The Pantanal region is a seasonally flooded tropical wetland, located primarily in the Brazilian state Mato Grosso do Sul. An environment of incredible biodiversity and home to resilient communities of cattle ranchers and fishermen, this region has captured the imagination of a several recent Honors alumni, including Julie Bateman (Civil Engineering and Natural Resource Studies, 2011). Sitting on her porch in Ann Arbor in 2009, Julie listened to her friend and fellow Honors student Ethan Shirley (Anthropology and Zoology, 2010) pitch the idea of founding a community center and school in the Pantanal. Four years later, the Pantanal Center for Education and Research (PCER) is a thriving community center and research base that continues to develop in unexpected directions. “Ethan sold me on the argument that field researchers often isolated themselves from the community, and that PCER would be way to foster collaboration on the shared goal of protecting and conserving the Pantanal. Three years of a slow moving bureaucracy have been an unexpected blessing as we have had the opportunity to connect with schools, orphanages, and other organizations in the region for sustainable technology workshops, music and English lessons,” says Julie. 

Julie and Ethan brought together an interdisciplinary team of around 30 students and faculty from across the University of Michigan. They raised more than $30,000 and traveled to the site in the summers of 2010 and 2011 to build the center. Julie completed an Honors thesis that relates directly to her work at the PCER, "Implementation of education, sustainable technologies, and healthcare in the remote Brazilian Pantanal.” Both of her advisors, Professor Jonathan Bulkley and Lecturer Melinda Matice, were involved from day one of the project. “Matice led a rowdy team of fourteen undergraduates to the Pantanal for PCER's construction the first summer,” she recalls. Julie expresses gratitude for the incredibly warm community she found in the Honors Program, and the support she and the PCER project have continued to receive. Early in the project, Julie and Ethan benefited from crucial encouragement and support from Tim McKay, Director of the Honors Program, who helped them hone their idea and explore different potential supporters within the University. “I feel very lucky to have had such patient and enthusiastic advisors, and the freedom to create my own course of study. Pantanal Partnership greatly appreciated Honors agreeing to house our operations for three years, and we will be forever indebted to Donna Wessel Walker and Vicki Davinich for helping us get our idea of the ground.”

Julie, a former resident of Honors Housing in South Quad, continues to enjoy a strong sense of community in her work. “The team I've worked with over the past few years and the incredible people I've met in the area have become my second family. Each year brings the excitement of new members with ideas to improve our work in the Pantanal.” She is particularly excited about the Pantanal Music Exchange (PME), a music education initiative sparked last summer when Honors alumni Alex Carney (Mathematics 2012) and Alistair Hayden (Geological Sciences, Interdisciplinary Physics 2011) visited the PCER to help with a water tower construction project. Alex and Alistair plan to establish a music education program and full string orchestra with the youth at the Nazaré Orphanage, one of the partner organizations of the PCER. Channeling the transformative power of music, the Pantanal Music Exchange aims to enrich the lives and community of the boys at the Nazaré Orphanage.

Last summer Alistair discovered a room filled with unused violins, violas, and cellos collecting dust at the Nazaré Orphanage. “I thought it would be a good idea to get them all out, fix whatever was broken, and get them in tune. Several of the boys heard me tuning up and poked their heads in to see what all the racket was.” Inspired by the enthusiasm of the youth, Alistair and Alex began teaching them basic technique and songs. Alex adds, “In addition to its own value, music has an incredible ability to bring the kids together into a classroom excited to learn.” Alex says they want to make sure the Pantanal Music Exchange stays closely tied to the interests and desires of the youth. Keeping that in mind, he says, “Instead of a standard classical program, we'll be working will the kids on music choice. Based on last summer's experience, I expect this to include anything from Mendelssohn's Wedding March to the Titanic Theme song to Lady Gaga's Poker face.”

Julie Bateman says that her dream is to bring the Pantanal-Ann Arbor connection full circle: “Our dream is that the Pantanal Music Exchange Orchestra will one day perform at Hill Auditorium, and other venues across the States.” Having recently finished an assignment at the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Project in Southern California, Julie plans to return to the Pantanal region this summer to work both on expanding PCER's programs and for a local contractor on governmental housing projects. As she moves forward, Julie remains deeply connected to many of the friends she met through the Honors Program. “The friends I found through Honors made me and continue to make me question my beliefs, thought processes, and overall approach to life. I'm not entirely sure what path I am on, but through my friends and my experiences, I have learned to be comfortable not knowing.”

You can learn more about the Pantanal Music Exchange and contribute to their efforts via their Indiegogo page!