Indigenous communities in southwest Colombia are celebrating the formal recognition of the country’s first indigenous university.
The government signed an autonomy decree to officially recognize the indigenous academic model after three decades of its existence.
Since its formation in 1971, the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC) has developed its own educational system. The main purpose was self-preservation of the indigenous people, not only through demonstration and mobilization, but also through inheritance of culture and practices.
The university was born to counter the hegemony of the regular public educational model which, according to the indigenous authorities, was imposed on them by the state after Spanish colonization.
Today, the Intercultural Autonomous Indigenous University (UAIIN) doesn’t confine itself in the limits of the headquarters in Popayan, but expands through the territories of nine indigenous communities in the region.
CRIC submitted the resolution to recognize the University in 2003. Juan Domingo Caldon, governor of the Kokonuko community and a teacher at UAIIN, told El Espectador newspaper that the traditional authorities had already created a bilingual, intercultural program to recover four languages practiced and taught at the University.
The curricula are informed by studies made at the University. The last of such studies demonstrated that seven communities are at risk of disappearing due to limited access to land, scarce use of the indigenous languages and the domination of the Western model of education.
An example is the Caldono municipality. “90% of the locals are indigenous, but the language is being lost as many young people move out to cities and forget their culture” explains Jose Domingo, before adding “This is what we are trying to change at the University.”
CRIC and the University work in close cooperation. The political platform initiated various programs at UAIIN, including the Bachelor in Communitarian Education for future teachers of indigenous students.
Other careers include Own Rights program, where students learn the importance of internal social norms recognized by Colombian Constitution. Thanks to the expanding knowledge in the field of justice and minority rights, the indigenous communities are able to fight for their liberties on the national level.
Additionally, the University offers Master’s degrees programs, such as Master’s in Development for Identity for the Indigenous Peoples and Communities.
Nevertheless, the financing remains problematic. For undergraduate programs, foreign investment is minimal and the government doesn’t participate in the budget of the University. The majority of funding comes from CRIC. The physical space for educational purposes is another pressing issue.
“We have to go to Nicaragua [to study] because Colombian government didn’t recognize the University. Fortunately, the government signed the decree of autonomy to design and manage education in our territories,” Rosalda Ipia, the coordinator of UAIIN, told El Espectador.
At this moment, the University has 200 Indigenous graduates and continues to serve over 160 students who started the program several months ago. If they wanted to expand enrollment, the 25 permanent teachers currently at UAIIN are not enough to deliver lectures, do the fieldwork, prepare curriculum etc.
But in spite of limited resources the indigenous authorities are optimistic. “The important thing is the exchange, immersion in the community and the incentive not to leave the territory,” says Henry Knight, a member of the political commission of the CRIC.
The story of Obando Anacona is a good illustration of the University’s success to appeal to young people. After earning his degree in economics at the National University, he decided not to exercise his profession, but to return to his community and complete his studies at UAIIN. Today, Anacona is a teacher at the Autonomous University.
“Perhaps working in my profession would pay more, but here we are building a self-sustaining process where we do not want to accumulate money, but live with what is necessary.” said Anacona.
The spirit of community is at the heart of everyday life at the University. The school’s walls are decorated with symbols of resistance, maps of the indigenous territories of Cauca, as well as pictures of Indians who have given their lives fighting for their rights.
“They are here to serve as examples to follow and as a reminder that the struggle continues.” explained Rosalba Ipia.