Learning in the Wilds: Venezuela’s First Indigenous University

Every morning, groups of tribespeople cross a jungle creek from their adobe student homes and wander barefoot through the thick undergrowth inhabited by boa constrictors to reach class at Venezuela’s first indigenous university in Cano Tauca.

South American tribesmen are earnest about learning and preserving their culture while embracing technology at a university located amidst thick jungles.

Every morning, groups of tribespeople cross a jungle creek from their adobe student homes and wander barefoot through the thick undergrowth inhabited by boa constrictors to reach class at Venezuela’s first indigenous university in Cano Tauca.

The original residents of Venezuela’s jungles, these ethnic groups make up only a fraction of the 29 million people in the South American nation, now booming because of its oil industry.

Intellectual exchange: Students putting forth their thoughts and ideas during a discussion at the varsity (Photo: Reuters)

Like similar groups across the world, their habitat and way of life in a vast, long-neglected region of forests and waterways around the Orinoco river are increasingly threatened by illegal mining, ranchers and religious groups.

Adding to the mix of influences are socialist aid programmes from the country’s President Hugo Chavez, who has placed Venezuela’s Indian identity at the heart of his home-spun revolution.

Many are grateful for the help. On a campus that sprawls from grassland into wild thick jungle, about 100 students from many of the country’s 44 recognised tribes come to the university which teaches ancient customs alongside modern law and technology.

River recess: Indiginous Indian students jump into the water from a tree during a break from classes (Photo: Reuters).

“This university is the best hope for saving our respective cultures,” said Najiru, a 23-year-old student, whose Warao tribe lives scattered in the delta at the mouth of the Orinoco river.

He is currently working on a plan for a forest farming thesis on a laptop in a dirt-floor hut.

The goal is to create leaders who can defend land rights and prevent a headlong rush into modernity from destroying thousands of years of knowledge about forest and river life.

Students and teachers are also racing to put into writing the wisdom of elders that is not being handed down orally as in previous generations, which they think may soon vanish.

“The elders are living libraries,” said teacher and Ye’kuana Indian Emjayumi Torres, 27, one of the school’s first graduates.

Unlike peers who study in regular schools in Venezuelan towns and often sever ties with their rural homelands, these students need no city clothes for class. They come bare-chested, sleep in hammocks and cook on open fires.

Casual clothing: Students need no city clothes for class and some come bare-chested (Photo: Reuters).

Founded seven years ago, the Venezuelan Indigenous University is to be incorporated into the national higher education system this year.

While it will bring the much-needed funds for classrooms and curriculum, it also carries some risks.

In an airy classroom, Torres chalks a timeline of Venezuela’s indigenous history across a blackboard.

Students, many of whom have their faces painted with traditional symbols take down notes, while there are others fiddling with mobile phones.

“The doors have opened, so Indians can now participate in state affairs,” said Torres.

Soon after taking office in 1998, Chavez created a new constitution which, for the first time, enshrined indigenous rights, including claims to long-occupied lands.

Some 12 years later, a government presence is common even in the most remote Indian villages deep in the Amazon, where Hercules cargo planes and helicopters deliver food, medicine and doctors.

Therein lies the problem. While aid and government jobs are a welcome relief from the harsh reality of jungle life, for many Indians, the government is creating dependency and weakening traditional elders with politicised community councils.

“They are going to wipe out these cultures in no time if these policies are not corrected,” said Jose Korta, 81, a Jesuit priest who is a founder of the university.

He says money flowing into villages is often spent on alcohol in stores owned by non-Indian ranchers who have invaded their territory, pushing the Indian tribes to shrinking patches of land.

The thorny subject of recognising tribal land, much of which straddles borders with Colombia and Brazil and is rich in minerals, is bogged down as the government tries to balance economic priorities and sovereignty concerns with the obligations in the constitution.

University alumni are mapping territory using GPS (global positioning system) handsets to pinpoint hills and rivers that elders have identified for their tribes.

Out in the villages, many Indians long for modern comforts, including protection against preventable diseases.

In the village of Keipon, about 40 Enapa Indian families live in adobe huts nestled in a lush range of hills near a broad tributary of the Orinoco river. The Enapa hunt birds and grow rice, fruit and vegetables in family gardens.

Most people here work the land, unlike other hamlets where government cash lets many buy subsidised food that can cause dietary issues as pasta and flour replace traditional fare.

Like most Indian groups, the Enapa have been in contact with the world but have to put up with rapid changes.

“We need a more comfortable life,” said village nurse Kushewa, inside a crumbling adobe clinic, stocked with a small range of medicines. Officials have approved funds to build a new brick clinic, but so far only the roof has arrived.

“We have no transport and when someone falls sick here, we have no way of taking them elsewhere,” he said.

The government had also given simple laptops to schoolchildren in April. But there is no electricity supply, so the computers can only be charged with a small generator, when villagers have only gasoline to spare.

Recently a young graduate called Wine returned to his village in Keipon and initiated a project to get clean piped water from a mountain spring into villages houses.

That’s the kind of approach the university is seeking: changes that improve people’s lives without destroying their traditional ways and culture. — Reuters