- Schools in the Forest: How Grassroots Education Brought Political Empowerment to the Brazilian Amazon by Denis Heyck
There can be few clearer examples than the Projeto Seringueiro (Project Rubber Tapper) of how basic education can contribute to conservation and development of the tropical rainforest. With great sensitivity and honesty, Denis Heyck traces the development of this network of community schools in Brazil's Amazon state of Acre, designed to equip the hitherto almost totally uneducated children of rubber tappers with literacy and numeracy skills. It traces the evolution of the project from its foundation by local activists in 1981, to its eventual absorption by the state government several years later. A worthy feature of the book is that it places this history of education within the context of land [End Page 281] struggle and the rubber tappers' defence of their livelihoods against encroaching cattle ranchers anxious to replace trees with pasture.
Literacy would become a valuable ally in this battle. Projeto Seringueiro employed Freirian techniques based on the use of generative words, local knowledge of the rainforest, problem-solving methods and curricula adapted to meet the specific needs of children in that environment, using specially designed texts. The project also had its roots in Liberation Theology and environmental politics. Springing from the community, it formed part and parcel of the rubber tappers' movement that was eventually successful in halting the ranchers' progress and bringing about government policy intervention to create protected 'extractive reserves'. The project brought fundamental education to the forest for the first time, setting up some 40 schools and reaching over 2000 pupils, as well as training 100 community teachers.
As Professor Heyck explains, however, all was not plain sailing. The murder by ranchers in 1988 of the rubber tappers' leader Francisco 'Chico' Mendes shone the international spotlight on Acre and its problems but threw school organization into disarray. Political squabbling amongst factions of the Workers Party (PT), lack of funding and high staff turnover led to many schools being abandoned, before they were later taken over by the state government under new and radical political leadership in the 1990s. The Projeto Seringueiro model has by all accounts since been expanded to cover other parts of the state, serving the educational needs of peasant farmer and indigenous groups as well as rubber tappers, while developing close links with the University of Acre to train yet more locals as teachers.
A particularly valuable feature of the book is that it gives voice to many of the principal personalities that were involved in the project at various stages, ranging from community-based workers to civil society activists, several of whom have since taken up political office. They are allowed to speak at some length, often with disarming frankness, about the achievements, the problems and personal rivalries within Projeto Seringueiro. These depositions give a good sense of the variety of characters in the drama, their dedication, ideologies, biases and predilections. It is as much a book of short biographies as it is a historical account of the development of a pioneering educational program. What does come through is the enthusiasm with which those involved sought to construct this pioneering venture in the forest, which has provided opportunities for children who would otherwise have been bypassed by the official education system, which remained largely beyond their reach until this project took shape.
Yet its undoubted achievements could be compromised in future, as the book hints in the various personal accounts. Doubt is cast over the long-term commitment of some local activists-turned-politicians, who are castigated for having changed their values and sided with business interests. Some observers maintain that there is no longer a distinctive project with a clear identity since the state bureaucracy absorbed the schools. The current lack of strong-minded leadership with a clear social commitment to education is lamented. [End Page 282] Others question whether the authorities are likely to support the perpetuation of a Freirian educational philosophy that is dedicated to questioning the status quo.
On a wider...