Student photographs trip to Amazon

Victoria BresnahanNews Editor 

As a photo-documentarian, Brokk Tollefson, a senior, joined chemistry professor James Kearns on his fifth annual summer trip to Ecuador to record observations and analysis of the plants he was studying.

“I decided to approach it from an anthropological perspective,” said Tollefson, a sociology major, “so I viewed myself as an anthropologist while I was over there instead of a journalist. So I was asking them as many questions as I possibly could.”

Tollefson was the first Southern student Kearns took on this trip. Due to his military history, amiable personality and photography skills, Kearns said he had the characteristics needed to manage this trip.

The two of them travelled to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and eventually took a three-hour drive “as far as the road” would take them, he said. From there a canoe delivered take them to their host’s house.

“It is so dark there you can see the Milky Way like it was a big rip in the sky,” said Tollefson. “It was so clear.”

Gone for two and half weeks, Tollefson said they studied the medicinal purposes of plants such as agave, and, most importantly, yoco—a woody vine which can be used a caffeine alternative. By scraping the inner bark off the yoco plant and soaking it in water, the effects can be felt after drinking, he said.

In addition, the plant can not be used in such a way until it is at least ten years old.

“I had that a bunch of times and it was [drunk] cold,” said Tollefson. “They drink it similarly to how Americans drink coffee, which is like first in the morning. They do it and get on their way.”

During this trip, Tollefson and Kearns worked with the Secoya tribe of Ecuador to study these plants. The tribe was primarily “westernized” in their clothing and had small amounts of technology. Tollefson worked personally with one of the older tribesman, Delfin, when he was creating the yoco-based drink.

Ever since Tollefson knew he would be taking this trip, he said he has been looking forward to meeting him.

“Watching Delfin create the caffeinated yoco drink was I think one of the most fascinating things I saw there and I photographed,” said Tollefson. “In that moment, I was like this is completely authentic. This is really not a product of westernization or anything like that. What I saw him doing was something they have been doing for thousands of years.”

Kearns said the yoco plant gives “hope and provides scientific knowledge to the Secoya people.”

“Other people can go there if they are interested,” said Kearns. “There is an opportunity to be a part of this process and part of the rainforest and this earth and people who are just like you, but are living in a different location.”

The yoco plant could, at some point, be grown and bottled into an energy drink, said Kearns.

“It could help bring resources to these people,” said Kearns. “They are not desperately impoverished—some of them are—but a lot of the villages are pretty organized.”

Of all the adventures he experienced while staying in the Amazon, Tollefson said he was most fascinated when his host, Luke Weiss, who has lived in the Amazon for 22 years, explained how children travel to school via a canoe.

“[They go] around,” said Tollefson, “picks up all these little kids [and] brings them over to school, teaches them, they leave school and stops by and drops them off from the canoe.”


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Photo Credit: Brokk Tollefson


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