Revolutionizing Education in the Colombian Rainforest

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While top-of-the-line outdoor gear and insect repellents work well in the Northern California backcountry, they’re next to worthless in the Colombian jungle. This was my first lesson traveling from the West Coast to a region with 100-degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity, where bugs feed on any millimeter of exposed of skin and the humid air dissolved my malaria pills into a sludgy mess before I could take them.

In 2010, I traveled to this region as a representative of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an NGO providing resources and support for Yachaikury, an experimental school of 150 indigenous students aged five to 18. These children, from a variety of at-risk backgrounds, came to Yachaikury to receive both a modern education and to learn the wisdom of their taitas — regional Shamans who are walking encyclopedias of traditional medicine, ecology and culture.

My job in the community was to teach English and photography, although I quickly became the go-to source for any and all trivia about the outside world. Each morning I would awake to small faces peering through the gaps in the wood siding of my host family’s house, silently and vigilantly waiting for my eyes to open. As soon as they did, the onslaught began: What is the ocean, and how can it be as big as our forest? What is a whale, can we see one? The outside world was huge, unknown and — for better or worse — a powerful attraction to these bright kids.

The Yachaikury school is located at the edge of the jungle, close to numerous pioneer towns that attract tribal youth with the allure of fast motorcycles, exotic entertainment and mesmerizing technology. The area was also a hot spot for coca crops during Colombia’s grisly cocaine boom from the 1970s to the 1990s. Still today, one must tread carefully through certain parts of the forest for fear of encountering mines laid by the military, paramilitary or FARC rebellion faction.

While working in the drug trade or moving to a more “civilized” area enticed many young people, these indigenous children were unaware of the acculturation, violence, addiction and poverty that often accompanied the transition. In surrounding towns, it was easy to spot the numerous youth who had fallen prey to the worst of modernity: young men wasted on alcohol, wielding machetes and working for drug lords.

Without the school, these children are as much at the mercy of modern civilization and the drug trade as I was to the resident animals, insects and parasites.

Yachaikury was formed to change this dynamic through ethnoeducation — curriculum that combines tribal values and practices with disciplines at the core of western academics such as science, math and literature. While tribal shamans and healing mamás teach youth the importance of their Inga culture with its intricate knowledge of plant biology and medicinal applications, young teachers from neighboring regions teach introductory courses on topics such as internet technology. Yachaikury was the vision sent to the Inga Elders for the purpose of training their youth to become indigenous leaders with the capacity to advocate on behalf of their communities.

One of the most interesting parts of the curriculum is the year-long final project required of each graduating senior, completed in collaboration with an elder from their community. Often this requires that students leave their homes to go live with a particular elder for a few weeks or months, as transportation between families and tribes can be lengthy and challenging. During this time, the student and elder develop a final project that they spend the rest of the year completing.

This is how I learned about the “pito” — a reduviid beetle nicknamed the “kissing bug.” This insect transmits the protozoan that causes Chagas disease. Chagas, a blood-borne pathogen, affects an estimated 11 million people in Latin America, all too often killing its victims. The onset of the disease brings festering sores, extreme swelling and fever, and can develop into a chronic state, causing heart failure and damage to other vital organs.

Students at Yachaikury were all too familiar with the symptoms and the horrific outcome, having come from communities where the nearest clinic can be several days journey away and often cannot provide proper antibiotic or antiparasitic treatment. After watching friends and relatives suffer, three young people — Yurlaida, Johnni and Faber — decided to work with their tribal Shaman, Taita Paulino, to find a solution.

Taita Paulino had successfully cured several of their relatives and the students wanted to use his knowledge to produce a healing salve for the deadly insect bite. After six months of trial and error, they found a way to boil down the herbs to create a product that they could distribute to local communities. I was fortunate enough to see the team and their salve in action.

One morning a woman limped up the pathway to the school with her arm around her husband’s neck for support. She had a festering wound the size of a quarter on her ankle, which was swollen to twice its normal size. Although the woman reported that she had taken antibiotics, her skin was still rotting and the wound was growing larger. Absentmindedly she swatted at the flies clustered around the taught, angry, red skin. Faber cleaned the wound with an herbal bath and allowed her ankle to soak for a few minutes, occasionally examining it. After gently patting the area dry, he then smeared some of the green salve around the infection and lightly covered the sore with gauze.

Two weeks later, the woman returned unassisted, smiling and ready for her second treatment. The wound had shrunk by 50 percent and the swelling had gone down dramatically. The pito salve became the first of a few examples of rainforest medicine that I saw during my time in Colombia.

While I was able to teach some English and photography, the elders had a profound and unique knowledge that was essential to students’ education, their sense of identity, and their ability to represent their culture to the outside world. Not only have students from Yachaikury grown into leaders in their own communities, but many have continued their education in larger cities to become lawyers, teachers and nurses who can represent their culture on a national or international scale.

If we can continue to support ethnoeducation in these remote areas, might these students become leading activists for environmental and cultural conservation in the Amazon? Could the outside world better comprehend — and even embrace — their understanding of the fragility of our natural world and the many healing resources it can provide? Roughly 25 percent of modern medicines originate from plants in the Amazon, and the U.S. National Cancer Institute recognizes that 70 percent of known plants with anti-cancer properties are native only to rainforests.

The Amazon Conservation Team is one of few organizations pushing to institutionalize ethnoeducation and, as a result, Yachaikury is now partially government funded. The school is rapidly unfolding as a role model and its community has been asked by different indigenous tribes to assist in the creation of their own ethnoeducational institutions. One of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, the Colombian rainforest and its inhabitants are continually threatened by encroaching and often destructive interests. By providing these communities with the resources they need to protect their cultural knowledge and become their own advocates, we give them — and the incredible rainforest in which they live — the best chance for survival.

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