Rosalinda Hernandez, Francisco Santiago and Laura Santiago are teachers at Ixtlan de Juarez primary school in Mexico, and Barbara Bodenhorn is an academic researcher at the University of Cambridge. Together, they describe their work in the AHRC Pathways project.
The Sierra Norte is one of the areas of greatest biodiversity in the State of Oaxaca as well as a region with distinct cultural traditions in each of its communities – both aspects in close relation with each other. To speak of Ixtlán de Juárez is to speak of its inhabitants’ strength and commitment to maintaining a communal approach to their personal, family and community affairs. They participate actively in the maintenance of their territory, in particular the care of their immediate environment, making decisions in the communal assemblies which are the highest institution in the communal government. Its religious holidays, customs and traditions (which involve many activities) provide ideal opportunities to come together, compare daily anecdotes, discuss personal and scientific knowledge, share in the richly varied preparation of food, and enjoy what we call ‘pluriculturality’. It is the essence of being a person of the Sierra and depends on the power of collaboration. Nevertheless, we are experiencing effects related to climate change – changes that in large part are driven by big cities across the world which pollute air, water and soil. In Oaxaca this is largely observed by those involved in agricultural activities: reduced water (both precipitation and ground water) and a rise in forest fires. It is a phenomenon that unfortunately has not been considered worthy of prioritizing and has combined with the irrational use of resources to cause natural disasters around the world. It is for this reason that today, care of the environment in its different aspects is of the highest importance.
Today in Oaxaca, we find ourselves in a state of changes coming out of ‘structural reforms’ that are driven by the Federal Government and big business. Far from benefiting local communities and respecting their diverse cultures and environmental contexts, the result has been to provoke community level resistance in the face of what is seen to be a violation of centuries-long autonomy. This only adds to our problems, with increasing amounts of contaminants destroying our natural resources and affecting the health of the community. Thus we need to take measures to help repair the damages that have occurred and to implement preventative actions which will benefit the general population – in terms of personal well being and in terms of larger structural processes. In Ixtlán de Juárez, we have developed a number of strategies to combat these challenges. Among them are:
- Education of the public through the classification of garbage (an initiative of the Ecology Department of the Municipal District of Ixtlán) which requires the separation of organic and inorganic waste, and the sub-classification of the latter according to its ‘recyclability’.
- Sustainable development of lumber resources. The community has depended on (and continues to depend on) its forest resources for generations, forming the basis of economic livelihood for many families. The Technical Services division of the Bienes Comunales (literally ‘common wealth’) has the responsibility to oversee the conditions in which trees are harvested (to maintain the community’s ‘sustainable forestry’ certification) as well as to reforest areas that have become depleted.
- The promotion of ecotourism (Ecoturixtlan, another communal initiative). The Sierra Juárez has many natural marvels and the community has decided to develop the possibilities of benefitting economically from them while at the same time encouraging greater awareness of the needs for care and preservation of the environment. Ecoturixtlán defines environmental education of regional youth as one of its own responsibilities and collaborates with local schools to introduce students to their patrimonial territory: el Arco (“the arches”), an area developed with ecotourism activities in mind, such as camping, hiking, cycling and so forth; and Los Pozuelos, a cloud forest noted for being the highest point of Ixtlán’s territory where one can observe climate changes and, as a consequence, also changes in flora and fauna.
The primary school has worked with Ecoturixtlán to offer students experience of this environment first hand – learning to value and respect it in such a way as to promote not only knowledge, but also interest in preserving their natural and cultural surroundings. These activities have permitted the strengthening of student understanding by combining such direct experiences with lessons provided in the classroom. By the same token, we have engaged students with cultural events, and invited interactions with holders of traditional knowledge who are members of the community. Because these are significant to the students’ own lives, they have helped us to succeed in achieving our larger goals. At the same time, we have searched for alternatives which have benefited the community in general as it is necessary that we continue to develop more activities and generate more awareness of residents in order to promote harmony between humans and nature.
We began this essay examining connections between school and community which we believe are necessary if our young people are to learn respect for their environment. We cannot emphasise enough how important a role we feel our communal organisation plays in this. Through debate and discussion in the general assembly of comuneros, members have the responsibility to conserve natural and social community resources. The basic philosophy – which drives our understanding of curriculum aims as well as communal goals – is that our land belongs to us, just as we belong to the land. For that reason, we believe that it merits our maximum respect and care; each one of nature’s elements carries out a function for the whole. It is not possible to separate humans from the natural environment – nor the environment from humans. We are neither more nor less than other living beings.
One of our priorities in education is to establish close communication between students and their surroundings with the goals of encouraging students to recognize and value each constituent element in their environment. We want them to learn how to observe distinct elements as well as to understand their interconnection so that they may appreciate and enjoy the whole. It is a challenge for the teacher to awaken students’ interest in developing their capacities to care for the environment.
This article was first published in NAEE’s 2017 journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 114). To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.