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North American Indians send delegation to Peruvian Amerind fish farmers

Indigenous people worldwide rely on fish as a food staple.

While walleye is the important fishery to this area, for the Shipibo-Konibo people of Amazonian Peru, the sacred fish and important food source is the arapaima. This is the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world. The fish grow to be 10 feet long and more than 400 pounds.

However, arapaima populations have declined greatly over the last 30 years due to over fishing. In response, a group of North American Indians from around the United States were sponsored by Heifer Project International and the Oregon State University Aquaculture Collaborative Research Support Program to work with Peru's Institute of Environmental Investigations of the Pacific in the Eagle-Condor Exchange Program. The effort was facilitated, in part, by Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network of Bemidji. The North American delegates were from the Seneca, Puyallup, Lummi, Snohomish, Wampanoag, Oneida and Choctaw nations, people with experience in fish farming and fisheries management and connected to the Indigenous Aquaculture Network.

Goldtooth said the focus was how to link aquaculture, which nationally and globally is a highly commercial industry, with native communities and traditional cultures. He said the concept is an environmental justice issue.

"It was really exciting to us to be able to find out how the native peoples of the south are using their traditional knowledge and fish farming," Goldtooth said.

He said the Eagle-Condor Aquaculture Exchange Program creates an initial organizational framework to evaluate aquaculture in terms of indigenous culture and development and help envision aquaculture practices in a manner that can benefit indigenous peoples, provide models for sustainability development and respect the biological dynamics of the water world.

This exchange will continue with a Mexico trip this winter to study Mayan fish farming methods.

"The Eagle-Condor Aquaculture Exchange Program is an exciting project within our Sustainable Communities initiative," Goldtooth said.

Included in the April delegation to the Ucayali River area to examine the Shipibo-Konibo people's arapaima fish farming techniques was Michael Skladany, an assistant professor of sociology at Bemidji State University.

"I provided technical support," he said.

"Our focus was on aquaculture, the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms," Skladany said.

But, he added, the mission named for the sacred birds of North America and South America also took in all aspects of the water world. These included forests and fields adjacent to the river and the challenge of industrialization over traditional ways of living. The next step, Skladany said, is creating partnerships for education and empowering communities to solve their own problems.

"The big issue, as we perceived it, is the Peruvian government gives concessions to foreign Japanese and Korean companies to come in and cut high-value hardwoods," Skladany said. "Mahogany was a real big one."

Cutting the Amazon forests interrupts the traditional way of life for the indigenous people, as well as damaging the ecosystem. Fish farming is a way for the Shipibo-Konibo people to improve their living standards.

"They collect the fingerlings from the wild and they put them in a cage and feed them," Skladany said of the Shipibo-Konibo people's fish farming. "They grow very, very fast. They go from fingerlings to 25-30 pounds in one year."

Fish farming in the Ucayali River, a tributary of the Amazon, is supported by the Peruvian government, Skladany said.

He noted some differences between the South American indigenous people and American Indian nations. The concept of sovereignty, so important in this country, is strange to the Shipibo-Konibo people. Skladany explained that they have traditional rights, but no recognized sovereign rights.

They live in raised thatch houses and make their living fishing and harvesting wild foods from the jungle.

"Very subsistence. Not many luxuries," Skladany said. However, he added that some people have solar power panels on their houses.

"The villages are so isolated, and they're accessible only by river," he said.

Skladany said the planning for the Eagles' visit to the Condors took two years. For a next step, he said he hopes to invite the Condors to this country.