BBC: Rainforest University

It’s an early start for students at Venezuela’s Indigenous University.

Rising from their hammocks at dawn, they bathe in the River Tauca that runs through the 2,000 hectare (5,000 acre) rainforest campus in southern Venezuela.

Then there is time for breakfast and an hour of personal study before heading to class.

It takes about half an hour to walk, barefoot, to the classroom block from their different dormitories which are spread throughout the campus.

The 100 or so students, who are all in their late teens or early twenties, live in groups according to their ethnicity with the exception of the female students.

Studying Indigenous Rights

As there are just five women, they all live together.

Once in class, students receive lessons in indigenous rights, language and mythology and in the afternoons they get the chance to put practical skills to the test, herding buffalo and tending vegetable plots.

The Indigenous University is far removed from its counterparts in Venezuela’s cities. But that is because it has been constructed by and for indigenous communities.

“This place is very important to me because it’s as if I were in my community,” says Yadumenedu, 19, who tried to study at a mainstream college in the nearby city of Ciudad Bolivar, but did not like it.

“This is normal for us and we’re used to living like this,” she says.

Long ignored by the country’s Spanish-speaking majority, Venezuela’s indigenous communities, including the Yekwana, Pemon and Yanomami, saw their numbers dwindle after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th Century.

Their environment and way of life have since been threatened by gold and diamond mining and oil extraction.

They now make up just 2% of Venezuela’s population.

Living history

There have been some recent strides forward. When he first came to power in 1999, President Hugo Chavez changed the constitution to recognise indigenous languages alongside Spanish as official languages of the nation.

But decades of external interference means many indigenous peoples fear their traditions are being lost. The University wants to buck that trend.

It was set up several years ago by an indigenous rights organisation comprised of members of the communities and Jesuit priests who had worked with indigenous peoples for many years.

The location is as much a mid-point between indigenous communities as it is possible to reach. Still many of the students travel for several days to reach the campus at the start of every term.

Several different communities are represented and living on campus is a chance for students from different ethnic groups to mix for the first time.

Organisers hope that eventually every one of Venezuela’s 30 indigenous groups will send pupils to the university.

The admissions policy is very different from that of other institutions.

Students are usually put forward by their respective communities as candidates and are expected to return to their village after three or four years of study, ready to lead their people.

Instead of reading subjects like medicine or engineering, students concentrate on deepening their knowledge and understanding of their own cultures.

They are given homework during holiday periods – tasks including interviewing their village elders about mythology and record their answers for posterity.

Official recognition

Murals adorn the walls of the University's main meeting room

The university has survived so far on grants from non-governmental organisations.

It has saved money by inviting lecturers from other institutions to give their free time to teaching at the campus. But the university’s founders have also been pushing for government to provide funds.

“Definitely if we’re going to succeed, it demands the political and financial support of the government,” says Professor Julio Avalos, one of the university’s non-indigenous lecturers.

“All areas of government could help to bring more indigenous students here or to set up other bases of the university in other regions of the country so students don’t have to travel so far.”

In fact, the process of gaining official recognition is almost finished. The university is waiting for a presidential decree to be issued, declaring them a legitimate centre of higher education.

“(The President) has instructed us to incorporate this house of study into the country’s university network,” the minister for Indigenous Peoples, Nicia Maldonado, said recently.

With the future of the institution secured, teachers will be able to concentrate on training the next generation of indigenous leaders to preserve and strengthen their unique cultures.