Máximo Cuji

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 1996
Univ. de Nacionalidades Indígenas de la Amazonía
This description of Máximo Cuji's work was prepared when Máximo Cuji was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996 .


Máximo Cuji is using Ecuador's public education system 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.

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.

The Problem

The indigenous people of the Amazon, despite having won limited rights over parts of their ancestral lands in the past two decades, are among the most threatened people on earth. The encroachment of all-conquering Western "progress," with its mission stations, schools, health clinics and "easy money" (e.g., oil wells, mines, drug and arms trafficking), is steadily destroying the Amazon forest and assimilating what were once thousands of separate tribes of the Amazon. It has now reached the point where in a generation or two the civilizations of the Amazon will be extinct. For young Amazonians, who are now typically exposed to mission stations, health clinics and, increasingly, schools, the lure of the West is virtually irresistible. After all, eternal salvation, vaccinations, antibiotics, video games, radio and television are a heady cocktail. Cars, planes and telephones capture the imagination of children who know only walking, the canoe and the conversation of people. Star Wars appears more compelling than an empire of leaf-cutter ants.Those who manage to enter the formal public education system are particularly vulnerable. They are taught that their cultures are inferior and backward. The materialist values of the West are asserted without any sense of self-critique or irony. The fact that the West is a civilization in malaise, that it renders unprecedented juxtapositions of dire poverty and grotesque accumulation, that it is all but blind to the way it overwhelms the capacity of natural systems to regenerate–none of this is conveyed by Ecuadorian schools.

The Strategy

The essence of Máximo's strategy is to arm Amazonian youth with an appreciation of the value of their own culture and to show them that they can gain far more from the West by preserving their culture than they can by assimilating. "I tell the children," says Máximo, "that the only thing that they have in this world that sets them apart and gives them value is their culture. I expose them to enough of the outside world to enable them to defend their culture and, more than that, to be able to promote our values to the rest of humanity." Máximo's first step was to create a model indigenous-language school in his home area, Sarayacu, in the Province of Pastaza. When this was operating effectively, he began to train teachers from nearby local tribal groups, who have in turn set up another five schools catering to the nine indigenous groups in the region–Quichua, Canelos, Villano, Morete-Cocha, Schuar, Aschuar, Wass, Cofan and Sapago. Due to a reform law passed in 1988 that guaranteed "indigenous language education," Máximo is accessing state funds to pay teacher salaries for the schools. Máximo's original school was the first in the Amazon to take advantage of this law.Máximo has extended the benefits of the law much further than its framers intended: the teachers in his schools are not trained in the state system but rather are the elders and shamans of the nine tribal groups participating in the pilot program. Parents are also actively incorporated and those with an aptitude for teaching are encouraged to become permanent teachers. Because they are modeled on Amazonian culture, the methods of organization and content of the curriculum reflect Amazonian as opposed to Western culture. Dreams are given the central place in the school curriculum that they enjoy in local cultures. Every aspect of local culture and its relationship with nature is a legitimate subject of study and learning. Creative games and crafts are emphasized with the young. For older children, philosophy and social issues are introduced. Education also occurs through a series of community projects.The next step is to establish a permanent teacher-training program that Máximo calls "the University." The University will train teachers from throughout the Amazon and spread the educational model, although Máximo emphasizes that every tribal group needs to invent a method and curriculum appropriate to its own culture. The University will, like the original model school, have solar-generated electric power for classrooms, but will also have a computer-based communications and publications center, a library and training laboratories, and will rely on canoes for transportation. It will also become the host of the Sarayacu website. Following his theme of raising the value of Amazonian culture by demonstrating the esteem in which it held by the outside world, the University will hold ongoing seminars attended by leading international authorities in ecology, tropical agriculture, holistic medicine, construction, literature, and the "mathematics of nature." "Over the years," notes Máximo, "we have had a stream of biologists, anthropologists, petroleum engineers, and other Western technicians wishing to study here. The University will create the context in which we can have a true exchange in the interest of strengthening our culture and the Amazon."As the University is being developed, Máximo is systematically communicating the model to other indigenous groups through the existing network of political organizations of indigenous people that spans Latin America. He is also pursuing formal "action research" on the effects of Western encroachments on the Amazon.

The Person

Máximo Cuji comes from the Quichua people in Pastazas, Ecuador–a community in the Amazon that has before now been relatively unaffected by foreign influences. In the past two decades, however, government policy has promoted colonization in the region, in which, regrettably for the people of the Amazon, oil was also discovered. Today the region is dotted by oil drilling installations and pipelines. The rivers are becoming polluted with oil spills and colonists are pushing their way into the region along the oil-corporation and logging roads. Still, the nearest market center and mission station is four days away by canoe. Máximo comes from a family of shamans tracing back many generations and, at the age of 41, is nearing the end of his apprenticeship as a shaman. He knows the precise uses and ways of preparing over 600 medicinal plants and can name several thousand plants and animals of his native lands. As extraordinary as this is, it does not make Máximo unique as a Quichua, a group in which any adult person knows much of what Máximo knows about plants and nature. What sets Máximo apart is the fact that as a young man he was sent by his people to obtain a Western education. He is the first person of his tribe to attend the national university in Quito, where he majored in education and Andes culture. While at university, he formed a group of young people and elders to study traditional medicine, art and spiritual practices of the Amazon people. Máximo understands the West in a way that only a threatened and subjugated people can understand a civilization. For years he has studied the West to determine if there might be some kernel within it that could connect with the survival of his own culture. Now he believes that in the growing environmental movement in the West combined with instant, essentially free global communication via the Internet, there is a possibility that he and his people can make a contribution to all humanity that will reflect back upon them in ways that affirm their unique culture and discourage the counter trend toward homogenization and global monoculture. Aided by the indigenous rights movement that produced the 1988 law guaranteeing first language education, he is preparing the next generation of Amazonians to try to seize this possibility."For us," says Máximo, "there is no way to separate the struggle to save the Amazon rainforest from the cultures of the people who live in harmony with it."