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“The formal education system doesn’t cater to our different needs. Everything is in English, and English isn’t our first language…  We speak our own language but that language isn’t used in school.  When it comes to exams, they’re not in our language. Our youth find themselves limited because of their scores… Plus, there are no alternatives, all the children have to go to one secondary school with overcrowded classrooms and dormitories.” Laura George, Program Assistant, Amerindian People’s Association, Guyana.

August 9th is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples; this year’s focus is education. Nations frequently provide dismal education to indigenous communities. Youth often encounter discrimination, language barriers, inadequate resources (such as lack of textbooks), poorly trained teachers, few resources & low funding, culturally & linguistically inadequate education, geographic marginalization and outside stressors, such as encroachment on indigenous lands or violence.  For indigenous communities in the rainforest, the situation can be even worse: sometimes their communities lack access to schools altogether, and other times they are forced to travel for hours on foot each day just to attend school.



Not surprisingly, these conditions result in lower enrollment rates, higher dropout rates, low literacy rates and overall poorer educational outcomes. For example, according to the UN, only 55.8% of indigenous youth in Panama completed primary school, compared to 93.3% of non-indigenous youth; the statistics are even worse when looking at high school graduates. While attending school, the education they receive is often substandard: for example 96% of language arts teachers in indigenous communities had no formal schooling beyond 6th grade. With facts like these it is unsurprising that 30% of  indigenous people in Panama are illiterate.  

In 2009 the suicide rate among Guaraní youth in Brazil was 19 times higher than the national rate.

These disparities, along with educational systems that are indifferent or hostile to indigenous culture, frequently lead to mental health problems. According to UNICEF, youth suicides in indigenous communities is a global phenomenon. For instance, in 2009 the suicide rate among Guaraní youth in Brazil was 19 times higher than the national rate. Lack of education, lack of resources, and poor socio-economic situations are all related to these increasing suicide rates. “Young people may not feel like they belong anywhere or that they’re contributing to the community,” said Dr. Rod McCormick, an indigenous mental health expert. “They might not be connected to the culture or spirituality, and their only real connection is to their peer group.”  

Elivardo Membache, Secretary and Cacique General of the  Congreso General de Tierras Colectivas Emberá y Wounaan of Panama, explains that as the rainforests are destroyed, it is even more important that educational systems incorporate indigenous learning, “The infiltration of western culture has made us lose many of our traditional stories. Our youth are losing their physical connection to our culture–we are losing that reality.”  


Despite poor access to education, indigenous people are protecting their knowledge systems and have their own methods of transmitting knowledge. These efforts must be supported, to protect their human rights, their valuable cultures and their sources of knowledge.  The International Fund for Agricultural Development states that indigenous people make up less than 6% of the world population, but they speak more than 4,000 of the world’s 7,000 languages. Many exist only orally and are at risk of disappearing. The loss of these languages not only marks the extinction of  vocabularies but threatens the traditional knowledge, beliefs, values and ideology that make up a culture.

Traditional medicines are an important part of indigenous knowledge that affects the world. Many consumer products, medicines and cosmetics come from traditional indigenous knowledge. In fact, researchers state that of the 130 most clinically useful prescription drugs derived from plants, 70% were used in traditional systems of medicine. Most of these plants are found in tropical forests.  

Indigenous communities also hold valuable knowledge concerning sustainable usage of land. They tend to use sustainable farming methods, such as shifting cultivation. They clear a small piece of land, plant many types of plants and after a few years move to a nearby area. The land is left fallow for 10-50 years before it is farmed again. Using these kinds of traditional knowledge, researchers hope to make advances in agriculture — yet due to lRS7253_uiramuta_escolaimited access to traditional education and lack of bi-cultural and bilingual programs this information, along with medical knowledge and other valuable learning, is disappearing.

Indigenous communities have a strong spiritual relationship with their land, and feel responsible for keeping it healthy, for themselves and future generations. “We take care of our forests, we know much more than the loggers, we are not going to hurt our forests,” explains Diana Rios, Community Leader of Alto-Tamaya Saweto in Peru. “We know that people will be hungry, that there will be no water, if we don’t protect our forests.” Indigenous communities are very successful at keeping rates of deforestation low in their territories, and keeping water sources clean. They are the rainforests best protector, and their knowledge will be endangered if indigenous communities do not have access to education that values their perspectives and knowledge.  

How can we protect and respect indigenous people’s knowledge and their right to an education? The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People states, “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.” The solutions are different for each community, but some constants our partners mention include: bilingual education, well-trained teachers that are respectful of indigenous culture, and schools within communities so that children and teens do not need to be separated from their families in order to learn. This is similar to the UN’s research on community-based indigenous education, where they note that schools are culturally adapted, promote flexible school projects in rural communities, promote family involvement, retain more students and improve academic performance.

Ensuring access to quality education isn’t just the right thing to do, it works! Indigenous cultures, their literature,  histories, and medical and scientific knowledge must be protected. Our planet depends on our rainforests and the cultures it houses; if we want to protect these rainforests we must start listening to indigenous communities, both to respect their rights and to learn from them before it is too late.