Benjamin is showing how indigenous youngsters from remote villages can obtain effective secondary and college level education substantively integrated with the needs of their communities and their marginal lands agriculture.
The New Idea
Influenced by, among others, Freire and Piaget, Benjamin believes that education should have a liberating effect for the oppressed and exploited. Breaking away from the patterns of conventional education, he has created innovative academic and non-academic programs for young indigenous farmers, who otherwise might not even graduate from elementary school. Through Benjamin's bilingual, bicultural educational models, these young campesinos learn practical applications of their education geared toward the development needs of their communities. The campesinos learn to research and develop productive, organizational and technological alternatives to improve the living conditions around them. Benjamin co-founded the Center for Studies in Rural Development (Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Rural CESDER) to develop new ways of providing professional training directly to young, indigenous campesinos in their communities. His approach bypasses the class and regional barriers that have long restricted such education to those with greater economic means and those living in urban areas. Benjamin has successfully recruited skilled staff with a variety of academic and pragmatic backgrounds. His intensive workshops have already begun preparing the first groups of rural students from areas dependent on extremely marginal agriculture for entrance into new professional jobs.In addition to CESDER's junior high, high school and undergraduate programs, Benjamin eventually plans to create a Campesino University to offer higher level professional and technical training in rural development to young campesinos throughout Mexico and Latin America.
The challenge Benjamin is confronting is two-pronged. On the one hand, higher education in Mexico is often geographically and financially out of reach for the countrys millions of rural campesinos. Equally troubling is the mismatch between the agronomic education provided in Mexicos schools with the needs of the majority of small-scale producers.
Educational opportunities available to the children of indigenous farmers are very limited. Only 55 percent of Mexico's school age population ever enroll in secondary level institutions, and even fewer children from rural areas attend school. Furthermore, technical schools are almost always located in or near urban areas, a fact that encourages migration and drives up the cost of such education to levels that are prohibitive for poor families. In the municipalities of Zautla and Ixtacamaxtitlan in the Northern Sierra of Puebla State, where CESDER has been developing its model, there is almost no public infrastructure, such as paved roads or electricity, and primary school is the highest educational opportunity. In order to continue education even at the junior high school level, youths must leave their homes and go to bigger towns.
Furthermore, technical and professional education for Mexican farmers is based on an agronomic model which favors large-scale production and monocultures. This industrial model requires large investments, the use of expensive mechanical and chemical inputs, and extensive marketing. This approach, which has been pressed indiscriminately throughout the country, is not suitable for poor, small-scale farmersroughly 70% of the country's producers. To compound the problem, schools and universities are preparing increasingly specialized professionals, who are useful for large enterprises but who cannot effectively address the quite different, more general needs of the poor farmer. The research at these institutions also focuses on the large scale industrial model and assumes favorable environmental conditions. Thus, the particular problems faced by small farmers are unknown to Mexico's educated professionals, yet those aware of these unmet needs are denied access to education.
Benjamin and his colleagues have organized four closely interrelated programs to bring their new approach to education to rural young people and their communities.
1)Training of Human Resources for Development: Using Benjamin's educational models, this program offers junior high school, high school and undergraduate educational training for 650 students in six municipalities. Undergraduate courses in rural development are taught by specialized professionals through intensive workshops. At all levels, Benjamin seeks to base the students' education on their own cultures and traditions, to incorporate and preserve ancient wisdom about agricultural technologies and to encourage group discussion and experimentation.
2)Promotion of Community Development: The CESDER students work directly with and for their communities. They are currently helping with five programs: the Society for Social Solidarity, an organization of 150 women which carries out activities related to health, productivity and training; five Campesino Children Centers, which assist 500 children with health, nutrition, and sensory stimulation; the Regional Reforestation Project, which is creating four tree nurseries which will produce 39,000 trees annually; the Center for Agricultural and Cattle-raising Activities, which provides technical advice to producers in the region and helps them obtain financing for their activities; and the Training Program for Community Promoters, through which senior students are trained to work on one of the community projects.
3)Research on Agricultural and Cattle-raising Activities: This program focuses on the development of new technological alternatives for producers. It includes an Ecological Farm run by the students, a research center for the development of new crops, and a documentation center with 9,000 titles on rural development matters.
4)Establishing Links for Development: Perhaps most important of all, the CESDER seeks through this program to reach joint working agreements with other organizations to disseminate its educational models and programs. Benjamin is already training educators from nine states, who have been sent to learn his methods for use in their home communities.
Benjamin grew up in the northern industrial state of Coahuila, the son of a mechanical engineer. From the ages of twelve to fifteen, he studied with priests devoted to working for the poor at a seminary where he was introduced to literature, philosophy and social questions. Later, while studying sociology in Mexico City, he researched the lives of industrial workers there. He was then hired as a sociologist by his home town, where he organized a union of professors and worked with ejidos.
After further study of rural sociology, Benjamin was invited to head the State of Puebla's Education for Adults program. In this position he had the opportunity to start designing his own model of rural education, establishing a bilingual literacy program for indigenous peoples and an integrated educational planning system. He later went to the small city of Zautla, where he established an operational base for his multi-cultural educational and development project.
After a while, however, Benjamin's restless and inquisitive nature made him feel less and less comfortable about being a part of the conventional educational profession. He consequently left government work and become a free-lance consultant. Once he had developed his own vision, he set out to make it work and now to spread it broadly.