No Time for Sleeping

December 13, 2007

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Following the flow of oil production in Ecuador from its source in the Amazon, professors Widdows and Butler took students on an adventure to places "no student in the world has ever seen."

She has jumped out of a plane in flight and survived riots in the streets of Europe, but the spider the size of a human hand clinging to Spanish professor Dan Rogers’ cheek was a bit much for economics professor and arachnophobe Kay Widdows.

Ditto what happened next.

"One of our students yells, ‘Dan, there’s a spider on your face,’ so Dan brushes it off and the spider flops into the boat, under the floorboards and under our feet," recalls Widdows. "I was terrified."

Did I mention this was all happening in an oversized canoe on a flooded tributary of the Amazon River completely out of contact with civilization?

"Then the spider reappeared on the side of the boat, but a guy is putting his hand next to the spider to be photographed with it for scale. I’m saying, ‘Kill it! Kill it now!’ And the students are trying to take its picture."

Thanks to Mitch Miles ’10, the arachnid was finally dispatched, but Kay’s jitters were not.

"I felt like saying, ‘Turn this thing around—we’re going back,’ Widdows admits. But that’s not been her style on the six immersion trips she has led with political science professor Melissa Butler. So for the two Wabash veterans, getting soaked in the dark in the flooding Amazon became just another teachable moment.

"A great leveling experience," she calls the first three days of this summer’s Wabash Ecuadorian Studies Program, which brought two groups of students to the Amazon. One group, led by Rogers and Professor of Art Doug Calisch, worked with local people on service projects in the village of Mondana. Widdows’ and Butler’s students traveled throughout Ecuador studying the impact of oil exploration, drilling, and transport on the country’s environment, people, and economy.

Widdows calls it the "best immersion module I’ve ever led—we learned so much."

And it all began with that canoe ride down the flooding Tiputini River.

"We passed the last vestige of civilization after two hours, then it was six hours of nothing but deep jungle in some of the least explored parts of the Amazon. There was no way of communicating with the outside world, and we were isolated in a way these kids had never been isolated before. You could see them getting nervous as the trip went on, and the last few hours it was dark, and people were pretty quiet. There were bats everywhere; it felt like nature was closing in on us. You learn that nature is much bigger than you are in the middle of all this wildlife, and here you are in this little pitiful piece of technology."

That night, the group finally reached the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in western Amazonia, a place with the greatest concentration of species diversity on the planet.

"This is an environment you cannot imagine," Widdows says of the station’s flora and fauna, which includes 1,500 species of trees, 12 species of primates, and 520 species of birds, not to mention river dolphins, capybaras, otters, tapirs, caimans, and the occasional jaguar. Students took nature and canopy walks and studied the local wildlife.

"In this pristine place, they got an appreciation for what we could potentially ruin with oil exploration," Widdows says.

Their guide through it all was the man who literally wrote the book on climbing and hiking in Ecuador—adventurer and environmental scientist Mark Thurber. Relationships Thurber has built over more than a decade of traveling and working in the country gave students connections they needed to thoroughly examine the impact of oil in the region.

"Mark is an environmental engineer who works with the oil industry, so he’s seen both sides of it, and that’s perfect for us," Widdows says. "He was able to take us to places where students could see exactly how you get the oil out of the ground, the technology and investment required, the environmental challenges faced.

"And the students were very engaged. Mark is like Indiana Jones, the swaggering adventurer type. He really bonded with our students, and they never hesitated to ask him questions about what we were seeing."

Those sights included two very different oil camps. The first, the old Occidental Petroleum plant, is now owned by Petro Ecuador, and is a modern, state-of-the-art facility. Wabash students were the first American group admitted to the site since its takeover by Petro Ecuador, and they saw firsthand the many efforts being made to mitigate the effects of oil drilling.

"They had the best ventilation and oil spill control, and they were trying to find a way to utilize the natural gas that is released when they drill," Widdows recalls. "They’re experimenting with oil-eating bacteria to get rid of the oil sludge that occurs when they clean out tanks. Mark was trying to show the students, ‘If you’re going to take oil out of the ground, this is the way to do it."

But Widdows was particularly proud of the students continued questioning.

"They asked, ‘Given the expense of these environmental protection efforts, will such measures be continued, now that the plant is owned by Ecuador and lacks the money Occidental Petroleum had when building and constantly upgrading the facility?’ That’s an insightful question, perhaps the essential question at that plant."

At the next oil production facility, students saw what might happen if such upgrades to infrastructure were ignored.

"It was not as well taken care of, and there were not as many protections for the environment," Widdows says. The same was true with the two oil pipelines students followed toward the coast; one was above ground, susceptible to land slides and resulting spills; the second mostly underground, but with its own risks.

Playing soccer with Ecuadorian oil workers, talking with people in the towns they visited along "the pipeline trail," students also learned how little of the oil money made it back—in terms of revenue or jobs—to the communities most affected by oil extraction.

All this while gas was topping $3 per gallon in the Midwest. Widdows and Butler couldn’t have imagined a more relevant topic.

"Mark did a really good job of helping them see the costs and consequences of getting gas into their cars—the huge infrastructure, the environmental risks," Widdows says. "He got them to consider, ‘Are you comfortable with this?’

And by showing students both sides of the argument, the course also broke down stereotypes.

"I think a lot of our students came in believing the oil companies were the big bad wolf, that oil companies were evil," Widdows says. "But at the Petro Ecuador site, the workers were absolutely honest with us, and students saw workers trying to do the best they could to protect the environment, people who realize the land is their heritage, who want to protect it.

"It really got them away from scape goating and thinking about the conversation in a different and interesting way," says Widdows. "I think it also got them thinking about conservation. It’s not just about gas prices, and I think they see that now.

Reflecting on this "best immersion module" she’s ever taught, though, Widdows keeps going back to those first few days in the wilderness.

"Those difficult conditions make the students bond with each other and us," she says. "It opened their eyes, literally. Mark would tell them, ‘You’re seeing things few people will ever see, and you won’t be back. There’s no time for sleeping. When you’re on the truck or the bus, stay awake.’ They learned the necessity of asking questions, of looking out for one another and us.

"We have this professor-student hierarchy in the classroom, but when everyone has to go to the bathroom in the woods, that’s gone! They had to get comfortable with the fact that, in this place, we were students, too, and part of our job was to set an example,to ask questions, to make observations."

Contact Professor Widdows at widdowsk@wabash.edu

 


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