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Reimagining the Value of Indigenous Education

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela’s powerful message continues to ring true. The United Nations Emergency Fund for Children (UNICEF) reports that more than 90 percent of primary school-age children are enrolled in school. Access to education for indigenous peoples in Latin America remains limited as they face greater challenges in advancing their primary education without falling behind compared to their non-indigenous peers. Obstacles such as a lack of trained bilingual teachers, disrespect for indigenous languages and cultures, and differences in parental education contribute to gaps in educational access among indigenous and non-indigenous children. A lack of access to quality education and lower illiteracy rates among indigenous peoples also serve as barriers to reducing poverty in Latin America. In response to these challenges, countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Nicaragua developed legal provisions to implement bilingual intercultural education (BIE) in the late 1990s.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, ©1977.

But what exactly is BIE, and how does it work? The United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Social Organization (UNESCO) defines bilingual intercultural education as an “educational model which attempts to provide pertinent education to…indigenous children…by support[ing] the processes of social and political transformation, by giving valuation and appropriation of the cultural and symbolic legacies that the indigenous population contributes to society.” The key in this lengthy definition is the valuation of indigenous cultural practices, such as language and pedagogical approaches. The implementation of BIE in Latin American countries can expand access to education for indigenous communities, a crucial step towards improving social mobility and development. These pedagogical approaches to teaching break down some of the structural barriers faced by indigenous children, including racist and patriarchal attitudes evident in some educational models.

There are a number of examples of BIE programs improving access to and quality of education for indigenous peoples in Latin America. JADENKÄ, for example, is a BIE preschool program in the Chiriqui province of Panama that targets Panama’s largest indigenous group, the Ngäbe. JADENKÄ introduces mathematics from Western countries alongside both Spanish and traditional, ethno-cultural forms of mathematics to Ngäbe schoolchildren. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, such practices can “increase logistical thinking skills, students’ enjoyment of math, and their sense of belonging in mathematical careers.” Not only do these approaches protect indigenous forms of learning, but they also encourage engagement from indigenous students through the use of cross-cultural knowledge that makes learning environments more comfortable. A country like Panama, where multidimensional poverty affects more than 60 percent of its indigenous population, could greatly benefit from the expansion of BIE.

Implemented in 1985, Guatemala’s Programa Nacional de Educación Bilingüe (PRONEBI) has also been cited for its success in increasing literacy rates among indigenous peoples by 43 percent. Mayan children in these bilingual schools demonstrated better attendance rates and promotion levels than their peers enrolled in Spanish-only programs. The success of the PRONEBI program resulted in its permanent implementation in the Guatemalan education system as the Dirección General de Educación Bilingüe Intercultural (DIGEBI), which demonstrates the potential of BIE programs to improve educational access and attainment for indigenous groups in Latin America.

In 2015, the United Nations announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with the goal of “ending poverty…with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth.” SDG 4 strives to ensure inclusive quality education for all, while also addressing access to vocational training for those in vulnerable situations, such as indigenous peoples. In order to achieve these goals, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean will have to adapt to ensure that all children, including indigenous children, have access to a quality education. Education ministries must develop strategies that promote respect for indigenous culture, adequately train bilingual teachers, and address the increased vulnerabilities and barriers indigenous children face in access to quality education. Through BIE, countries with indigenous peoples can ensure that vulnerable groups do not fall through the cracks in their education systems by empowering and supporting them with access to traditional forms of knowledge. While there is still much work to be done for indigenous social, political, and economic rights, bilingual intercultural education is a great place to start.

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Pierina Anton

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