Stanford University
Two women slaughtering a peccary

Earth Systems undergraduate student Madeline Lisaius helps an indigenous Waorani woman butcher a peccary in Ecuador in July 2015. Photo Credit: Manuela Omari Ima

National Geographic grant takes Earth Systems junior to the Amazon

BY Danielle Torrent Tucker
ClockAugust 24, 2017

Madeline Lisaius’s love of science began with her upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, where she watched the greater Seattle area transform with its growing population. Now, she sees parallels with environmental changes in Amazonian Ecuador – and she wants to help its indigenous communities maintain control of the changes around them.

“I know my forest at home and I know what development looks like,” said Lisaius, an Earth Systems major in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “Ecuador is very different than what I know, but I know the feeling that these indigenous people have – they are the experts of their own experiences.”

The winner of a prestigious 2017 National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, Lisaius will return to Ecuador this fall to continue her research with people she considers family in remote areas of the Amazon. Lisaius sees a connection between understanding environmental change on the ground and improving lives impacted by encroaching industry.

On a previous trip to the Waorani Territory – a politically recognized indigenous reserve – she partnered with the Waorani Women’s Association (AMWAE) on a different project to help assess how a small-plot cacao program was working to reduce commercialized bush meat trade in the region. The meat trade and illegal commercial hunting was threatening Ecuador’s rainforest.

“She has done so much work on her own to make this happen – she’s cultivated relationships in Ecuador; she’s learned the Waorani language – it’s incredible,” said Richard Nevle, deputy director of the Earth Systems Program. “One professor referred to her in a meeting as ‘a young Pam Matson [Stanford Earth’s dean and internationally known environmental scientist],’ and she does have the chops. She’s so insatiably intellectually curious.”

Returning for the local perspective

Lisaius credits the advisors, faculty members, and researchers in the Earth Systems Program and the Department of Anthropology in the School of Humanities & Sciences with helping her realize this venture to the Waorani Territory in the fall – her third trip to Ecuador in three years. This time, she will return with remote-sensing data of the area’s land cover and a mission to help its people better communicate how their environment is changing to outsiders.

I’m hoping that I’ll be an agent for good things in the future for that region and I hope to be engaged for a very long time.


Lisaius’s project involves interviewing middle-aged community members about how the land might be shifting in ways that are not detectable by remote sensing. By gathering first-person data, she hopes to help the community advocate for much-needed aid in the face of increasing oil drilling in the area, which will lead to pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the intrusion of foreigners through newly built access roads. The livelihood of the indigenous people depends on resources in the biodiverse Amazon, from food and medicinal plants to the rivers from which people bathe, drink, and play.

Puzzling use of language

Lisaius’s work takes place in extremely remote areas that require multiple hours of driving, upward of eight hours of canoeing, and several more hours of walking. Despite being largely disconnected from the outside world, the indigenous people in these 37 seldom-visited communities frequently talked about “deforestación” in the area, she said.

“The native language is Wao Terero and most people, especially elders, don’t speak Spanish,” Lisaius said. “But everyone was using this word in Spanish, especially at community meetings – it was puzzling.”

When she returned to Stanford, Lisaius sought scientific evidence from faculty member Eric Lambin, a remote-sensing expert and professor at Stanford Earth. With Lambin’s guidance, she learned how to observe year-over-year changes in land cover in Waorani Territory. But the satellite data showed no signs of forest disturbance or clearing of wide areas of trees – what Westerners would call deforestation.

“I took ‘deforestación’ very literally as deforestation, which is clearly a problem because outsiders are going in and hearing this word and may think these people are not telling the truth,” Lisaius said. “This is a question of environmental communication, but also of truth-seeking. What truths are these people communicating that’s just not being understood?”

Her name
Madeline Lisaius

She aims to unravel this mystery and understand the local population’s definition of “deforestación,” quantify their concerns, and use remote sensing to establish a baseline to measure future environmental shifts. She hopes the research will help AMWAE negotiate for grants to address social and humanitarian problems caused by oil-drilling operations, including health risks caused by polluted water, pressure from neighboring indigenous groups due to decreased habitability, and loss of hunting game.

“I care most about people who are living in fringe places who have been neglected by the government, but also by science,” Lisaius said. “It’s so expensive for researchers and government entities to go to those places, but I want to be one of the people that helps funnel resources there.”

Lisaius plans to take a gap year from Stanford, spend six to eight months in Ecuador, and document her experiences in a blog, similar to the one she maintained during a Global Citizen Year trip prior to college: In addition to the National Geographic grant, her project is funded by Stanford’s Beagle II Award in Anthropology and the Volpert Scholars Award in Earth Systems.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be an agent for good things in the future for that region and I hope to be engaged for a very long time,” she said.


Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker


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