Geography and environmental studies professor David Salisbury has traveled to the Amazonian Basin numerous times over the past 10 years to study its people, culture, and environment, but the trip he made during the summer of 2009 marked a first for him; he brought students with him.

Salisbury and the three students accompanying him were researching ways the local ecology can provide both financial and social stability to the Amazon’s indigenous communities.

The University of Richmond students, Laura Major, Fritz Hoogakker and Leigh Ann West, accompanied Salisbury to Peru and worked on separate projects involving Amazonian indigenous territories: palm use, fisheries, and home gardens, respectively.  

Salisbury says he believes that it was important for the students to really become immersed in the Amazonian culture in order to understand their topics.

“Above all, I believe in working in close collaboration with local people and regional organizations to better understand human-environment dynamics on the ground, in an effort to reconcile conservation and development in Amazonia,” Salisbury said.

Major studied the practical uses for and secondary products of palms. Hoogakker focused on the economic and environmental impact of local fisheries in the Peruvian Amazon. West examined gender roles in indigenous communities and studied the ways women contributed through the development of home gardens.  

The students spent one week at the Universidad Nacional de Ucayali (UNU) in the Peruvian city of Pucallpa, where they were each paired with a UNU student with whom they collaborated on their research.  

Salisbury, an honorary professor at UNU, believes the collaboration allowed the students to gain a broader view of the cultural, economic and scientific research.

“The student counterparts from Richmond and UNU created a triangular organization with the Shipibo Conibo indigenous community that we were working with in the Peruvian Amazon,” Salisbury said. “The UNU students brought with them an extensive cultural understanding and the language component while the Richmond students provided background research in environmental studies and geography.”  

The students developed relationships with the indigenous people whose lifestyles they were studying, which transformed their work from simple research into a meaningful exploration of the lives of the Shipibo Conibo people.

West’s experiences in the Amazonian Basin inspired her to change her career goals.  

“I will be studying abroad in Panama during the spring semester as part of a Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems and Biodiversity Conservation SIT program,” West said.  “I will have the opportunity to conduct a one-month independent research project that I plan to focus on home gardens and ethnobotany.”

After graduation, West plans to join the Peace Corps and work in environmental education or agroforestry in order to live abroad again, hopefully in an indigenous community similar to that of the Shipibo Conibo people, whom she came to love.

Both Hoogakker and West continued their research at Richmond in the fall through independent studies under Salisbury’s guidance. They both attended the South Eastern Division of the Association of American Geographers conference in November to present their research.