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The Marist-Carmelite Community of Sucumbios promotes indigenous intercultural education in the Amazon Region

10/10/2019: Ecuador

The first Marist community of Sucumbios was founded by Brothers Laurentino  Albalá (Superior), Arcadio Calvo and Wilson Torres in September of 1997 promoted indigenous intercultural education in the Amazon Region and was the fruit of the provincial discernment of the former Marist Province of Ecuador, seeking to be close to the poorest and most needy of that country: the indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

Initially, the brothers lived for eight years in a house owned by the Apostolic Vicariate of Sucumbíos, some 20 kms. off the road from Quito to Lago Agrio, which at that time was almost entirely uncultivated land. Lago Agrio is the capital of the Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos. The Missionary Team was called "EPI Aguarico" (Indigenous Pastoral Team of the Aguarico river), because it passed the Amazon tributary about two kilometres from the property, belonging to ISAMIS, acronym for "Church of San Miguel de Sucumbíos". The Aguarico river, navigable by canoe from Sucumbíos, becomes the plentiful Napo river on entering Peru and then the Amazon, crossing the entire north of Brazil and flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, after 7,062 km.

As was very normal at that time, the missionary communities in ISAMIS were mixed: made up of religious from different congregations, including lay men and women related by the same charisms and ministries. EPI Aguarico was made up of missionaries from two religious congregations: the Marist Brothers and the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, a congregation of Mexican origin founded in Guadalajara (Mexico). We lived in two houses, one for the brothers and the other for the sisters, a few metres away, within a property of about four hectares of land, enough for a small pig farm, domestic fowl and plantations of cocoa and bananas, to support us economically. Austerity of life was the norm for all the missionary teams of the Vicariate. 

At that time, there were five pastorals in the Apostolic Vicariate of Sucumbíos: Indigenous Pastoral, with five ethnic groups (Kichwas, Shuars, Cofanes, Sionas, and Secoyas), Campesina, Negra and Urbana, the latter exclusively destined for the small urban nucleus of Lago Agrio, the capital of Sucumbíos, an Ecuadorian province adjacent to Peru and Colombia. The EPIS were in charge of the Indigenous Pastoral of a very large area, almost 20,000 square kilometres. There were three teams of Indigenous Pastoral: EPI Aguarico, EPI San Miguel and EPI Lago Agrio, with a total of twelve-fifteen missionaries: priests, brothers and laypeople; in addition to other people who came to take part in short experiences in one of the teams.

The Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos is famous for having passed - in only 60 years - from being inhabited by only the five indigenous ethnic groups, having almost no contact with mestizos and whites from the rest of the country and less from the neighbouring countries, to an unparalleled invasion of another "mishu" civilization (white-mestizo), anxious to exploit the oil that the planes of the Texaco Oil Company (USA) had detected in this area in the early 1960s. Soon, Texaco and other associated companies took over the entire area with the permission of the Ecuadorian government: they drilled oil wells, built dirt and later asphalt roads crossing the high peaks of the Andes, building the 485 km long Heavy Crude Oil Pipeline (OCP), with a total transport capacity of 450.000 barrels each day. The oil was transported to the refineries of Esmeraldas, on the Pacific coast, without respecting the sacred lands which, for hundreds of years, belonged only to the indigenous people. Very soon thousands and thousands of poor Ecuadorians from the coast and the Andes mountain range moved to Sucumbíos and the surrounding area to enrol as workers in Texaco or to look for their own cultivated lands, because both on the coast and in the Ecuadorian mountain range the best lands belonged to the great landowners of the times of the conquest and to their descendants. With the process of drilling oil wells belching out their fumes, the oil spills, the arrival of large and heavy trucks, etc., the waters and the lands were soon contaminated, the fish disappeared from the rivers and, with the poachers, the hunting of animals... and the "civilization" of alcohol, brothels, fights, murders and the destruction of the Amazon also arrived.

The ancestral indigenous civilizations did not know how to adapt to this "new world" that invaded them, where the elders and the shamans (wise men) no longer counted for anything, the children no longer obeyed their parents. All sorts of sexual abuse took place, theft and expropriation of land, alcohol addiction, murder... by the new settlers. Yes, the schools arrived, but always from a western, colonizing perspective... with teachers without a vocation, who entered the indigenous communities on Tuesday to leave on Thursday afternoon and who did not take into account the knowledge and values of the indigenous ancestral cultures.

The Catholic Church arrived early, enveloped in the new atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council: a  Church of the People of God, committed to the poorest and most abandoned, dialoguing, denouncing injustices. The Barefoot Carmelites were assigned as missionaries responsible for the area, with the help of other religious congregations such as the Marist Brothers and the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart.  Monsignor Gonzalo López Marañón, a barefoot Carmelite, was appointed bishop, imbued with a very joyful, fraternal disposition and committed to the preferential option for the poorest: a Church that is alive, festive, courageous, denouncing injustices...Indigenous leaders in the area asked the Indigenous Pastoral Ministry of San Miguel de Sucumbíos to help them obtain a quality  of "intercultural indigenous education" so that their sons and daughters could face a dignified future without losing their traditional values. And the Bishop assigned this responsibility to the Marist Brothers. As the school had to be mixed - adolescents and young people of both sexes - and with boarding school - since most of the indigenous communities lived scattered in the jungle and the distances were very large - the need for a boarding school was evident.

The Marist Brothers and the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in agreement with their Superiors, accepted the challenge and began to design the project "Colegio Fisco-misional Plurilingüe Abya Yala", a name that comes from the "Kuna" indigenous language of Central America and means "mature, living, flowered land" and is synonymous with the American continent.

Seeking to finance such  work, with its costs, was not an easy task. The school would belong to the Apostolic Vicariate (ISAMIS), but it did not have the finances to build and support it for free. Then it occurred to the Bishop that perhaps "OCP Ecuador" (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados), the company that built and maintained the pipeline, which transported the oil from the Amazon jungle to the port of Esmeraldas in the Pacific, could help us. The negotiations were not easy, since the building of the boarding school was expensive, since, according to the proposed plan, each indigenous ethnic group wanted to have its own dormitory building and living room to preserve its culture. After many discussions, an economic agreement was reached. The project would cost two million dollars and OCP accepted it: it became their flagship project.

Fighting against the clock, on September 1, 2005, he was able to start with the first group of 60 students from the five indigenous ethnic groups of Sucumbíos. Since then, about 1,000 indigenous students have passed through Abya Yala College. The vast majority of the students are boarders and live in their own cultural home, according to their ethnicity. Today (2019), of the 165 students enrolled, 110 live in student residences, surrounded by nature, and the others are external and move every day from Lago Agrio, capital of the province, 10 km away.

The Abya Yala community of Sucumbíos is a privileged place where there are always national and international volunteers to help for one month to several months or entire years, our young indigenous people of the five ethnic groups or Ecuadorian Amazonian nationalities, as they are called in Ecuador the Kichwas, Shuars, Cofanes, Sionas and Secoyas.

Formed by the Marist Brothers and the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the community continues to be in charge of the College, through which more than a thousand indigenous students have already passed, valuing and enriching themselves with their cultures, while preparing to face a more promising future for their families and indigenous nationalities.

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