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URUGUAY: Rural Schools Threatened by Emptying Countryside

Dino Cappelli

SARANDÍ GRANDE, Uruguay, Jun 20 2009 (IPS) - Cono Perdigón rides a bus that bounces its way down a dusty, pitted road to reach the rural schoolhouse where he teaches.

It’s the end of a long trip involving several bus transfers and numerous stops along the way, as the driver picks up a bag of potatoes sent to someone down the line, a “gaucho” – the cowboy of South America’s pampas – or a woman with a little boy and a cooking gas cylinder.

Perdigón is teacher and headmaster at one of the many rural schools in the middle of nowhere in this small South American country, where 93 percent of the population is urban, according to United Nations statistics, and the countryside – made up of rolling plains and low hills – is increasingly depopulated.

A number of the 1,140 rural primary schools attended by a total of 20,000 children in this country of 3.3 million people wedged between Brazil and Argentina appear to be doomed to closure as more and more people move to towns and cities.

Even though the rural schools represent 50 percent of all of the country’s public primary schools, they teach just five percent of all school-age students.

According to official statistics, the average number of students in Uruguay’s rural schoolhouses is 18, which means that many of them teach far fewer than that.

For example, when the school in Chilcas y Chingolas, a village in the central province of Florida, caught on fire, the media reported that the entire student body amounted to nine children.

The schools run from kindergarten to sixth grade, and usually there is only one teacher.

“I have very few students, and there are two little brothers who have a four-kilometre trip each way, through the open countryside, to get to and from school,” Lizet Vázquez, the teacher at school number 40 in Colonia Aldeta, a village in Florida, tells IPS.

“On rainy days they can’t come because the level in the stream rises and it’s too dangerous for them to cross,” she adds.

Many rural children actually ride horses to school, across streams and open fields.

“Each year is an adventure; there are so many needs and challenges that you don’t know where to start,” Julio Caballero, the headmaster at school number 58, in the small town of Piedras Coloradas, tells IPS.

One of the challenges is not knowing how many students will show up the following year.

All-purpose schools

A school that closes its doors is a serious loss in a remote rural area. The building, with the national coat-of-arms over the door, serves as a meeting-point for the local community over generations: it is where pensions are paid and children are vaccinated, where the visiting dentist attends patients and where cattle vaccines are distributed against foot-and-mouth disease.

It is also the place where local farmers and the parents association meet, the theatre for the puppet show from the nearest town, and the office with the telephone that the police chief calls when he needs one of the residents from the surrounding area to come in to the station.

“The community lives and dies by this school. They do everything they can for it. They hold fundraisers to be able to pay the cleaning woman, the parents get together to fix up the bathroom and maintain the yard, and they bring food for the midday meal,” Nancy Albano, headmistress of school number 86, also in Piedras Coloradas, tells IPS.

Because it is the epicentre of social life, when it is closed in the summer months, the entire community feels the difference. “The area comes to life when the school opens,” local resident Huberto Vaz tells IPS.

According to a study by the Pesticide Action Network Latin America (RAP-AL), “the current model of (large-scale) agricultural production would seem to be the catalyst for the emptying of the countryside, and the resulting closure of schools.”

Experts say that one of the many reasons for the depopulation of the countryside is that rural families increasingly find themselves hemmed in by vast monoculture fields and tree plantations, and end up abandoning their farms and moving to the nearest town.

“The biggest contradiction faced by the country is that a large part of our wealth is in the countryside, but it is increasingly empty. This wealth is also concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” says the report by the Uruguayan chapter of RAP-AL, issued on May 15, Uruguay’s national Rural Education Day.

“The model that has taken root in our country is based on industrial-scale production without farmers, where the farmers and their families find themselves hemmed in and forced out, left with no alternative but to move to the towns and cities,” says the study on the situation in the agriculture sector, which particularly focuses on the problems caused by the use of pesticides.

Uruguay, where 80 percent of the land is suitable for some kind of agriculture, is a significant agricultural producer and exporter. Farming and ranching accounts for 11 percent of GDP and is the main source of foreign exchange.

Caballero has certain advantages over his colleague Perdigón. A van picks up the children every morning at the gates to their farms, running along both paved and dirt roads, which means the children don’t have to come to school on horseback.

“This year is like so many others, with most of the rural schools in need of extensive repairs to the building, a coat of paint, and suffering problems with running water and sanitation,” he complains. “They tell us there aren’t any funds for repairs or improvements, so we have to resign ourselves to live without.”

But now there is a new factor to draw more students: preschool education for four-year-olds is now compulsory in Uruguay.

The subsequent growth in the student body means many schools now have two teachers instead of just one, says Caballero. And many schools have now shifted from a four-hour day to a full eight-hour day of classes, providing three daily meals.

“The kids spend a large part of the day in school and often have to travel long distances,” says the RAP-AL report. “In some cases this is because schools near their homes have closed because of a shortage of students.”

“There is a great deal of talk about MEVIR (the government’s Movement for the Eradication of Inadequate Rural Housing) and the great work it is doing in providing decent housing to rural workers. But it is often overlooked that sometimes towns fill up with families who used to live in the countryside – people who are lost to the rural areas,” says Roberto, who used to work on a nearby farm.

In fact, the children who are driven by the van to Caballero’s school number 58, located eight km from the town of Sarandí Grande, live in the new neighbourhood built by MEVIR on the edge of the town.

“The rural schools, which should be a symbol of development and transmitters of knowledge about family farming and protection of biodiversity increasingly find themselves in a situation of vulnerability,” says the RAP-AL study.

On the other hand, schools in the Uruguayan countryside were the first to benefit from Plan Ceibal, an attempt by the government of socialist President Tabaré Vázquez of the left-wing Broad Front coalition to close the digital gap by handing out one XO laptop per child.

“It’s incredible what has been achieved. For example, I have students who ‘chat’ on-line among themselves because they now have Internet, since they put up an antenna at the school,” says Albano.

“So from the time their parents get up to milk the cows, they are chatting with their friends. It’s fantastic; when they come to school they’ve already been in contact for hours,” she says with a smile.

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