Why do indigenous communities rise up?

By eliminating indigenous educational autonomy, the government impoverishes the plurinational and multicultural character of the Ecuadorian State. Español Português

Silvia Arana
7 September 2015

Ecuador, 2015. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Though they put the bullet here, though they put the rifle there, I must cry out wherever I want. I must keep fighting. To live, in freedom in this life”. –Dolores Cacuango (1881-1971), fighter for peasant and indigenous rights.

Why do indigenous communities rise up? Because they feel diminished, marginalized, their dignity offended. Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui says “The issue of dignity is so fundamental for Andean oppression, that the same word expresses ‘oppressed’ or ‘oppression’ and ‘to exploit’, which in Aymara is only one word: ‘to make small’. And such is the issue of human dignity, that is, all that diminishes human dignity (be it a bad salary or bad treatment), diminishes you as a person… It is for that reason that people rise up. The people don’t rise up because of the productive forces… Also, in Quechua the word ‘to step on’ is the same as that used for ‘to oppress’. One has to put one’s life on the line, there’s no other way.”[1]

Lucía Chimbolema comes from Guaranda, in the central Andean region of Ecuador. Together with her family and other members of her community, she is in the El Arbolito park of Quito, where many indigenous groups from the Andean and Amazonian regions have come together. From there they will march to the Historical Center of Quito to participate in the “Indigenous Uprising” of August 13, 2015.

Lucía explains that she has come to Quito to demand, among other things, for education. She says that the bilingual Kichwa-Castellano schools, which had been managed by the communities, have now been replaced by Millennium Schools, but that the school which corresponds to her community is very far away and there are no buses to transport the children, including her young grandchildren. Her adolescent grandchild studies medicine at a private university, because there was no place available for him in the state university. He needs two more years to finish but she doubts the family will be able to continue paying the tuition.

She tells us she’s illiterate, since there were no schools in her community when she was a child. “I learned Spanish when I was 25”, she says and smiles, while easily passing from Kichwa (speaking to her grandson) to Spanish (when she speaks to me).

She points to her son, a man of 40, dressed in white pants and shirt, and a black wool hat, who converses with a group of people. Her son was a candidate for mayor and “for only a very few votes did not win”, she remarks with pride. He was 6 when the first school was formed in the community, and was educated there.

With humility, she says that she “only works in the fields”. That work covers everything from tilling the land to raising farm animals, providing, together with the other women, the basics of the family diet.

Lucía wears the traditional dress: a long black skirt, a white blouse with embroidered flowers, a multicolored knitted band at the waist, a short shawl made of dark cloth, a golden necklace, a white wool hat adorned with ribbons, and sandals. Each color has a meaning. Black represents the earth, or Pachamama; white, the snows of the colossal volcano, Chimborazo, at whose feet lay Guaranda.

The presence of Lucía and the other women united in the park here emphasizes the assumption that the indigenous woman is the guardian of the group’s identity and the carrier of the culture of the people. Lucía, olive-skinned, with harmonious features, slender but strong, seems to express: “Here am I, mother, grandmother, indigenous woman, and I come to the capital of the country to say what I have to say”. She asks if I believe that President Correa will hear of her complaints. She awaits the answer with much attention, as if it were of great importance, perhaps to evaluate the results of the march on Quito, or perhaps to try to understand if an interlocutor really exists: “Do you believe Correa will read what I have said?”

Cecilia Velázquez, an indigenous activist from Cotopaxi, mobilized in the indigenous uprising, says: “There’s only one Millennium School in Cotopaxi. There are many students in each class, in some cases, up to 100-150 students. The majority of the teachers are high school graduates teaching students up to the 8th or 9th level. School district chiefs are changed very often; the present one has been in the position for only three months. When they finish high school, our young people are not well prepared, they cannot make the 800 or 900 points needed for admission to the public university; we have to go into debt to send them to the private universities… In 2009 I participated in the dialogues about education; not a single government cabinet Minister was present… The government accuses us of helping the right wing politicians; no, it’s the government itself which is helping them…”

The first indigenous bilingual schools in Cayambe (1945)

Two great historical leaders of the struggle for indigenous rights, Tránsito Amaguaña and Dolores Cacuango, were Kichwa speakers who learned to speak, read and write Spanish, when they were adults. Linked to the Communist Party, they fought for the rights of the peasants and indigenous peoples, for agrarian reform, and for education for the indigenous communities of Cayambe. In 1945, Dolores Cacuango –with the help of María Elisa Gómez de la Torre, a teacher and her comrade in the Communist Party- founded the first indigenous school on the grounds of the “Tierra Libre” union en Yanahuayco, Cayambe. Shortly afterwards, they established three more schools in that region, with indigenous teachers and without support from the state.

In 1963, pressured by the large landowners (who did not want educated peasants), the Military Junta forbid that children be taught in Kichwa, claiming that these schools were “communist cells”. Towards the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, with the emergence of Liberation Theology, and the Church of the Poor, new indigenous schools were created. The schools in the indigenous communities took on a task far beyond that of the education of the children and the young; they were considered a centre for political and social organization, from which to forge the struggle for agrarian reform. Signed in 1976, the Agrarian Reform Law, though it did not include their essential demands, was accepted by the indigenous movement as a starting point from which to continue the struggle.

The Intercultural Bilingual Education System: the active role of the indigenous peoples

In the 1980s and 1990s, the presence of the indigenous schools throughout the Central Andes was consolidated by the establishment of the Intercultural Bilingual Education system. This system, which was later extended to other regions, emerged thanks to the initiative of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations (CONAIE), composed of thirteen indigenous nationalities in Ecuador. Since its origin, CONAIE’s actions combined anti-neoliberal demands with the struggle for ethno-cultural rights. In that struggle for the right of the indigenous peoples to cultural autonomy and self-government, CONAIE elaborated an education proposal to present to the national government: in November of 1988, the National Directorate for Bilingual Education (DINEIB) was created. CONAIE, at this time, achieved a key demand: the right to elect the authorities of the DINEIB. CONAIE, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, elaborated didactic materials for teaching literacy and post-literacy, and for professional development programs for educators in the Kichwa, Awa, Chachi, Tsa’fiki, and other, languages.

By the year 2000, the intercultural education system included 2,150 centers of primary education, 142 centres of secondary education, and 13 institutes of higher education. The primary strength of this model is the participation of the communities: based on research carried out in the communities, pedagogical materials are produced, teachers are trained, and the objectives of indigenous education are debated. The objectives of the alternative education system are: to vindicate their own culture –including the teaching of the historical struggles of the indigenous peoples, rendered invisible in the official histories; to strengthen the native languages; to revitalize community processes in order to improve the quality of life –with the understanding that the indigenous peoples and nationalities must have the freedom to construct their own models of development.

An executive decree puts an end to CONAIE’s involvement in the integral education system

In February of 2009, by executive decree, the government of Rafael Correa terminated the administration of the DINEIB by the indigenous community, putting it under the control of the Ministry of Education. This decree, by delinking the indigenous communities and the CONAIE from the National Directorate of Bilingual Education, effectively ended their autonomy. The declared objective was: “to unify all the country’s schools, urban as well as rural, under one common curriculum”.

The new Millennium Schools are located in modern buildings, which attempt to concentrate the student populations of different villages. According to community spokespersons, the application of the plan does not take into consideration a key factor: the distance from the schools and the lack of roads or means to transport the students. In some cases, the children have to travel several hours, which makes attendance impossible. In addition, many of the new teachers do not speak Kichwa, nor are they familiar with the Andean cosmovision, nor are they properly trained in the new technologies, according to complaints of indigenous activists in Cotopaxi.

President Correa has used the term “schools of misery” to refer to the indigenous schools. And it’s true that the majority lack running water or any type of comfort, and in some cases there’s not even chalk to write on the board. But is the solution to eliminate the schools and their rich multicultural and bilingual legacies? Or is the solution to invest in improvements in all of these schools, as the indigenous communities propose?

In numbers: The education budget has quadrupled    

By 2014, the Correa government had quadrupled the education budget. Among the government’s achievements in the area of education are: the universalization of general basic education; an increase in the number of students which graduate from high school; the construction of public schools: “in the coming years, 900 new buildings will be constructed and 4,600 schools will be rehabilitated, with an investment of nearly $10 billion”; professional development programs for educators; the creation of three new universities: the University of the Arts, Yachay and Ikiam; and approximately 8,000 Ecuadorian students have received scholarships to study in the best universities worldwide.

René Ramírez –Secretary of Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation- points out that during the government of Correa, the rate of university attendance has grown faster than in previous decades, according to the Population and Housing Censuses. Beginning in 2006, university matriculation doubled among the poorest 20%, a group composed mainly of indigenous peoples and Afro-Ecuadorians. Ramírez emphasizes that in Ecuador the budget for higher education represents 2.12% of the GDP, while the European average is 1%, and in Latin America it is 0.8%. [3] These numbers reveal a real commitment to education by the state, and a significant advance with respect to the previous governments.

CONAIE demands educational autonomy for indigenous peoples and nations  

However, in the context of a policy which intends to strengthen the education system at all levels, there is a clear deficit in the participation of the indigenous communities, which are in complete disagreement with the path taken by the Integral Bilingual Education System. In the communication to call for the indigenous uprising of August, 2015, CONAIE affirms:

“We demand full respect on the part of the State in the exercise of collective rights in the distinct branches such as education, health care, management of water resources and of our territories, as a concrete and legitimate manner of constructing the plurinationality, as mandated by the Constitution and Agreement 169 of the ILO. Therefore, we demand the reestablishment of the Intercultural Bilingual Education System and the reopening of Amawtay Wasi University. We demand that communitarian education models be strengthened, we emphatically oppose closing the communitarian schools…we defend a pedagogical model, as well as the production of knowledge, in accordance with the cultural and local reality.” [4]

In contrast with other countries in the region –such as Mexico and Colombia, where the assassination of community leaders is a daily tragedy- in Ecuador reigns the rule of law. Although the protests and uprisings have developed within a climate of tension and frictions, on occasion violent, between police and protestors, there have been no deaths. It is important to take note of this, faced with the exaggerated analyses, on both sides.

The protagonists of this story, which is being written today, are the indigenous communities, which fight to recover their rights, such as the educational autonomy won through decades of struggle. By eliminating indigenous educational autonomy, the government impoverishes the plurinational and multicultural character of the Ecuadorian State. Now it’s the government’s turn to rise to this historic challenge and commence a true intercultural dialog with the communities and their leaders, without imposing conditions. The restitution of indigenous autonomy in education will enrich the plurinational and multicultural character of the Ecuadorian State, as mandated by Article 1 of the Ecuadorian Constitution.


[1] “La disponibilidad de lo inédito” – Interview with Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui by Claudia Arteaga and Gerardo Muñoz (2014):

[2] Radio interview with Diego Oquendo, Radio Visión, FM 91.7, August 13, 2015, Quito.

[3] “Hablemos de política, hablemos de igualdad: Capital y trabajo en el Ecuador de la Revolución Ciudadana” –Blog of René Ramírez:

[4] Declaration of CONAIE “Porque nuestra lucha histórica es junto a las comunas, los pueblos y las nacionalidades. Vamos todos al levantamiento indígena y popular!”:

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