Pursuing a Dream: ‘Windows of Opportunities’ through Education

View of the Knowledge Center area
Indigenous couple plan to create a university in their land in Maranhão

September / October, 2023 – "You are opening up a window of opportunities for us.” Fabiana Guajajara, Director General of the Tenetehar Tukan Knowledge Center, recalls the comment that encouraged her not to give up on a bold project she was developing. Her goal was to invest in the construction and installation of the Indigenous university on Indigenous land. The Knowledge Center is a project of the Tukan Institute, which works to defend the Amazon and seeks autonomy through education.

Many local young people seek training opportunities at Tenetehar Tukan, located in the Araribóia Indigenous Land, in the municipality of Amarante, state of Maranhão. Fabiana and her husband, Chief Silvio Guajajara, designed the project and have been raising funds to finalize the construction of new classrooms and facilities. 

One of the buildings began to be constructed in the Araribóia Indigenous Land, near a river that runs close to the forest. Founded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the couple returned to the Lagoa Quieta village. At that time, they received technical and financial support for the Integrated Environmental and Territorial Management of Indigenous Lands in the Eastern Amazon program, developed in partnership with USAID/Brazil.

After supporting 63 local families, the project ended this year. It was led by the Indigenist Work Center (CTI) together with the Society, Population, and Nature Institute (ISPN). It is affiliated with Maranhão Indigenous Organizations Network (COAPIMA), the Wyty-Catë Organization of Timbira Communities of Maranhão and Tocantins, and the Maranhão Indigenous Women Network (AMIMA).

“USAID supported us in the beginning, and since then, we have been growing our own food. It has been a very difficult period for our family. We managed to gather strength and overcome many difficulties. Today, we are working to transform our dream university into reality," says Fabiana, who also recalls when Silvio fell ill and needed special care. 

Fabiana and Silvio have worked arduously to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and launch short- and long-term undergraduate training programs targeting local Indigenous students. "Many young people from our village and surrounding areas end up moving to the city in search of better opportunities and jobs. We would like to give them a chance to stay here and get the training they want," says Fabiana, who moved at a young age from her village to pursue an education.

For Silvio, overcoming prejudice is one of the challenges of the project. "We thought about creating a university that might reflect our way of seeing the world. Other programs are developed from an external perspective. We want our future leaders to be trained here, strengthening our culture and maintaining our traditions,” he adds. 

They traveled to Brazil's federal capital, Brasilia, and other cities in search of sponsorship and funding for the project. The name of the center includes the word tukan (toucan), a bird found in many Brazilian biomes, including the Amazon.

It holds a particular symbolism for the Guajajara people, as it is considered a “seed spreading” species. In their view, education can also spread seeds of knowledge. Fabiana and Silvio have produced a video showing what their land would look like with rooms, laboratories, dorms, and other designed spaces. 

The Araribóia Indigenous Land is home to approximately 17,000 Guajajara, in addition to the Awá, who live in voluntary isolation. A total of 232 villages are divided into nine ethno-regions spread over 413,000 hectares of forest. 

“We seek to fill a gap left by conventional education, and provide an insider understanding of our culture. We want a place that preserves our memory and our ancestry, and secures our autonomy'”, concludes Fabiana. 

After completing the first building, they will lay the cornerstone for the university at Araribóia Indigenous Land on October, and then proceed to finish other buildings and classrooms. Minister Sonia Guajajara (Povos Indígenas) attended the inauguration.