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Biodiversity and Development in the Amazon


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Location Pillcopata,  Madre de Dios
Language English instruction with 2-credit Spanish Language & Culture course

Fall 2015: September 7 – December 16

Spring 2016: February 1 – May 11

Deadline Rolling admissions. Early submissions encouraged for acceptance into program of choice.


$21,250 (Includes all tuition, room, board, local travel. Excludes airfare).

Financial Aid Click here for more information about need-based scholarships, loans, and travel grants.

One semester of college-level ecology or biology; 18 years of age

Credits 18 credits


With its extensive humid tropical rainforest and dramatic elevation gradient upwards to the continental towers of the Andes Mountains, Peru easily earns itself a place among the five most megadiverse countries in the world. The mountain influence on the Amazon plain is distinct in the southern region of Peru. The complex topography and array of habitats support diverse flora and fauna and are home to many indigenous groups. Because of the wealth of diversity in Peru, this is a leading destination for biodiversity enthusiasts, anthropologists, scientists, educators, and students from around the world.

The rich natural resources of the Andes-Amazon region have supported human populations for millennia, including indigenous groups who still live in these forests. Today, the region draws people from other parts of the country who engage in both extractive and productive activities, including small-scale agriculture, timber and non-timber forest product management, fishing and hunting, and mining. Conservation efforts in the region provide some local residents with alternative livelihoods, resulting in changing perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors in some Amazonian communities. Will this result in sustainable resource management and equitable economic growth?

The ecosystems, habitats, and species of the region are threatened by rapid and unplanned urban and peri-urban development, road installation, destructive logging, unregulated mining, and high-input agriculture. The social fabric of local communities is jeopardized by gross inequities in socioeconomic development and environmental degradation associated with these industries. Poverty in rural areas remains high and reaches up to 60 percent in some regions, and there are stark differences in literacy rates and access to water and sanitation. Rapid and unorganized growth in the region threatens biodiversity, cultural integrity, and economic development.


This program seeks to understand both the conflicts and synergies of conservation and development in western Amazonia, with a focus on Peru. Students gain a sense of the richness of the Andes-Amazon region—biodiversity, social and cultural diversity, and ecosystem services—while exploring strategies for sustainable livelihoods in this highly productive and diverse region of South America.

The interdisciplinary themes of resilience, environmental justice, and conservation guide our inquiry. Through coursework, field exercises, and Directed Research, participants study people’s dependence on the environment, examine the threats to the environment and to social networks, and explore the tools and strategies for mitigating the threats while promoting well-being among rural communities.

Students have a unique opportunity to learn first-hand about the extraordinary biodiversity of the Andes-Amazon region in the eastern slope of the Peruvian Andes. We look at the patterns and processes that contribute to the generation and maintenance of biodiversity of this region at multiple scales: landscape, ecosystem, communities, and species. Students discuss concepts of ecological resilience, multifunctionality, and redundancy in the context of the region, and explore the effects of climate change and land use on the regional and global biodiversity and human well-being.

The region’s rich ecosystems support a diversity of social actors and cultural groups who employ a suite of livelihood strategies that are both typical of resource-rich, rural areas and unique to Peru. We consider how nature-society interactions, such as agriculture, resource extraction, tourism, and rural development, shape both the natural landscape and the social and economic conditions in rural areas. Students may discover that conservation, then, is about managing people and our interactions with the natural environment.

Students engage in “conversation about conservation,” focusing on the practical aspects of conservation planning, implementation, and measuring outcomes. We identify the threats to the natural and human systems and explore strategies and tools to mitigate those threats through conservation measures.

In the first year of programming in Peru, our research projects are geared towards identifying the range of socio-ecological issues, as well as basic questions about biodiversity, which help us guide and inform the program’s research agenda.



  • Explore the lowland tropical rainforest biome with its distinct habitats of palm swamps, oxbow lakes, flooded forests, and upland forests
  • Conduct a socioeconomic impact assessment of a proposed development initiative in Pillcopata
  • Examine urban development and tourism in Cuzco, a UNESCO World Heritage Site renowned for its meeting of two distinct cultures—Inca and Hispanic
  • Use planning tools to design conservation strategies for a local issue or an existing development project
  • Visit the lowland rainforest on a multi-day excursion by river to understand differences in forest types and species composition
  • Learn and practice a series of different field techniques to collect data on biodiversity and habitat: looking at orchid diversity in the highlands, soil macrofauna across soil types, or measuring temperature and humidity along a vegetation cover gradient
  • Consider the impacts of elevation and slope aspect on species distributions during a weeklong excursion in the highlands
  • Develop field research skills including species identification, biodiversity assessment, survey design and interviewing techniques, environmental impact and protected-areas assessment, scientific writing and oral presentation, GIS or remote sensing, habitat assessment and mapping species distributions



  • Effects of agricultural practices on fallow plant community structure and composition
  • Assessment of soil macrofauna in areas of high activity of peccary
  • Vulnerability of understory herbaceous species to a changing climate in a transitional forest
  • Survey of livelihood strategies of residents of Pillcopata: historical perspectives, present outlook, and future aspirations Knowledge, attitudes, and perceptions of conservation efforts in the region among multiple social groups
  • Perceptions by local people of land use and land cover change in the Kosñipata District
  • Examination of urban development and tourism in rapidly-growing Amazonian towns



The Villa Carmen Biological Station—operated by the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) and its sister organization, Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica—is the home of the new SFS Center for Andes-Amazon Studies. An eight-hour drive northeast of Cusco, at an elevation of 2,500-4,000 feet above sea level, it is situated adjacent to the Manu Biosphere Reserve which supports a wide variety of habitats, including intact but disturbed rainforest, secondary forests, streams, rivers, waterfalls, and a highly diverse flora and fauna. Students are housed in shared accommodations in the station’s dormitory. The field station’s infrastructure includes a classroom, lab, organic gardens, and many miles of trails.