Education trade unions and Indigenous Peoples: A firm commitment in Latin America

published 14 September 2023 updated 20 March 2024

Teacher trade unionists from various Indigenous Peoples, members of organisations affiliated to Education International Latin America (EILA), gathered in Panama City on 4, 5 and 6 September for the 10th Regional Meeting on Public Education and Indigenous Peoples. The event marks the continuation of a process initiated in 2009 in Antigua, Guatemala, and follows on from the most recent edition held in Asunción, Paraguay, in 2022.

Dialogue and reflection on public education and Indigenous Peoples

During the opening session, the common challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Latin America were discussed, including the struggle for recognition of ancestral territories and access to public education that respects and values the diverse cultures and traditions of Indigenous Peoples. Authorities from the Panamanian Ministry of Education also took part, highlighting the importance of public education in bridging gaps and promoting gender equality in policymaking.

Combertty Rodriguez, senior coordinator of the EILA regional office, emphasised the importance of building strong ties between trade unions and Indigenous Peoples. The main aim is for education unions to understand and effectively address the needs of Indigenous teachers and Indigenous populations as a whole.

Fátima Silva, Vice-President of the EILA regional committee and General Secretary of the CNTE (National Confederation of Education Workers, Brazil), led an introductory activity in which each participant shared information about their identity, their trade union, and their training and experience in education, highlighting the diversity of the participants and the importance of understanding the realities of Indigenous Peoples in the region.

A presentation was also given by the Latin American Observatory of Educational Policies (OLPE), led by researcher Gabriela Bonilla, focusing on education policy in the region and its impact on Indigenous populations. As part of this session, the participants were provided with a document with relevant information on the subject. The OLPE presentation included group discussions in which participants shared their perspectives on educational curricula, the role of teachers from an Indigenous perspective, and the debate between face-to-face and virtual education models. These views will be incorporated into the working paper that will be distributed to participating trade unions.

Marking International Indigenous Women’s Day

The second day of the gathering, 5 September, was dedicated to marking International Indigenous Women’s Day, established in memory of Bartolina Sisa, an Aimara Indigenous woman who fought against Spanish rule and was assassinated in 1782. A panel discussion was held on the situation of Indigenous women teachers, during which representatives from various countries shared their perspectives.

The speakers reflected on the inequalities and discrimination faced by Indigenous women in education and employment, highlighting the need to open up spaces for Indigenous women’s participation in political and decision-making processes. They also denounced the violence faced by Indigenous girls and women, as well as their exclusion from education systems.

Edi Serigy, an Indigenous education worker from the Tipinambá people of Brazil, shared details about Indigenous education and the gains and setbacks in Indigenous peoples’ rights in Brazil. The breakthroughs highlighted include the founding of the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the National Committee for Indigenous School Education.

Fátima Silva rounded off the presentation with details of the political context in Brazil and the gains promoted by the progressive government amid political polarisation.

New demands regarding education and Indigenous Peoples

A declaration of the 10th Regional Meeting on Public Education and Indigenous Peoples was also developed during the event. Click here to read the full declaration (in Spanish).

The declaration calls for a fundamental transformation of public policies in the region, with the aim of guaranteeing free, quality, and culturally relevant public education for all Indigenous Peoples in Latin America. It defends the integrity of Indigenous territories and calls for their autonomy, as well as a significant increase in state funding for Indigenous education.

The text underlines the importance of training and hiring Indigenous teachers, placing special emphasis on teaching in mother tongues, and proposes the creation of school curricula based on Indigenous world views, with an inclusive and regionalised approach that reflects the diversity of Indigenous peoples’ cultures and traditions.

It identifies the active participation of Indigenous women in decision-making and the fight against gender-based violence as key priorities, as well as fair pay and decent working conditions for Indigenous education workers, acknowledging their fundamental role in the transmission of knowledge and culture.

It also highlights infrastructure and access to basic services in Indigenous schools as essential to ensuring quality education. And, warning of the digital and technological divide affecting Indigenous communities, it underlines the need to bridge this gap by ensuring access to technological tools and training.

The declaration also stresses the dangers of the privatisation and commercialisation of education, which can lead to the exclusion of Indigenous peoples from education systems. The decolonisation of curricula and educational funding is encouraged, to ensure an education that is genuinely inclusive and respectful of Indigenous identities.

The responsible use of digital technologies and the inclusion of artificial intelligence in Indigenous education must be guided by the principles of equality, human rights, and cultural diversity. The regulation of artificial intelligence is essential to avoid bias and discrimination.

Finally, the declaration calls for a stronger participation and representation of Indigenous Peoples in education trade unions, recognising the importance of maintaining a united and powerful voice in the defence of their rights and aspirations.

The 10th Regional Meeting on Public Education and Indigenous Peoples in Panama was a crucial opportunity for dialogue and reflection on the educational and social challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples in Latin America.

The declaration represents a firm commitment to the promotion of Indigenous education and the defence of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the region.