Lessons from the Amazon Rainforest
By Amanda Hartley

Going to the exotic and mysterious rainforests of South America had been a dream of mine since I was a child. I had always wanted to experience the adventure and excitement of tropical rainforests. In May of 2006, that dream finally came true when I was offered a position as a field research assistant to a scientist doing work in Amazonian Ecuador.

I am a junior in the Environmental Studies department at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, and I want to be a Tropical Ecologist. Thanks to a guest lecturer at my college, Dr. John Harte, professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California at Berkeley, I was able to get connected with a scientist named Margaret Metz at Cal Berkeley, who has been doing research on biodiversity in the Amazon for 5 years. Margaret accepted me for the position as her field assistant, and next thing I knew, I was on a plane down to South America, spending my summer under the dark, dense forest canopy, surrounded by an intensity of life, movement, and more plants and animals in one place than I had ever seen in my life!

Amazonian Ecuador is well known for being one of the most biodiverse places in the entire world. The project that I worked on with Margaret examined the role of seedling dynamics and used an annual seedling count along with manipulative field experiments, thereby testing ideas about ecological mechanisms that might maintain forest diversity. The most important part of this experience for me was that I got to spend every day for two months in the middle of the rainforest with amazing creatures such as squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, vine snakes, anacondas, boa constrictors, tree frogs, poison dart frogs, caiman alligators, and piranhas. I love nature and I love animals, so I obviously had the time of my life!

Working with such a brilliant scientist and in such a unique area was a chance to immerse myself in an unfamiliar world, a world in which the beauty of flora and fauna was endless. This experience brought light and understanding into my moral concepts and social understandings. Ultimately, I understood the reasons why we need to appreciate and conserve our world’s rainforests. I believe the biggest lesson I learned in Ecuador was that the rainforests must be protected - not just through advocacy and political arenas but through scientific facts that can prove this type of ecosystem’s importance to anyone who may doubt it. I believe that through studying and learning about biodiversity, we can give the skeptics reasons to help protect it. One of these reasons is the pharmacological potential in tropical rainforests, especially in the Amazon. Every day, brand new species of plants are discovered, and their potential is not yet known. We need to give humankind time to study these precious plants before we destroy them.

The relationship between nature and humans is undoubtedly the most important part of ecology and environmental science. I am so thankful I had the opportunity to get out into a real life field setting and do some tough yet rewarding work. I feel fortunate to have experienced a culture and environment so special and meaningful that it affected my life in profound ways, and I see the world through a new perspective, one that is filled with optimism for our planet’s future and our relationship with nature.

~Amanda Hartley; junior in the Environmental Studies department at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, VA.


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