SPECIAL PROJECTS UPDATE: Amazonian People's Resources Initiative; Building Partnerships in Health, Education, and Social Justice

In 1995, the Amazonian People's Resources Initiative (APRI) launched an integrated community defense program among the Urarina, a semi-nomadic, hunting and horticultural society of eastern Peru's Chambira Basin. APRI's Chambira Basin program promotes the political and economic empowerment of the Urarina peoples by securing the Urarina's access to primary health care, culturally appropriate education, and sustainable natural resource management.

APRI personnel spent the first half of 1996 in Peru lobbying to include Urarina communities in the delivery of basic social services. Our efforts, though modest in many respects, must be situated within a larger political and economic context since the health and educational needs of most Urarina communities remain unattended and the Urarina's stewardship rights to their territory are largely unrecognized.

Ecological Threats to the Chambira Basin

As a culturally autonomous society numbering at least 5,000, the Urarina effectively control the Chambira Basin -- large stretches of a vast blackwater watershed they have considered their homeland since the Spanish conquest. Despite the geographically remote location of their kin-based "longhouse" settlements, the Urarina are still a part of Peru's profound economic and political problems. The Chambira Basin routinely attracts loggers who evade poorly enforced environmental regulations and recruit the Urarina into logging prized hardwoods. Trapped at the lowest level of the extractive economy, the Urarina enter into a debt-peonage system to exchange their labor and forest resources with middlemen working for the Iquitos-based lumber mills and mestizo intermediaries. Extractive activities, especially seasonal logging for prized hardwoods, are increasing at an unprecedented pace.

In light of the ecological challenges posed by continued logging, APRI endorses the efforts of Peruvian conservation organizations that encourage local communities to adopt community-based monitoring systems that incorporate local economic interests and long-term resource management. We believe that more can be achieved in the way of conservation by encouraging the Urarina to reflect upon the nature and consequences of their involvement in extractive activities in the forest (e.g. logging and hunting for pelts) rather than by simply policing the Chambira. Merely policing the Chambira for ecological degradation does not improve the Urarina's precarious health situation, or increase their access to a viable livelihood. Although the Peruvian state has an official environmental agency INRENA (Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales), this governmental body has not effectively regulated logging activity in the Chambira Basin.

Attempts to title the Urarina's ancestral homelands have recently been undertaken by a Peruvian NGO, CEDIA (Centro de Desarrollo del Indigena Amazonico). Though an important advancement, the territorial demarcation process alone cannot ensure the ecological or political security of the Urarina's traditional lands. While in the field, we noted that CEDIA's land tiding initiative (communal meetings, written materials, and political discourse) was being directed towards a primarily male audience. No effort was made to include or involve Urarina women, and no attempt was made to incorporate the indigenous language in the mobilization process. The autocratic style of those promoting the current land titling effort does little to ensure equal participation in the political process for women, or for those who do not speak Spanish, arguably most of the Urarina population. Questions remain whether the land titling efforts will actually benefit ribereño communities (many of which are Cocama-members of the Tupi-Guarani speaking peoples), rather than the Urarina who are politically less experienced and adept at successfully negotiating the challenges accompanying the current social transformations.

CEDIA's Urarina land titling campaign follows the physical geography of the Chambira Basin rather than the cultural topography of Urarina society. Urarina communities on the Urituyacu and Corrientes River Basins have not been included in the titling efforts. In spite of the recent land titling developments, the Urarina remain precariously situated via-á-vis the global economy and the regional political scene.

Urarina Education

Over the past few years, a number of primary schools have been established in the Chambira Basin at the behest of Urarina community leaders and advocates like APRI. State sponsored schools are a new development among the Urarina, who until very recently, had no educational institutions. However, the long distance between the Chambira Basin and regional centers like Nauta and Iquitos results in unsupervised and unequipped schools in the Chambira. To address these problems, APRI established its first pilot bilingual school in the Chambira Basin in 1996. In addition, APRI signed a formal agreement with the Programa de Formación de Maestros Bilingües de la Amazonía Peruana in Iquitos (AIDESEP/Instituto Superior Pedagogico "Loreto") to establish a five-year transitional bilingual education program in the Chambira Basin.

We founded APRI, only after approaching the Urarina as students of anthropology From the Urarina, we learned their language, their myths and oral histories, their healing practices and their ways of being in the world. In our education initiative, we continue to work collaboratively with our former teachers and friends, always informed by our earliest experiences with the Urarina communities that date to 1988. A key component of our inter-cultural curriculum development program is collaboration with community elders who are respected for their storytelling, hunting, and healing abilities. APRI's long-term educational objective in the Chambira is to develop a primary school curriculum in both Spanish and Urarina that incorporates oral narratives and indigenous pedagogical methods and reflects local, cultural, and ecological values.

Health Care Initiatives

Besides extending a primary school education to the Urarina that is responsive to their educational needs and sensitive to their cultural traditions, APRI is also developing a number of programs aimed at improving local health conditions in the Chambira Basin and elsewhere in Loreto, Peru. Since late 1995, the Upper Amazon has experienced an epidemic of falciparum malaria that devastated immunologically vulnerable Urarina peoples. During a round of local assemblies organized by APRI in April and May, 1996, the Urarina appealed to APRI for assistance in treating the malaria epidemic (which has had calamitous effects particularly for pregnant women and young children debilitated by parasitic and diarrheal diseases). Given the severe health conditions we encountered, we immediately formulated a plan for crisis management to temporarily bring the malaria epidemic under control. Efforts were coordinated with the malaria team of the Ministry of Health (Iquitos), Medicos del Mundo, a nursing/medical anthropology team from the University of Kansas, and the Escuela de Enfermería, (Iquitos). Throughout June 1996, the APRI health brigade treated well over 1,000 persons, holding clinics in strategically located communities throughout the Chambira Basin.

The malaria crisis in the Chambira made us realize the urgent need to implement an effective and sustainable health care strategy based on local institutions and initiatives rather than Western biomedicine. In 1997, we formed partnerships with two Peruvian NGOs, El Instituto Kairos and Atención Primaria de Salud, to provide Amazonian communities with new options for health care, education, and greater social justice. Both local organizations have long-standing experience in promoting health and community mobilization. In conjunction with these organizations, APRI has launched a health promotion project which will enhance indigenous women's autonomy and leadership positions within their communities. We believe that indigenous women must achieve a certain level of social, political, and economic autonomy in order to effectively manage their own fertility and care for their children and families. APRI uses health promotion, micro-lending, and primary education as catalysts to strengthen women's control over their fertility, their well-being and their lives.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.