A golden opportunity for change
This spring we are starting work with a new partner organisation, Acadesan, in the San Juan area of Colombia’s western Chocó province.
Acadesan is an Afro-Colombian Community Council that represents 72 villages situated along the banks and tributaries of the San Juan River. This is one of the most biodiverse parts of our planet but it is best known for one key resource – gold.
While mining has the potential to offer employment and development opportunities to the communities where it takes place, in the San Juan area gold mining operations have become increasingly exploitative of both workers and the natural environment. We have chosen to work in this region after identifying the serious, multiple risks the mining industry poses to children and young people growing up there.
Risks to children
Ninety nine percent of mines in Chocó are illegal and their aggressive extraction methods have created an environmental crisis that is putting children’s lives at risk. Toxic poisoning (from mercury used in gold mining) is a huge problem. River water and fish are heavily contaminated, but in the remote villages where we will be working people have no option but to consume them daily. Statistics are hard to come by, but we know that in 2014, 37 children from the region died from mercury poisoning, but there has been little change in mining practices since. On top of this, the heavy machinery used by miners is destroying the land – as riverbanks collapse and deforestation rates rise each year, flooding is causing serious damage to riverside villages.
As Cristina’s story on the front cover reveals, the region’s problems are exacerbated by a heavy presence of armed groups. These groups have close links with illegal mining and children face a high risk of being forcibly recruited for activities directly or indirectly related to mining or trafficked to mining towns where they are sexually exploited. The groups’ violent and intimidating control methods are forcing families to flee the area in large numbers. One of the most damaging outcomes of this forced displacement in terms of children’s rights is its effect on education – schools across San Juan face closure due to dwindling pupil numbers.
In fact, education in San Juan faces numerous challenges. Extreme poverty and a widespread lack of awareness of children's rights has led parents to encourage their young children to drop out of school to work. For children who do attend school, the quality of teaching is generally poor. Acadesan has found that the teachers appointed to their region often lack motivation and skills, have little understanding of or interest in the communities and their culture and may fail to turn up to work for prolonged periods or entirely abandon their posts.
Education holds the key to change
Acadesan, whose members are all local people, are working to bring about genuine, sustainable changes in all areas of life in San Juan. Due to a legacy of poor quality education, many local families are unaware of the urgent need to act to protect their natural environment from destruction and to demand an end to state neglect of their region. Acadesan is committed to engaging everyone in their communities in securing a fair and peaceful future for themselves and generations to come, and they see education as the key to making this change possible.
What are we planning to do?
This year, we plan to run a pilot project that will lay the groundwork for a complete overhaul of education in San Juan.
This project will work in four schools, where 80 children will participate in Acadesan’s development of a new school curriculum that does away with traditional learning-by-rote teaching and instead makes lessons fun and participative. The curriculum will integrate teaching about the children’s Afro-Colombian culture and rights into regular school subjects. For instance, children could learn about traditional music and its history, endemic plants and wildlife, and their constitutional rights as Afro-Colombians. In this way, education will become much more relevant to the children’s everyday lives.
There will also be a focus on developing children’s social and emotional skills so that they can contribute to creating a peaceful, collaborative environment within their schools, making them into protective places where pupils and teachers want to be.
Crucially, the curriculum will also focus on environmental issues so that schools can become local champions in denouncing the damage caused by mining.
In addition, Acadesan will work intensively to engage schoolteachers more in their work –helping them develop more effective teaching strategies, leading to better educational outcomes, more rewarding teaching experiences and therefore better retention.
They will also work with the children’s parents to encourage them to recognise the benefits of their children remaining in school instead of working.
The environmental crisis that communities in San Juan are living through every day may not make international headlines, but it is for this precise reason that we are working there.
We need your help today to provide children in San Juan with quality education that teaches them how to protect themselves and their beautiful, biodiverse region from exploitation and neglect.