UMD students on a study abroad trip to Bolivia
September 9, 2019

This summer, Dr. Olivia Carter-Pokras, professor of epidemiology, led a group of UMD students from diverse majors on a new study abroad course to Bolivia. She answered questions about how she developed the course, what the students learned and what she's planning for next year. 

You are leading a new SPH Study Abroad course to Bolivia - how did you choose Bolivia? 

I saw the opportunity to create this unique course for several reasons.

It is the first study abroad program to Bolivia through UMD, and our SPH students expressed interest in the country as a site for education abroad.

I also have a personal connection. My mother was a Bolivian public health nurse, from the Beni region (lowlands of Bolivia). My father was an anthropologist interested in Latin America. I lived in Bolivia as a young child, and visited friends and family when I was 12 and again at 16. When I was 21, I worked in an office of planning in La Paz and played violin in their national orchestra. As an adult, I returned with my mother and husband to explore different parts of Bolivia every five years or so. My husband and I took my mother’s ashes to Bolivia per her request about four years ago after she passed away.  

It is also a critical time to visit this part of the world. We need to help raise awareness of the importance of protecting the Amazon, for its biodiversity and for its critical role in the health and survival of the planet. 

What is the focus of the trip? 

This course allows students to examine “ecohealth” – the complex relationships among humans, animals, and the environment, and how these relationships affect the health of each of these domains—in a country that has granted nature legal rights.  Students taking the course are exposed to a wide range of public health-related topics: indigenous health, environmental justice, the challenges of conducting research or providing healthcare in remote areas, social determinants of health, health literacy, health policy and more. They learn directly from indigenous community members and people involved in the area about the issues that impact them.

Activities include learning about how indigenous communities maintain their health using medicinal plants, visiting a sustainable golf course, and learning about the work of one of Bolivia’s leading conservation organizations. Students stay in several eco-lodges to learn about the role of eco-tourism in supporting the economy and the health of several rural communities. They engage in nature walks, hikes, and various recreational activities that allow them to experience the region in a really fun and healthy way.

One student shared, “This course allows you to understand the issues affecting indigenous rights and conservation while getting to know and respect the communities who are most affected by ecotourism.”

What were some of the important lessons? 

In addition to learning about the ways the communities maintain their health and livelihood, students learned of some of the ongoing threats to these communities from detrimental environmental policies. These include two planned “mega-dams” on the Beni River, El Bala and Chepete, which together would flood an area of 771 square kilometers of rainforest in what is considered the most biodiverse place in the world—Madidi National Park. Home to more than a dozen indigenous communities, over 1,000 species of birds and butterflies and around 300 endangered jaguars, this region- and those who live there- would be devastated by the mega-development projects and commercial interests that these dams would serve. It is a major environmental justice issue.

Shortly after our trip, massive forest fires in the Amazon rainforest, including the Chiquitania forest of Bolivia, became international news and continue to cause major damage in the region. These fires, believed to be deliberately set to clear the land for agriculture projects, not only are more serious and widespread than ever before, but are happening at a time when we need the “lungs of the planet” more than ever to shield against accelerating global warming.  

I think the students got what I wanted them to learn about the big issues, and more. At the end, students all said they learned a lot and that they put in moderate to considerable effort into the course. But the trip was like a positive psychology intervention. We were disconnected from contact via phones and ended up playing cards, skipping stones and making friends - it was like summer camp in a way.  

Each night, I would ask a reflection question like “what’s good today, what are you grateful for today?” Everyone went past their comfort zone, I can say that with confidence.

So, are you going back next summer? 

Yes! Students from all majors at UMD interested in going to Bolivia in Summer 2020 can come for an information session on Wednesday, Oct 16 from 11-12 in SPH 1142A (Family Science conference room). The session will provide information on both the Cuba (Summer I) and Bolivia (Summer II) study abroad courses for 2020.  

For next year’s Bolivia course, we would like to expand the time spent with the medical team from the Fundación Rio Beni which provides medical care along the rivers. We will be fundraising for medicines. We are also exploring potential ecohealth research collaborations with Bolivians and others experienced in conducting research in the area.

Meanwhile, the students who participated in the Bolivia course this summer are helping to get the word out via social media about the beauty of Madidi National Park and the benefits of preserving these communities—their history, their indigenous knowledge, their culture. You can support their fundraiser for Healthcare and potable water for Bolivia here

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Olivia Carter-Pokras
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