26 January 2020

This is the website of Universidad de la Tierra – Unitierra, an alternative “university” that was established in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2001. Unitierra was an attempt to respond to the recognition, particularly among indigenous peoples, that the dominant state-supported educational structure prevented their children from learning what they needed to know to continue living in their communities and contributing to the common good of their communities and the sustainability of their territories.

Grounded in the works and thought of Ivan Illich, Gustavo Esteva and other de-schooling theorists and practitioners, Unitierra is “an initiative that facilitates access to learning for all those for whom school is not an adequate place for learning.” Depending on the needs for skills and knowledges that learners recognize to be needed in their personal contexts and in the contexts of their communities the students can choose to learn, whatever they need to learn, either in practical trades, such as urban agriculture, construction with natural materials, video production, or they pursue fields of study such as social research, philosophy or communication. They learn their skills from the practitioners of the profession or field of study and by applying these skills through apprenticeships. Students then return to their communities to practice and share what they have learned. Since 2001, other Unitierras have emerged in California, Chiapas, Huitzo, Manizales, Puebla and Toronto as responses to the needs recognized in these communities. Although sharing many commonalities in ideas and methodologies they do not necessarily (or at all) replicate the structural or organisational form of Unitierra in Oaxaca.

The example of Unitierra – both as a learning space and as a network of “sister” organisations can be of use to those interested in exploring community-based approaches to education that are grounded both in local (traditional) knowledges, but also in trans-local knowledge that is of use in the local contexts. For those interested in building partnerships, Unitierra network offers an interesting example of an assemblage of very different organizations/movement, emerging from very different social realities, but working together on similar understandings. For those interested in educational innovations/alternatives it may be of particular interest to learn about how Unitierra (University of Mother Earth) attempts to challenge anthropocentric (human-centred) notions of education as well the idea of the modern individual subject. In words of one of the founders, Gustavo Esteva: “Our “students” do not belong to communities. They are their communities”. The articles available on the Unitierra website, as well as a recent documentary produced about it offer good starting points for reflection on the possibilities, challenges and paradoxes of such approaches to (global) education.

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