An alternative society through the eyes of Gustavo Esteva

“The education system has been the main tool of the state to destroy the indigenous people, to erase us from the planet … This happened all over the world. The education system was created to educate them into extinction. Meaning you should cease to be a Zapotec, to become a Mexican whatever that is.”


Last August, whilst researching the resistance to genetic contamination of corn in Oaxaca, Mexico, I was lucky enough to meet with Gustavo Esteva. He is known for his outspoken post-developmentalism, political activism and dedication to projects with Mexican indigenous populations. I found that his ideas and practice in alternative education hold hope for finding solutions to the current global food crisis and to shaping strong grassroots movements.

Taking education out of a system of cultural eradication

We met at the Universidad de la Tierra (Unitierra – University of the Earth), which Esteva himself created as “an organisation dedicated to learning, study, reflection and action” ( It is a small building consisting of a  few study rooms. On the back wall of the room in which the interview was held is a modest, but diverse collection of books. These, Esteva is careful to tell me, are just the beginning. He insisted that learning is not just about reading about things, but is most importantly the act of doing what is described in these books. “Our learning style emphasizes practice. We learn by doing what we want to learn with the people that are practising in the field”. Books are a useful point of reference, but they don’t mean anything without activism.

The university, as far as I understood, functions as a base, from where practical activities, such as working with small corn farmers, are coordinated, and from which other movements can emerge. For example, just a few days after our meeting, there was to be, in Unitierra, the creation of citizens commission for truth and justice to co-ordinate and to mobilize all the different activism in Oaxaca. This was powered by concentrating collective energy and envisioning how people can reclaim their lives. They really wanted “to put our lives in our own hands again. Not in the hands of the market or the state” described Esteva.  This kind of social activism is largely a reflection on the deep mutual discontent of the way in which indigenous farmers continually find themselves losing out to pro-economic growth policies. Movements that have emerged include the Sin Maiz No Hay Pais (No Country Without Corn) and En defense de nuestro maiz (Defending our corn), both of which use innovative methods to inform people about the crisis in the countryside. Efforts are co-ordinated across the country to mobilise action to preserve peasant agriculture and prioritise natural food sources. Actions to preserve peasant livelihoods and culture are clearly at the centre of moves towards social justice.

In Mexico, particularly in the largely rural states like Oaxaca, class is evidently a pivotal point of contention. The rural poor are struggling to keep afloat in the current economic environment of unequal trade laws between Mexico and the US (NAFTA the best, most poignant example). Most indigenous groups, the Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec, belong to this category. Alongside this, another consequence of social discrimination is the neglecting of cultural difference in schools and thus marginalisation of indigenous cultures’ interests, language and agriculture included. NGOs such as Campaña Latinaamerica are constantly lobbying for a fairer education system. As a result, Esteva told me, many parents knew that what their children were learning in the school was not really the right thing and therefore they needed to reclaim an alternative process of learning their culture. That is what Esteva sees as the original purpose of Unitierra, the creation of a place to study, to get a diploma of a different sort, but without having to relinquish other aspects of lifestyle. He explains anyone from the communities can come to Unitierra without any previous schooling and without certification. By the communities, he is referring to rural areas which lack opportunities to develop by themselves in the way that their inhabitants would chose to. Unitierra gives those with less privileges i.e. who come from indigenous groups, a chance to learn skills that are compatible with their economic and cultural way of life. Moreover, how they learn is up to them and is based upon ideas of reciprocity. “The members of Unitierra follow their self-directed path of learning, at their own pace, and in the field of learning that they choose. The fields of learning define spheres of common interest.”

His idea of education

Esteva’s theory of education is not about ‘teachers’ showing ‘pupils’ the ‘right’ path, he defines his idea of learning as ‘co-motion’, that is “moving with the other, we are … in these adventures together”. He continues: “we have links, local, regional, national and international of many different ways. We have many practices in these linkages between people, from the very inward community to the big transnational networks.” This idea of negotiating and coordinating action demonstrates his intention to campaign on political or cultural issues by including as many people as possible, in a manner which is both progressive in method and realistic in demands. His aim is to create a pathway to maintaining livelihoods in a fast modernising context, but without closing them off completely. That is where links with other groups or organisations are used for the benefit of local needs. His vision of scope, he calls localisation – seemingly a paradox in terms – requires networking to prevent destruction of traditions. One direct example of this is that some shorter term students who attend Unitierra are global, they come from all over the world and this is partly because financing the institution for those who can’t pay is something which requires a balancing act with funds.

Education, most of us would agree, should not just be for the sake of a certificate, and therefore seen as a passageway to a future career, it is a place which has a huge influence on our thinking. As Gustavo tells us, in Oaxaca, education has been a problem not an advantage. “It basically destroys the community mind and begins to creates in the children from the very beginning a mindset that is opposed to corn, to the traditions of corn, and sees corn as a commodity, lets say a modern mind is constructed through the school.” There are various strands of this mentality that came out of the interview. Firstly, Oaxaca, a predominantly rural state, is home to the largest indigenous population in the country, but offers education which sidelines the interests of this group, teaching only in Spanish and not in the Zapotec or other indigenous languages. Secondly, again practised by the majority of indigenous people, growing crops is seen only as a way to make money for Mexico. Deemed to be economically advantageous, smaller milpas are being turned into much larger monocrops. Family farms are disappearing. Moreover, traditional ways of growing which are not chemical intensive are being replaced by new seed technologies. Esteva’s emphasis on learning through doing is significant to the connection indigenous people have with agriculture. A large part of the schools role is to empower people to dare to take their futures into their hands, to be able to choose how to learn, but also how to produce. In this way, the school fulfils an important role in promoting food sovereignty.

Final thoughts

Meeting with the founder Gustavo Esteva was enlightening. His ideas of creating change really came from a vision to counter cultural discrimination. His foundation belief was that education was a major pillar of society, it determines mentalities, it determines in which social categories children will grow up belonging to. Esteva sees the bigger picture when it comes to being concerned about marginalised people. He knows their ways of life have been sacrificed at the expense of the victorious spread of global economic institutions, industrialised agriculture being an important one. This ‘modern mentality’ he has witnessed, is created in the school and that is why education is so key to effecting real societal change. Unitierra is a real space for alternative views and as it exists outside of formal state institutions it means that there is no obligation to follow a curriculum which gives more freedom to individual students’ learning process and the content of their studies. Above all, it inspires pro-active learning and action for the benefit of the community.

Through the idea of ‘co-motion’, knowledge and ideas of democracy can be shared and simultaneously be played out. Unitierra fits into the global movement for a more just society. Even though the impetus came from very local changes, Esteva admits the struggle can not be contained especially on the premise of “the importance of communised solidarity, learning from eachother.” He says “I think that is what is happening today. Everywhere. When we are learning from the people inTunisiaand Eygpt andMadridandLondonand ….everywhere. Yes, we are in that. More in that direct action and doing things by ourselves.”

How his school is run is reminiscent of the way collective action and social movements organise. It started with a seed planted by community discussion; it went on to feed into other community projects and wider movements and has become part of a global network of activism. Now, another school should be opening in Mexico City. Unitierra was to preserve slowly disappearing rural cultures and give the decreasing majority of the population a voice and their own channel to understanding their own experiences in the a world changing rapidly around them. This was to counter ‘forced assimilation’. Today, our own education system is shutting off particular subjects to us by cutting funding and segregating rich and poor by demanding large fees. This decides a young person’s future, to a large extent, for them. This was in a rural setting, but the ideas are transferable. It is spaces such as the university of life and the bank of ideas in London which act as a (albeit temporary) space for learning, for the purpose of putting that knowledge into fruition – in order to bring about real change.


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