Education in the Amazon – an Update on Alianza Arkana’s Education Program

One of the principal aims of Alianza Arkana is to help preserve the culture of the indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon, especially the Shipibo-Konibo. A key medium to achieve this is through education. Since January 2011, Alianza Arkana has been working to identify and implement a number of educational projects that are directly focused on improving the quality of intercultural education in different Shipibo communities.

In general, the education that indigenous people receive in their native communities is of very poor quality. Local schools have few teaching resources and materials. It can be shocking to see the physically neglected state of the classrooms and other parts of the school infrastructure, especially bathrooms. In addition, many of the teachers are poorly trained, have little understanding of the indigenous culture, and lack motivation.

In theory and by law, all schools in local, native communities should be intercultural – that is they should teach the students both the traditional western-based curriculum in Spanish and about their own culture in their own language. In practice, this is often reduced to the minimum level of offering a few classes in the native language.

The quality and commitment of the teaching staff is often very poor, and teachers are poorly paid. Many mestizo (mixed-race) teachers with no training in intercultural education are sent to indigenous communities, that are far away from their own homes and of which they may have little understanding. Their concern becomes to do as little teaching as possible and spend as much time outside the local community as they can.

Here is an update on our key projects:

1.    The Intercultural School at Puerto Firmeza.

In January 2011, we were fortunate to meet Luis Márquez Piñedo. Luis is the Director of the intercultural school at the native community of Puerto Firmeza – a Shipibo community of about 320 people about two hours away from Pucallpa by road in the dry season and boat in the rainy season. Luis started work in the school in 2007 when there were only two classrooms for primary education, and has built the school up into a kindergarten (currently 22 students), primary (62 students), and secondary (35 students). Luis has an original, far-reaching and compelling vision of what a fully functioning, truly intercultural/bilingual school should be. The aims of his school are detailed here.

Since March 2011, we have been working with Luis and financially supporting the school to create the practical infrastructure for his vision. Alianza Arkana has provided the funding and the local community have done the physical work of clearing the ground, cultivating food plants, medicinal plants and fruit trees and building fences – so that by the end of this year the basic infrastructure will have been completed. The photo below shows a recent activity where the students were involved in helping clear the ground around the proposed fish-farm, in which particular trees will be planted that offer food for the fish.

In 2012, the curriculum of the school will be greatly expanded to take into account the educational opportunities offered by different learning zones. In addition, in 2012, we will go ahead with the construction of the malokas so the children can receive teaching from the elders in their communities about their cultural traditions.

We are planning to find a volunteer from March 2012 to work at this school, teaching English and being a key point of liaison between the school and Alianza Arkana in relation to the further funding and development of the school.

We are delighted to be able to support the development of this school, which we see as offering a model for a truly intercultural education that can be extended to other schools in Shipibo communities and beyond.  On November 24th, Luis presented the vision of his school to a regional meeting at which the Peruvian Minister of Education was present. She publically congratulated him on the importance of his work.

2.    Scholarships for Shipibo students

As we have come to understand better how the educational system functions in Peru, the levels and different forms of discrimination against indigenous people become increasingly evident. In the area of the Peruvian Amazon where the Shipibo live, in order to continue their education at a higher level after secondary and high school, the students have to leave their communities and typically go to Pucallpa where the universities are located. This leads to increased migration from rural to urban areas and also means that the students have to find further finances for their food and lodging, as well as their university fees.

In 2007, the first indigenous university in Peru was created at Pucallpa  – the Universidad Nacional Indigena Amazónica (UNIA). UNIA currently offers four five-year degree programs, two concerned with agriculture and two with intercultural education – at the kindergarten and primary level. There is currently no institution in the region offering degree programs in intercultural education at secondary level, which means that little good intercultural education exists at secondary level, which is a key stage for the formation of individual cultural identity.

In order to support the development of high quality intercultural teachers, with a commitment to their own culture and traditions, Alianza Arkana has set up a scheme to offer six scholarships for five years to students on either the primary or kindergarten degree courses at UNIA. These scholarships will pay full university tuition fees as well as providing the students with a monthly allowance for their food, accommodation and materials necessary for their studies.

We are currently in a rigorous interview process to select two students from each of three Shipibo communities  – Dinamarca (located six hours up river from Pucalpa), Bena Jema (an urban Shipibo settlement in Yarina/Pucallpa) and Poayhán (twelve hours downriver from Pucallpa). Potential scholarship students have completed an application form – with questions in Spanish and Shipibo – and over the next two weeks Dr. Paul Roberts and Professor Luis Márquez will be visiting all three communities and conducting interviews to choose the two successful candidates in each community. The chosen students will then begin a preparation course at UNIA in January 2012 for three months before starting their degree program in April 2012.

The cost of a full scholarship is calculated at $1000 USD per year for five years. We already have individuals who have pledged to sponsor students for the full five-year period and would very much welcome further sponsors. For further information, please see here.

3.    Accommodation for scholarship students

We are currently engaged in talks with UNIA to buildor refurbish a small residential unit on their large tropical campus, just outside Yarina/Pucallpa, which could house the students we award scholarships to. This would have the benefits of allowing the students to participate fully in all university activities by being located on the campus, reduce their spending costs by offering them accommodation and computing facilities, and create a sense of identity and support for them as a group.

We plan to build this accommodation along ecological principles using local materials and simple, effective eco-technologies such as rainwater management systems and compost toilets. In addition, as part of their reciprocal responsibilities for receiving a scholarship, the students will be involved in the cultivation of food based on principles from permaculture. In this way, the students will receive a practical education about sustainable development, which they can take back to their communities.

4.    Loan scheme

One of the most striking forms of discrimination against indigenous and poor university students is the payment they have to make at the end of their degree program in order to obtain their formal degree certificate. After working hard and fighting to find the money to complete five years of study, at the end of their course, students have to pay 1500 soles (about $550USD) to obtain their formal certificate. Such a large sum of money is beyond the reach of many indigenous students.

This means that they leave university, having completed the degree program but without their formal title. In turn, this means that, as potential intercultural teachers, they can only obtain teaching posts on a contractual basis, at lower salaries, greater insecurity, and with fewer employment rights. We have heard that from the first generation of students who completed their degree program in August 2010, six Shipibo students were unable to obtain their title. In 2012, the numbers of similar students are estimated to be 18.

Alianza Arkana is setting up a fund, which can be used to make loans to students on the two intercultural teaching degree programs to be able to make the payment to obtain their degree title. They will then pay this money back over a year, and this money can then be recycled for graduating students in subsequent years.

5.    Local school in Tres Unidos, near Iquitos

In addition to these projects in the Pucallpa area, Alianza Arkana has set up a project in the school in the community of Tres Unidos, which is the closest mestizo community to the Temple of the Way of Light, near Iquitos.

Nina Bahar, a Norwegian teacher, is working as a volunteer with the local school for a year, helping improve the quality of the education there and bringing additional teaching materials to the school. We have asked for participants at workshops at the Temple to being educational materials with them to donate to the school and have received a very good response.

Deborah Rivett, Wednesday, 30 November 2011

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