by Peri de Castro Dias and Leandro Ramos
As another rainy morning begins in the indigenous land of Araçá in the Brazilian Amazon, expressions of concern flash across the faces of the kids who attend the only two schools in a vast area of savannas and forests. They know that, because of the poor conditions of the buildings, some of the classrooms will be flooded again and students will have to share the few learning spaces that are still dry.
A few years ago, 20-year old indigenous leader Enock Taurepang was one of those kids. As he talks about the situation of schools in the community, his normally calm voice becomes a little angry and loud. But now, Enock is leading Araçá’s five indigenous groups on a quest to improve their community’s schools.
After listening to students and parents to understand their concerns and complaints, Enock gathered support from other local leaders representing his people, the Taurepang, to find a solution. Together, they signed a document officially demanding that Brazil’s federal government persuade the municipalities where the Taurepang’s lands are located to improve the conditions of local schools.
Enock’s determination and charisma are all his own, but his knowledge of how to make this change for local schools came from some schooling Enock received himself.
Paving the Way for Change
Enock hasn’t always been familiar with Brazil’s legislation and how he could use it to benefit his people.
A few months earlier, however, his community had chosen him to represent them in a six-month course at the Amazon Indigenous Training Center in Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city. There, he would join other young indigenous men and women from across the region to learn about environmental conservation, indigenous rights, public policies — much of the information he would need to help his people manage and protect their territory.
“I’ve always wanted to help my people. Their dreams are my dreams, and I knew I could help make them come true. I just didn’t have the tools to do it,” Enock says.
So he enrolled in the Amazon Indigenous Training Center, known locally as CAFI, a groundbreaking initiative for indigenous people in the Amazon, supported by The Nature Conservancy.
Young People, Big Results
Created in 2006 by COIAB, Brazil’s largest indigenous coalition, CAFI aims to empower a new generation of leaders for the conservation of Amazon indigenous lands—an area the size of California, Arizona, Florida, New York and Texas combined—which are largely intact compared to surrounding landscapes.
Chosen by their indigenous organizations to participate, these young men and women live in Manaus for up to nine months and attend classes at the center each day. Their training includes coursework in basic project management; Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other technologies; environmental planning and management, and environmental and indigenous policy.
“CAFI gave me the chance to combine two different worlds: the traditional knowledge I acquired from my elders and the technology and the knowledge of the non-indigenous men,” Enock says. “It also showed me that they can and should work hand in hand.”
CAFI also offers a training module about Brazil’s national budgeting process, a mechanism largely unknown to civil society. Annually, the Brazilian government creates a budget to be approved by Congress, and state representatives may submit amendments to the budget in response to local demands.
“Upon completion of this module, CAFI students travel to Brazil’s capital, Brasília, where they meet their representatives and submit proposals for budget amendments,” explains Ian Thompson, director of the Conservancy’s Amazon program. This year, Brazil’s Congress adopted several amendments proposed by CAFI students, allocating $8 million toward conservation and sustainable development in indigenous lands like Araçá, Enock’s home.
In 2010, Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment awarded its prestigious Chico Mendes prize to CAFI, in the category of Environmental Education. The prize is awarded yearly by a panel of experts for outstanding environmental initiatives in the Amazon.
A Hundred… and Counting!
CAFI is empowering indigenous people with the knowledge they need to confront environmental threats and provide for their communities; representing one of our last chances for protecting the unique and vibrant cultures and diversity the Amazon embodies.
This summer, CAFI will celebrate a total of 100 graduates — young men and women who are taking their knowledge back to their communities and promoting changes throughout the Amazon, just like Enock has done. A recent assessment by the Conservancy indicates that nearly 75 percent of the graduates are working on issues directly or indirectly related to conservation in indigenous lands.
“For us, supporting CAFI is not only about environmental conservation, but leaving a legacy of environmental, cultural and economic sustainability in the Amazon for generations to come,” says Thompson.
“If our parents and grandparents used to fight with bows and arrows, that’s no longer how we do it: pens and paper are our bow and arrow, and suits are our body armors,” Enock says. “And that’s what CAFI has given me.”