Nature Likes to Play: Study abroad experiences deepen cultural and ecological understanding

Students at Arizona State University reflect on their study abroad experience in Ecuador and the importance of ecological education.

Donovan Johnson

Related Topics:
Biodiversity, Climate, Colleges & Education, Conservation

In August of 2023, Ecuador became the first country in the world to ban oil drilling of Yasuni National Forest — home of the Waorani Indigenous tribes in the Amazon Rainforest. This revolutionary ruling will change the course of human environmental impact forever. For communities such as the Waorani, this ruling is decades in the making, and illustrative of their appreciation for the forest they call home.

Nature Likes to Play is a collection of moments I captured during an Arizona State University study abroad trip to Tena, Ecuador where I was accompanied by a group of sustainability students and teachers. In this immersive program, students learn from Kichwa and Waorani knowledges and biocultures to explore challenges and possible solutions for sustaining the Amazon. I am not a sustainability major, I am formally trained in Photojournalism, and going on this trip taught me a lot about being a vulnerable photographer and artist. 

The photos are inspired by the practices of the Waorani Indigenous community in the Amazon Rainforest, and their belief that humans are not separate from the world around us, but one and the same. Their life’s mission is to live in tandem with nature, and only take what they need, and give back just as much. These are lessons that can be brought here to the states to create a more sustainable future in our own country.  This experience was truly life changing for me, and with the photos I had from the trip, I knew there was a more important story to tell about the Kichwa and Waorani communities, and a way I could give back to them for all the life lessons they gave me.

Nine months later, with the help of the ASU School of Sustainability, I held a photo exhibition to raise money for the Iyarina Center for Learning, the organization that guided myself and my fellow ASU students through our trip, and is committed to preserving the Amazon Rainforest through sustainable initiatives. Through this exhibition, we were able to bridge worlds. By bringing the lessons of the Waorani and Kichwa communities to Phoenix, we were able to raise awareness about the importance of the Amazon as a vital ecosystem. 

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