Indigenous educators must work within a system not their own

To comply with government educational regulations, every Ecuadorean teacher must input grades into the Ministry of Education’s online records twice a year.

For Rosario Ishauna Ushigua Santi, a teacher in the Sápara community of Llanchamacocha, the process is a bit more arduous. Llanchamacocha sits on the banks of eastern Ecuador’s Conambo River, 20 miles from the nearest road, 50 from Puyo, the nearest city.

“I used to walk to Puyo to put in grades,” Rosario Ushigua said. “That took about two days, but now that I have my baby I just fly.”

It costs about $300 each way for the trip, an expense she sees as justified only when a child’s health is at stake.

Ushigua’s salary, paid by government stipend, is $380 a month. At the moment, she is the only teacher in Llanchamacocha under contract with the Ecuadorean government. She pays for her flights out of pocket.

For the villagers of Llanchamacocha, education is a matter of survival. Western-style schooling is a recent development in the community, but after years of fighting to protect their territory from government-sponsored oil exploration, the Sápara have begun to invest everything in their children’s futures, all with the hope that the next generation can preserve their people’s way of life.

“It’s very important for our kids to go to school,” Hilario Gualinga, a Kichwa man who married into Sápara and now has four children, said. “We really want our kids to get an education so they understand the importance of conserving our territory and have the skills they need to defend it.”

Trilingual education — in Sápara, Quechua and Spanish — began in Ecuador in 2003. Originally funded by the national government, the Sápara curriculum is one of many specially designed to accommodate Ecuador’s indigenous populations. It allows the Sápara, now numbering fewer than 500, to teach their children their people’s language and history in addition to nationally mandated subjects such as math and science.

The exterior of the older school building in Llanchamacocha. “Kuyrana” is Sápara for “protected.”

The two school buildings in Llanchamacocha sit at the community’s edge, the last structures before the makeshift airstrip that serves as the outside world’s entry and exit point. Built of wooden planks, the walls are dotted with government-supplied maps of the Sápara nation and Spanish and Sápara vocabulary charts.

Government funding for trilingual education was cut in 2008 under President Rafael Correa, a move that cost the Sápara two of their three contracted teachers. Since then, the community has relied on grants and local teachers, as well as volunteer educators from the Chilean nonprofit Centro Mundial de la Felicidad.

“I heard about this project from a friend,” said Spanish volunteer educator Vanessa Iglesias Fernandez, under contract with Centro Mundial. “I was looking for something in the jungle. I thought about doing something with animals, but I found this more interesting.”

As it stands, Sápara children can get an eighth-grade education in Llanchamacocha. Anything beyond that requires the children to leave the village, travelling to high schools in Kichwa communities a day’s walk away, or even farther away in Puyo.

“Government aid comes with a lot of conditions that we try to resist,” Sápara leader Manari Ushigua  said. “We don’t get as much help as others because we don’t permit oil extraction. They”–government officials–“want the Sápara to leave so they can come in and take what they want.”

During Rafael Correa’s just-ended 10-year presidency, the Ecuadorean government started the “Millennial School” initiative to streamline the country’s fragmented education system. But the new schools have drawn criticism from indigenous communities for their often distant geographic placement and lack of native teachers.

“The Correa administration closed up a lot of schools during its last years,” Carlos Larrea Maldonado, a political scientist and professor at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, said. “Instead, they installed very large education centers. But it’s very bad for the communities because before, they had a school they could walk to with a teacher who was always there.”

The government uses education benefits as a bargaining chip, environmental activist Eduardo Pichilingue, former director of the Centro de Derechos Económicos y Sociales, said. Pichilingue, who has worked with indigenous communities for 17 years, said that the drive for centralized education is more a case of misguided efforts than nefarious motivations.

“The government does have good intentions in trying to offer education,” Pichilngue said. “The problem is that the government sees indigenous people as poor and marginalized, as people who lack the opportunity to become global, urban citizens.”

Marco Montaguano has taught the older students in Llanchamacocha for a year. He was trained by his wife, Rosario Ushigua, to replace a departed teacher. Now the administrator of the Sápara schools, Montaguano said it can be difficult to tailor the national curriculum to fit the realities of the rainforest.

“The textbooks are up to date, but the kids get confused sometimes,” Montaguano said. “The education system is designed for the entire country, but here in the jungle, we have to change a lot of the examples. Kids here can’t always relate to the books.”

Students in Llanchamacocha also face physical obstacles getting to class each day. When it rains, the Conambo River, which cuts through the community, becomes a torrent of rushing water. Storms make crossing the river—part of the daily commute to school—dangerous, often prompting parents to keep their children home. When they do decide to brave the weather, the children risk damaging their school supplies, most of which are donated and difficult to replace.

“The children are very small,” Gualinga said, “so we get worried they’re going to be carried down the river.”

Ipiak Montaguano Ushigua (left) will soon have to decide whether to go to the nearest city to complete her education.

Sápara child sitting on a bench in Llanchamacocha.

There’s a full class just 60 percent of the time, Montaguano estimated.

Some parents also want their children at home to help with farming, hunting and other domestic duties, activities Rosario Ushigua said further prevent them from keeping up with lessons.

“It’s been difficult for some parents to adjust,” she said. “Some of them understand, but others don’t prioritize their children’s education. It’s difficult to get them back on track when they fall behind.”

While it’s rare for the younger students to repeat grades, she estimates that four or five older students will have to repeat the year.

The Sápara haven’t fully adapted to the classroom-based learning found in most parts of the Western world. Less than two decades have passed since the first school was built in Llanchamacocha. Prior to its construction, the Sápara passed their knowledge down orally, through storytelling and practical lessons given during long walks through the jungle. But Western schooling has taken time away from their ancestral practices.

Weather permitting, both Montaguano and Rosario Ushigua prefer holding classes outdoors, in the kind of learning environment to which the Sápara are accustomed.

“The government uses any excuse they can get to come in on their own terms,” Montaguano said. “They have an excuse to bring in an ambulance, or a school, or a hospital, but it’s really just an excuse to set foot in our territory. The Constitution says the government is supposed to support indigenous cultures, but ultimately, they don’t contribute unless there is something to gain.”

The Sápara seem willing to do whatever it takes when their survival is at stake. Pitted against a country whose economy relies on the oil beneath their feet, the Sápara have no choice but to fight with all the knowledge they can get.

Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted through a translator.