Promoting ‘education’ is just one of the many banners that government and development organizations love to wave as solutions to complex issues that cause poverty and disease. Build a school, fund curriculum development, pay teacher’s salaries. And so forth. Unfortunately, applying the broad stroke of ‘education’ can also cause more harm than good. Canadians need look no further than the Residential School system that lasted decades, and succeeded in severing the passing of Aboriginal culture, traditional knowledge and ways of understanding the world. As Isabel Pefianco Martin states, “education has the power to forge realities, the power to propel cultures, the power to interrupt life.”
In 2005, I was an eager ‘agent of change’ and fundraised, amongst a group of post-secondary students, to raise money for a primary school in a Maya-Mam community in Comitancillo, Guatemala. Admittedly, at the time, I knew next to nothing about the double-edged machete of development. I had never considered that ‘promoting education’ could potentially, in turn, erode culture, indigenous language, knowledge of agriculture and the land, and disrupt children from their parents and grandparents.
In May 2011, I had the opportunity to visit Comitancillo, a mountainous region in the northwestern part of the country, bordering with Mexico. Here, I was received by AMMID (Maya-Mam Association for Research & Development), a local organization made up of hundreds of community members, leaders, and activists, who’ve been fully integrated into their projects that focus on land rights, food sovereignty, cultural preservation, and yes – education.
We visited the primary school in the community of Tuixoquel, the same school I helped to finance six years earlier. Fortunately, the form of ‘education’ that was visible on the classroom walls, chalkboards, and heard from the mouths of educators was clearly localized in Maya-Mam culture, language, and values.
The educational theme of ecology and land management, and its importance to the Maya-Mam culture and worldview, was evident in the children’s drawings on the wall, lesson plans integrating seeds, and decorations that hung from the ceiling – made from recycled waste materials.
Teachers explained that one of the challenges that remains to education in the region is the high rate of malnutrition amongst children and youth. With few resources and support from the national government, most children go to school without having eaten breakfast. Snacks at school have traditionally been limited to processed goods, including chips, cookies, crackers and soda pop (often supplied by Coke and Pepsi) – and this is only if children can afford to purchase these goods.
As a result, teachers in Tuixoquel had responded by integrating themes of sustainable agriculture, local adaptation to climate change, nutrition and cooking into the local curriculum. Working with agricultural promoters from AMMID, teachers are today passing on important knowledge to children and youth regarding how to diversify their diets through planting a variety of vegetables, using organic methods to improve yield and soil quality, and most importantly, how to prepare culturally new vegetables and integrate them into their diets.
In Tuixoquel, primary students helped build the school garden, only 20 meters away from their school, terraced into the slope. During my visit, students had planted raddish, a drought resistant crop with a shorter growing season. In the summer, with increased rainfall, teachers and students anticipated growing a variety of other vegetables, including cabbage, Swiss chard, carrots and peppers. Classes rotate responsibility to tend and harvest the vegetables. In a small adjoining casa, students were also learning how to prepare and cook with the foods they harvested from their school garden.
Imagine. Integrating ecology and practical knowledge for increased food sovereignty into curriculum for grade one students. If only the Maya-Mam’s approach of teaching about land, cultural identity and ecological practice could be ‘institutionalized’ in the land of the ‘developed’ – how might our children be better prepared, and more solidly grounded, in both relating to and sustainably managing the land around them.