In this interview, Daniel Mato presents the Project “Cultural Diversity, Interculturality and Higher Education" of the International Institute of UNESCO for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (IESALC), which analyzes the current demands and access conditions of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant students within the different types of Latin American Higher Education Institutions, and assesses their impact, responsibilities and challenges in regards to intercultural education, amongst other issues.
What is the “Project on Cultural Diversity, Interculturality, and Higher Education" about?
The Project “Cultural Diversity and Interculturality in Higher Education in Latin America” of the Instituto Internacional de la UNESCO para la Educación Superior en América Latina y el Caribe (IESALC) was created to identify, document and analyze experiences of higher education that are committed to meeting the needs, demands and proposals for higher education among indigenous and Afro-descendant communities in Latin America. The Project thereby seeks to lay the necessary groundwork to inform policy recommendations, generate criteria for the production of statistics and indicators on the field’s development, identify topics of interest for new research projects, and contribute to the development of sustainable collaboration mechanisms between the institutions studied and others with similar interests.
The project is not only about limiting the field of work to the experiences of higher education specifically directed to indigenous and Afro-Descendant communities, but to extend the need of intercultural education to all levels and to all population in Latin America, as many of these experiences point out.
The idea of intercultural education for all was explicitly endorsed by the Higher Education Regional Conference (CRES 2008), celebrated in Cartagena de Indias (Colombia) in July 2008. There, 4,500 experts met to create a platform to enhance the development of higher education in Latin America. This was significant because societies in Latin America are pluricultural, for which higher education must incorporate wisdom and knowledge from indigenous and Afro-Descendant communities. It would be “silly” not to do so.
It is also “silly” the fact that conflict resolution modalities of indigenous and Afro-Descendant peoples in the Americas are being studied but not taught. They are only taught in anthropology schools, but not in Law schools. There is a lot of knowledge of indigenous peoples that is of national interest. It is not only about including wisdom and knowledge of these peoples as a sort of favor to them, but also as a favor to all of us.
There are two main reasons to include this wisdom and knowledge: mere intelligence (let’s not waste this knowledge), and the fact that we are not ensuring that the established rights by law in constitutions are upheld.
What have been the characteristics of the HEIs that you have visited in Latin America?
I have not visited that many, since there are thousands of them in Latin America, but I have taught in some of them. In general, the conventional HEIs are strictly mono-cultural; they ignore the indigenous and Afro-Descendant cultures.
We have counted around 200 initiatives carried out by teams, departments or schools that are programs or degrees. There are even state-created institutions and other institutions that have been initiatives of indigenous and Afro-Descendant organizations. Furthermore, we have also found alliances between indigenous organizations and HEIs. In this last group, we have also found experiences, which are very valuable but, unfortunately, they are just a few.
What have been the demands of the indigenous and Afro-Descendant peoples regarding HEIs?
There have been several demands. They all concern some minimal points in common:
-The need for teaching indigenous languages, not only in familiar environment, but also in formal educational systems. It would not be a bad idea to teach indigenous languages besides English and French. It can be useful for people that will end up working in indigenous territories, and who will need to communicate with indigenous leaders. Communication through interpreters is very difficult, slow and superficial. Also, It will be useful to have into consideration the vision of indigenous peoples regarding current concerns, such as:
- The environment
- Agricultural production models
- Overpopulated prisons, which turn into schools of criminals instead of rehabilitation centers, following the practices of many of these people in this regard.
There should be an interest on how indigenous peoples think of solutions for these problems. There is a lot to learn from their knowledge and it must be taken into consideration.
What are the access conditions of indigenous and Afro-Descendant students in higher education?
The conditions change from country to country, although in all of them they are unsatisfactory. The reasons for that are mainly political and socio-economic. Most indigenous and Afro-Descendant students are in precarious socioeconomic conditions, because in most of the cases their communities have been deprived from their territories. Thus, they have less potential to develop their lives. Besides being indigenous and Afro-Descendant students, their economic situation is unfavorable and the state provides them with scarce health services and education.
Deficient primary school and high school pose already two problems: to access higher education when primary and secondary education have not been good –they have not respected their language, they have been treated as foreigners- makes it more difficult and brings problems when these students reach higher education. The students have to live far from their communities, do not have economic resources, and they are split from a significant and deeply rooted community life. Some of these problems do not apply to those indigenous and Afro-Descendant students that come from urban environments.
Universities do not usually have economic and linguistic programs that ensure opportunities for these students. In general subjects, as for example in national history, these students do not see themselves represented as live citizens, but rather as once glorious and now dead Indians. They do not find their place in history, nor their law, language, or vision. They become foreigners in their own lands.
What typology of HEIs can be made, be it conventional or not, that includes the perspective of interculturality in their performance?
There are those conventional HEIs who do not take into account the necessities of the indigenous and Afro-Descendant communities, and those that do.
First, among the conventional HEIs, there are some that featured special programs, as for example in Colombia and Brazil. Some programs are devoted to educate teachers for intercultural and bilingual education. We can find that in Mexico too, at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional.
Second, we can find a small but diverse group of institutions which call themselves intercultural. Some of them are state-created, like the Mexican intercultural universities, which amount to 12. In Argentina, the Centro de Investigación y Formación para la Modalidad Aborigen (CIFMA) falls also in this type of institution. There are also some of these schools in Bolivia and Peru.
Third, we can also find in several countries intercultural institutions that have been created by indigenous organizations, through membership or through special social organizations that present local development and identity programs. Some of these institutions have obtained state recognition. For example, in Nicaragua, they have Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN) and Bluefields Indian & Caribbean University, these are two institutions that were created by local leadership initiatives and have been incorporated in the national system of universities. This is different from the Mexican and Argentinian cases stated above, where the mentioned initiatives have been established from the state responding to indigenous peoples claims. In Bolivia, three indigenous universities have been created from the state for the Aymara, the Quechua and the Guaraní peoples. These are all young experiences in early stages of development.
Finally, some universities have developed alliances with indigenous organizations, like for example Universidad de Cuenca in Ecuador. These alliances have resulted in the development of specific programs of formation. The Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana (AIDESEP) in Peru has worked with the Instituto Superior Pedagógico Público “Loreto” to bring up educators for the intercultural and bilingual national educational system. Again in Ecuador, the Universidad Intercultural de las Nacionalidades y Pueblos Indígenas “Amawtay Wasi” was created by a sector of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE). Another project worth mentioning is the one in the Cotopaxi province by Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador.
The interesting part of many of these projects which call themselves intercultural –and which are also inter-ethnical since they converge projects from many different peoples - is the value given within them to the wisdom and methods of knowledge production by the indigenous and Afro-Descendant peoples, the incorporation of their languages, the national hegemonic cultures, and also the knowledge provided by Western science. They are usually small projects in the process to consolidation, except URACCAN.
I am surprised with the fact that there is not a greater curiosity towards these forms of knowledge and education, and this is what we want to insist on from our UNESCO project. We are not talking about the past; we are talking about the present and the future. These universities are presenting and resolving in very creative ways issues which the conventional universities ignore; they are linked to society. They do not focus only to export knowledge from universities outside, but to transform it into a reciprocal process. The equation society-university does not equal university-private sector. Conventional universities have a lot to learn from these initiatives. We hope our project is useful not only to give visibility to these experiences but also make conventional HEIs learn from them.
What are some of the forms of intercultural collaboration between these HEIs?
It depends on the case. In some research projects, there is a collaboration agreement between academic researchers and leaders of the communities. These collaborations have as a goal the resolution of demands and problems of the communities. There are many projects of this sort, although they are usually small-team projects. I have a project in Argentina which is dedicated to studying these types of collaboration in that country. If you ask me what the problems in intercultural communication are, I would say they are not between scholars and communities, but rather within the academic institutions, between colleagues oriented by two different visions, those who have learnt how working with communities not only improve the quality of life of those communities, but also scholarly work, and those who still live in the “Ivory Tower”.
There are fewer cases of collaboration types in terms of formation and qualifications. There are some of those types in Colombia and Peru, as I said earlier.
There is another type of experiences which are of linkage, where the university brings its knowledge, such as the Western modern science, to the community. Science has good things – such as penicillin- but also has bad things – the use of physics to build weapons. This makes people wonder: why do you want to know that? Besides being good in order to publish articles and to benefit the industry, science and university need to describe how they can be useful for society.
What is the role of organizations and international agreements for the achievement of intercultural education, and what is the outreach of the modifications in the legal frames in our countries?
Convention 169 from the International Labor Organization (ILO) is the most important international tool in this regard. All constitutions in all Latin American countries bestow legal value to international agreements signed by the nation. Any country that is signatory of the Convention 169 is formally committed to ensure that its content is upheld. In terms of the indigenous peoples, the Convention prescribes a series of very essential principles that not only have to do with education, but also with other issues. Depending on the country, all the action stops after the signature. In other cases, it is expressed in the legislation, but then there are problems its effective application.
Constitutions in almost all the Latin American countries have been reformed and updated in tune with the Convention 169 and other international texts from 1988 onwards. They are all wonderful texts. It is an amazing legal frame, but it is not being applied in reality. It is already remarkable the fact that giving support to these texts is discussed in national congresses, and there exists a commitment on that end, but that does not mean that it is carried out. Democracy is very beautiful on paper, but not so pretty in practice. Furthermore, all leaders and politicians have been formed in HEIs. What have they been taught there? It seems like HEIs are not fulfilling their responsibilities; we need to do an exercise of self-criticism.
In that sense, in our project we have featured a document that emerged from a meeting in Panama last May 2012, where colleagues, educators and civil servants that work in the education department signed a Latin American initiative for cultural diversity and interculturality in equity with higher education. From May until now, this initiative has received many demonstrations of support from all over Latin America. In June, it received support from the Latin Parliament. The text is available in the website of the project.
The text explains ways in which we can work from HEIs towards states. For instance, it is inconceivable that racism still exists in Latin American societies, and that higher education does not tackle this issue effectively, that there are not any education chairs for mutual respect and assessment of cultural diversity. It is irresponsible that this has not been solved. We have to talk about this in the year 2012. We are all responsible for it. The initiative also speaks of other proposals. Please join it if you want to support it.
This interview is not a literal transcription but rather an adaptation of a part of a longer audiovisual document. To view the full interview, follow the links: