The right to education still elusive for the indigenous peoples of Latin America

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Indigenous rights

Indigenous schoolchildren in front of Miskhamayu School in a remote part of the Andean highlands of Bolivia. Many students walk 12 km or more each day, along steep roads and trails from their remote villages, to school. Credit: Marisabel Bellido / IPS

SANTIAGO, August 4, 2016 (IPS) – Education, the most powerful instrument in the fight against exclusion and discrimination, is still elusive for the indigenous peoples of Latin America who remain the most disadvantaged segment of the population despite their large presence in the region .

The recognition of the growing need to provide better access to quality education for indigenous peoples, which respects cultural differences and local indigenous traditions, is still far from being translated into real long-term public policies, the mayor from the Chilean municipality of Tirúa, Adolfo Millabur, told IPS.

In Chile, for example, “everyone expresses a will, but it is not put into practice,” said Millabur, whose municipality, 685 km south of Santiago, is located in the region of La Araucanía, which is home to nearly half of the Mapuche. population, the largest indigenous community in the country.

Millabur grew up in the town of El Malo, 35 km from Tirúa. He and his eight siblings got up at 5 a.m. every day and walked 30 km to school in the city of Antiquina. After a few hours in class, they all set off for the long way home.

He doesn’t remember how he learned to read and says he didn’t know how to sign a check when he became Chile’s first Mapuche mayor in 1996, aged 28.

The right to education is the theme of this year’s World Indigenous Peoples Day, celebrated on August 9.

Access to culturally appropriate education that recognizes indigenous diversity and values ​​and specific needs, including the need for indigenous people to learn their mother tongue, is seen as essential to address their vulnerability and exclusion.

According to figures from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 8.3 percent of Latin America’s population – 45 million out of a total of 605 million people – is indigenous.

Of Bolivia’s 10.6 million inhabitants, 62% identify themselves as belonging to an indigenous community, making it the Latin American country with the highest proportion of indigenous people, followed by Guatemala, where 41 % of the 16 million population identify as indigenous. .

Next come Peru, where 24 percent of the population is indigenous, and Mexico, where the proportion is 15 percent.

These are the official statistics, based on how people self-identify in the census.

According to the 2014 study “Indigenous Peoples of Latin America”, published in Spanish by ECLAC, there are 826 distinct indigenous groups in the region.

Two Juruna children at a school in the indigenous village of Paquiçamba, on the banks of the Xingú River in the Amazon region of Brazil.  Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

Two Juruna children at a school in the indigenous village of Paquiçamba, on the banks of the Xingú River in the Amazon region of Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava / IPS

At one extreme is Brazil, with indigenous people making up only 0.5 percent (900,000 people) of the population of 200 million, divided into 305 different groups, followed by Colombia (102 groups), Peru (85) and Mexico (78). At the other extreme are Costa Rica and Panama (nine indigenous peoples each), El Salvador (three) and Uruguay (two).

The Quechua, Nahua, Aymara, Maya Yucateco, Maya K’iche ‘and Mapuche are the largest indigenous groups in the region, according to the study.

Despite their strong presence and influence in the region, the indigenous peoples of Latin America still represent one of the most disadvantaged population groups, according to the ECLAC report.

Indigenous peoples have not only suffered the systematic loss of their territory, with serious consequences for their well-being and way of life, but they are also the population group facing the highest levels of poverty and the most inequalities. marked.

In this scenario, the right to education is essential for the full enjoyment of human and collective rights, and is a powerful tool in the battle to eradicate exclusion and discrimination.

“Indigenous peoples are among the most absent from educational policies and programs,” said Loreto Jara, educational policy researcher at the Chilean NGO Educación 2020.

“They are absent as historical subjects in the programs themselves, but also as social actors in the participatory processes involved in the design of the programs,” she told IPS.

Although progress has been made in recent years in education for indigenous peoples in Latin America, it is a mistake to view all the processes as similar “just because it is easier to work in a scenario. similarity than addressing diversity, ”she said. noted.

She said that education for any indigenous group “has a different dynamic than our school system”, which means there is a need to integrate, for example, intercultural teachers in schools.

Jara cited the experience of Colombia, where there are “many different ethnic groups, which vary greatly among themselves, smaller groups, who speak specific dialects and are involved in a struggle to reclaim their territory and keep their cultures. alive ”.

She said that in Colombia, “indigenous cultures are increasingly recognized and understood in rural areas … and rural schools are doing a lot to revitalize indigenous languages.”

These efforts, also aimed at stemming the migration of young people from rural areas to large cities, are also seen in parts of Mexico, she added.

In the Chilean region of La Araucanía, there are 845 schools that teach Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche people, up to the fourth grade of primary school.

Of these, 300 receive direct support from the Ministry of Education and the rest depend on private funding, said María Díaz Coliñir, supervisor of the government’s bilingual intercultural education program.

Under Chilean law, all schools with more than 20% indigenous students must have bilingual intercultural education programs that teach Mapudungun, Quechua, Aymara or Rapa Nui, depending on the region.

Although the program does not ensure that children learn their mother tongue, it does strengthen their sense of identity. “Much progress has been made in helping Mapuche children have a stronger sense of who they are and build their self-esteem,” Díaz Coliñir told IPS.

Jara agreed that efforts like these would have positive results for all indigenous groups in the region. “The affirmation of their rights is based on language, because it represents their vision of the world. Under the indigenous languages ​​lies the cultural richness of each indigenous group, ”she said.

She said responding to the need to bring greater visibility to indigenous peoples as social actors, teaching their history and their connection to the wider history of this country, is one of the outstanding tasks. in the field of education.

“Today, people demand to participate in decision-making in many areas, and indigenous peoples are among the social actors who need to be given the most attention,” said Díaz Coliñir.


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