On The Realities of Being an Indigenous Student in the Peruvian Amazon
Our Executive Director, Sarah Kerremans, interviews Vice-President of indigenous student organization OEPIAP, Ruben Chino Dahua
Ali puncha (good morning in Quechua). Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Rubenson Chino Dahua. I am Quechua, from the Andoas district on the Pastaza river, near the Peruvian border with Ecuador. For the past five years I have been living in the city of Iquitos to study. Like myself, there are more and more indigenous youth who come to the city to study, with a tremendous desire to overcome. Do you wonder why? Because in our communities we have seen the needs of our people. We have seen the abuses of strangers who come to our communities, and who take advantage of the ignorance and trust of our parents. We, the younger generation, are now studying to gain a better understanding of how Western society works so that we can then go back to our communities. Not all of us might return, that is true, but the intention is always to keep supporting our people.
Do you live far away from your people?
I live really far away from my village: from Iquitos, it is more than eight days by boat. Here, I have no family. I do know people, I do have friends, but that is not the same as having your family close by. I suffered a lot when I first arrived. We slept on the floor, we had nowhere to go. We had nothing to eat and sometimes we would drink hot water to ward off the hunger. We managed to stay alive, though, and thanks to our leader (indigenous leader Aurelio Chino of FEDIQUEP), we got some food provisions and other support from local authorities. Now things have improved significantly. After organizing ourselves as students, we now have a place where we sleep and eat. When I first arrived, I felt constantly ashamed. I was afraid to speak, I was afraid of people, afraid of the motorcars. Everything was so new. Once I got lost and I couldn’t find the way back to where I was staying. Now I feel more comfortable, but still, it is not easy for me to feel at home and to really participate here.
How are you welcomed at university?
When you present yourself, you say you are originally from an indigenous community upriver. You say you went to this rural primary and secondary school. The university teachers will immediately look weirdly at you, as if they were looking down at you like an inferior person, as it is generally known that the education level at our rural schools is very low.
Have you received any support during your years in the city?
The leader of our indigenous organization, Aurelio Chino, has always supported us whenever and however he could. He managed to engage local authorities, namely the mayor, and the regional government. So at least we had something in our pockets to pay for food, photocopies, research work. But the authorities don’t always fulfill their promises. Once you grow older and you get to know the city better, you look for a job. I sometimes work over the weekends, gardening or cleaning. For the last two years, I have been in the Sui Sui Program, which supports me by covering basic costs. When there is something leftover, I help other students. Morally, we can only help each other.
What is the difference with people who live in the city?
To me, the biggest difference is that we in the communities live in a cool and quiet place. The food we eat is natural, the air we breathe is clean and fresh. And here in the city you hear a lot of noise, you breathe polluted air, you eat junk food. You don’t feel free.
Why is it difficult for indigenous parents to support their children education-wise?
Traditionally, our parents were not used to educating their children. They had up to 12 children and no need to think of sending them to university. But the globalized world has come to our communities. Children see other things, want other things. Most of our parents have good knowledge of their way of life, but they have only finished primary school. They fish, hunt, and work in their fields – not to make big money, but just to be able to live. My mom, for example, sells her chickens and then sends me something to support me, but that of course is not enough to cover all the expenses a student has in the city. Our parents do support us the whole time – they think of us, care for us, and miss us.
Can you tell us more about the organization of indigenous students, OEPIAP?
Around 13 years ago, a group of indigenous students formed OEPIAP as an organization to defend our collective interests and needs. The first concern has always been to ensure food and housing. They lived together in a small room and would sometimes eat the leaves of the mamey trees to survive. OEPIAP has had different kinds of leadership. Some have used the organization for political objectives. Some have spent the funds on things other than collective needs. Now our organization is stronger, more consolidated. I am the Vice-President and we work to unite students of all ethnic groups. We are currently representing over 120 students. That is a lot. I engage in this organization because I feel sorry for the youngest ones. Sometimes they come to me for advice, as I am older. They tell me that they cannot pay for their photocopies, their books… I always tell them not to feel let down, to move on. I promise them everything will get better and that a lot depends on oneself.
What has OEPIAP achieved so far?
Over the past 13 years, we have lived everywhere and nowhere. We have been dialoguing with every elected regional president over the previous years. First we lived in hotels, and in small rooms all over the city. Last year, we managed to sign an agreement with the actual regional president, and we now have food for 120 students, and we live in prefabricated houses on a sandy terrain in the city. It is temporary because the real promise is to build an intercultural student house at the beginning of next year. For now, we have housing and food, but it is still not a secure, quiet, and stable place. This really hinders us in our studies.
How do you envision this intercultural student house?
We have told the government that we do not want a building made of noble (fine wood) material. We want to build according to our customs with natural materials. Something ecological and durable, where we can live and show off our culture and crafts as well. It should reflect our reality.
How is the relationship with the university?
We need to improve their sense of interculturality. The UNAP (National University of the Peruvian Amazon) is the largest university in the Amazon, but it seems that every rector forgets about his own Amazonian reality or just decides to ignore it. That is a waste. They don’t worry about the indigenous students knocking on their doors. The UNAP also receives money from the canon petrolero, which is a monthly percentage of the profits made from petroleum extracted from indigenous territories. All faculties should take FORMABIAP, the national indigenous organization’s training program for intercultural bilingual teachers, as an example. This should be the model, and not only to train teachers, but also for the legal, medical and engineering faculties.
In your law studies here at the UNAP, do they mention the rights of indigenous peoples?
Not at all. They could at least mention the important ILO Convention 169 (International Labor Organization), the most fundamental treaty on the rights of indigenous peoples.
What is the contribution of the Chaikuni Institute?
Chaikuni is very important for us. Through Chaikuni, we are connected to a global community, and we want all of them to know us. Maybe people from other countries are not aware of our situation here: there is a lot of poverty and a lot of corruption. In other countries, the state works more hand-in-hand with indigenous peoples but that is not the case here in Peru. We want to further consolidate our partnership with Chaikuni, so that we can continue our dream to become indigenous professionals and to lead our people.