Monday, November 14, 2011

Day 9, Part 3 - Agroecology in Cochabamba, Part 2

On our ninth day in Bolivia, we visited Agroecología Universidad Cochabamba (AGRUCO). The diary below tells about their fascinating and wonderful continuing education program. It is the second diary on AGRUCO. The first provides just a basic introduction to them and their work.

On our 10th day, AGRUCO took us to one of the communities they work in, a Quechua community in Cochabamba. It was FANTASTIC. So please read this with the knowledge that a very fun application of what you learn about AGRUCO is on its way.

The director of AGRUCO's undergraduate program did the next presentation. This was on the continuous training program, in which they go into communities and provide education to adults who were unable to attend universities earlier in their lives. What follows is a rough transcription of her words.

AGRUCO is a center of training and education, providing training for professionals throughout the university. They have undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs. They call the latter "Intercultural and Decolonizing Continuing Education." She went on to explain what that meant.

The continuing education program comes out of AGRUCO's 25 years of experience in the community working with indigenous and campesino communities and their demand for such a training program. It began in 2008, and it was also prompted by their analysis of the new political situation in Bolivia (i.e. Evo Morales).

The first level of training is a technical level in which a student does not need a bachelor's degree. There are different levels. At the technical level, there are three levels (basic, intermediate, and high). And then they offer undergraduate and graduate degrees up to a PhD. They work with an accrediting organization to give out the technician degree to campesinos. This gives young people as well as adults from indigenous communities to enter school and train to the level they wish.

They provide the same six program areas as the rest of AGRUCO: Revaluing local knowledge; Agroecology and food sovereignty; Managing biodiversity; State and local policies; Territorial management and autonomies; and Plural diverse economies. Those are the bases for the endogenous development work they do. In each areas, they think about the subject matter from two different lenses: First from the community based, indigenous, ancestral culture, and second from the modern, western, individualist culture.

At the basic technical level, they focus more on agroecology and food sovereignty, and they get into the other, more theoretical areas in graduate studies. It's a model of continuous education, because they can continue advancing throughout their lives and their previously completed hours are always recognized. It's intercultural because they use both lenses and always talk about a dialogue between the two. And it's decolonizing because it's revaluing the traditional and local knowledge that they have and that is being lost.

They have an agreement with the lowland indigenous people and another with the Consejo Nacional de Ayllus y Markas del Qullasuyu Bolivia (CONAMAC), the association of highland indigenous people, to carry out this training. This is similar to the philosophy to the UAC at Carmen Pampa in Yungas. That is, when rural young people must leave to go to the city for their educations, they often do not return. Also, rural Bolivians take on community leadership roles and get married very young, making it difficult for them to leave for several years to study at a university in the city. So AGRUCO's idea is that the university should go to the community.

Through the two indigenous associations, they have students all over the country. They have students in seven of Bolivia's nine departments. These students have been chosen by the indigenous associations. They have a wide diversity of students, including Aymara, Quechua, Chiquitania, etc.

They group the themes together in four different modules. Each module is 15 days. Ten days of discussion, reflection, and work in the field and five days of exchanges and visits to other communities and projects that reflect the work of the previous ten days. During the 15 day module, the students are together in a place identified by the indigenous organizations. Between each of the four modules, they go back to their communities for about 3 1/2 months to put what they learned in practice. During the 3 1/2 months, they have contact with and evaluations by AGRUCO to evaluate how they are doing. Through this method of learning, they can visit communities of many cultures in both the highlands and the lowlands and engage in intercultural dialogue.

For example, for one cycle, they did the first module in Cochabamba, the second in Oruro, the third in Chiquitania in Santa Cruz, and the fourth in Sucre in Chuquisaca department. That way, the students saw a lot of the country. They define the location of the module with the indigenous groups and with the students, and the indigenous groups must guarantee that wherever they do the module, they have the support they need locally to carry it out.

The majority of the training occurs in the communities themselves, and the faculty from AGRUCO goes there, but it also has participation from local experts and elders. These courses are focused on practical work, like how to make organic fertilizers, how to make a community development plan, etc. They find that the intercultural exchange allows them to identify and promote and thus revalue agroecological practices that the indigenous already do.

The practices are all developed based on local resources. AGRUCO learns a lot during the workshops because the students bring their knowledge to the table too. This is why they call them "Spaces of social learning" because the teachers learn from the students and the students learn from one another, making it a different model from only the teacher doing the teaching.

All of the content of the programs are developed after working with communities to determine their priorities. Then faculty in four different disciplines - agronomy, sociology, economics, and forestry - diagnose the problems that should be solved in the communities. They review the programmatic content with the indigenous organizations. The two main priorities of both groups is managing their territories and promoting endogenous sustainable development.

AGRUCO does field trips and check out the students work and answer questions through a number of meetings during the 3 1/2 month interim period between modules.

Part of the training is given directly by professors and faculty of the university, either in classrooms or in the field. But the training also comes directly from the community and from the indigenous associations. For example, a local healer in Chiquitania taught the class about local healing plants. In another example, the two authorities from the lowland indigenous group gave a talk about managing autonomous indigenous territories. In a last example, a mayor from a town in Oruro who is recognized in his innovation in policy, and he gave a talk to authorities from around Bolivia. So AGRUCO brings its own academic knowledge to the table, but most of the knowledge comes from the intercultural sharing with communities and elders.

There are usually about 30 students at a time, and because they are all members of indigenous organizations and have a lot of local support, there is a very low drop out rate. Usually 28 or 29 students will complete an entire program. In order to get their title, each student must complete a final program. However, their project is decided at a community meeting in an assembly with their entire community. The indigenous groups have requested that there is a formal graduation ceremony, so they had their first ceremony in 2009. The students all dressed in traditional dress from their home communities for the ceremony. (What I wouldn't give for a photo of that!!!)

The intercultural element of the program also includes music and dance. They share their customs, rituals, foods, chicha, etc.

Q & A
That completed the presentation. However, we were fortunate to have a few adult education teachers in our group, who asked very smart questions. Here are the answers:

During the modules, the funding for this program (which I was unclear on its source) provides the students' transportation, materials, and food. The classrooms and space is provided by the municipality where the module is held. The university provides the faculty that teaches the program. The municipality provides the students' housing.

Also, they told us that some 70% of students were placed in careers after their studies. It takes about three and a half years to complete a bachelors degree in this program.

To qualify for the basic technical level, the students have to be able to read and write and to be able to do the four basic math functions (add, subtract, multiply, and divide). In completing the first technical level, the students get the equivalent of a GED, thus allowing them to move on to the intermediate level.

In order to qualify for the intermediate technical program, the students must be able to read and write, must have graduated high school, and must exhibit leadership skills and commitment to their community.

There is support for students who have difficulty with reading and writing. But because the program involves field work in addition to just writing, students can still gain a lot from the program even if they have difficulty writing.

They have a large number - the majority of students - from ages 18 to 25 years old, but they have a number of students ages 30-40, and often those students play an important role because they have lots of experience and leadership in their communities.

She added that she wanted to say how unique and special the experience this is for the teachers who get to go to the communities to see where people live and who they are in a personal way that they don't get to do in the typical classroom setting. Additionally, she said, the students gain so much confidence and identity from this program.

There is very little but growing numbers of participation of women in the program. They are trying to work on this, to promote and increase participation of women. Toward that they are working with Bartolina Sisa, the National Confederation of Indigenous Peasant Women of Bolivia.

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