Ixhuatan: The Local Kids Kept Leaving to Get Their Education. So They Went Local.
It was the fires that inspired Alberto.
When he was young, Alberto walked all over his island community in Ixhuatan, Oaxaca Mexico, and he kept seeing fires. Finally he asked what caused them. Unregulated hunters from other towns would hunt armadillo and deer, or they would scare the iguanas into the trees and set fire to the forest to drive them out. Because it was not their home, they would then walk away without putting out the fires. Repeated fires devastated the forests in his town and Alberto dreamed of stopping them. The fires opened his eyes to natural and man-made catastrophes that affected his community. Alberto told his older brother that he wanted to study biology so he could “build an army of activists to change the laws, put people in jail and protect my home.”
Another environmental issue Alberto’s community faced was overfishing in their lagoon. As he grew up, he saw how local fishermen came together to establish rules to limit fishing and allow the population to grow and he knew it was possible.
“Maybe it is hard to put new laws in place, but it’s not impossible. If I become an activist, other people will see and be inspired to join with me. People are upset now, but they don’t act because they are afraid or they don’t know what to do. I see that the fishermen are more organized, and I want to organize on land the same way.”
The problem is, the university with the program that Alberto wants to study is three hours away from his home and costs more than most families can afford. And once children that can afford to leave home do leave, many don’t return, and the community doesn’t benefit from their new knowledge.
The answer? A local prepa (equivalent to university). One that is centered around local life and focuses on solving local problems.
Manuel, the former coordinator of the prepa, explains that many of the students fish first in the morning and then come to school. The school schedule and areas of study are built around the needs of the community.
Along with biology, one of the biggest priorities at the local prepa is running the radio station. Residents across the community get information from the radio that they cannot get in any other way. The region is currently threatened by two huge projects. Mining companies are operating in the northern territories, causing environmental devastation. Wind turbine companies also want to operate in a neighboring town, which community members oppose and do not want to see in their community. Writ large, wind turbines are a key part of the clean energy transition we need to reduce the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. But residents of Manuel’s community and other rural areas in Mexico are seeing the “dark side of clean energy.” The companies that own the turbines are often transnational and the turbines disrupt previously undisturbed, native land. Residents say that the turbines damage the land they use for agriculture and drive away wildlife. Clearly, the situation calls for better stakeholder engagement…and smart leadership from the community…which is where the prepas come in.
The radio station sends out information about operations in the region so community members know what’s happening at any given time. There are neighborhood meetings and workshops with more information about these projects so citizens can create a strategy for legal defense of their land and to prevent oppression.
“We are trying to build power from below, through the people,” Manuel says.
Even though the prepa will be designed to reflect community needs, it is not about going back to the past or shunning technology, Manuel says. Traditional schools educate to divide communities and prepare a cheap labor force. A local prepa can help the community break away from that and create opportunities and access to the scientific and tech knowledge that benefit the community.
“We need people that can work in the community to strengthen the life of the community,” Manuel says.
It’s about preserving a way of life.
Of course there are still many kids that will still want to go away to school and manage to afford it, but there are many that want to stay and will benefit from a local prepa. They will then stay in the community and apply their skills to respond to the local needs of the population, Manuel explained.
The original idea for the prepa started in 1981, but it really evolved into its current form in the past eight years. The community has a prepa that equates to a U.S. high school, but this project is geared toward studies at the university level. Two years ago, Manuel invited a group of students that were graduating to volunteer to teach in the university prepa. They had an opportunity to get a scholarship to the university in Mexico City, and then return as instructors at the prepa. If it is successful, the plan is to organize more university prepas in other communities to focus on local issues.
“The project is a huge dream,” Manuel says. The community can’t believe it is finally happening. Money is tight, but this project gives their children not only a way to give back to the community, but a way to extend their education that they would not have had before and gives them opportunities their parents never had.
The parents in the community are so happy to see the work happening. The school will benefit their community as well as give their children a chance to grow.