Worcester State University recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kichwa Community of Sarayaku, Ecuador that establishes a partnership in which interested WSU faculty will collaborate with tribal members on sustainable development initiatives and lead student groups there to participate in the work.
This agreement marks the first time a university in the United States has formally partnered with an international indigenous group and the second time Worcester State has signed an educational agreement with a non-educational organization. The first such partnership was with the New England district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“We are excited about the opportunities this agreement with an indigenous group can provide our students,” said President Barry M. Maloney. “Understanding how a population lives leaving a minimal human footprint may help our students—and the world—address the challenges of global warming and other environmental issues.”
“The memorandum is an opportunity for both parties, since it allows the university to apply technical, scientific, and academic knowledge into a unique sustainable plan, of a culture and a people living in a diverse Amazon territory,” said Patricia Gualinga, director of international relations for the Sarayaku.
Deep in the Amazon
The Sarayaku have lived in seven villages along the Bobonaza River in the central region of the Ecuadorian Amazon—located several hundred miles southeast of Ecuador’s capital, Quito—for centuries, according to Professor of Communication Carlos Fontes, who has led student trips there for 10 years. Members practice a traditional way of life, but have adopted some modern technologies in order to survive.
“The Sarayaku are at the point that in order for them to survive, implement their plan for survival, and be a leading voice in the world for sustainable living, they need to know how to improve in the areas of education, business, technology, biology, and medicine,” Fontes said. “They have chosen us as a partner to acquire the know-how that they need, and they are open to us learning about their model for survival and worldview.”
“This type of relationship puts us in a unique place in Massachusetts and the country,” he added.
In August 2015, five faculty members, a staff member, and an alumnus traveled to Ecuador to visit with the Sarayaku and map out the agreement: Fontes, Patricia Benjamin (Earth, Environment, and Physics), William O’Brien (Business Administration and Economics), Sebastián Vélez (Biology), and Sara Young (Education), Katey Palumbo (International Programs), and Matthew Collamer ’15 (documentary filmmaker). The trip was funded by donor Tom Ewing of Leverett, Mass., who has visited the Sarayaku, and the Worcester State Foundation.
“I want to congratulate Worcester State University for doing this,” Ewing said. “I think it’s really important and I’m very glad to lend my support. I admire the Sarayaku’s relationship with nature and how it has enabled them to live sustainably for a millennia. I’m interested in helping to preserve their culture as they adapt…so the rest of us can learn from them. This agreement will help this tribe survive and give some legitimacy to what they have to teach us.”
Sarayaku’s Global Significance
“The Sarayaku are globally significant as one of the leading indigenous groups in the world,” Benjamin said. “They lead not only in their vision, but also their policy. An example is their commitment to protecting 95 percent of their territory as primary forest.”
The Sarayaku have fought oil companies and governments to preserve their land by producing “intellectual work that set the moral, philosophical, and political framework for the rights of nature” and indigenous people, Fontes explained.
In 2012, the Sarayaku won a case against the Ecuadorian government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This landmark ruling upheld the integrity of native people’s territorial rights and required governments to obtain indigenous communities’ prior and informed consent before moving to extract resources from their lands.
Sarayaku leadership was evident at the international climate talks in Paris in late 2015, Benjamin noted. Sarayaku president Felix Santi presented a vision of a sustainable human relationship with a living planet. The demand of a global coalition for legal recognition of indigenous rights was symbolized by launching a flotilla of indigenous watercraft in the Seine, led by a Sarayaku “Canoe of Life.”
The next step is to entice more faculty to plan regular student trips to Sarayaku territory, Fontes said. He will lead another student trip there in May to explore the tribe’s “survival strategies in the current context of oil exploration, modern communications technologies, and shifting political and social configurations.”
In August, Vélez will lead a group of biology majors for the first time. Students will stay with the Sarayaku and learn about the great biodiversity of the area, according to Vélez.
“I’m going there to collect arachnids,” he said. “If we find new species, they can use that to say, ‘This is why our land needs to be protected.’ It’s a win-win situation.”
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