Indigenous Education Rights in Colombia

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Fundación GAIA Amazonas (FGA) started as a nongovernmental organization in Bogota in 1989 with the goal of supporting the rights of indigenous people in Colombia in line with the nation’s constitution, international treaties and preservation of the environment. FGA works to reinforce local culture and help indigenous communities organize in a decentralized manner and through cross-national cooperation.  
In 1991, the Colombian Constitution recognized the contributions of indigenous people and African descendants and established an autonomous political structure to govern education and health based on cultural practices. In 2002, the Ministry of Education formally recognized Associations of Traditional Indigenous Authorities (AATI) as the public authority administering schools in indigenous territories.    

Historically, the Catholic Church had administered schools. But cultural autonomy was viewed as critical to recognizing the 80 indigenous languages spoken in Colombia. With the support of European donors, FGA initially helped public schools attain recognition from the Ministry of Education and then supported the development of bilingual and bicultural educational materials. 
In 2007, FGA submitted a request for IAF funding to support autonomous education programs for the indigenous territories of the Amazonas state. The plan aimed to benefit 650 rural indigenous children by working with AATIs in seven remote locations. The three-year project had four main objectives: establish teacher work groups to improve skills; impart Western classroom techniques with indigenous teachers to create bicultural programs; encourage teachers to create programs that fit in with the local culture; and support AATIs’ efforts to negotiate with government authorities through the Mesas Permanentes de Coordinación Inter-Administrativas (Mesas).  

The IAF provided $181,400; FGA committed $176,000; and donors, the government and AATIs contributed


Twenty-three primary schools emphasize local language and culture, and 64 teachers have been trained to teach their local culture. 

Students’ rights are recognized more than they were under the previous school system, students’ opinions are valued, and students are represented at community meetings through their parents. 

The establishment of local schools cut the need to relocate and reduced travel time from as long as an entire day or days to between five minutes and an hour, and enabled some students who previously had no access to school to attend.  

The school curriculum is now built around a seasonal, ecological calendar and local situation on the ground.

 GDF levels in pyramid graphic

Results were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework, which measures results at three levels: the individual or family, the organization or grantee partner, and the society or community. At the lower level of the cone, more children attend school,  and local teachers integrate indigenous elements into the school program. At the middle level, FGA, while diminished, continues its support of indigenous peoples and their territories. At the upper level, communities and AATIs are active in school decisions and work under the plans they have established. In their words: "Today we teach our children in communities and focus on  our local culture and customs." The children are together with their parents; we don’t have to spend much on supplies; the school program is built into the local context; and educators are from the community. We are now securing our traditions of songs, stories, and language.  Children know their own traditions, strengthening their confidence to deal with outside cultures.

Responsibility: The young teachers have taken responsibility for integrating local culture into school practices. For example, the course schedule is focused on the community calendar rather than on general subjects of study. The AATIs assigned an education secretary who leads community groups made up of teachers, community leaders, and a parent representative (one group also has a representative from the elementary school). These community groups plan and handle school budgets. 

Young people who left the community to obtain their degrees and then returned are active in community decision-making on education, the environment, health, and territorial issues.

Contribution: Young people have more and more of a role in their education, particularly because some have now become the local teachers. 

These young teachers take part in community meetings and activities where women and young people also have an opportunity to speak. In one community, one of the representatives is an 18-year old.  

Educational opportunities: The project’s aim was to strengthen the capacity of schools to integrate indigenous methodologies and community input. Elementary education is better and more accessible. Children are able to attend nearby schools that are supported by the community and incorporate instruction that includes the community’s calendar, language and, culture. The young indigenous teachers are striving to improve their work. They serve as examples of success for those who are continuing or want to continue their studies. However, there are still no schools nearby that provide higher education. Young people who have been able to afford and travel to schools outside the community have returned to take positions in local schools and community administration.

The relationship between the children and community elders has improved. The reinforcement of their own culture has meant that young people who go away to high school want to return to their communities after graduating. They show a newfound respect for their culture and for the local authorities who helped them maintain relations with community elders.  

Resiliency: Despite having few resources, the AATIs have made progress with the schools thanks to good leadership, discipline, community involvement, and community development plans. Young teachers are working to impart indigenous values alongside the teaching curriculum from outside the communities.

Unexpected results: These included joint research by students and adults on the environment and territorial management that led to conservation plans implemented by the communities. FGA continues to support these actions, which are ongoing.

Limitations due to violence were not mentioned, as most communities are isolated, respectful and calm, and relations are well organized. 

While migration in and out of Colombia occurs regularly, it happens less in the project area. In interviews with young people between the ages of 10 and 26, 67 percent said they were happy to remain in their communities and continue their education. Their studies included community-based projects that reinforced local identity and community values. A third of the students said they are interested in leaving in order to study for a career, live with family members in another area of the country, or experience city life. Most who leave permanently do so to pursue better economic or educational options, and have family outside the area with whom they can stay. 


FGA has reduced its presence and discontinued its training center for teachers as well as follow-up in the communities. However, the AATIs have taken on more of a role in supporting the decentralized education system. 

Involvement of communities in schools and teacher selection remains a priority.

Four AATIs continue to improve their work programs and seek ways to continually adapt to achieve that result. FGA had worked with them on reviewing, planning, and monitoring. 

The “indigenous educational base” that has been established and the newly trained students and teachers from communities will have an impact on future generations. 

What Worked?

Local teachers selected by communities are implementing an indigenous-based system of education. New teachers often get important advice from outgoing professors, marking a transfer of knowledge. 

The role of the AATIs in the decentralized educational system is now recognized and functioning. The AATIs’ relationship with Mesas, which is ongoing, resulted in the formulation of one local law to facilitate greater participation by other organizations that present new themes for discussion and negotiation in the Mesas.

AATIs successfully learned how to administer resources, create governance plans and participate with government entities at the departmental and national levels.

New government funds were first spent on establishing more schools in order to improve accessibility, and on putting good-quality structures in place. The result was more local schools functioning with plans, buildings, and materials better suited to their needs. It also helped children be with their families and attend primary school.

What Did Not Work?

Only six of the 11 AATIs that participate in the Mesas have schools that are recognized and decentralized. The quality of schools and schooling also varies across the communities. 

Indigenous elementary education has been reinforced and strengthened, but there remains a need to place more instructional emphasis on Western education in order to ease the transition to higher grades, as well as a need to adjust the curriculum to support teachers, particularly for multi-grade classes. 

The project did not address issues of sustainability in terms of how teachers, schools, and AATIs can continue to grow. For instance, the project’s training improved teachers’ abilities, but high rotation resulted in low continuity. There also remains a need for accessible higher education in the region.

Challenges include the need to ensure there are regular, non-corrupt Mesa meetings, and to eliminate the sometimes slow government education transfers to communities. The introduction of payments to teachers is an issue for a non-monetary culture, especially since teachers are among the few community members receiving salaries. 


There were successes for the teachers and AATIs as anticipated under the project. The participating communities and their children also benefited. FGA actively participated in the evaluation and review of the project’s results. The AATIs are establishing and building various relationships that should help them evolve. The models generated the educational growth of students, influencing their lives, hopes, and communities.   

The schools remain, but there continues to be a need to update and integrate them. The evaluation underscores the IAF’s and its grantee partners’ emphasis on sharing project information, with one possibility being exchanges with Bolivians who have worked on a project to create bilingual, bicultural high schools with acceptance from local universities.