From Nashville to the Amazon: A PhD Student’s Journey to Bring Project Pyramid to Ecuador

Allie Reichert (PhD student in Anthropology, concentrations in global health and Latin American studies)

TFC Project Pyramid Chair


Hi TFC Community!

If we haven’t met, my name is Allie Reichert. I am a third-year PhD student in Anthropology, with concentrations in global health and Latin American studies. I had the privilege of working as the Project Pyramid chair this year, organizing the two student trips to Guatemala and Ecuador over spring break.

I’ve been working on health and human-rights related projects in the Ecuadorian Amazon since 2017, and my dissertation work is focused there as well. When I took the Project Pyramid class as a student last spring, I immediately started thinking of how I could convince “Profe” Mario Avila to bring the class to Ecuador with me the following year. After a semester of butting heads on economic theory, the ideal role of capitalism, and my insistence that business cases ought to have more citations, Profe Mario and I became friends and collaborators, and I applied for the chair position to bring Project Pyramid to Ecuador.

With an eye toward sustainability, I also wanted to build on some of the incredible relationships formed during Project Pyramid last year, in Guatemala. Ferna Alvarez-Carrascal, a PhD student in Earth and Environmental Sciences and my beloved Project Pyramid classmate, took on the role of Project Pyramid committee member, and she led the partnerships and trip to Guatemala. We sent two groups there, to work with Stove Team International, and Tierra y Lava, two partners from last year who recognized the value of the student consultants and wanted to continue working with talented Project Pyramid students.

It’s been a long and exciting planning process. In June of 2023, during my summer of pre-dissertation research, I started reaching out to potential organizations in Tena, a city in the Ecuadorian Amazon, that I thought would be great partners. Over the course of six months, I chose these organizations, helped select the incredible Vanderbilt students for the class (across public health, business, and education masters programs), and began thinking of potential projects.

Then, on March 3, the day finally came! Mario, three student groups, and I made our way to Ecuador and started our adventure with a tour of a social enterprise in Quito. Chawar, an Andean Agave company, hosted us and told us their incredible story of how they hire and support Indigenous Kichwa women and now export Andean Agave (similar to tequila!), all over the country and to the US. After our warm welcome, we hopped on the bus Monday morning and headed to Tena, a beautiful, lush, bustling city in the Ecuadorian Amazon, for the week.

I got to pair students with three social enterprise and non-profit organizations in Tena: UPINA—an Indigenous-owned and run social enterprise that sells reusable water containers, dedicated to providing clean water access in rural communities, as well as addressing pollution and oil extraction that contaminate local water sources; Sinchi Warmi—an adventure tourism lodge owned and run by a group of Indigenous Kichwa women, dedicated to sharing and preserving key parts of Kichwa culture; and Amazon Learning—a social enterprise that organizes study abroad and work abroad internships for students across the world to come and live in local Kichwa communities. The students partnered with each of these organizations, spending the week learning the challenges, successes, and visions of each institution.

Midweek, we came together as an entire group to learn about other social enterprises and projects in Tena outside the three partners—we visited Amupakin, the Kichwa midwifery clinic, where I lived and worked during my Fulbright grant in 2019, and where I have continued to work during my PhD dissertation research. It was incredible to finally connect the students with the Amupakin midwives, whom I had been talking about nonstop since the class began.

We visited Wiñak, a chocolate collective owned and run by Kichwa families, dedicated to serving the needs of Indigenous women and communities. They have partnered with thousands of local families and build sustainable income rooted in organic cacao production.

We also got to learn about the economic history of the region from Dr. Tod Swanson, a professor at Arizona State University, and director of Iyarina, a Kichwa language school dedicated to providing jobs for Indigenous individuals in the community, as well as providing space to speak and teach the Kichwa language. I took Kichwa classes there over the last two summers, so it was really special to share it with the students and think of potential future collaborations.

Lastly, we had dinner at Don Clemente & Doña Elena’s farm, or “chakra” in Kichwa. They gave us a tour of all of their medicinal plants, elaborate animal traps, and let us taste so many of their delicious Amazonian crops. We finished the tour with a farm to table dinner with only products from their farm (including some Amazonian caviar!), tasted their homemade wine, and danced in the firelight to some incredible Kichwa music put on by their family band. As I was dancing to the steps Doña Elena showed us, smiling as we all stumbled through them, I watched Elena throw her head back laughing, and I felt the beauty of the moment and the week hit me. What an awesome trip, project, and opportunity to connect so many impressive people, across cultures!

The Project Pyramid students will work on their consulting projects for each organization throughout the rest of the semester and then present their final products over Zoom to their partners, in late April. I look forward to seeing what they each create, and I can’t wait to see how these partnerships deepen and grow in the years to come.

Thank you so much to Mario Avila for entrusting this piece of Project Pyramid to me—after bothering you about it since I took the class last spring. It came to fruition, and it was a wonderful experience for all involved! Thank you to the TFC for supporting these kinds of meaningful connections that allow students to learn, and local entrepreneurs to benefit. I look forward to new adventures and collaborations to come.

Thank you so much/Muchas Gracias/Ashka Pagrachu!


(Margony Palacios – photographer)