Before dawn on school days, about a dozen Urarina children climb out of mosquito nets, dress and leave this tiny village for the muddy, nearly 90-minute trek to school in the nearest town.
Messy at best, the trail becomes dangerous during heavy rains, when the students must balance on narrow logs to cross overflowing streams. Parents keep their kids home on those days, and some don’t enroll their youngest children at all because of the daily hazards, which include poisonous snakes and painful insect bites.
“We have children here who don’t attend school, not because their parents don’t want them to study, but because of the distance,” village leader or apu Roger Macusi says.
When they do attend, the kids say, teachers and classmates tease them for arriving disheveled or dirty.
As a result, Santa Lucía’s young people generally drop out before finishing grade school—foreshadowing a future of marginal, low-wage jobs if they decide to leave the remote Urituyacu River valley in Peru’s northeastern Amazon region, where they were born.
Santa Lucía de Tipishca has nearly 20 young children, enough to justify a primary school of its own, but Macusi says the community’s requests have gone unanswered.
Peru’s official intercultural, bilingual education program falls short along the Urituyacu River, especially in the Urarina communities, which tend to be smaller and have less infrastructure than those of the Kukama Kukamiria, the largest indigenous group in this area.
“The intercultural approach is more rhetoric than reality,” says Ricardo Cuenca, a researcher who specializes in education issues at the Institute of Peruvian Studies (Instituto de Estudios Peruanos), a social sciences think tank in Lima.
Upriver, in Guineal, the teacher showed up in March to register students, then never returned, apu Simón Inuma Manizari says, adding that this happens year after year.
In mid-June, two months after classes should have started, small solar panels and computers from the One Laptop per Child program, which is meant to give students in developing countries access to technology, were gathering cobwebs on a dusty table in the abandoned school.
In other communities, parents complain of teachers who show up only sporadically for work, or school records that incorrectly indicate that children are not enrolled.
Besides shortchanging the children, school attendance problems cut into the families’ income. One of Peru’s long-standing rural social programs provides a subsidy of about $35 a month to families in exchange for a commitment that their children will attend school and get regular health checkups.
Coordinators of the program check school attendance records and suspend payments if a child exceeds the absence limit. Macusi says heavy rains sometimes make it impossible to comply—and mothers find out about the suspension only when they make the daylong river trip in a motorized dugout canoe to receive their payment.
Government officials agree that the system does not work well, especially for the Urarina, but no real solutions appear to be in sight.
Peru transferred responsibility for education from the national government to regional governments, on the grounds that local management would be more responsive. But even reporting problems locally is complicated.
Manuel Grandez, Director of Intercultural and Bilingual Education, Ministry of Education, Lima says, with no phone service along the Urituyacu, filing a complaint means a three-day river trip to the local education office in the town of Nauta. Most education offices lack the budget to send inspectors to verify complaints.
There are other problems, as well. The school year is out of synch with the rainy season that causes seasonal flooding, so classes almost always start several months late. And even when teachers show up and students can get to class, the curriculum, especially in high school “is completely foreign to their world,” he says.
As a result, many Amazonian indigenous students drop out, especially in places like the Urituyacu. That sets up a vicious circle, as there are few graduates who might go on to become bilingual teachers and improve education in their home communities.
The ministry is making some progress, he says, but most bilingual teachers come from the largest indigenous groups, including the Quechua and Aymara in the Andes, and the Asháninka, Shipibo, Achuar and Awajún in the lowlands. Small groups like the Urarina remain sidelined.
Grandez admits the situation is unlikely to change soon.
“This is a problem throughout the Amazon region,” he says.