Warmest greetings from the Ecuadorian Amazon!
Having been active in the Waldorf Movement since 1982, working primarily in the US, Germany and Australia, we currently find ourselves in the remote Amazon jungle, working to help the Siekopai people develop their education system. It is the very first time we have visited this amazing region. The decision was rather spontaneous and based on collaborating in a project centered on the transformation of indigenous education.
About the Siekopai and the village of Siecoya Remolino
Amazonas Education Initiative
A report from Diane and Mathis - mid April, 2023
The Siekopai are an indigenous people living in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon. They speak the language Pai Coca which is spoken by only 1,600 people and is on the international list of endangered languages. In Ecuador the Siekopai number about 400 people, who for the most part live in three settlements, all located on the banks of the Aguarico river - Eno, San Pablo de Katitsiaya and Siecoya Remolino, where we currently find ourselves.
No road leads to Remolino, no cars, no motor bikes parked anywhere, just narrow footpaths through the jungle.
If you want to get to Remolino, you have to travel a half-hour downriver, past a treacherous whirlpool on the swift-flowing Rio Aguarico. In other words, you take a canoe!
Even if you want to buy or sell a cow or a horse, a canoe is your only form of transport. That’s how it works here.
The people of Remolino live “en resistencia” a small phrase with deep meaning and huge consequences. Many years ago, the residents of the community chose the path of resistance - resistance to the petroleum companies that surround them, resistance to the lure of selling land to the palm oil companies, who turn biodiverse rainforest into a homogenous, deadening monoculture. Resistance also to balsa wood growers, who plant vast tracts of balsa trees for shipping the wood to China, which also completely destroys the jungle. A balsa wood grower came to Remolino to make an "irresistible offer” early on in our visit. It made it so crystal clear to us that that just saying “no” once isn’t enough - it’s an on-going battle.
The Siekopai have to work continuously to protect their borders and boundaries against hunters, illegal loggers and even settlers. Boundary patrols are increasingly urgent and too infrequent. The list goes on and on, including fighting off the oil companies’ efforts to build a road here. Luckily the price of oil dropped, so the road project has been abandoned – but only temporarily.
All of these factors create immense challenges for the Remolino community. They are the keepers and caretakers of 22.000 hectares of pristine jungle, but the land doesn’t belong to them, according to the Ecuadorean government, who claims the property rights to whatever resources are in the ground. The river is contaminated from factories and refineries upriver, poisoning the wildlife upon which the Siekopai depend for survival. They tend to their environment as best they can, given the incredibly limited financial resources they have. Wherever and however possible, they work towards reforestation and protecting their amazing biodiversity.
When we met these amazing people and got to know them and their struggle, for the first time we knew that here IS something we could do for the Amazon Rainforest, there was something we CAN DO to help an indigenous culture flourish. It became clear that every minute of our day invested into this community would help to protect this land and to prevent this culture from ending where so many indigenous cultures have ended so far.
About the Waldorf Education initiative
This is why educational reform is so urgent, and why, for the last three years, a team of 42 Siekopai, 7 from each of the 6 communities along the Aguarico River, has developed a comprehensive 42-page proposal to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education to develop and implement their own system of education based on their native culture, language, crafts, medicine, ancestral knowledge and innate relationship as guardians of the Amazon ecosystem. The proposal is an exceptional document that reflects an inherent understanding of what it means to be a conscious human being. To be able to preserve the treasures of their own indigenous culture and at the same time take steps from an oral tradition into the consciousness of the modern age takes extraordinary foresight and courage. These qualities are deeply embedded in the Siekopai of Remolino. The Ecuadorian constitution guarantees their sovereign right to develop an autonomous education system that suits their needs for self-determination as free human beings, which is a great starting point… but how do you actually translate those ideas and ideals into practical action? This is where our expertise in Waldorf Education is being sought after by the people of Remolino.
A few weeks ago, in a meeting with elders and leaders, we were given the green light as Waldorf-trained professionals to begin the fundamental process of introducing new teaching methodologies to the first select Siekopai teachers, with the potential of expanding to a wider circle of 6 Siekopai village schools. We are still in awe over the decision of the elders, so full of trust and hope. As well, we are now uniquely challenged to plan and hold a workshop for some 50 people where our first steps in teacher training will be shared with the wider circle of Siekopai teachers and community members.
A group of young teachers-to-be, who have shown an interest in Waldorf Education, have been attending our sessions in “Formación de Profesores,” which include basic Educational Philosophy, Child Development, and practical learning in Music, Visual Arts, Form Drawing and Eurythmy.
We have spent many mornings with the 14 elementary students of the Remolino community school and their teacher, to understand the struggles they’re facing with bilingual education and exploring new approaches through applying Waldorf methodologies to incorporate traditional Siekopai stories and handcrafts into the learning process.
One of the main struggles is that until now there haven’t been sufficient resources for an Early Childhood program. All the children age 5-12 are educated together in the same classroom, which doesn’t meet the needs of the young children.
A few years ago funds were raised with the hope of accommodating the needs of the young children in their own space; however, the funds only covered the outer shell of a building, which was erected next to the current classroom. It has remained empty, due to lack of funds to finish and furnish it.
There are currently 5 children enrolled at school, who desperately need a play-based early childhood program, and another 5-7 children in the surrounding area who would attend an early childhood program, if there was one. The problem is, funds are also lacking to pay a Kindergarten teacher’s salary, although there are several capable and talented candidates, who could take up the task. Finishing and outfitting the building will cost approximately $1500 USD. A friend of the community, is donating the use of a wood-working shop to help build toys, shelves, and play stands. A Kindergarten teacher’s salary amounts to ca $600/per month.
Tati, age 6
We are hoping to find donors who can help support this worthy initiative and bring a developmentally appropriate and culturally balanced education to the beautiful children of this community.
Maricela, age 22
These teachers-in-formation are working on creating a morning song in their own language, Pai Koka. The excitement and delight in the creative process was contagious!
Many indigenous leaders of the Amazon feel that education is at the crux of this cultural crisis. The standard, government-required curricula dismiss the ancient wisdom that the elders of these tribes possess, wisdom which used to be passed on to the next generation in their traditional form of education. The young Siekopai are no longer learning to value the traditions, the culture and the wisdom which are their inheritance. Rather, they learn to be ashamed of these, especially when they get older and travel to nearby Tierras Orientales, or to more distant towns to attend local public schools, where they are inevitably mocked and bullied for the clothes they wear, the food they eat and the way they speak.
The Siekopai, and indeed all indigenous peoples of the Amazon Rainforest, are in the midst of a cultural and existential crisis. On the one side, they have a rich cultural tradition as caretakers of the jungle and the vast ancient wisdom of myriad of plant and animal life. They know every insect, every bird, every vine, every tree by name. They know how to make medicines and textiles from these plants. But this wisdom, like the forest itself, is endangered. Because, on the other side, or rather, from all sides, modern western technology and culture is pressing in, which simultaneously makes life simpler and more complicated for the Siekopai. In the world-wide predominant consumerist culture, money is valued above all else, and in this view, the Amazon Rainforest is valuable because it can produce profit. And when consumerism is adopted by these indigenous peoples, the natural outcome is that they are tempted to sell land to the massive corporations who destroy the forest.