Tauca, Venezuela – Maracas Pemon has abundant space on his university campus – it is located across 5,000 acres of forestland in Venezuela’s southern Bolivar State.
He is one of 67 students who have classes in a thatched roundhouse, water sports in a river and, along with human rights and law, a curriculum that includes buffalo rearing.
Pemon is enrolled at Venezuela’s indigenous university – established to develop community leaders to safeguard lands, rights and ancient cultures.
“The importance of the university is to protect the community,” said 20 year-old Pemon. “To raise awareness and see the world and universe from an indigenous, as well as a Western, way of thought.
“First is the struggle for territories and landless groups, because without land there is no education or customs. Land is the mother of all indigenous culture.”
The native peoples of Venezuela comprise just two per cent of the country’s 29 million people, and many communities have been established in the jungles, swamps and waterways along the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts for centuries. There, they worship the land, employ shamans, and use traditional healing.
An indigenous rights organisation, working with Jesuit priests, established the university at Tauca in 2001, in response to threats to their communities.
Since the Spanish first took control of the region in the 16th century, native populations have seen their lands seized – and their struggle for survival has continued ever since.
Illegal mining, evangelical Christianity and ranchers invading territories have increased the pressure on communities fighting to retain their culture, language and independence. Indigenous people are also drawn to cities bloated by local oil and mineral wealth, but typically remain excluded from any economic progress – often passed over for job opportunities and treated as second-class citizens.
The spread of modernity has overpowered customary practices and cultures.
In 1999, President Hugo Chavez’s government became the first national administration to constitutionally recognise indigenous groups, having co-opted them into his quasi-socialist Bolivarian Revolution – consequently gaining some authenticity, having made much of his grandmother’s indigenous roots.
Chavez has portrayed himself as a talismanic defender of native rights, and has made highly public pronouncements supporting their claims to land and culture.
His administration has provided social programmes, or missiones, for indigenous populations, but his projects have so far failed to bring communities out of poverty, while maintaining their traditions.
Indigenous people have said the missiones are divisive, creating dependency and politicising locals.
Moriche is a fishing village in the Orinoco Delta, a vast area of waterways in Venezuela’s south-east. One resident there said his local leader and government liaison did not work for them. “He just works for his pay, rather than the community,” he said. “But the government doesn’t help with the children, with medicine. It doesn’t help with anything.”
“It’s been really hard for other cultures to accept this university. It is strange for the state itself. According to them, it should follow the structure of the white man.“
– Adedukawa Etnia Ye’Kwana, university general coordinator
Chavez’s 19th century archetypal role model, Simon Bolivar, made education for indigenous people one of his first policies in an independent Venezuela – and Chavez’s administration has also backed indigenous education.
The 44 indigenous communities nationwide each put forward students to the university. It is a bastion and a source of self-respect, after centuries of marginalisation.
Alfredo Garcia, from the Genepa Keipun community in Bolivar State, has one more year of a four-year course until he finishes his studies.
“There comes a time to recover from the past – and I feel very proud, because we too are people,” he said. “From the support we receive here, we are aware of the importance of our culture and what we should do with our lives.”
Students live on campus. They sleep in hammocks, cook together on open fires, and walk through forestland to get to classes.
Volunteers from Europe and South America also teach at the institution.
A government foundation currently provides most of the university’s funding. But organisers are resisting taking direct government subsidies, due to fears of greater state control over the curriculum.
Adedukawa Etnia Ye’Kwana, a general coordinator at the university, told Al Jazeera: “It’s been really hard for other cultures to accept this university. It is strange for the state itself. According to them, it should follow the structure of the white man. But this university is from an indigenous way of thought.
“The highest authority at the university should be that of indigenous peoples – the wise and the elderly.”
But the government says it would not attempt to impose its system on the institution.
Yaritza Aray, an indigenous representative for Bolivar State, says the government supports the group protecting its cultures against modern dangers, such as drugs, alcohol and changing diets.
“It has happened in other countries, including the United States,” she said. “They say they are indigenous but they don’t speak their own language, they’ve forgotten their dances, and do not live as indigenous people. They do not know their own culture and they’ve lost their land. We cannot allow this.
“It’s very important that this group is seeking to safeguard their traditional values; it is a very interesting idea. Keep what is yours and fight for what is really important, without prejudice to the state. To know your culture, rather than acting like non-indigenous people.”
But the university is battling restrictions of its own culture as well. Only five of its students are women.
“There have been hurdles for women to study, because some say it is not their domain. But we are trying to achieve equal participation,” Ye’Kwana said.
Organisers view the institution as an important step forward for indigenous communities. They believe it could be a pilot programme for Venezuela, and one that could be copied throughout Latin America.
Pemon envisions more immediate benefits. He sees his future as being in Bolivar state, working for his community.
“I would like to educate children, to be aware and have a life equally in our national culture. That’s while keeping respect for both Western and indigenous cultures.
“This is the fight at the university.”
Follow Rhodri Davies on Twitter: @rhodrirdavies