Planet Duke: States of wonder in Brazil

June 6, 2016

To those who have studied Brazil’s complicated history of environmentalism, the fact that Rio de Janeiro has struggled to get its bodies of water Olympics- ready has come as no surprise. A year before the games, reports began to circulate that Guanabara Bay and several lakes hosting water sports had made athletes sick from bacterial and viral infections. More recent tests show improvement, but organizers and athletes alike remain concerned.

That a country so rich in natural beauty—around half of the Amazon rainforests are in Brazil—also suffers from systemic pollution is one of the many topics discussed by students and faculty members in the Duke in Brazil program. “There’s a lot beneath the surface: a lot brewing, a lot of history, and a lot of conflict,” says Janani Arangan ’15, a 2013 participant.

Arangan and other students spent four weeks volunteering at NGOs in Rio and studying life at the rainforest’s edges. They practiced their Portuguese with host families while contributing to social infrastructure projects. “They get to experience life as it is. It’s not life as I tell them in class; it’s everyday life,” says the program’s coordinator and professor of Portuguese Magda Silva, who revamped the program in 2013.

Arangan volunteered with Saúde Criança, also known as Brazil Child Health, which provides health-care education for families and children. “This is a nonprofit that wears many hats and works in all fields as well, and that’s what really fascinated me,” she says. The experience was so powerful she decided to return to Brazil with DukeEngage and continue her work with Saúde Criança.

The second part of the program is an ecological immersion. Students visit the Amazon and learn how deforestation, research, conservation, and environmentalism all inform everyday life in the rainforest. Scientists, professors, and local NGOs lecture on the local and global implications of the rainforest as a national resource.

Silva invites an attorney to speak to the students about land protection, a key issue in the Amazon. “Students take their knowledge of the land and filter it through the eyes of an attorney who represents managing the vast amount of resources for the various groups who lay claim to them,” she says.

And then, for one adventure-filled weekend, students camp out—no lights, no wi-fi—on an island in the Amazon River Basin. “We get to go deep into the forest with local people telling us all about the trees and the plants and the animals,” says Silva. “We get to see monkeys and ride buffaloes. Where we stay, the only source of transportation is horse.”

Back in Durham the Global Brazil Lab, which launched in the fall of 2014 as part of the Duke Brazil Initiative, engages students about their experiences. Silva sets up Skype sessions between her classroom and classrooms in Brazil so that students learn euphemisms and slang in addition to the grammatical structure of Portuguese. “When they talk with the kids there, they learn another kind of Portuguese,” she says.

  • Madeline Taylor is an intern. She is a sophomore involved in the arts on Duke's campus.