Education in the Rainforest

“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 often fail to provide adequate education to indigenous youth, who grapple with insufficient resources, geographic marginalization, and discrimination. For indigenous peoples living in the rainforest, the situation can be even worse; many forest communities lack access to schools altogether, and others are forced to travel for hours on foot each day to attend school.

Unsurprisingly, these conditions result in lower enrollment and higher dropout rates, stunted literacy, and overall poorer educational outcomes. According to the United Nations, only 55.8% of indigenous youth in Panama completed primary school, compared to 93.3% of non-indigenous youth. Even fewer indigenous youth graduate high school. As a result, 30% of indigenous people in Panama are illiterate.  

Educational systems that are indifferent or hostile to indigenous culture can lead to mental health problems. According to UNICEF, the suicide rate among indigenous youth is staggering. Lack of education and resources, as well as poor socio-economic opportunities are all related to 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.”  

Children study at a school located in the community of San Jose de Pacache, in the Ucayali region of Peru.

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 schools embrace and 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 peoples are protecting their knowledge systems and methods for transmitting that knowledge. Indigenous peoples 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 also cultures, including traditional knowledge, values, and ideology.

Losing these cultures not only affects indigenous peoples, but also the global community. For example, traditional indigenous medicines have informed many modern consumer products, medicines, and cosmetics. 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 a biodiverse assortment on crops, and after a few years move to a nearby area. The land is left fallow for 10-50 years before it is farmed again. Researchers are now studying and replicating these systems in the hopes of creating more sustainable agricultural practices. Yet, with limited access to bicultural and bilingual educational programs, these traditional practices are 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 protectors, and insufficient and insensitive education endangers that knowledge.  

How can we respect and protect indigenous peoples’ traditional 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. According to the UN, community-based schools are culturally adapted, promote flexible school projects in rural communities, promote family involvement, retain more students, and improve academic performance.

Our planet depends on our rainforests and the communities that take care of it. We must support indigenous peoples to obtain better local education that amplifies traditional knowledge.

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Didier Devers
Chief of Party – USAID Guatemala

Didier has been coordinating the USAID-funded B’atz project since joining Rainforest Foundation US in April 2022. He holds a Master’s in Applied Anthropology and a Bachelor’s in Geography. Before joining the organization, Didier worked for 12 years in Central and South America on issues of transparency, legality, governance, and managing stakeholders’ processes in the environmental sector. Prior to that he worked on similar issues in Central Africa. He speaks French, Spanish, and English, and is based in Guatemala.