Shipibo communities, helping plan a workshop that would teach them how to use GPS devices and compasses to delineate the boundaries of their land.

Answering a call for help

The Shipibo, the indigenous tribe that has existed in the region for more than 1,000 years, had asked Colorado State’s Center for Collaborative Conservation, the Department of Anthropology, and Village Earth (a consortium for sustainable, village- based development) for help. The Shipibo Indians hoped to determine where their land’s boundaries – shown on paper maps in the capitol of Lima – actually existed on the ground, so they could protect and manage the land.

illegal logging camp

Illegal loggers were bulldozing their way into Shipibo territory to take out the old Spanish cedar and mahogany trees. People from the Andes, in particular, were finding their way in on logging roads and setting up farms and cattle operations.

Fuhrmann, who’d secured funding for the project through a fellowship with the CCC, was eager to meet and partner with the Shipibo – a tribe of hunters, fishers, and artisans who depended on their land to sustain their livelihood and culture.

She’d taken a bus over the Andes Mountains and into the Amazon basin and then traveled 300 miles downstream, traveling by boat from village to village – learning, little by little, about the people and the way they lived.

Now, as Fuhrmann sat in the boat tightly packed with locals – chatting with them about families and favorite foods – she gave little thought to the risks of traveling on the Ucayali. The river is the habitat of black caimans (crocodilians), anacondas (the largest snakes in the world), piranha, and leeches.

Respect, rather than fear, for the new environment

Having already traveled and lived in areas that some might consider dangerous, she respected rather than feared her new environment. Previously, she spent five months interning in a small, rural town in Nicaragua and studied abroad in central Mexico for 10 months.

river taxi

Now, the day’s journey on the Ucayali River wore on. The boat stopped at several villages. At one riverside outpost, Fuhrmann bought a bag of aguaje fruit for 30 cents – she’d seen locals buying the fruit in the markets in Pucallpa. As the boat set off again, passengers were eager to teach her about the fruit and how to eat it. She learned how to break apart the red, scaly outer shell and eat the yellow, exquisitely sweet fruit inside.

Another hour passed, and the boat moved to the shoreline. Fuhrmann collected her things and stepped off onto swampy ground, then followed a dirt path a mile to the village.

"The town was basically three dirt roads, full of chickens, dogs, and kids," Fuhrmann says. A small plaza and soccer field anchored the center of the community.

She realized that she was exhausted. "I had my tent with me just in case, but finally, after quite a few hours, the village shaman’s brother offered me a hut to stay in.

"There was a one-inch mat on the floor with mosquito netting around it," she says. "I slid in under the netting, placed my headlamp within easy reach, and fell asleep."

Overnight, she was startled awake by something which could only be described (at least by those who’ve never before slept in the heart of a jungle) as inexplicable, even eerie. "It sounded like heavy rain," she says. "I grabbed my headlamp and went to the door. There was a shower of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, nuts, and bugs falling from the trees onto the roof of my hut!"

She wasn’t sure, but thought that the fruit had become heavy with moisture, broken free, and then cascaded down, knocking the bugs and nuts out of the trees.

A village ringed by impenetrable rainforest

Angie in the jungle

The next day, Fuhrmann woke and wandered the village, marveling at the wall of impenetrable rainforest that stood at its perimeter. There she could hear screeching monkeys, a cacophony of reeping frogs, and an occasional squeal of a wild pig.

"I found the village’s chief, vice chief, and several regional representatives who were there and introduced myself to them. "There were five men and elders and some teachers. They came into my hut to meet, sitting on the floor. We discussed the project goals, how long the workshop would be (they decided on four days), and what food would be needed – how many kilos of rice and how many chickens needed to be slaughtered.

"I am fluent in Spanish, so I started the conversation in Spanish, and someone would translate what was said into Shipibo then translate it back into Spanish for me. The process was very democratic. There was to be a ‘mother’s committee,’ which was given the task of deciding which families would be in charge of cooking on what days.

"Even though, ostensibly, men are the leaders of the community, the wisdom of the women is honored because, traditionally, the Shipibo are a matriarchal society," Fuhrmann says. "There’s a common joke in the village that the chief is saying out loud what his wife is telling him at home."

using gps to make a trail through the jungle

After that initial meeting, Fuhrmann traveled back and forth to Pulcallpa, picking up supplies that were needed for the workshop. Several weeks into her stay, three engineers and a surveyor arrived from the United States to teach the skills and technical information the Shipibo needed.

"After the Shipibo were instructed in how to use the GPS devices and compasses, we began the process of delineating the indigenous land. We couldn’t move through the jungle without first making a path. We traveled with a group of 27 villagers and engineers. Six people would get at the front and hack away with machetes for 20 minutes, then six more people would take over.

"The major threat in the forest is giant tropical ants, which the locals call bullet ants," Fuhrmann says. "If you get stung by one, you get deathly ill for a week." The ants, which generally swarm at the base of trees, are known to shriek before attacking.

A disheartening discovery in the jungle

The team soon came across a scene that made them forget – at least temporarily – about the bullet ants. "We stumbled into a clearing with a ramshackle, illegal logging camp," Fuhrmann says. The destruction was palpable. The massive, fallen trees were laid in random rows, and the vegetation had been pulverized into mud and debris.

illegal logging

"We noticed a small hut and fire burning nearby and then about 10 young men lounging around the area. I was definitely surprised and waited to see the reaction of the Shipibo. What surprised me the most was that they were not surprised. They found it very normal, as many of these illegal loggers are other indigenous peoples or rural mestizos who’ve been driven to log illegally just to survive and make a buck.

"The Shipibo calmly walked over to the loggers and greeted them. Handshakes were exchanged, and the loggers offered to refill our water bottles. After about 10 minutes, we continued on our way.

"Some of the Shipibo told me later that they really don’t mind the loggers being out there. What they’re worried about is getting compensation from these companies for being on their land and extracting their resources."

Despite the disheartening discovery of the logging camp, the Shipibo and the contingency from the United States carried on with their work.

A community partnership is formed

demarcating boundary lines

On the fourth day of the workshop, the closing ceremony was held. Fuhrmann was told that four Shipibo villages, on their own initiative, had decided to create a community partnership. "They called it the Coalition for the Protection of Shipibo Land," she says. "They’re now working on demarcating over 150 miles of boundary lines." For Fuhrmann, this was all the reward she needed, knowing that the workshop had empowered the Shipibo to defend and protect their own culture, resources, and livelihood.

She also discovered that the villagers had planned a going-away celebration for her. "They’d made a traditional drink called masato. It’s their form of beer, made from plantains," she says. "They boil the plantains, the women chew the fruit and rind until it’s pulpy, then they spit it into buckets. That sits for a week of fermenting.

"We had a dance until 4 a.m. in the morning. I had tons of fun bonding with the community over the completion of the workshop. Our friendship had grown, and I was sad because I didn’t want the experience to end. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning and danced until the generator ran out of gasoline to power the boom box and the single light bulb that was dangling on a string, lighting the area.

"The next day, many people gathered at the edge of the river to say goodbye. After a time, we realized that the ‘bus’ boat was not coming. The villagers flagged down a small boat filled with plantains that were going to Pulcallpa to be sold.

Journey home begins with another learning experience

"The only other people on the boat," Fuhrmann says, "were a young Shipibo man and his father. I sat in the front of the boat and stared out over the wide river reflecting the overcast skies. About a half hour into the ride, it started to rain and I just sat there, with no way to get out of it, and let it soak me. It was another learning experience.

"Had I succeeded in making a difference in collaborating with these communities? I felt that by living with them in the same conditions they experienced every day, I’d grown to understand the challenges they face in their daily lives. I realized that these people endure a lot of uncomfortable things, but it was also humbling to me to see that they weren’t letting it affect their immediate happiness."

Given that Fuhrmann’s internship took her to a new, mysterious, and sometimes dangerous part of the world, she tells her story with a great deal of composure. Her story forces us to ask ourselves: Would we step outside the comfort of our tidy lives to reach for an ideal?

Service-learning stories abound across campus

Undoubtedly, Fuhrmann’s story is just one of many to be told about CSU students doing service-learning projects.

"Our students seek out service-learning projects around the globe," Bridget Julian, director of operations for the Vice President of Engagement says. "These efforts are some of the best examples of community engagement we have here at CSU, even though they may not always be apparent."

Since graduating from CSU with an M.A. in 2011, Fuhrmann has moved to the northern coast of California and is working as a health education coordinator for the county of Del Norte. She sets up and carries out nutrition education workshops for people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


By Melinda Swenson, originally published in the Fall 2012 Colorado State University Magazine.

© 2012 Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523 USA  |  T.O.P.S.