Fellow Since 1996
Univ.de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana-UNIDAE
This profile was prepared when Máximo Cuji was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
The New Idea
Máximo Cuji, a traditional healer among the Quichua people of the Sarayacu region in the upper Amazon, has a plan to reaffirm traditional Amazonian cultures in a way that will reverse the centuries-long history of colonization and exploitation of the Amazon forest and its people. Taking advantage of recent changes in Ecuadorian law, he has created the first six officially recognized and state-funded indigenous language schools in the Amazon. He is now founding a "university" to train select graduates from these schools, and other promising candidates, as teachers and global communicators of Amazonian culture. Together these schools and the university initiative constitute an alternative education model that will prepare new generations to make the choice to live in the traditional way and protect their culture from outside threats rather than be assimilated by the juggernaut of Western civilization.The first person in his tribe to be educated through the university level in the "outside world," Máximo is fully aware what he is up against and has a clear analysis and strategy. He believes that the only way to preserve the cultures of the Amazon–and indeed to save the rainforest itself–is by enabling the new generation of Amazonians to make an active choice against assimilation and instead to affirm their culture and its value for all humanity. Toward this end, he has devised a three-part education program. First and foremost, the program is of the Amazonian culture that it seeks to pass from one generation to the next. In its structure and methods of teaching, it is Amazonian and not Western. Second, in transmitting Amazonian culture to the younger generation, Máximo's teachings highlight the various aspects of the patrimony of the Amazonian people that are of interest to Western civilization. Notable here are medicinal plants and the Amazonian worldview's harmonious relationship with nature. His stated premise is that the most advanced elements of the West are now urgently seeking precisely what his people have as their birthright: to live in equilibrium with nature. He is betting that if Amazonians understand this, then they will be more likely to see the ultimate value of their own culture.Third, he exposes the consequences of Western civilization for the Amazon–the erosion of indigenous culture through foreign religions, medical science and commerce and environmental degradation from mining, oil drilling, coca growing, logging, roads, farming-related deforestation and colonization. He rejects cultural separatism, as he believes that isolation in the face of Western civilization is futile. Instead, he embraces those aspects of Western culture that may contribute to the self-determining, self-sufficient character of his people and the survival of the biodiversity of the Amazon. He recruits Western lawyers to help protect local knowledge of medicinal plants from the global pharmaceutical companies. A traditional healer himself, Máximo believes in tapping Western science selectively. Perhaps most intriguingly, he wants his students to become experts in communications, including the latest Internet technology, since his strategy depends on communicating the wider value of Amazonian culture to the West. He envisions a Sarayacu website managed through solar-powered cellular teleconnections.He also rejects separatism because it is inconsistent with his deepest cultural belief in pluralism and diversity–of cultures and in nature. He argues forcefully that the significance of what he is doing goes far beyond the few thousand indigenous Amazonians who might be reached directly by his education model. In creating and affirming the value of Amazonian cultures, he is consciously arguing to Western civilization that its own survival depends upon embracing diversity–of nature, of culture, of lifestyles, of life. For Máximo, the value that he places in his culture is inseparable from the value he places in all other cultures.This profound philosophical foundation for his educational model gives it a scale of application far beyond the peoples of the Amazon, with whom he is now systematically sharing it.