Sustainable pedagogies, at home and away

21 March, 2017

If human development involves ‘taking an interest in the lives that people actually lead’, then anthropology is its privileged interlocutor. Perhaps our most distinguishing feature is our methods. Anthropologists typically spend long periods of time living with and observing the group of people they want to get to know and understand better, carrying out the same practices they do, on a day-to-day basis. We’re confident that this approach provides a fuller picture of how one aspect of life – say education – relates to another, like wellbeing or environmental sustainability.

My family and I spent over a year living with the Warekena ­– a small indigenous group who reside along the banks of the Rio Xié, in the ethnically diverse, northwestern Brazilian Amazon – as part of my research exploring how a ‘glocal’ education, grounded in the local community and rich in outdoor experiences, can sustainably promote both wellbeing and environmental awareness.

Elizabeth Rahman (right) during fieldwork in the Xié River community of Tunu-cachoeira, São Gabriel, Brazil

The Warekena, like other lowland South American groups, strive for ‘the good life’. Achieving this entails dedicating a substantial amount of time and energy to facilitating and accompanying human growth processes, through hands-on techniques and punctual interventions, by family and fellow community residents.

I witnessed how health is promoted and passed on to future generations through specific – and culturally appropriate – techniques of care applied to persons and extended to the wider environment. And I discovered how the Warekena managed to sustain themselves as a kind, open, equitable, robust and resilient community, ecologically aware and adept at living well in a world of fluctuating uncertainties. What I found intrigued me.

Endogenous mindfulness techniques

The Warekena engage what we might call an implicit pedagogy, which aims to orientate and direct attention towards the wet and humid environment in which they live. This orientation comprises specific and highly skilled body-based techniques – such as that used to bathe babies in the river – which involve a complex aesthetic of carefully performed procedures. These procedures, and the quality of attention used to perform them, synchronise mind-body processes and explicitly aim to co-opt environmental qualities, such as the coolness of river water, and enfold these into the human organism. These are endogenous mindfulness techniques, which are not only carried out mindfully by caretakers; they also, as recent research in neurophysiology suggests, viscerally inculcate mindfulness into the growing body-mind itself. The Warekena maintain that their way of doing things is what makes them who they are: a cool-minded, dextrous, autonomous and open community. 

Mindfulness training in the global North is based on a generic set of practices, used in an ever wider range of contexts, for example in the UK by the National Health Service in childbirth and pregnancy, and in primary and secondary schools through the mindfulness curriculum. But mindfulness is also a fundamental mechanism through which indigenous peoples, and not only the Warekena, have customarily cared for themselves, boosted their immunity and adapted to change; as well as being the base means through which they have learned and integrated new skills.

Rather than generic practices, however, indigenous and folk mindfulness techniques are in tune with and specific to the wider physical, social, historical, economic and political environment in which people live. They are local-community specific; and with microbiology and epigenetics increasingly throwing up examples of our consubstantial, mutually effecting and symbiotic relationship to others and the wider milieu, ethnographically documenting these activities is a more pertinent task than ever.

Integration into formal education

Formal education has reached the Warekena and many of their indigenous, caboclo (mixed-ethnicity) and quilombo (black, ex-slave) riverside neighbours. However, poor health, chronic dis-ease and low academic achievement, coupled with increasing cultural illiteracy and a concurrent neglect of customary environmental knowledge all undermine efforts at ‘schooling the world’. In seeking adaptable and dynamic futures for such communities, we encounter a consistent tension between customarily mindful modes of being, the legacies of chronic disenfranchisement and the new values and forms of prestige associated with the global free market economy, with formal education the condition of access to it. Reconciling these features is the objective and many communities are already heading in this direction.

Having secured title to their ancestral lands, the indigenous population of the Loreto district of Peru had a new proposal: intercultural bilingual education. Based in Iquitos, centred around the teacher-training agro-ecological community of Zungarococha, FORMABIAP has been working since 1988 to celebrate socio-cultural and ecological diversity, training teachers to work with indigenous specialists in the intergenerational transmission of knowledge. In this programme, supported by the Lichtenstein Development agency and NGO Nouvelle Planète, agricultural, artisanal (food) processing and productive techniques are post-facto paired up and corresponded to curricula achievements and scientific knowledge, providing a bespoke education firmly grounded in both their material reality and their intangible patrimony. 

For example, the ‘We make flour’ project combines environmental observances, techniques and practices used to preserve manioc during the rainy season. Parallels and contrasts are made with the technical processes of other ethnicities, and these are all paired up to the science curriculum. Student-teachers critically reflect on what constitutes knowledge, and how knowledge and practice can be used to improve quality of life.

We make flour

Kukama-kukamiria children in the Parinari community, following the lead of their parents and grandparents by learning-by-doing the food processing activities surrounding the making of manioc flour, here participating in the purification of manioc tubers. Firmly grounded in the technical prowess of their patrimony, this activity links into cross-curricula areas, including concepts of measurement, weight and calculation; and embedded environmental and scientific knowledge, and is supplemented with related reading and writing projects. 

On the edge of the Amazon in the afro-indigenous Cabelo Seco community of Marabá, another movement is taking place. This is transformative learning at its best: through arts-rich pedagogies, the performance of sustainable community. Situated at the interface of the River Itacaiúnas and Tocantins rivers and focusing on urban at-risk and excluded youth, the Rivers of Meeting (Rios de Encontro) community eco-cultural project has been pioneered by Oxford alumnus Dan Baron Cohen.

The aim here is to resolve visceral legacies of hunger, complicity and isolation by bringing these forth through embodied and engaging reflexive performances of storytelling, dance, writing, sculpture and theatre, promoting self-determination.

For example, AfroMundi Kids Dance, which celebrated the second year of the project on Black Awareness Day with a community performance of African-Brazilian dance, beside the Tocantins River. Developed through research by the first ‘generation’ of the AfroMundi Dance Company, the aim was to uncover, awaken and reinvent their own African identity, and to discover a workshop pedagogy that could touch a community ashamed, or even condemning, of its 'pre-historic African slave histories’.

AfroMundi Kids Dance

Sustained by national and international awards, from the Brazilian Ministries of Culture, Education and Environment, UNICEF, and independent funding from mining companies and banks, Rios de Encontro is now coming to the end of its first eight-year cycle and with it, facing an imminent challenge: the construction of a vast hydroelectric dam and steel plant, right on its doorstep. An artefact of imposed and relentless ‘global solutions’, couched in an antiquated development paradigm, the new dam proposal threatens local people with the same dismal fate suffered by the displaced communities of its sister project, the Belo Monte dam in Altamira. The project’s response: to draw on ‘rivers of creativity’ to stimulate a World Wide Wave of solidarity with the Amazon from liked-minded holistic and sustainable pedagogies the world over.

Young Afro-Indigenous Rivers of Meeting art education coordinators take a collective selfie during a visit to the third largest dam in the world, Belo Monte, and the neighbouring city of Altamira. Through dance performance at the site of the dam, disseminated through social media, this collective seeks to alert Brazil, and specifically Marabá city, of the dangers of ‘compulsive modernity’, and hydroelectric dam projects that will displace its riverside communities and threaten further social and sanitation issues, including prostitution and murder. Through art and culture, they research and advocate alternative models of development, powered by solar energy.  

The aim of such projects is to develop holistically and give people choices, at home and away. But building these dialogues means deeply pondering not only others’ multiple intelligences, but also the special embodied quality of their knowledge. In so doing, we may well revalue outdoor and naturally mindful pedagogic approaches of our own.

Para leer una versión de este artículo en español, haga clic aquí.

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About the author(s)
Elizabeth Rahman