Schools of Thought: the Nexus of Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Modern Science at Posada Amazonas

Posada Amazonas, a rainforest lodge situated near the Tambopata National Reserve in the Madre de Dios department of Peru, was established in 1996 as a joint venture between the indigenous Ese’eja community of Infierno and Rainforest Expeditions, a for-profit ecotourism company. In addition to its unique collaborative management structure, Posada Amazonas integrates the Ese’eja’s traditional ecological knowledge with modern ecology and taxonomy to educate guests about the biodiversity hotspot in which the lodge is situated. This fusion of local and global expertise is exemplified by the Posada Amazonas guides who facilitate and shape their guests’ experience of the rainforest.

Over dozens of generations, the Ese’eja people of Infierno have developed a sophisticated understanding of the dense rainforest they inhabit. Local citizens can identify hundreds of species of birds, amphibians, insects, and other animals, often recognizing their presence by distinctive calls or smells before spotting them visually. Perhaps more importantly, the guides at Posada Amazonas have an innate sense for animal behavior, knowing when different species are active, which areas of the forest they like to inhabit, and mimicking their calls to coax them out of hiding. On one occasion, our guide Oscar spotted an owl perched high on a tree limb from considerable distance, because he knew those owls preferred that species of tree.

The Ese’eja are also very knowledgeable about the diverse plant life within their forests. The community has developed a Centro Etnocultural Botanical Ñape, a medicinal garden designed to showcase the variety of native plants and their medicinal uses. During our tour of the Ñape gardens, our group saw plants used to treat diarrhea, fever, malaria, rheumatism, arthritis, and an Amazonian form of leprosy. Other plants have antiseptic, anesthetic, antioxidant, or aphrodisiac properties; one was even supposed to help prevent prostate cancer. 

[Our guide, Oscar, explaining traditional uses of the Uña de gato plant).

Despite this rich knowledge, which can only be gained through years of living in the forest, there is a rigorous training process for guides at Posada Amazonas. Aspiring guides must complete a course that includes training on scientific principles and the Latin and common English names of the many rainforest species. Those who out-compete their peers often spend time working at the Posada Amazonas bar to familiarize themselves with the accents of travelers from different regions, and then take an English class in Lima to ensure that they can effectively communicate their knowledge to lodge guests.

The end result is an enlightening blend of traditional ecological knowledge and modern science. For example, the Ese’eja understand the forest as a dynamic system that is constantly evolving, and the guides describe changes they’ve observed in different micro-ecosystems over time. However, our guides were also able to describe in great detail the geologic processes by which oxbow lakes are formed and will eventually transition to marshy habitats over the course of half a millennium or more. Oscar pointed out a species of tree that grows with naturally occurring holes in its leaves, known to be a defense mechanism against bugs who will not eat the leaves because they appear to have been already consumed. This unique characteristic was described as the tree’s “adaptation,” a nod to evolutionary biology and natural selection.

Perhaps the best example of the guides’ blend of traditional and modern scientific knowledge involves the Ceiba tree, one of the largest species of trees on earth (bested only by the Giant Redwood and Giant Sequoia of the North America). The Ese’eja respect Ceiba trees as the oldest and tallest trees in the Amazon, and have a traditional story about the creation of the Amazon which involves a Ceiba tree. Our guides were also able to explain how the trees’ ages (they can live for 400-500 years) are determined via carbon dating, since the Amazonian wet-dry seasons do not produce rings in the trees (as the summer/ winter seasons of the Pacific Northwest do in Sequoias and Redwoods).

Posada Amazonas is unique in part because it was the first South American ecotourism lodge that was a partnership between an indigenous community and private company. Drawing upon the strengths and resources of both the Ese’eja and Rainforest Expeditions allows the venture to offer guests a vibrant rainforest, strong customer service, and an understanding of the Tambopata ecosystem based on both traditional knowledge and recent scientific discovery.

– Matthew Binsted

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