‘Our children are becoming materialistic – they are forgetting where they come from and who they are,’ says Lidia del Rocio Moreno Cuastumal, an indigenous teacher for the Pasto community of Nariño, southwest Colombia.
For the past 20 years, her community has campaigned to have their beliefs and knowledge included in Colombia’s national curriculum, along with a coalition of 105 indigenous groups. They see education as central to their centuries-long struggle to reclaim their ancestral lands and to hold on to their culture, values and language.
‘The dominant education system in Colombia is top-down,’ explains Elmer Ademar Ruano Arias, a fellow indigenous teacher.
‘In this system, everything is de-contextualized,’ adds Lidia. ‘It creates disharmony among our people. They want to make everyone think in the same way, wear the same clothes, eat the same food. But they don’t take our land into account and the value of each individual. The system needs to be adapted to the needs of different communities.’
The coalition has developed the ‘Territorial Educational Project’ as a way to incorporate indigenous knowledge into mainstream schools for their children.
‘This is our chance to de-institutionalize knowledge, and take it to other spaces that you find in everyday life,’ says Fernando Guerrero, a community facilitator. A series of meetings, community assemblies and get-togethers have produced a document with guiding principles – a sort of indigenous education charter:
‘When we see that our land is our mother – a living organism that gives us food, protects us, guides us, and teaches us – that’s when culture becomes dynamic,’ they write ‘and that is where we can start to do our own readings both of our reality and other cultures.’
The coalition propose that their educational themes and approach are worked into research, practical projects and community action.
As they understand it, their very cultural survival is at stake.
‘Our elders are the guardians of our memory. From the elders we learn about the history of our land and how food is prepared. We walk our land, listen to the sounds of the mountain, páramo (alpine tundra) and jungle.
‘Without this knowledge, in the future we will have a weak education without memory. We will have a sick homeland where seeds of life and our generations to come will have no traditions – an empty space in history.’
‘We need to pass on our customs and law and way of life just as our grandparents did,’ says Lidia. ‘We need to pass on the pride of being Indian.
‘If we don’t change the way we are educated by the state, we are facing cultural genocide.’