A Place Called 'Yachana'

Douglas McMeekin '70'

By:
Ford Burkhart

You might mistake Douglas McMeekin ’70 for an Indiana Jones, since he is at home with monkeys and wild pigs and people speaking Kichwa. But McMeekin’s role is real — battling poverty and trying to save the world’s tropical rain forests.

McMeekin brings entrepreneurship opportunities to remote peoples of the Amazon basin in Ecuador. He built an eco-lodge guests can reach only by a three-hour boat ride. He started a clinic providing the only medical care to a region of 8,000 people. And he built an outpost of the global chocolate pipeline to grow quality cacao and create jobs.

McMeekin works from a tiny village called Mondaña. From there, his impact ripples out to touch thousands. He recently visited Tucson to talk about his new semester-abroad project for U.S. students interested in sustainability and environmental issues and to look for graduates who are interested in teaching in his foundation’s high school.

McMeekin’s own academic career was marked by years of struggle with undiagnosed dyslexia, an experience that he says gives him empathy for the underdog indigenous peoples in the Amazon. At the UA, he studied cultural geography. Faculty helped him find his own way to a degree, working around his academic limitations.

After graduating in 1970, he landed back in his native state of Kentucky, working in real estate and business until a recession left him bankrupt. “I’m glad it happened,” he says. “It gave me an opportunity to ask what I wanted to do when I grew up.” He visited friends in Ecuador and discovered his life’s mission.

At the time, Ecuador was beginning to open the Amazon to oil exploration. McMeekin’s first project was working with oil companies to generate funds for a national park to protect the cultures and wildlife of the Amazon basin. He also provided

environmental consulting, becoming an expert at drafting environmental impact statements.

Then he shifted his focus to preserving local cultures and, in 1991, he set up a foundation called Yachana, “a place for learning” in Kichwa. He went on to build his eco-lodge and opened the Yachana Technical High School where students prepare for jobs in tourism, catering at oil camps, forestry and conservation, and repair of small engines like the 50 horsepower outboards that sustain the vast area’s river economy. They alternate 21 days at school and seven days at home to help their families farm.

Curious about life in the Amazon? You could join McMeekin as a teacher, at any age, if you’re fluent in Spanish and willing to invest a year roughing it. “You’ll be eating jungle food,” he warns. Yes, there’s Internet, but only for a few hours a day, run by solar power.

Or you might become one of the 3,000 or so tourists a year that visit his luxury hotel, where you’ll enjoy gourmet cuisine. The 4,300-acre reserve, and its income generation and support of the communities through education, has received an Ashoka award as one of the world’s top geotourism experiences.