Is there really a university in the Amazon rainforest?

By: Karen Lindsay | Published: June 1, 2016 | International Innovation

Yes, there is – and two years into its development, IKIAM Universidad Regional Amazónica in the Ecuadorian Amazon wants to increase its student body to 3,000 over the next 10 years

Home to unique habitats and communities – and now the Universidad Regional Amazónica IKIAM – the Ecuadorian Amazon offers researchers and students an exceptional range of environmental and cultural learning experiences. Graham Wise, Vice President Technology and Governing Board Member, explains how the university’s newly established research infrastructure will address complex local and global challenges


IKIAM is one of four new universities being set up in Ecuador. Why was it decided to establish this particular one in the Amazon?

Over a number of years the Ecuadorian Government has implemented a multi-billion dollar reinvention of its education system at all levels. A keystone for this education revolution was the establishment of four flagship universities, each holding a regionally relevant academic focus. IKIAM has been located in Ecuador’s Napo Provence, in the Amazon, to serve a globally important geographical region that historically has had poor access to high quality education services and innovation expertise.

IKIAM is also being built in the Amazon to undertake research and foster a culture of sustainable innovation in the Amazon. IKIAM is working with local leaders, communities, collectives, entrepreneurs and businesses to ensure that its research is focused on the Amazon’s most pressing needs, and to make sure that its solutions are generated with the Amazon’s most capable agents for change.

What are IKIAM’s chief objectives?

Gone are the days when first-world organisations could easily dictate how developing countries should grow. Quite simply, IKIAM is supporting the Amazon region to develop in-house knowledge to take charge of its own destiny, to protect its incredible natural assets and look after its communities. IKIAM’s education mission is to deliver higher learning in the Amazon, for environmental management and sustainable development. IKIAM is also building world class research infrastructure to address global challenges using uniquely Amazonian innovations.

Most importantly, to have relevance in the Amazon, IKIAM must engage with and deliver services to the Amazon and its communities. Our community service mission sits at the heart of all of our activities.

As of this year, IKIAM has approximately 300 students, and has attracted international and Ecuadorian faculty members. What unique opportunities will IKIAM and its location offer to both its academic community and student body?

Put simply – it’s the Amazon. I ride to work on my bicycle, across mountain streams that flow from a pristine 93,000 Ha biological reserve, past an indigenous Kitchwa community, and beside traditional ‘chakra’ silviculture plots. I believe that you have to be in the Amazon to understand the Amazon. I hope that our strategic planning to build a world class campus (on disused agricultural land), will immerse our students and researchers in an international quality academic environment, exactly where it counts most.

"IKIAM has the potential to create a new generation of community and industry leaders, who understand the needs of the Amazon and are able to tread lightly on the fragile Amazonian soil"


You are passionate about international research engagement and the use of government, industry and philanthropic collaboration to tackle critical environmental, social and technological challenges. How is IKIAM enabling you to follow these passions?

The world has many critical challenges that require integrated solutions. Marshalling the forces of industry, philanthropy and the public sector creates the best opportunity to resolve these challenges. For example, the world buys products sourced from the Amazon, but in doing so we are sometimes destroying the Amazon environment and economically disadvantaging its people. Through collective action IKIAM is helping to rewrite this script, initially for a uniquely Amazonian product – guayusa.

Guayusa is a forest friendly crop that yields tea leaves with higher anti-oxidant value than green tea, but with a sweeter taste that is ideal for a western pallet. IKIAM’s researchers are working with aid agencies and community growers to reinforce environmentally sustainable traditional silviculture methods for guayusa. With local entrepreneurs we are helping to create ethical export value chains for these crops. Also, through government engagement we are seeking to open up European consumer market access for our local growers. With the involvement of universities, government agriculture ministries, foundations and entrepreneurs, we are best equipped to ensure that new innovations respect the Amazon environment and uphold the culture of its communities.

Design thinking, social innovation and social entrepreneurship are three concepts at the heart of IKIAM’s teaching and research activities. Why does the University see these three concepts as being so important to meeting future global challenges?

Our future is being moulded by entrepreneurs who are building the next generation of global companies, and by ‘intrapreneurs’ who work within existing global companies, transforming them from the inside. Let’s all make sure they do a good job. IKIAM can help by producing graduates who are creative enough to design radical solutions to stubborn challenges, and have sufficient social and environmental awareness to make sure these solutions are sustainable at local and global levels.

Can you provide examples of how it is instilling these ideas in its activities?

The training of entrepreneurs at IKIAM begins with a creativity programme. To be inspired by nature – what better way to address the much-discussed problem of university graduates lacking creativity.  Our innovation programme then focuses students’ creative mindsets on discrete innovation challenges.

Last year we did this with the local indigenous Tzatzayacu grower collective. Our students learned about Tzatzayacu real world agricultural and business barriers to sustainably producing cacao, guayusa, coffee and other forest friendly cash crops. In their senior academic years, IKIAM undergraduate students will undertake an entrepreneurship programme. In this programme, working with organisations like Tzatzayacu, students will build entrepreneurial solutions that can resolve the challenges that were originally identified with Tzatzayacu. Thinking differently in the Amazon, means integrating our teaching, research and community service missions so that we can deliver real world benefit to the local region that works with us.



  • IKIAM means rainforest in Shuar, an indigenous language of the Ecuadorian Amazon

  • One of four new universitites established by the Ecuadorian Government, Universidad Regional Amazónica IKIAM was launched in October 2014


  • October 2014: 150 students were enrolled

  • The university is now home to around 300 students and 40 academic staff

  • 58% of IKIAM’s faculty members come from international universities

  • By 2025, IKIAM hopes to receive 3,000 students: 2,000 undergraduate and 1,000 postgraduate students


  • The university is located in Muyuna in the Napo Province of the Ecuadorian Amazon, 8 kilometres away from the city of Tena

  • IKIAM sits on 246 Ha, on the edge of the Biological Reserve Colonso-Chalupas – a living laboratory for research and preservation

  • The reserve provides access to 93,000 Ha Amazon rainforest, cloudforest, and Andean paramo on the western side the Andes and in the inter-Andean valley


  • During the COP21 Paris Climate Change talks, IKIAM won an international architectural design award for the planning and design of its future campus

  • IKIAM works with Amazon communities to encourage home grown innovations that foster economic resilience and support the environment

  • The university is built in the Amazon for the Amazon

Can you introduce the Amazon Observatory and its natural sciences and sustainable development activities?

At the heart of the Amazon Observatory is an unprecedented network of scientific field-sites. When operational, this network will provide access to over 3.2 million Ha of different habitats, and a wide range of communities. These habitats extend from 400m-4400m in elevation, and include tropical dry forest; flooded and terra-firme Amazon rainforest; cloudforests on both sides of the Andes; and paramo tundra in the inter-Andean valley. Nowhere else in the world can researchers access an integrated set of forest ecology and sustainable development field-sites such as this, all within a few hours of each other and within a few hours of a university that is building world class laboratory facilities.

The Amazon Observatory is designed to allow international and Ecuadorian scientists to address global challenges in natural sciences and sustainable development. It will also allow students to absorb a exceptional range of environmental and cultural learning experiences around the Amazon and the Andes.



What are the challenges facing the environment and the cultures of the Amazon that the University and the wider Observatory are looking to tackle?

The Amazon is ‘the lungs of the world’, but only nine South American nations are required to pay for its healthcare. There is a fundamental mismatch between the global need to protect the Amazon, the needs of Amazon countries to build viable economies, and the needs of Amazon communities to have resilient livelihoods. IKIAM, and the broader Amazon Observatory aim to build knowledge and implement solutions to address this mismatch.

As an example, we are currently exploring funding options to build a green (no dam) hydroelectric plant that can use water from a bioreserve, produce electricity, and use the profit from that activity to fund a community-led protection programme for that bioreserve.

"Nowhere else in the world can researchers access an integrated set of forest ecology and sustainable development field-sites such as this"

Do you think the lessons that will be learned here could one day be applied to wider global challenges?

The challenges of the Amazon region are in fact global. Specifically, IKIAM has focused its attention on the universal challenges of: education, global change, food security, health, energy and sustainable development. It is true that our most immediate activity is focusedon our local geographic region. However, with international partners like UNESCO; German International Cooperation Agency (GIZ); and Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECID), international scale up of solutions to global challenges sits at the heart of our intent. Increasingly, research is a global enterprise, with large research consortia required to address complex challenges. We believe that the Amazon Observatory, as a large diverse network of field sites, is a useful platform to address global challenges, allowing researchers to step outside of the constraints of a single field site and think more globally.

What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of the University and the future of the Amazon?

My Kichwa neighbours have kids somewhere between the ages of 4 and 12. These kids have the intelligence, the energy and the precociousness of any kid, but their life opportunities have been so different to mine, and their life trajectories are at risk of being very limited. It makes me very excited to know that education in the Amazon changes everything. That Ecuador’s free public education system and the existence of a university like IKIAM, makes it possible for any child, regardless of background to transform their lives and the lives of their future families. IKIAM has the potential to create a new generation of community and industry leaders, who understand the needs of the Amazon and are able to tread lightly on the fragile Amazonian soil.

Finally, to what extent does the university encourage international assistance and/or cooperation?

As a responsible organisation it is tempting for IKIAM to say, “We have everything under control”; “We are able to manage our challenges on our own”. I think it is more honest for a university in its second year of development to say that we need and welcome international assistance. We believe passionately in our missions, and our arms are open to capable organisations around the world that want to work with us to address some of the most pressing challenges of our age – in an environment that is unbelievably, mind-numbingly amazing.