The schoolmaster of the Amazon rainforest

He invented classrooms without walls where children learn from the Book of Trees how to preserve their environment.

"Save the Amazon rainforest" is one of the most recognisable rallying calls of environmental marketing today, but for some it is much more than a slogan.

The Ticuna, one of the largest indigenous groups in the Amazonas State, on the Brazilian border between Peru and Columbia, have always lived in the rainforest. The concept of ecology is part of their everyday world.

That is why the children in the 'forest school' study The Book of Trees or The Book of Fishes, texts that teach pupils the value of the animals and the vegetation that are fundamental to their lives. Like all children everywhere, they learn to interpret these things first-hand, in this case drawing on the biodiversity around them. And they don't have to go to the zoo or peer through a microscope to do so.

The pioneer of this approach was Constantino Ramos Lopes, christened with the name of a Roman Emperor but born Füpeatücü, which in the Ticuna language means 'raised wing'. He was a teacher who was proud of his origins and his hometown of Benjamin Constant. Located in the Alto Solimões, as the upper stretch of the Amazon River is locally known, the town can only be reached by boat and the trip takes 31 hours from Manaus on the express boat.

In 1986, Ramos Lopes founded the General Organization of Bilingual Ticuna Teachers (OGPTB, Organização Geral dos Professores Ticunas Bilíngues). He did so because while it was important for students to speak their mother tongue to the best of their abilities, the opportunity to learn Portuguese, even though no longer a requirement imposed by the ‘white man’, was too important an opportunity to pass up. The schoolmaster imagined this would help his pupils become doctors, teachers or lawyers.

“At first we taught Portuguese to Ticuna children by reading and translating Brazilian textbooks. But these books spoke about things from another world that were light years from our pupils’ realities, and which we were always trying to interpret for them. So we decided to create our own teaching material in Portuguese. Now the books contain stories about the forest; they talk of trees, rivers, animals, nature and everything we see around us”, Ramos Lopes explained at an Education in the Forest conference held in Rome in 1999 by the Italian Ministry of Education.

Ramos Lopes further spoke of schools with thatched roofs made of interwoven bussu palm leaves, strictly without doors or windows, which he and a group of rural teachers built in the villages of the Alto Solimões. Finally, his pupils no longer had to travel miles to get to school, no more precepts from the religious missions or central government, and no grades or report cards.

The Ticuna teacher also outlined his organisation’s initiative to train indigenous teachers with educational programmes and qualifications recognised by the Federal Council of Education. “We want to give them the training they need to go to university. A law was recently passed in Brazil that allows teachers with only a teaching certificate to enrol in university through a supplementary third-level course, without having to pass the admission exam”, he told the audience, who were spellbound, like so many when listening to Ramos Lopes.

From his village in a remote region that straddles three national borders, he went on to teach his model in Brazilian universities. In order to conserve and pass on the art and tradition of his people he directed and curated the ethnographic museum of the Magüta (the Indian name for the Ticuna). He travelled the world recounting his ideas on teaching, comparing his experience in Amazonia with that of western colleagues. And while they had different methods and different cultures, they shared a mutual curiosity and the same goal: to provide pupils with cognitive tools.

“If you look down on it from above, everything seems still. But once inside it is different. The forest is never still. The life it harbours within it is undergoing constant transformation. The wind blows. The rain falls. Leaves fall and new leaves form. Flowers bear fruit and fruit is food. Birds drop seeds that grow into trees. Night falls, the moon rises, and the shadows spread, multiplying the trees. The lights of the fireflies are earthly stars. Then with the sun comes the day. The sun warms the forest and shines on the leaves. Everything has colour and movement”. This is a passage from The Book of Trees (O livro das árvores), written by the OGPTB teachers and illustrated with pictures of trees in an explosion of vibrant colours. More than a science manual it is an ode to the natural world that is so important to Ticuna culture.

Constantino Ramos Lopes died two years ago and this is his most important legacy. Slight in build, while still just a boy he’d been hit by four bullets during the massacre of his people in 1988, known as O massacre do Capacete [Helmet Massacre], after the name of the nearby river.

Only years later did Brazilian courts rule that the massacre was an act of genocide against the Ticuna people.

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