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Intercultural Education Model on the Rise in Latin America

CUSCO, Peru – From Mexico to Chile, Indian movements are shifting the Latin American educational system from a “Eurocentric” colonial model to an intercultural model that revitalizes indigenous knowledge, language and identity.

“Today the central theme is decolonization,” said Bolivia’s new education director, Felix Patzi, in an interview recently published in Pulso magazine.

For Patzi, decolonization means taking the reins of the Bolivian educational system away from non-governmental organizations, which he accuses of having a “colonial” attitude, and giving them back to the people who are directly involved in Bolivia’s educational process: teachers, parents and students.

It also means hiring teachers who speak Spanish, English and at least one Native language, and have a good knowledge of both “universal” and “indigenous” knowledge.

Bolivia, a country with an indigenous majority that recently elected its first Indian president, Evo Morales, will host the 7th Latin American Congress for Intercultural and Bilingual Education in October. Eighteen countries are expected to participate.

The impetus for bilingual and intercultural education began in the 1990s as Indian groups pushed for educational and political reform, and learning spawned projects like PROEIB, the Program for Bilingual Intercultural Education Formation for the Andean Countries, the intercultural “pilot schools” in Mapuche territories in Chile, the Zapatista academies of indigenous languages in Mexico and the Mayan schools of Guatemala, where spiritual authorities have passed on their knowledge to new generations.

The goal has shifted since then from developing programs directed towards Native communities to more comprehensive programs that prepare all Latin Americans to live in an intercultural society.

Interculturality, wrote Oscar Azmitia in “La Educacion Bilingue Intercultural en Guatemala”, implies “dynamic relationships within a political project” and is a step forward from “multiculturalism,” which simply expresses “the coexistence of peoples and cultures.”

Indigenous organizations like Ecuador’s Movimiento Quechua y Campesino de los Rios have pushed not just to develop curriculum and publish textbooks in Native languages but to rewrite the textbooks to tell the stories of Latin American Native leaders like Atahualpa and Ruminahui, and include Native science and cosmovision in the curriculum.

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Shaped by a political vision that organizers of the Bolivian conference said “wants to refound and decolonize the state and view it as multi or plurinational,” the early “timid” efforts at bilingual and intercultural education have taken on greater force. The result is a more critical and participatory indigenous identity that is reflected in government agencies like Mexico’s Department of Bilingual Intercultural Education and laws like Chile’s Law of Educational Curriculum, which mandates a curriculum that is 40 percent based on “common ground” and 60 percent based on “local reality,” including local indigenous knowledge.

Despite these successes, there is still a shortage of qualified bilingual Spanish/Native language teachers in most countries, and many rural and urban indigenous communities throughout Latin America are struggling to pass their language and traditions on to the next generation in an increasingly globalized world.

One hopeful program at the university level, still in the formation stage, is the Itinerant Indigenous University, the first international Latin American university to be run by Native people for Native people. Twelve universities throughout Latin America will participate, hiring international professionals and local community authorities who will travel throughout indigenous communities in Latin America and use the Internet to share their knowledge. Chile will host a center for indigenous rights, Bolivia will coordinate a bilingual/intercultural education program, Nicaragua will direct an intercultural health program and Mexico will sponsor a program in language revitalization.

The project is organized by the Indigenous Fund and partially funded by a European organization, the German Technical Cooperative.

Linguist Luis Enrique Lopez, a consultant for the project, said the goal of the program is to eventually become an internationally recognized “Native university” and to “Indianize” existing Latin American universities, bringing more indigenous knowledge into their curricula and bringing the universities into conversation with local Native communities.

Currently, he said, universities in Native territories “follow the European model and are disconnected from indigenous reality and knowledge.”

While 18 percent of Latin America’s population is currently enrolled in institutions of higher education, only 1 percent is Native, according to UNESCO data.

Lopez hopes that the itinerant university, which should be fully functional in five to six years, can eventually connect with Native people in the United States and Canada. He believes that programs in Native studies and bilingual education that he visited at the universities of Saskatchewan and Northern Arizona can be used as models for asserting Native identity and recuperating indigenous languages.

“There are many situations that are very similar in the north and south,” he said.