André Fernando leads indigenous communities in Brazil to confront social problems by seeking solutions that incorporate tradition and culture. André encourages communities to unite and form associations, thereby maximizing their impact and giving groups of smaller communities one clear voice.
The New Idea
André Fernando, a member of the Baniwa indigenous group, has created a mechanism for isolated, disadvantaged, and marginalized indigenous communities in the Amazon to address their social problems. Working with the Indigenous Organization of the Içana River Basin, he implements innovative programs in education, traditional medicine, and income generation. André realizes that the key to success is the collective "buy-in" of individual community members, and thus he teaches indigenous communities to form associations. The associations, open to all community members, provide spaces for participants to collectively prioritize their problems, develop or adapt solutions, and elect representatives to carry out plans. André then trains association directors to execute programs that look beyond their communities to incorporate successful social and economic practices without compromising their traditions and cultures. He teaches them how to use the association to create partnerships in business, government and social sectors in order to communicate the richness of their culture to the rest of society. By establishing associations throughout the region, André is creating a common structure among communities of different ethnic groups. He is using this network as a base for spreading an array of innovative solutions to education, health, and income generation challenges. As a result, indigenous communities gain strength and improve their quality of life.
The struggle for indigenous people's rights to land, cultural preservation, and socio-economic development is occurring throughout Latin America. Unlike in Andean or Meso-American countries, where much of the population is indigenous (30 to 57 percent), the struggle of indigenous groups in Brazil is complicated by a different demographic reality. Though there were an estimated six million indigenous people in Brazil upon the arrival of Europeans, there are only an estimated 550,000 today, the majority of whom live in poverty. They are divided into two hundred fifteen ethnic groups, speak one hundred seventy languages, and are spread across a vast geographic area, increasing their vulnerability to cultural extinction. Nearly 10 percent of the total indigenous population in Brazil lives in seven hundred communities in the Upper Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon, bordering Colombia and Venezuela. Like their counterparts throughout the country, indigenous peoples in this northern region have experienced exploitation by outsiders for centuries. Without organized social structures and networks, indigenous groups have traditionally lacked the voice and power to fight decisions made by government authorities about the use of their land and resources. As a result, municipal, state, and federal authorities have increasingly abandoned these communities and have not provided basic services in education, health, economic alternatives, communication, and transportation.By the late 1980s, this situation began to change when indigenous groups like the Baniwa started to organize themselves, first into associations and later into networks. However, many of these associations were formed only to attract outside funding to meet emergency needs and lacked a representative base to promote positive sustainable solutions. The result has been a low level of sustained organization among indigenous groups (only 5 percent of the Upper Rio Negro peoples are represented in associations). More importantly, these nascent associations have had little impact in solving social problems.
In the early 1990s, André became the treasurer and then the president of the Indigenous Organization of the Içana River Basin. In these positions, he formed associations through which he developed programs to confront the region's most pressing social problems in education, health, and income generation. Together with feedback and support from association members, André has been able to design and carry out innovative programs that meet the needs of the beneficiaries while making them stakeholders in the programs' success. Under the auspices of the association, he has legally registered programs, mobilized resources, and negotiated with government and business representatives to ensure the effectiveness of these efforts.The first of these programs is the Baniwa Indigenous School, which addresses the lack of secondary education opportunities and the absence of traditional indigenous teachings in communities along the Içana Basin. Rather than simply importing a government public school, André's approach to education for indigenous peoples focuses on the personal and educational development of both the Baniwa individual and the group. The school curriculum focuses on sustainable socio-economic development using a method that marries theory to practice by mixing classroom and field settings. The curriculum involves a long-term relationship between the school, the communities, and the students. For every two months students study in school, they spend one month in their communities learning traditional customs and implementing social programs.The second line of action uses traditional medicinal knowledge to improve community health. André brings together tribal medicine men and indigenous naturalists to recapture traditional knowledge of medicines and preventative practices. As such, he is training health promoters to re-educate their communities about healthy living in balance with nature, affirming indigenous health practices. At the same time, the programs teach promoters how to adopt appropriate elements from Western medicine to prevent and combat non-indigenous diseases.The third program focuses on cultural preservation and income generation by organizing cooperatives to produce and sell traditional art and handicrafts. The program Arte-Baniwa involves one hundred and twenty craftspeople who create high quality and highly valued traditional baskets. André has created a partnership with a leading national furnishings/interior design store, a cosmetics manufacturer, and a national supermarket chain to carry Arte-Baniwa products in locations across Brazil. André believes that the success of these programs is due to his strategy of creating associations that increase participation and strengthen communities. To implement his strategy, he first meets with community groups and helps them create open associations where members collectively identify their leaders, outline the community's problems, and suggest potential solutions. Participation is not mandatory, but all community members have a say in the association. Second, André helps the association register itself legally. Thus, the community members "exist" in government and business spheres, allowing them to create partnerships and voice their demands. Next, André teaches the association leaders how to take the ideas proposed by the association members and engage the actors necessary to turn the ideas into programs. Last, in addition to fostering the community's homegrown solutions, André invites each association to participate in the Baniwa Indigenous School, Arte-Baniwa, and the Traditional Medicines programs as a way to spread these projects throughout the region. Consequently, André brings fragmented, isolated, and ethnically different indigenous groups together to address their common problems with the goal of influencing public policies. André is currently working with four communities involving 2,500 people in organized and active associations. He plans to increase this number to six thousand by setting up associations within five more communities in the Içana River Basin. In the long run, his plan is to stimulate the creation of associations in all twenty-four of the member communities of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro. His idea is to incorporate the remaining communities of the Upper Rio Negro region, which has a population of over thirty thousand.
At the same time, André is participating in regional and thematic conferences to disseminate his model to other indigenous groups around the country. Indigenous leaders from other regions of Brazil, as well as communities in the neighboring region in Colombia, have already traveled long distances to visit and learn from André.André has forged important partnerships to support his innovative programs and his associations' spread strategy. These partners include the University of Amazonas, the Instituto Socioambiental (a leading human rights and cultural preservation civil society organization), the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro, and the Secretary of Education for the district of São Gabriel da Cachoeira.
A member of the Baniwa tribe, André was born in the Tucumã Rupitá community in the northeast region of the Brazilian Amazon. He was an avid student in school and was particularly interested in studying the history of his people. However, the history he was taught (including the "discovery of the Indians") did not match the reality he knew. Rather than the salvation of indigenous tribes by Spanish and Portuguese explorers, he saw the aftermath of invasion and exploitation. He began to question the official story, perceiving that the "discovered" people, his people, did not lack knowledge and skills. Instead, those who had arrived in the Amazon lacked the capacity to understand and value the complex cultures and technologies they encountered.This early realization framed André's studies and guided him towards his life's goal: to improve the lives of his people and other indigenous groups. He has dedicated himself to discovering solutions to the social, economic and political problems facing his people by recapturing traditional knowledge and technologies and finding vehicles to communicate them to the dominant culture. After completing elementary school, he went to a professional training school in Manaus to study agriculture. There he found that the courses on agricultural technologies from the south of Brazil had little to do with his area. He went back to the Baniwa to teach and find ways to harness the know-how of his own community. Upon his return, André collaborated with others to form the Indigenous Organization of the Içana River Basin, serving as treasurer from 1992 to 1996 and president from 1996 to 2000. He developed programs in income generation, health, education, transportation, and radio communication. Due to his demonstrated commitment and leadership, he was re-elected as president for the 2000-2004 term. He also served as the municipal health consultant and in 1999-2000 as president of the São Gabriel District Health Council. In 2000 he became the regional coordinator of the Department of Health of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro. He also organized numerous seminars on association building and health as well as conferences on education, traditional medicine, and economic alternatives. André continues to develop new approaches to solving the social problems that face indigenous groups while bridging the gap in understanding between other cultures and his own.