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Learning From The Indigenous at Peru’s Pukllasunchis School

Pukllasunchis is one of the few schools in Peru with an alternative teaching plan for students aged four to sixteen years old. As an institution founded in 1981 as a way to preserve and cultivate the central crafts of Cusco, the school doesn’t make much of a distinction between students based on age; rather, pupils from upper classes are integrated with small children and those with learning disabilities in order to breed a sensitive environment where children learn ecological ways to produce goods like tomatillos, jewelry, and beyond.

The school was founded by La Asociación Pukllasunchis as a way to unify the regional and national sectors of the Peruvian economy through the lens of experience-based education. While students get a “formal” education in physics and other standard subjects, the school also emphasizes the importance of producing natural goods in ecological ways, and as such gardening has become a central focus.

Pukllasunchis has designed a program in which children take their lessons “in the garden” to learn how to sow plants and develop them into food, medicine, or other raw materials like fibers for clothing, dye, or baskets. “Pukllasunchis” itself is a Quechuan word that means “let’s play,” which underscores the school’s emphasis on dynamic, physical learning.

As I walk through the huge school garden, which is called “Kawsay” (the Quechuan word for “life”) an idyllic river in a beautiful valley nearby gurgles with water from Andean snow melt. Former student, Maria Elena Ramirez Gonzáles and the Production Manager of the Natural Products program, Noe Miguel Chávez Velasquez, take me through the fields where kids are actively putting what they are learning into action. The children, it seems, feel very confident in the garden– free to roam and play as is necessary to enjoy the environment.

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By cultivating a sense of play, the students learn skills that they can adopt in later life– a healthy balance between theoretical learning in a classroom and integral fresh-air experiences.

At Pukllasunchis, it’s very important that the children learn the indigenous principles of traditional Peruvian gardening. Cusco is not a place where people immediately see a doctor if they suffer from a disease. For thousands of years Peruvians have used herbs and other medicinal plants to cure diseases and injuries. At Pukllasunchis, this has become a core principle– that the garden can heal you in more ways than one– and thus the garden has become a place of primary educational value. As part of their avant-garde approach, old traditions become the pillars of a modern learning environment at the school– including traditional ceremonies in which students ritualize the harvest in order to get the highest quality yield.

Peruvians also believe that every plant has its own spirit, which gives it energy to develop its natural agents or nutritional qualities.

Peruvians also believe that every plant has its own spirit, which gives it energy to develop its natural agents or nutritional qualities. The Molle plant (Shinus molle, also known as the Peruvian Pepper Tree) has a spirit called “Machu” that is an important protector in Incan culture. In practice, Molle sap is used as a mild laxative and a diuretic, and the entire plant is used externally for fractures and as a topical antiseptic. But the spirit of “Machu” is only invoked when the locals call on it during their harvest ceremony. Before planting seeds, students ask Pachamama (“Mother Earth”) for permission to open the earth and invite the spirit to live in the plants.

It’s also important for students to talk to the tree before harvesting its materials and asking the spirit for permission to use its fruits.

According to Noe, the students sometimes have an inner conflict with plants that aren’t native to Peru, like Eucalyptus. Because the plant is foreign, they don’t know the name of the plant’s spirit, so they talk to it without knowing the name as an attempt to integrate it into the big garden family. Despite the altitude, Peru’s climate is favorable for native and non-indigenous species alike, so all are given equal merit during teaching experiences at Pukllasunchis.

To underscore their cooking lessons, they plant cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, mangold wurzel (a type of chard), spinach, allium (flowering chives), potatoes, onions, haba (a type of fava bean), sunflowers, and pumpkins.

Medicinal plants on site include everything from a variety of mints, calendula, and markhu (which work to prevent inflammation), muña (which helps with respiratory problems), cedrón cillo (to support the heart), cedrón (to sleep well), and many more.

They use their plants to make essential oils of arrayan (Chilean myrtle), eucalyptus, hierbaluisa, muña, molle, and matico; they also make healing salves of muña, markhu, eucalyptus, ch’iri ch’iri, and calendula, as well as shampoo and conditioner made from hierbaluisa. Medical salves are sieved from calendula and ch’iri ch’iri, which are then used by local healers.

All of these products are sold to the public at various markets in Cusco three times a year, and materials that aren’t incorporated into the products go to the compost pile, which is the garden’s source of natural fertilizer.

With the profit the school buys working materials for the next round of production– in this case, more seeds or tools for the garden.

In the 13 years of education that the children of Pukllasunchis experience, they learn that we as human beings are a part of nature and that we must not shortchange the planet but rather learn to live in harmony with nature.

Because of their positive experience, several alumni of Pukllasunchis founded a small company: “Pukllay E.I.R.L,” a label for the products that the pupils produce. Earnings go towards funding the education of low-income students at the school– ensuring with time that what was once a specialized education in plants can slowly become a community-based learning experience for all.

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