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Science in the greater picture

Deepesh Patel saw for himself

Deepesh Patel saw for himself.

We need a new generation of young scientists to be able to write policy, govern and pave the exciting future of our planet. In the outreach work associated with the Canopy to Cures project, I try to put across to school students that not all scientists wear white coats.  I had my eyes opened to this on a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship to the Peruvian Amazon. 

Expedition to Peru

The six weeks spent in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon was drawing to a close. I thought just seeing the vastness of this untouched land was good enough, but then being able to hold an Amazon Rainbow Boa, eat numerous fresh fruits and tropical fish, as well as film some of the world’s most endangered yet cool birds considerably exceeded my expectations.

To get to the primary rainforest to catalogue, observe, and record the abundances of numerous medicinal plants, we had boat drivers, cooks, porters, guides, translators and a film crew just to ensure we survived a week in a place 16 hours (by boat) from the nearest city, Puacartambo.

Journey from Puacartambo

Whilst travelling upstream back to ‘civilization’, that is; cold showers, electricity and dial-up internet, we came across two hunched figures, shouting from across the stream on the bank. These two people were from the Mashco-Piro tribe; one of the only nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes of Peru (voluntarily isolated from us). It was the first time after years spent on these rivers that our boat driver had seen such a sight. A fatherly figure accompanied by a younger person (possibly his son) stood, small daggers tied around their waists, shouting almost desperately in our direction.

None of us fully understood what they said; the resemblance between native Spanish and Cujareño (the Mascho Piro dialect) is like English and Chinese. Luckily the boat driver spoke a similar dialect. The younger man seemed to be asking for food and equipment, yet the father was clearly refusing any offers. We watched and waited whilst slowly passing. National Park rules said we were not allowed to contact the tribe, yet these were people apparently begging for help.

And then it struck me. I had read a saddening report in The Guardian about the death of a boat pilot (our pilot’s friend), in the same region of Madre de Dios and the same stretch of river. What’s more, he was killed by an arrow shot by the same tribe; possibly even the same people.

Not the only ones

My outreach work uses this incident to raise larger questions about science. What can we as scientists do to protect indigenous tribes? Do they need protecting? Why isn’t their government doing enough to ensure their existence? Why aren’t we allowed to speak to them, even though they are there, begging for food or aid?  There’s a wealth of issues that stop science being just research.

We went to the Amazon to research medicinal plants, and indigenous people and their attitudes, as well as ethical protocols, played a big role in the study. But this incident made me realise there was a far greater picture. The idea of science for the sake of research and collecting data seemed ethically flawed.

In my subsequent outreach work I’ve given the students role play cards and a case study along the lines of the incident itself. Through class debate we’ve found, inevitably, disagreements and clashes of views.

The trip provided me with overwhelming data to support the necessity to protect secondary and primary rainforest in terms of their medicinal potential. But more importantly, I also learned that we’re not the only ones on this planet, and that as scientists we need to address that too.


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Deepesh Patel
Deepesh Patel is an undergraduate studying natural sciences at Durham University. He undertook his Canopy to Cures project after competing in the National Science + Engineering Competition in 2009 with his CREST project. For more information see
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