The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

January 29, 2012

MSU student does biological research on the Amazon

MANKATO — Some of Jose Barriga’s travel-mates thought he’d feel right at home in the rainforest of Peru, being a Bolivian native and all.

But as with most countries on the map, there are regions with diverse landscapes and cultures. The mountains of Peru would be quite reminiscent of Barriga’s home in Bolivia. The heart of the rainforest, however ... not so much.

“I had never experienced anything like that,” said the Minnesota State University biology major. “It was 100 percent new for me. I had fruits that I never heard of before. I saw animals I never imaged existed.”

Barriga’s trip, which took place over winter break, was arranged through the Honors Program at MSU in conjunction with the National Collegiate Honors Council. Barriga joined about a dozen other students from different states, each with their own research project to tackle.

Barriga’s project focused on the use of medicinal plants. He studied how and why indigenous people used various kinds of plant life, many of which they grew around their homes themselves.

The students and two professors met in Iquitos, a city in northeast Peru, where they spent four days. Then they took a 24-hour boat ride on the Amazon River into the jungle, where they spent 10 days in three rural communities.

Barriga may not have been used to the landscape. But he at least had a leg up when it came to the language. Barriga was able to converse in Spanish with many of the native people he encountered.

“It was really interesting,” he said. “I found out they use a lot of medicinal plants: fruits, seeds, tree bark, sap.”

Rural Peruvians also use pharmaceuticals, but mostly in emergencies, such as for poisonous snake bites, because for some it requires an hours-long canoe trip to the nearest medical post, which Barriga described as “poor.”

“Each family grows their own plants around their house,” he said. “They live in such a balance with nature. They use the wood to build their house, and they grow their own vegetables, and men go out and hunt for meat.”

In Iquitos the students stayed in hostels. But in the rainforest they stayed in wooden-frame structures surrounded by screens. The beds inside also were surrounded by nets

to keep the mosquitoes out. As added protection, Barriga took malaria medication because of the high risk of contracting the disease from mosquito bites.

“All night long you could hear the weirdest animal noises ever,” he said.

Barriga paid about $3,000 for the six-credit study project, in addition to paying for travel expenses.

“But the money doesn’t even get close to the things I gained,” he said.

Among the things he learned, Barriga values what the people taught him more than anything else. They don’t have furniture or beds. They sit on logs, and they sleep in hammocks. Yet, they are some of the most content people he’s ever met.

“(In Peru) wealth is so differently measured. There’s no point in having a huge car when there are no roads,” he said. “So our perspective is they’re extremely poor. But they live in such a state of happiness. You can almost say they’re wealthy because they have everything they need.”

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