Indigenous leaders traveled from Peru and Brazil to campus

From the rainforest to the University of Richmond

November 27, 2023

University News

Andrés Arévalo Pérez flew out of Puerto Breu, Brazil, on a five-passenger missionary plane in storm conditions. After arriving in Pucallpa, Peru, he took another plane to Lima, where he spent the night. The next day he travelled to Panama City, before making his final flight to Dulles International Airport. He was among the group of Indigenous leaders from the Amazon making the long journey to Richmond during International Education Week to share their challenges in the rainforest and visit some old friends.

“I’ve known Andrés since he was 6, and now he is a 25-year-old chief of his village. He is the one I have known the longest, but I am friends with all of them,” said David Salisbury, a professor of geography, environment, & sustainability. “This is a dream come true. So many times, I have stayed in their homes, and now they’re staying in mine.”

Salisbury’s work over the years with the Indigenous peoples of Peru and Brazil has included serving as co-investigator with geography professor Stephanie Spera on a $700,000 grant from NASA to study changes in the rainforest. He travels to the Amazon every year, sometimes taking students to do research in transboundary mapping workshops and to conduct fieldwork in villages there. The largest rainforest in the world, the Amazon contains more than 3 million species of animals and 15 percent of the world’s flowing fresh water. Arévalo Pérez is one of 1.5 million Indigenous people who live there.

“Deforestation and forest degradation increasingly threaten their way of life, as does climate change with increased temperature, more droughts and floods, and a weakened forest,” Salisbury said.

The group traveled to the campus event to bring attention to threats to their communities, including the opening of illegal roads and airstrips through the borderlands between Peru and Brazil that result in the advancement of drug trafficking and the clear-cutting of forests by loggers.

Chief Wewito Piyãko traveled from Apiwtxa, a Brazilian village experiencing the effects of climate change.

“This summer has been the hottest ever. The waters are like coffee. The fish are dying. The fish can’t take the heat,” Piyãko said during a presentation, with Salisbury serving as translator.

“It’s one thing to hear this in a classroom from a professor who looks the same as you, but when you hear it from the people that it actually affects it's a lot more impactful,” said Alexandra Gramuglia, a junior studying leadership, and one of many students attending the talk.

Their presentations also led to action.

"The Amazonian leaders were particularly heartened by a letter of solidarity penned by the speakers and participants from other countries and the University of Richmond," Salisbury said.

After the conference, the Amazonian visitors delivered the letter to partners such as USAID, NASA, Conservation International, and U.S. Global Change Research Program. The letter will help to support their work with elected representatives concerned about the preservation of the rainforest. The visitors from the Amazon will also share the letters with their villages. 

Salisbury and some of his students accompanied the group on a trip to Washington for high level meetings with the partners. "UR student maps and posters framed the discussions," he said.

Many of those who came from the Amazon did not have passports until a few months ago and had never traveled to the U.S.

“Our friends were very impressed with the University and are hopeful that our relationship will become broader and deeper,” Salisbury said.