Translate page with Google

Pulitzer Center Update July 21, 2023

Sharing the Secrets of the Amazon


people talk while sitting on the floor

This project will take a critical look at a controversial forest carbon project in the Madre de Dios...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors
Left: Nelita Campos and her parrot. She’s encouraging the children in her village to learn at least a little Iskonawa. Right: Roberto Zariquiey, a linguist at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, has met with Campos for more than a decade in the effort to record all she knows of the Iskonawa language. Images by Florence Goupil. Peru, 2023.

An Indigenous Language Tests Time and Isolation 

In Iskonawa, one of the estimated 300 languages spoken in the Amazon, a secret can start with a bahehi, a verb that means to whisper, to talk in the ear. 

Rainforests are constantly engaged in bahehi. Insects buzz, birds chirp, mammals scuttle, and leaves ruffle in the wind—a natural symphony that Nelita Campos (Nawa Nika), an Iskonawa woman from Peru, has heard many times. 

Campos is the last lucid speaker of Iskonawa. For the past decade, she has been meeting with Roberto Zariquiey, a linguistics professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, to share the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of one of the world’s most endangered languages.

Their encounters are fueled by jokes, myths, Spanish, and Iskonawa. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Journalism Fund, writer Simeon Tegel and photographer Florence Goupil documented for The Washington Post how the duo works to preserve the language closest to their hearts.

It’s not an easy task. Around the globe, researchers are racing against the clock trying to save the world’s linguistic diversity. Optimistic predictions say that half the estimated 5,000 languages spoken today could vanish by the end of the century. This is worrying because, according to some linguists, when a language disappears, so do ways of thinking: Vital clues to unlocking mysteries of human creativity, evolution, neurology, and even medical science can be lost. 

“[...] It gives me such happiness when I hear the recordings of my voice and see that the children want to learn,” says Campos. She refers to an Iskonawa vocabulary app created by Zariquiey, who also started a language school, where during his monthly visits, he teaches spellbound children basic phrases from their ancestral tongue.

All efforts—in the form of games, art, and linguistics lessons—are driven by the desire to preserve the unique culture and irreplaceable knowledge that Iskonawa contains. It’s an act of service for future generations, but also an act of noia, an act of love. 



Four Pulitzer Center-supported projects and a Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow have been recognized as finalists in the 2023 Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards. The winners will be announced in September 2023.

This message first appeared in the July 21, 2023, edition of the Pulitzer Center's weekly newsletter. Subscribe today.

Click here to read the full newsletter.


teal halftone illustration of a young indigenous person


Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Rights
a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs