Leadership in the Amazon

August 17, 2021
Anthropologist connects leadership research to a program that nurtures future Indigenous leaders

Attending college is a daunting proposition for many first-generation students. Even more so for those who speak a language not spoken at their college and hail from a culture outside the mainstream. Such is the case for five Tsimané students attending the Universidad Autonoma del Beni (UAB) in Trinidad, Bolivia, said associate professor of leadership studies and anthropologist Christopher von Rueden.

Since 2005, von Rueden has been studying the health and social lives of the Tsimané, an Indigenous, forager-horticulturalist people of Amazonian Bolivia. He is all too familiar with the existential threats facing the Tsimané and their way of life—threats from climate change, ranchers, loggers, and other colonists.     

“The issues confronting the Tsimané underscore their need for more know-how, so they can retain sustainable subsistence practices while improving their quality of life and advocating for their people,” he said. “They need to negotiate with colonists who are trying to gain access to their land, so they don’t get the raw end of the deal.”

Tsimané live in small-scale societies and obtain their food by foraging and cultivating small plots of land in the Amazon. Only a few complete secondary school. Even fewer attend college.

Von Rueden is addressing this higher-education deficit by partnering with the Tsimané governing council and One Pencil Project, a Utah-based nonprofit that supports educational programs for Indigenous populations in Bolivia and southern Africa. Under his leadership as One Pencil Project board vice president, the nonprofit launched the Tsimané Scholarship Fund in 2020.

The fund provides tuition, room, and board at an annual cost of approximately $1,900 per person for the five Tsimané students attending UAB. Two are studying accounting; a third, agricultural engineering; a fourth, veterinary medicine; and a fifth, law. If funding permits, two more Indigenous students—one hoping to pursue agricultural engineering and the other, medicine—will enroll at UAB in the coming academic year, von Rueden said.

“A Tsimané mentor supports the five students currently attending UAB, and I chat with them often on WhatsApp,” he said. “They live in the same house, so they can support each other, and they visit their villages every month or so. I hope to connect them as pen pals with Spanish-speaking students in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies.”

Communicating with professors and other Bolivian students who don’t speak the Tsimané language and come from vastly different backgrounds is difficult for them, von Rueden said. However, the potential payoff justifies the steep learning curve and social challenges.

“These young people have made a commitment to graduate from the university, return to their villages, and use what they have learned to benefit their people,” he said.

After working with the Tsimané for 16 years, von Rueden said he is pleased to have found a way to leverage his academic work as a professor at the University of Richmond’s Jepson School to help the Tsimané with their political and environmental challenges. 

“My involvement with the Tsimané Scholarship Fund connects my scholarly interest in leadership with future Indigenous leaders. This is my attempt to give back in a systematic way.”