Developing eco opportunities

Molly Skaltsis ’13 plans to spend her summer working to help a small village in the Peruvian Andes to develop an ecotourism business centered around one of the world’s largest waterfalls.

After graduation, the Wheaton senior will be joining a nonprofit organization working with the community of Cuispes to develop the trails and other amenities needed for tourists to trek to the Yumbilla waterfall in northern Peru.

Skaltsis has been awarded a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant to purchase materials and skilled labor needed to complete the trail, a native plant nursery and a lodge to enable two-day treks through the region’s pristine cloud forest environment.

“Not only will my project positively affect the Cuispans who directly benefit from the trail, the entrance fee and part of the lodge revenue will be considered communal money to be used for a variety of purposes,” Skaltsis said.

Now in its sixth year, Davis Projects for Peace is an invitation to undergraduates at the American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Program to design grassroots projects that promote peace. It is made possible by Kathryn Wasserman Davis, an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist who received an honorary degree from Wheaton in 2008. She is the mother of Diana Davis Spencer ’60, a writer, activist and a trustee emerita of the college.

A dozen Wheaton students have won Projects for Peace awards since the program was launched in 2008. Past projects have included establishing a tutoring program in Namibia, founding a micro-finance initiative in Cambodia and help Ugandan residents build fuel-efficient stoves.

For Skaltsis, the project represents an opportunity to return to Cuispes, where she spent two months last summer, working on the trail and teaching in the village school as a volunteer with the Amazon Waterfalls Association (AWA).

“I have been deeply touched by the passion and conviction of the Cuispian people,” she said. “It was clear to me that the whole town believed in this project; individuals with skills in gardening offered time in the nursery, carpenters offered to help design the tambos (rest stops), women brought us lunch on hot days.”

Her dedication to the project led the founders of the AWA to offer her a position as the volunteer coordinator for the work, and she has been organizing the next phase of efforts while back on the Wheaton campus.

A Massachusetts native, Skaltsis said she came to college with the desire to see more of the world, particularly South America, influencing her decision to major in International Relations and Hispanic Studies as well as minor in Environmental Studies.

The Cuispes project culminates her undergraduate career, she said. For an independent study, she focused on the ideology of development in emerging areas, particularly in South America. “I have done some serious soul-searching about the difference between standing for people and standing with people,” she said. Her aspiration is to facilitate development that people desire, rather than impose projects on a community.

“I want to stand with these people to harness all of the talents they possess and achieve a dream we share: the completion of an amazing eco-trek spanning seven waterfalls.”