By Amanda Bernal-Carlo, Professor
Natural Sciences Department | Founder of The Great Balance
When Sarah Brennan invited me to participate in the Title V Student Research with Faculty initiative I felt reluctant to accept. First, I thought about the challenge of working with three students on a research project that has little to do with the biology classes I teach at Hostos: Bio 240, Anatomy and Physiology II or Bio 220 General Biology II.
On the other hand, I knew in my heart that working with the extraordinary group of people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM), Colombia, is quite inspirational and unique and I somehow felt compelled to accept the invitation. Thus, in the fall 2015, I met with Ramon Guerrero, Daiquimilda Pichardo and Cristina Tipiani as my Hostos research students. Of the three only Cristina was in my Bio 220 class. From the beginning we made it clear that her participation in this project was independent from her work and academic performance in class.
The students’ first introduction to the project was to learn that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (or SNSM) is a unique pyramid-shaped mountain, completely isolated from the Andes, located in the northeastern part of Colombia. The highest mountain peak is above 5,000 meters. At its base and at the foothills of the shores of the Caribbean is a dense rainforest. As you go up the mountain the forest is replaced by an open high savanna and cloud forests. On its slopes and higher up four different tribes live there, all related to each other: the Arawak (Arhuaco or Ika), the Wiwa, Kogi and Kankuamo. These indigenous communities are descendants of the Tayrona, a great civilization that lived in the northern part of Colombia before Columbus’s arrival.
For these indigenous tribes, the Sierra Nevada represents the heart of the world and is surrounded by an invisible “black line” covering the sacred places of their ancestors and marking its territory. They consider themselves as “elder brothers” and believe they have wisdom and understanding that is deeper than the mystical visions of any other culture in the world. They refer to people in the other cultures as the “younger brothers” because of their need for a better understanding of the natural world and the interdependence of all life.
Currently, I am working with the Arhuaco and Kogi tribes in helping them to establish a bi-cultural and bilingual educational model that integrates the indigenous language, cultural knowledge, traditions and wisdom, with the Spanish language and the knowledge and skills of Western culture, to ensure that the indigenous students succeed in both cultures. I also work with a group of indigenous women helping them to protect their rights and the rights of all members of their communities, to protect the environment – in particular water – and in the conservation of the natural resources of the Sierra.
In my introductory presentation, I explained how the entire community of more than 46,000 individuals, children, adults, and elders believe that they are the guardians of the world. They feel that they have the wisdom, power and responsibility of balancing the world through the exercise of universal love, compassion and the connection with everything that inhabits our planet as well as with the invisible world that they are able to communicate with and to visit on a daily basis.
The indigenous tribes in SNSM live in reservations called resguardos with many major challenges particularly for the women and the young people. My fellow students very quickly understood the situation, took ownership of the project and started bringing innovative ideas; helping me to write project proposals to be submitted for the consideration of other members of the Great Balance, Inc., an international organization that is helping us to carry out this project in Colombia.
The three student research assistants are bilingual and they exercised their Spanish-English translation skills preparing all pertinent documents in both languages to send copies of them to the Great Balance organization and to the indigenous authorities in Colombia for their consideration and action.
I was pleased to see how quickly these students assumed their own role as researchers in the project, learning more about the indigenous communities and coming back with innovative and creative ideas. On their own initiative, they divided different tasks among themselves to be accomplished individually. Cristina started working on alternative energy systems available that could be applied to the Sierra. She found that a non-profit organization known as SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) is already bringing solar energy to some areas in the SNSM. At the moment and thanks to this effort, we are working with this organization in bringing solar panels to several of the schools we are working with. Daiquimilda gave ideas for enhancing the education project in particular to attract girls and retain them in the schools. Most of her ideas were incorporated into the proposal we presented to the educational authorities and educators of the SNSM this January 2016. Ramon helped us to find different septic systems, familiarizing himself with how they work and which are the best ones to bring a more positive impact to the Sierra.
Later on, we worked together to write a proposal on how to bring one million trees to the watersheds of the Sierra to preserve the hydrolic systems. To start this project, we were awarded a seed grant from the Pollination Project organization. Today, this project is being developed in several critical places in the SNSM. Giving the students an opportunity to make a difference in a real life problem provided them with a powerful incentive and motivation to recognize the importance of their contributions for enthusiastically finding the best ways to help the children and women of the Sierra. They were able to develop critical thinking, communication, and problem solving skills as demonstrated in their individual and team efforts in helping to reach higher levels of accomplishment in the general project. Their contribution was soon recognized by the Mamos (the spiritual and political leaders of the Arhuaco indigenous community) who sent them small blessed strings to wear on their wrists, in the Arhuaco way, that represent protection and gratitude from the SNSM. This small gesture had a strong emotional impact on my research fellows. Cristina wrote a beautiful reflection piece about this experience.
To conclude the project we put together a poster to be presented at the Tri-State Best Practices Conference at Bergen Community College Meadowlands Campus on March 5, 2016.
Inspired by the Title V experience, two of the students decided to become active members of the Great Balance, Inc, and to continue working on the SNSM project independently of Title V.