Jungle schools can save the rainforests

Jungle schools can play a significant role in achieving the two overarching goals for Rainforest Foundation Norway: Saving the rainforests and securing the rights of indigenous and forest-dependent peoples.


The implementation of education projects for indigenous communities in the Amazon basin in the 1990’s showed that culturally adapted education projects, also called “jungle schools”, could play a significant role in achieving Rainforest Foundation Norway’s (RFN) goals.

RFN funds three partner organizations in Indonesia who work specifically on education for indigenous peoples: Yayasan Citra Mandiri Mentawai (YCMM) with schools in the Mentawai islands, West Sumatra province, for the Mentawai people; Yayasan Merah Putih (YMP) with schools in Central Sulawesi for the Tau Ta’a Wana people and WARSI with schools in Sumatra for the Orang Rimba.

Neglected by the government

In the three areas where RFN partners have education projects the same pattern appears: indigenous peoples are neglected by all levels of government, because they live far from cities and means of transportation, and also because they are rarely represented politically at the regional or national level.

"My teacher did not speak my language and did not know anything of the Mentawai culture and society taught us to be ashamed to be a Mentawai"

They end up not being a political priority to get schools, hospitals, roads and other services. In this case the inhabitants of Mentawai islands, an archipelago on the west coast of Sumatra, have very poor access to health, education and other public services. It is also the case for the Tau Ta’a Wana in Central Sulawesi and for the Orang Rimba in Jambi.

Language and religion diversity

Each education project answers a clear request from indigenous communities to have their own education model based on their cultural specificities and their needs. Like most states, the Indonesian Republic has implemented a mainstream education model all over the country.

For indigenous communities this “one-size-fits-all” model does, however, not work well. Firstly, because they speak different languages than the national language, Indonesian, which is used in schools. For example the island of New Guinea which includes the country Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua has the biggest language diversity in the world with more than 1000 languages. Most indigenous parents RFN partner organizations work with do not mind their children learning Indonesian, but they also want them to learn their native language, and that classes are taught by teachers teaching in both languages.

Secondly, Indonesia only authorizes five religions and most indigenous communities have their own beliefs and religions. Finally, the Indonesian national education model teaches Indonesian history as perceived by the capital Jakarta and the cultural ideals of the dominant ethnic group, the Javanese. Indigenous peoples, however, have other perspectives on society, life and politics.

Mentawai activist Indra Gunawan Sanenek, describes his childhood experience of going to school like this:

“I had to move away from home at 8 years old to live in the city, far from my parents. My parents sent me food but sometimes the boats between the island they lived on and the one my school was on didn’t come on time and I had no food. My teacher did not speak my language and did not know anything of the Mentawai culture and society taught us to be ashamed to be a Mentawai”.

Flexible and accessible schools

The indigenous communities who express the need for culturally adapted education always want to shape their own curriculum where their own history and culture can be expressed and taught to their children. Also, these new schools need to be more flexible to the communities’ needs and more accessible geographically than other available schools.

In “jungle schools”, children learn their own language and culture and can be proud of it. They also learn the Indonesian language and with this dual system they are able to keep their culture without being excluded from mainstream society. Knowing mainstream society and its codes helps them later when interacting with people outside of their communities – for example when selling their products on the market - and allows them to access higher education in Indonesia.

The “jungle schools” implemented in Indonesia follow a very flexible model in terms of location, physical appearance, rules and frequency of the classes. It does not need to be in a building or a house like the mainstream schools. It can be near a river or in the forest.

Every indigenous community is different, usually practicing a different language and religion. All these differences need to be taken into account each time a new “jungle school” is created. This is why each partner organization implementing education projects in the field has different approaches. However, the aim is always the same: for these communities to be more independent.

The impacts of jungle schools beyond education

The impacts of education projects described above can be quantified with a number of children who learnt how to read and write, or with the number of schools that were built. But there are also other impacts which are difficult to quantify but that nevertheless are highly important.

Access to land and natural resources is a key issue when talking about securing indigenous peoples’ rights. Indeed, all of the indigenous communities RFN and its partners work with depend entirely on land, forests and its products to live. This applies to the Mentawai people as much as the Orang Rimba and the Tau Ta’a Wana people.

Jungle schools are one way to help secure the right to land and natural resources of indigenous communities. Since jungle schools are implemented in Central Sulawesi among the Tau Ta’a Wana people of Morowali, palm oil plantations stopped their expansions.

Education also empowers the pride these communities feel because of indigenous education.