When undergraduate Matt Lacey visited Ecuador last summer as part of Virginia Tech’s Tropical Biology and Conservation in Ecuador course, he was struck by the beauty of the place: the lush cloud forests, brightly colored birds, and strange nocturnal mammals. But even more, he was struck by the people. 

Members of the Kichwa tribe live deep in the Amazon rainforest of northeastern Ecuador and have limited contact with the outside world, including modern medicine and technologies. Their village, Sani Isla, is located on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon, and the nearest town is three hours upriver by motorized canoe.

While there, Lacey, a rising senior majoring in wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, met Danny Gualinga, a member of the Kichwa community who served as a birding guide to the student group.

Unlike many young men, Gualinga decided to stay in his village to help expand the community’s capabilities without diminishing its cultural heritage. He aspires to improve access to schools in the capital of Quito, increase instruction in technical trades useful for the region, and to facilitate an appreciation for the tribe’s rich history and culture, which is passed down by word of mouth rather than written form.

Gualinga raises money for these initiatives through the Llikchary Institute, a nonprofit organization he founded that is dedicated to improving the lives of the Sani Isla people.

“I want to give the young people in the village the opportunity to acquire skills, which enable them to build their future and that of the village,” writes Gualinga on the institute’s website. “I want to give them pride to be able to present their knowledge and culture.”

Gualinga is also passionate about hosting international visitors because it gives them “the opportunity to engage with us in a meaningful way by using their skills to get involved in the construction of our and their own future.”

Western oil and timber conquests have damaged the Amazonian environment. Since the Kichwa rely on the natural world for all of their physical needs, these practices have also damaged their livelihoods. Students in the course are encouraged to think critically about these issues.

Students in Ecuador
Students in Virginia Tech's Tropical Biology and Conservation in Ecuador course visit Yanayacu Biological Station in the Napo Province of Ecuador.

“As part of the study-abroad experience, the students learn that conservation efforts extend far beyond just the environment that needs protecting but has to involve local groups as well as other stakeholders,” said Ignacio Moore, faculty leader for the study-abroad course and an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science. “The Sani Isla community is trying to preserve their homeland and way of life from oil exploration. Our visit to their community had a profound effect on the students.”

After talking with Gualinga, Lacey knew he needed to help.

“I was very impressed by Danny’s commitment to his community,” said Lacey. “His passion for the Kichwa is so strong and their needs are so great that I knew I had to do something to help.”

When Lacey came back to Virginia Tech in the fall, he had the opportunity to participate in the College of Natural Resources and Environment’s Leadership Institute. As part of the two-semester professional development course, students team up to complete a capstone project relating to leadership and natural resources. Lacey pitched the idea of raising money for the Llikchary Institute and was thrilled when his peers also liked the idea.

Under the name “Hokies for the Amazon Kichwa” the group created Facebook and GoFundMe pages. Their original goal was to raise $5,000 to support scholarships for two Kichwa students to attend university in Quito, a boat license so that a community member could drive the students to school, and a stipend for international volunteers to serve in the community.

In addition to online fundraising, the group hosted multiple restaurant fundraiser nights in Blacksburg and gave educational presentations across campus.

When Lacey first proposed the capstone project, Henry Cohen, a rising senior majoring in geography and a member of last year’s Leadership Institute cohort, was skeptical. The mission of helping an entire group of people thousands of miles away with only a few months to prepare and limited resources and contacts seemed daunting. And it was a struggle for the team’s six students, each with full schedules of classes, sports, and outside organizations, to find a time to meet each week. However, by May when the project ended, Cohen said it was incredible to look back and see how far they had come.

The group raised more than $2,000 for the Llikchary Institute and will continue its fundraising effort this fall. 

“Working so closely with those five other people over the course of two semesters taught me so much about leadership in a way that any typical classroom course could not,” said Cohen. “This was not the type of group project where we could meet once or twice, make a Google doc, and finish it up the night before it was due. We had to actually work together.  We had to call each other out when we weren’t carrying our weight. Sometimes we lost our patience with each other and had to apologize. I used to pride myself with being a pretty independent person, but I saw how important it was to let go of my pride and work alongside others for a common goal.”

“While working on Hokies for the Amazon Kichwa, we faced challenges, such as public outreach and realistic goal setting,” said Tristan Jilson, a rising senior majoring in wildlife conservation and another member of the Leadership Institute cohort. “Even though our Facebook posts were getting a good amount of views, it was impossible to tell if people glancing at our posts understood the message we were trying to get across. I learned that getting your message across to just a handful of people and ensuring they understand the issues can make a bigger difference than trying to spread your message to as many people as possible. Our speaker nights were important because we got the chance to sit people down, talk about the issues, and answer questions.”

Brian Bond, director of the Leadership Institute and a professor of sustainable biomaterials in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, said he was proud of this cohort’s dedication to their projects and the skills they were able to acquire as part of the institute.

“Matt had to sell his idea to get six students interested,” said Bond. “He used his leadership skills to communicate his vision of what the project was, and then the team had to figure out how they were going to achieve the goal. They had to use their tools of leadership to come together. It’s wonderful to see how they grow throughout these experiences.”

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