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PERU: Intercultural University Scores Poorly on Equality

Milagros Salazar

PUCALLPA, Peru, Jan 24 2008 (IPS) - Peru’s only intercultural university was established in the country’s Amazon jungle region to provide higher education for indigenous people, thanks to a concerted struggle by native leaders. Yet only 40 percent of the students are actually from indigenous communities, while the majority are "mestizos" (people of mixed-race) from urban areas.

UNIA student Carlos Mashian and family. Credit:

UNIA student Carlos Mashian and family. Credit:

The National Intercultural University of the Amazon (UNIA) is the fruit of the struggles and negotiations undertaken by a number of indigenous organisations and conferences to demand the fulfilment of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

Adopted in 1989, the convention calls for a system of special protection for native ethnic groups.

According to the institutional development plan drawn up in 2005, indigenous students should account for 80 percent of the university’s total enrolment. But as of today, only 40 percent of the more than 1,000 students enrolled are indigenous, Juan Agustín López, head of the Intercultural Coordination Office, told IPS.

Although it was founded in 2000, UNIA, located in the city of Pucallpa in the region of Ucayali, 850 kilometres northeast of Lima, did not actually open its doors until 2006. Students can choose from among four areas of specialisation: bilingual early education, bilingual primary education, aquaculture/agroforestry engineering and agroindustrial engineering.

"Jamso means liar in Shipibo. Shutacu means young woman and metsa means pretty," UNIA student Álvaro Flores explained to IPS. Flores, who is from the city, was sitting next to a Shipibo Indian classmate and wanted to show that he knows "something" about the indigenous people he is studying alongside.

"Things work backwards here," said Macedonio Egoavil, a 30-year-old student from an indigenous community in the Huancavelica region of the central Peruvian highlands. "Even though we were the ones who fought for the creation of this university, we are a minority here compared to the mestizos," he commented to IPS.

"The current Organising Committee, far from creating conditions of transparency, inclusion and equity in its administration, has adopted authoritarian, discriminatory, exclusive and arbitrary stances towards indigenous peoples and the organisations that represent them," maintains the regional branch of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (AIDESEP), based in Ucayali.

The 512 students of Shipibo, Awajun, Asháninka and Yanesha indigenous descent do not receive sufficient support to move to the university campus from their communities, AIDESEP says. Nor are they provided with an intercultural education, the association adds, because the curriculum does not incorporate the knowledge of aboriginal peoples.

AIDESEP vice president Robert Guimaraes reported to IPS that the indigenous students living in university residences are housed in overcrowded rooms and provided with food lacking in essential nutrients.

"The university is a project that is improving little by little," maintained Augusto Padilla, vice president of the UNIA Organising Committee. "Unfortunately, along the way, structural flaws have come to light, resulting from the lack of public policies to benefit indigenous peoples," he stressed.

Everyone agrees that one of the main reasons why indigenous students fail the admission exam or drop out during the first semester is the deficient primary and secondary education they receive in their home towns and villages.

"The teachers only came to our communities twice a week. That’s why we’re at a disadvantage with respect to the mestizos, especially in math and chemistry," indigenous student Juan Carlos Flores told IPS.

Flores arrived at UNIA after two days of overland travel from the Yanesha community of Puerto Bermúdez, in the southern Peruvian region of Cerro de Pasco.

For his course on plant species, he is pasting tree leaves on pieces of cardboard and then binding them together with wire, to save the expense of purchasing a workbook.

"Going to school is expensive. We have to work twice as hard, but in some cases we have succeeded in outdoing the mestizos. This last semester I got 14 in chemistry, the highest mark in my class. Before I only got 5," he said.

Another Yanesha student recounted that in order to overcome the shortcomings of the education they usually receive, a group of young people from his community hired a tutor to prepare them for the admission exam. At the end of a two-month crash course, the students took a model admission test, and the community decided to provide support for those who scored highest so that they could travel to the university to study.

"In order for young indigenous people to take advantage of higher education, the university should provide them with courses beforehand in Spanish, the language in which classes are taught, and in computers, so that they can do their class work," stressed María Heise, a specialist in intercultural education.

While the students only pay the small sum of 50 soles (close to 15 dollars) in tuition per semester, they need to spend at least 500 soles (150 dollars) a month to complete their assignments and feed themselves, since only breakfast is provided for free.

The situation is much more difficult for those who have children or who cannot get a room in the university residence and have to rent one in Pucallpa. Dozens of indigenous students are parents and in order to support their families while going to school, they must work at the same time, hauling sacks in the market or selling candy and other goods.

Carlos Mashian is a 30-year-old Awajun student from a community on the Cenepa River, on Peru’s northern border with Ecuador. With the goal of becoming a primary school teacher, he arrived at UNIA after a four-day journey with his wife and three daughters.

All five of them are living in a tiny, makeshift room loaned by the Yarinicoha Teacher Training Institute, located next to UNIA. The beds are made of wood left over from the construction of the university, and the one window in the room is covered with notebook paper instead of glass or curtains.

Mashian picks oranges from the trees on the university campus and sells them to pay for his studies and support his family, although there are many days when all they have to eat is a bit of rice with salt.

"I can’t return to my community until I’ve finished my studies because it would cost too much. I will only go back once I’m a teacher," said Mashian. He is asking the authorities in the municipality to which his community belongs to sign an agreement with UNIA to help the Awajun people.

Such agreements have been signed between the university and a number of different municipalities, which contribute to paying for the food and tuition of indigenous students from their jurisdictions, López told IPS.

The university authorities insist that the five million soles (1.6 million dollars) provided annually by the federal government and the university’s share of the taxes paid by oil companies in the region are not enough to cover the needs of indigenous students.

Leoncio García, the executive director of the Regional Institute for the Development of Native Communities, told IPS that many indigenous students experience culture shock when they come to the university because they are from communities where money has little value "and they realise that here you can’t survive without it."

During the month of January UNIA is carrying out six research projects with the participation of indigenous community leaders, who will contribute their traditional knowledge and skills in the areas of forestry and livestock raising.

In the view of the head of the Ucayali Ombudsman’s Office, Margot Quispe, "native organisations cannot be excluded from the process of constructing the university, because there is no other way to overcome the country’s institutional weakness with regard to indigenous issues."

The Ombudsman’s Office plans to issue a report on the situation of UNIA. As a first step, it is organising a roundtable discussion between university officials, indigenous leaders, and the education authorities responsible for indigenous community schools.

"Intercultural education is for a free and democratic society," proclaims one of the signs that recalls the spirit in which the university was created.

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