The Classroom Package: Related Activities and Lessons/Reading Fun

A Letter From The Amazon (Social Studies/Language Arts)
The following 'letter' is written from the perspective of rain forest children from The Amazon River Elementary School. Suggested activity: Read a different section from the 'letter' each day and segue into a lesson that relates to that section's main theme. 

Dear friends:

Hello! My name is Ivan. I am twelve years old and I'm a 6th grade student in a school called La Escuela Rio Amazonas .  That means The Amazon River Elementary School. That's right, I live in the Amazon rain forest in a country called Ecuador. My village is called Limoncocha. Limon is the Spanish word for 'lemon' and cocha is a word in my language, Quichua, which means 'lake.' So, the name of my village means 'Lemon Lake' in English. As you may have guessed, I live near a big lake which has lots of lemon trees around it!

Hi!  My name is Sandra. Ivan is my brother. I am eleven years old and I am in 5th grade. This is my sister, Bety. She is eight and in 3rd grade. Together with our friends and our teacher, we have written a poem and this letter for you to read. They tell about our life here in the rain forest of Ecuador. We hope you enjoy reading them.

In our life in the Amazon, "the four f's" are most important: family, friends, forest and festival.


Family comes first! In our village, there are about 50 families. Most of our families have a father, a mother and anywhere from one to eighteen children. Three or four children per family is average. Each family has a home of wood with a tin or a thatch roof. The houses are traditionally built on stilts to protect them from heavy rains that can sometimes cause floods. A little outside the village, each family has an equal portion of our community gardening fields in which it grows plantain, papaya, cassava, coffee, flowers and other plants. The gardens are moved to another location every four or five years so the forest can grow back and the soil can regain its fertility. We also have domestic animals like dogs, cats, chickens, ducks and horses. Some families have rain forest pets like parrots and monkeys.

We children have to help our families by taking care of our younger brothers and sisters, catching fish, working in our family gardens, washing clothes at the village spring and fetching water. Some of us help in a family owned business, like a store, a bakery, a restaurant, or a barber shop.

We also have mingas where all the families of the village come together to work on a community project, like building a house or cutting the fast growing grass at our school. Of course, everybody, including us children, brings a machete to do the work. If someone in the community misses the minga, that person has to pay a fine. The money collected from fines is used to buy something the community needs, like a canoe, or it is spent on a big community festival.


Although we do go to school, we also have a traditional way of learning from our parents. They teach us almost all we need to know about gathering and using plant materials from the forest, and about hunting, fishing, growing crops and preparing foods and beverages. Our parents teach us all these things simply by doing them. We imitate them and they let us try without scolding or praising us. We make mistakes, but in time we learn the skills that have allowed our ancestors to survive for many centuries here in the rain forest.

At school, we are also like one big family. We only have one hundred students and six teachers, so everybody knows everybody well. In school, we learn math, science, gym, social studies, reading and writing. We also learn three languages:  runa shimi or Quichua (our mother tongue), Spanish (our country's official language), and English.

Causanguichu? Como estas? How are you? Most of us speak both Quichua and Spanish fluently. By learning English we are trying to go from being bilingual to trilingual! Our parents want us to learn English because many English speaking tourists visit our country. Plus, our parents believe that if we know English we may be able to go to college in the United States some day.

Traditional Practices and Beliefs

We also learn about our traditional rain forest culture at school. One of our teachers, the oldest man in our village and the most knowledgeable about our culture, teaches us traditional customs, skills and beliefs that are no longer widely practiced. One day he had us collect small red mushy seeds, called achiote. Mashing the seeds in our fingers, we released a bright red paint-like dye that he told us to smear on our faces in certain designs. Then we went out and planted the school's cassava garden. He told us that, in the old days, our people painted their faces with achiote before planting because they believed it would guarantee them a good harvest of cassava.

Another time our teacher taught us how to make a shigra out of fiber from the chambira palm tree. A shigra is a string bag resembling a fish net that is made by tying a series of knots. It took us several days to prepare the fiber for weaving. First we had to go into the forest to find chambira   palm trees that had ripe 'hearts' .Then we had to remove the fiber, boil it, stretch it, let it dry and twist it into a thick string. Even then, it took us many hours of knot-tying to make the shigra. We were very proud of the simple but elegant and very useful shigras that we made.

One of our favorite activities was when he taught us how to make a balsa caja. A balsa caja is a percussion instrument made with three kinds of wood - balsa (the lightest wood in the world), lemon (a hard wood) and bamboo. First we found young balsa trees of about two inches in diameter and cut sticks from it, three feet long each. Then, after chopping a small block out of one end of the balsa stick, we attached a small stick of bamboo, about one quarter inch by five inches. Holding the balsa stick with two fingers, we hit it with a one foot lemon tree stick. If we hit it in the right spot, the hard wood (lemon) made the soft wood (balsa) vibrate which in turn made the bamboo rattle against the end of the balsa stick producing a really neat sound. Of course we all got to play our instruments after we made them. It was fun!

We were all amazed and amused to learn about the traditional interpretation of dreams. Our ancestors believed that dreams could tell you what would happen in the day that followed them. For example, it was believed that if a man dreamed of money, someone was going to lie to him the next day. If a woman dreamed of hot red peppers in the night, it was considered a sign that she would get angry the next day - or that someone would get angry at her. Dreams acted as guides for hunters, too. If a man dreamed of a fish hook, he wouldn't go hunting the next day because he might meet a poisonous snake or encounter some other danger. On the other hand, if he dreamed of a large bird or an airplane, it was considered a sign that he would have good luck hunting. Even though many of us don't still practice these beliefs, we consider it important to learn them. Our lifestyle is changing so quickly, we might forget some of it otherwise.


The second "f" is for friends. When we're not working or learning, we're usually playing with our friends. We like lots of sports, especially soccer, volleyball and basketball. We also play lots of games, like tag, marbles and hopscotch. One of our favorite games is called barco .  It's like hopscotch, but the shape of the playing design can resemble a boat, a person, a rabbit or other animals, and players have to kick the stone from box to box.

We enjoy the evening time with our friends, too. If there is a bright full moon, we play outside until very late. On some nights we go to the church to sings songs with the local church musicians who play guitars, drums, flutes and chirangos .  A chirango   is a small stringed instrument, like a tiny guitar, sometimes made with an armadillo shell!. On other nights we go to the village cinema (which has a large TV and a VCR) to watch action packed movies. Every night, the village generator is turned on from 6:30 to 9:30. So, those of us who are lucky enough to have a TV in our house invite a friend over to watch. We get one channel and we consider it a great luxury!


We also love to go fishing and swimming with our friends. We like to fish with a pole that has a line and a hook. (Our parents usually fish using a dugout canoe and large gill nets. Some people in our village fish with a poisonous substance, called barbasco, which they get from a certain plant. The poison paralyzes the fish so they float to the surface, where the person fishing can easily snatch them.) We sometimes fish in a canoe like our parents do, but more often we fish from the shore, or from a tree that overhangs the water. We usually use worms and snails for bait, but if we are fishing for piranha, we might use meat or a piece of another fish.

That's right, piranha are very good eating. They're good at eating, too! But they aren't really dangerous to people, even though they may snap at our fingers once we've caught them! As long as they are in the water, they don't bother us - even when we're swimming. In fact, we swim in waters that also have large snakes, like anacondas, and large fish and reptiles, like rays and caiman. None of these animals disturbs us, however, as we enjoy the refreshing waters where they live.


We also like to wander and explore with our friends in the next "f:" forest. The forest is the basis of our culture. It provides us with all we need. It gives us roots, nuts and fruit to eat, like cassava (which is the plant tapioca comes from), cashews, bananas and frutipan .  It gives us seeds, some, like yanamuyu and tagua, that we use to make necklaces, buttons and jewelry, and even one called atamuyu that we use as a candle. The forest also gives us fish and meat, like corbina and tapir. It gives us medicine, like pucahausca and sangre de dragon, to cure our sicknesses. It gives us fiber, like kapok, from different trees and vines with which we make many things including ropes, hammocks and crafts. It gives us wood like mahogany, chonta and bamboo, to carve figurines, to make lances and blowguns, and to build our homes and canoes. Of course, it gives us water, too: rain and springs for drinking and cleaning, and rivers that act like our roads and provide us with plenty of protein in our diet.

In the forest, we encounter all kinds of animals: hundreds of different species of beautifully colored - and even some transparent - butterflies, like the blue morpho; other remarkable insects like the leaf cutter ant; amphibians like giant toads and tiny frogs that look just like a decaying leaf; reptiles, including lizards and snakes like the bushmaster and the coral snake; many fascinating birds, like hoatzins and anhingas; and interesting mammals, too, like howler monkeys and agoutis.

We can even tell the time of day by the flocks of parrots that fly over our village. They pass screeching overhead every morning at almost exactly 7:30 and every evening at almost exactly 5:00. They nest on islands in the Napo River, nearby, where few predators can disturb them. During the day, they comb the forest around our village looking for trees with ripe fruits and seeds. Shortly after the parrots fly over in the evening, at dusk, we can hear the howler monkeys roaring from as far as two miles away to usher in the night.


While exploring in the forest, we often imagine we are hunting like our fathers do. Nowadays, our fathers mostly use shotguns to hunt, but in the old days, they used traps, bows and arrows, lances and blowguns. They were truly hunting experts! They would dip the tips of their blowgun darts in a poison called curare, which they got from a certain rain forest plant. Just a nick from the dart would quickly paralyze the hunted animal. Other rain forest people used a poisonous liquid from poison arrow frogs to do the same thing. This poison is so powerful that fifty darts could be made from the liquid extracted from just one frog.

In our culture, we consider almost any bird, mammal or fish fair game. But some animals, like the capybara, have been overhunted and are extinct in our area. Others, like the spider monkey and tapir, are endangered, so we hunt them less than in the past. With increased tourism in our area, we are aware of which birds and other animals tourists like to see, like toucans, scarlet macaws and ocelots. So we hunt these less, too. Our ancestors used the colorful feathers and skins of these animals to make special ceremonial clothing, but now we mostly wear clothes like yours.


The forest is a wonderful place to explore, but it can also be dangerous. It has trees and animals that allow us to survive, but some that can cause us harm. We always have to be careful of prickly plants, spiked trees and stinging arthropods, like poisonous caterpillars and tarantulas. We rarely come into contact with bigger animals like jaguars and boas. But we know that they lurk in the forest and can be very dangerous indeed. As you can imagine, we learn a lot of tricks and secrets about living safely in the rain forest, and there are some forest creatures that we try to avoid completely!

We have many traditional stories that emphasize the powers of certain animals. The hummingbird, for example, is considered good luck, since, because it survives on a liquid diet of nectar and doesn't harm anything to get its food, it is thought to be holy. The frog is believed by some to have the power to influence the fertility of a woman. The boa is believed to have the power to lure people to it and put them in a trance.

Some places in the forest are considered supernaturally powerful - and dangerous, too. There is a lake a few miles from our village, for example, called Yanacocha .  Our parents tell so many scary stories about the wild creatures and evil spirits that live there, no one in the village dares go close to it. The last man from our village who went there, many years ago, claims that he barely escaped the hypnotizing boas, the whirlpools in the water caused by anacondas and the sudden weather changes.


The final "f" is for festival. We have several festivals during the year, and they celebrate the first three "f's," family, friends and forest. Our biggest festivals are for Christmas, Mother's Day, and the celebration of our village and our culture. To prepare we have mingas to clean the village and clear the grass. We gather lots of flowers, fruits and nuts from the forest. We hunt for peccary, turtle eggs and other traditional delicacies, and we dig up lots of cassava roots which we use to make our favorite traditional drink, chicha .

Then the celebration begins: we have plays, music, songs, dances, and games. In a traditional game, children climb tall poles for prizes. We also have canoe races, fishing derbies and community sports competitions where the children even get to compete against the parents. Of course we also feast on all the food and drink we prepared ahead of time. Naturally, it's a lot of fun for everybody in the community. Sometimes the festivities go on for a whole week!


We do have a lot to celebrate, but our lifestyle is changing rapidly. There are many pressures on us to give up our way of life entirely - mainly because other people are destroying our home - the rain forest.

First of all, many people from other parts of our country are moving into the forest; we call them 'colonizers' .They clear the trees to plant crops and create pasture land for grazing cattle. They are only trying to make a living, but we don't want them to destroy our home. We have made an agreement with them so they don't settle in Limoncocha , but we can't stop them from settling in other parts of the forest around us.

Big international oil, mining and lumber companies also come into the rain forest to tap its natural resources and sell them to people in other countries like yours. Our country earns a lot of needed income from these businesses. They also bring jobs and connect us more with the outside world. But they can, and often do, damage the environment, and their influence changes our traditional way of life forever.

Together, these big companies clear millions of acres of trees every year in the Amazon rain forest. Just outside of Limoncocha, there is a big American oil company. It helps Limoncocha by providing jobs and sponsoring community development projects. But, it also tears down trees to build roads, work stations, oil wells and pipelines. Once these roads are built, other people from our country can follow the roads and settle in our area.


Despite its unsure future, though, Limoncocha isn't such a bad place to live. In fact, we love our rain forest home! We hope you enjoyed our letter and learned some things about our lifestyle. Thanks for reading and getting to know us. Samashun. So long for now.

Your friends in the rain forest,

Ivan, Sandra, Bety and friends



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