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Peruvian and Canadian universities sign agreement

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TORONTO - In the pursuit of economic self-determination, a collaboration agreement has recently been signed between indigenous people of the Amazon, the Nisga'a Nation in British Columbia and two universities from Peru and Canada.

Following almost six years of negotiations the Confederation of Amazon Nationalities of Peru, CONAP (its acronym in Spanish), is the predominant beneficiary. The two-day meeting Oct. 27 - 28 in Iquitos has defined a real timetable towards the training in higher-educated professional positions for Natives who would oversee the development of their traditional villages in the South American country.

While this is a Peruvian effort, providing the impetus and inspiration are the Nisga'a located in the remote northwest of British Columbia. Because they have their own university-college, WWN (Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisga'a; "The Nisga'a House of Wisdom") that's affiliated with the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) located 500 miles east in Prince George, the South Americans have witnessed how Aboriginal students can be accredited with a degree and diploma status without immediately leaving their smaller towns.

Coordinating this bi-national relationship between CONAP, WWN, UNBC and the National University of the Amazon of Peru (UNAP in Spanish), was the result of a Peruvian expatriate working in Toronto. Dr. Jos? Z?rate, from the Quechua tribe in the Andes, is a consultant with the World Bank who served in 1997 meetings in an attempt to develop Peru's economy.

Aware of the First Nations treaty negotiations occurring on Canada's West Coast and of the already-established WWN three years earlier, Z?rate facilitated the initial meetings between CONAP and the Nisga'a.

"I remember the faces about Nisga'a women when they went to meet the leaders of Peru and they were very moved by the poverty," Z?rate recalled of the early discussions in South America. "There were tears in their eyes but (they were) moved by their passion."

Resource-rich, the 300,000 indigenous people of Peru's Amazon region, who are divided among 1,200 communities, have faced the same challenges as other Aboriginals worldwide; namely, how to develop local prosperity and to maintain the integrity of the land without losing their rights by acquiescing to multi-national companies and outside interests.

Sitting on oil and gas deposits plus the wealth among the trees and plants of the rainforest, Z?rate noted the indigenous Peruvians in the Amazon face the possibility of financial exploitation. As witnessed elsewhere globally, foreign companies have begun development, usually under the guise of offering prosperity, but too often the Native populations received little, if any, benefits from the pillaging of the lands.

Even if jobs were doled out to local Aboriginal peoples, Z?rate said that money too was usually superficial and rarely addressed the challenge of sustaining a natural resource-based economy.

"They create a fantasy of wealth in these communities by having pay jumps but not enough to break the cycle of poverty in those countries," said Z?rate.

To break this cycle of dependency, CONAP wanted its own people to enjoy the wealth of their land. This would include the development of indigenous persons to become the managers and developers of longer-term projects including oil, forestry and eco-tourism. Only when there are real opportunities for executive jobs in sustainable economies, not those with boom-bust cycles, will be when Peru's indigenous peoples can thrive said Z?rate.

However, as with other impoverished areas, the ability to receive post-secondary education in order to become qualified is difficult. Poor public schooling and the cost of university make social advancement prohibitive and thus, in the past, remote Native tribes had little to say or offer in the development of their area.

Presently, even with UNAP located in the middle of traditional indigenous lands, the percentage of Native students is very minimal among its enrollment of 8,000 according to Z?rate. What this agreement between CONAP and the other parties states is the recognition of the role of Aboriginals towards their self-determination and the need to incorporate more Natives into better schooling.

"This agreement is aimed at the real admission of indigenous people at the university level in Peru," Z?rate said. "The universities cannot work independently without the real participation of indigenous people from this initiative."

To assist those Peruvian students who have exhibited a propensity for higher learning and to provide an educational safety net for their success, this agreement also requires UNAP to provide a semester of university training for high school graduates, often in their own village, before they leave for Iquitos. Following the lead of WWN, where Nisga'a students learn within their nation's four communities, this initiative by UNAP is to foster a stronger academic foundation and maturity of their students before asking them to move to Iquitos, population 400,000.

In addition to providing technical knowledge between the UNBC and UNAP, the agreement also stipulates cultural exchanges between students and faculties and the continued incorporation of Aboriginal teaching and traditions into the curriculum.

"Roots, plants and bark, there is so much knowledge in the Amazon rainforest and it's the main source of raw materials for western medicines," replied Z?rate about the benefits of educational and scientific exchanges with Peru.

By September 2004 the first students under this agreement will attend UNAP so that before the end of the decade they will become the professionals to guide the Peruvian indigenous and rural economy.

When commenting that it would appear unusual for two countries to convene this agreement with as large a geographical divide as between Canada and Peru, Z?rate believes there are many opportunities for future international relations among Indians.

"If you see a map, Canada is far away but if you see the interaction between indigenous people, those (political) borders don't exist," he said.