Peruvian villagers look beyond subsistence to their basic rights

By Thea Gelbspan

The air was still that Friday afternoon as we sat wilting in the sun, facing some 30 members of the community of Sensa, all indigenous people living deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. A nearby mule screeched over the hum of a distant chainsaw. We were discussing a community garden and fish-pond project Oxfam America had recently funded, and my colleagues and I were there to learn from the people of Sensa how it had helped them and what more they expected from our support.

A woman in her 30s looked up from the floor, directed her gaze at me, and spoke. "Señorita," she began respectfully, yet ready to speak her part. "These projects you have helped us with are good. We are growing fish, and our gardens are healthy. But, a real concern to me is education. After completing the 6th grade here in the community, where will my children go to study?" She explained that she does not want to send them away to boarding school, but that she wants them to be educated "so that they know who they are, and what they can do." She proceeded to ask us to help them build a school.

This is a big request. I had to explain that Oxfam is not in a position to build schools in every rural Amazonian village. And once built, they need to be staffed with properly paid teachers. Schools also need books, desks, chalkboards, qualified teachers and to be maintained—every year. Funding a school from outside the community can be risky. A well-meaning donor could cover some construction and other costs. But as the years go by, if there is no viable local structure to foster education, who will be responsible for the school?

However, I continued, the people of Sensa have a basic right to quality education for their children, and we would consider supporting their efforts to claim that right in collaboration with the communities farther down the river. This would involve organizing these communities, and forming allies with others outside the Urubamba river valley. In this way they could reach out to the local and national government, who are responsible for education, and advocate for decent schools that will endure.

Poverty in a rich land

The contrast between the poorest indigenous people in Peru and the fantastic wealth in timber, gas, and minerals coming from their lands is stark. While the local government builds fancy offices for itself down the river in Echarate with oil and gas money, villages like Sensa, where the resources are extracted, have no electricity, telephones, or health clinic.

The indigenous people in these villages do not always understand their rights to a fair portion of these revenues in the form of basic services like health care and education. And if they do, they may not have the means to verify that they are getting their fair share. They usually lack the skills and political connections to hold accountable a government that has never shown it is open to the concerns of its native peoples.

"You do not want to be beggars, saying 'We are poor, give us money. Take care of us,'" said my colleague Igidio Naveda, himself an indigenous person from the Andes of Peru and a passionate, highly experienced program officer.

"No—you are indigenous people," he continued. "You have your culture, your traditions; you love your land. You have rights and need to demand them and ensure that they are met. And your lands: these are your home. Would you walk into someone else's home and take their things, leave a mess, disrespect the place? You should demand that the loggers in the area, the gas companies, the government workers respect your rights, and knock at the door before coming in. You need to lay out the rules and make them follow them."

Heads were nodding and people began to speak to one another in their Yine language. The group became animated, some laughing, others speaking intensely, gesturing as they sat at the wooden tables.

We concluded the meeting soon thereafter, inviting a new and more ambitious funding proposal from them, developed together with the chiefs of the other three nearby communities that had participated in the current project. A proposal like this would show that the community is moving to the next level of organization: The villagers will need to coordinate the project with other communities, and create effective ways to encourage the local government to meet its obligations. They will also have to address the illegal logging and other threats to the environment coming from outside the community.

Building on success

From my perspective, last year's project was a success. It helped indigenous communities manage their local biodiversity and begin to increase their food supply. That, in turn, served as a catalyst for them to become organized and collectively determine their priorities. This greatly strengthens their control over local development efforts, and increases the likelihood that new projects they pursue will succeed.

Although they may lack the advocacy skills needed to get the government to meet its obligations to educate their children immediately, we know the right organizations that can train them. Once people know their rights and are educated, they are better able to hold their leaders accountable. This knowledge and sense of empowerment can never be taken away. It is one of the best investments you can make, because it helps people learn to solve their own problems—they create a vision for the type of future they want for their village, set their own priorities, and make sure that they are met.

Hoping to reach the next community before dark, we excused ourselves from the welcoming community of Sensa, slipping down the muddy river banks to our canoe, with children trailing us on all sides, teasing each other and, laughing, no doubt at the spectacle of the four outsiders that had come to visit. The sun had moved sideways along the river and the tree tops were shining with a golden light. As the first mosquitoes of the evening reached us in our boat, we pushed off and continued downstream, eager to see what the next community had to say.