Learning to learn in a context of war

Ecoversities Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education

Introduction by Kelly Tamey and Udi Mandel, co-hosts of the unconference with Manish Jain

There is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, often under the radar of the media (mainstream and otherwise). This knowledge movement is an emerging network of—let’s call them Ecoversities—people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times. Although diverse in its origins and places, this knowledge movement overlaps in not only critiquing our broken education systems but also in cultivating new stories, practices and possibilities that reconnect and regenerate local ecological and cultural ecosystems—hence the name Ecoversities.

In August 2015 we convened for a week a group of 55 ‘Ecoversity’ higher education innovators at Tamera eco-village (southern Portugal) for the first Ecoversities Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education.

This group, like any healthy ecosystem, had a profoundly rich diversity. It included groups that focus on a gift economy and the regeneration of our cultural and ecological commons; groups involved in learning based on indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing; groups experimenting with localized agro-ecological learning; communities reclaiming their own stories through the creation of localized and independent medias; groups of artist/activists centered around experimental learning processes; and also present in this ecosystem were individuals creating spaces of resistance within the traditional academic system.

During the six days we spent together in Tamera Ecovillage we hosted a dynamic interactive process structured as an ‘un-conference’ with a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention was to co-create a gathering to propel this movement forward, share stories, where creative sparks could fly, and friendships and alliances weave.

Learning to learn in a context of war

Notes on the 1st Ecoversities gathering in Tamera, Portugal

Edgardo García, translated by Gerardo Lopez Amaro / Raíces Colectivas


The memories of our encounter still resonate in my mind and in my heart. I still need to process many things. The hassle of everyday life has caught me, and it is always complicated for me to sit and write my feelings/thoughts (sentipensamientos), but I did not want to let the time go by without leaving some notes about what our encounter has generated in me.

The Ecoversities gathering was a rupture in which I was constantly confronted, both in the foundations as well as in the forms. This state allowed me to change my perception of the world. I was no longer the same when I came back home. What we lived in the meeting hall in Tamera was a very clear expression of what is happening in the world in this historical moment: a collapse, in which the old concepts are falling down and new practices are being born; the words that we have are no longer useful to name the new world and we see the Global South warning the Global North about the approaching storm; we shared a radical criticism of school, conventional education, and institutions; the acknowledgment that there is a war going on that affects everyone in very different ways, under the mask of democracy and development, with some of us facing death; we admitted the radical and deep conviction that we need to do something; we honored the creativity of thousands of persons around the world that create something different (not only in the educational area), and how they birth new worlds in the face of the capitalist monster that wants to crush us.

La Hidra Capitalista by Mauricio Gómez Morín.

What we lived cannot be expressed in words. Even so, it is important to try to draw a general sketch of what we shared, because the global moment we live deserves it, because it is urgent to weave ourselves together, all of us who fight, resist and create, because we have the hope that our knowledges and our experiences may be useful for many persons, groups, collectives and communities around the world. That’s why I write, with love, these words for you about the Ecoversities gathering…

New words for new worlds

Our elders say that in order to give birth to the world, we need to name it. What we currently experience is that the words that we have are no longer useful to name what is happening. We, the new generations, live in a very different world to that of our parents; the old dreams fell down, the information is instantaneous, and the whole planet is changing at unimaginable pace. That is why we think that in order to birth new worlds we need to start by naming them; we need to create the new words or concepts from which the practices and experiences of everyday life will emerge from, here and now, not in an ideal and utopic future but in the world that we live in today.

What do we mean when we talk about education? What are we thinking about? During our gathering, there was no agreement around the meaning of “education” or “higher education” among the different persons, collectives, organizations and communities involved in educational practices. It was not about definitions: rather, it was about everyone creating something new, beyond the classical idea of “education”: of the master and the student; of the mere transfer of knowledges; of the educational bureaucracy; of the endless repetition of dogmas. The majority of us were thinking in new spaces of learning: how to talk about the pain with the children, how to generate useful knowledges for life, and that experience was leading us to question the use of the word, about its colonial burden, about its functionality to the capitalist system.

So, we started asking ourselves if the word is no longer useful to say what we want to say. If it is not education, then what is it? Some of the organizations present there, such as Tahgmees from Jordan, Unitierra Oaxaca, Unitierra Califas, and many others proposed to use the term LEARN or LEARNING, reclaiming the verb that evokes the action. When we speak about learning we see that it is easy to set up our actions in that field, because we all learn in every moment, under diverse circumstances and determined contexts, like the war in which we are currently situated.

One of the most interesting words that we learned during this gathering was ECOVERSITIES, in plural, in opposition to UNIVERSITY. This word breaks the homogenization to which we have been subjected for centuries: the idea of a universal knowledge. The ecoversities are those networks of friends, communities or collectivities where learning is based on the direct experience of life. Eco-versity evokes learning from diversity by making contact with mother Earth. The ecoversities are a fundamental innovation in this time where the dominant system attempts to control the minds and the hearts of people by telling them how they have to learn, live, dream, think, and even love. This proposal is a global movement in which millions of people in thousands of different places around the world are discretely starting up other ways of learning by trying to reconnect us to Mother Earth. It is an unfolding insurrection, as the compañero Gustavo Esteva has called it.

We know that it is necessary to reinvent more words and dispose those that keep their colonial burden, i.e. development, democracy, progress, success. We learned that words are really important and that only the practice will give us the inspiration to find them. We learned to name the new worlds that we create everyday, and we learned to dream with some other worlds that are about to be born.

Sharing from the heart, personal stories as tools of learning

When diverse people from such close or such distant geographical places meet, one of our first challenges was to find the way to tell each other what we are doing, how we are seeing the world and what we think we should do. In the attempt, we experienced the failure of certain methodologies that were incapable of connecting us and generating a comfortable space for sharing. We learned together that the existence of a structure from the “outside” or “from above” makes it impossible to speak between compañeroas,[2] because it inevitably generates hierarchies (even if we are not attempting to do so). This made us question, how often do we reproduce the dominant logic, in our alternative practices?

We learned that, apparently, it is very simple to fight when the enemy is very clear and can be clearly named and identified, most of all when the enemy is something or someone external to us and our practices, but what happens when this system permeates and invades us even in our minds and hearts? How can we fight against that? Ivan Illich said once: “¡To hell with good intentions!”[3] Good will is not enough. It is important to acknowledge that there are dominant structures and logics we have adopted and that, even if we dress them up as “alternatives,” they are still colonizing and reproducing power, hierarchy, and exploitation. One of the tools we used to fight against this during our gathering was dialogue, criticism, and self-criticism, to acknowledge that we are not pure, and that this is part of our struggle. To free our minds and our hearts is a first step to liberate our spaces, our practices, and our endeavor.

This series of questions led us to some others: how can we share with others, from a position of diversity, our experience of the struggle? And we understood that in these times in which we try to rationalize everything, it is necessary to go back to feel-think: that is to reconnect the mind and the heart and to share from personal experience. So, we decided to listen to the personal stories of the compañeros and compañeras as a way of telling ourselves: “this is me” and “my life has been this way,” “therefore I am fighting this way.” We proposed to share from the heart, telling our life stories to others. And we realized that this is a very powerful learning tool because when we speak with the heart we really understand the other and we can even feel what the other feels.

And we started… speaking about the Mexican context. This torn territory in which more than 250 thousand lie dead because of the useless war of the last ten years. The whole country is a mass grave. We wake up everyday with the news of the death of some compañero or compañera. In Mexico, the war against drugs was the perfect excuse for those in power to implant the war in the north of the country and to examine the reaction of the people. They did it very well, they left clean territories for their businesses while thousands of people were displaced, abandoning their homes to move to “safer zones,” or they disappeared and were murdered for the crime of hindering the interests of the financial capital, in what the governments call “collateral damages.”

Nowadays, we see that this war against civil populations is a part of an integral, total war of the capitalist system. A war that is recrudescing everywhere, mainly in the South where the indigenous communities are located alongside their territories, rich in water, forests, minerals, and life. And the goal is to eliminate this life (because that is business), which is why we have this accelerated militarization to contain the response of the society, to intimidate the civil population, and to advance positions to get what they want to appropriate: the commons. And we see that this war is not only happening in Mexico but that it is happening everywhere—in Greece, Brazil, India, everywhere, and that is why we name this the FOURTH WORLD WAR, as the Zapatistas say.

The main characteristic of this war is that it has multiple facets. It is not the classical war in which there are two factions confronting each other. Rather, it is a diversified attack strategy in several fronts, and the educational front is one of the most important: to educate to obey, to educate to domesticate, to educate to allow exploitation. But this is not the only way: we also have social programs, economic crisis, environmental crisis, the imposition of development, the attack to the traditional forms of life. In each territory there is a different costume for this war. And that is why it is important to name, study, and analyze it, so that we can know it and therefore neutralize and destroy it. Returning to the Zapatista metaphor, what we see in Mexico is a storm, “a catastrophe is approaching in all the senses,” and that is why we attend gatherings such as this one to ask ourselves with others: what are we going to do?

Participants at the Ecoversities gathering. Photo by Edgardo García.

That is precisely the question that we asked and that we ask ourselves everyday, and in “walking by asking,” as we have learned from the Zapatistas, we find others that also have this question and we learn what they are doing. We learn about their successes and their mistakes and we see, thus, that something very important to do is TO ASK, TO WALK, AND TO MEET OTHERS.

To be aware of this war, name it, and live it is painful. During our gathering, thanks to Vanessa, I could release all the pain that this war has provoked in me. For a moment, while I was closing my eyes and I was following the words of Vanessa I was telling myself: “I don’t like these kinds of dynamics and this is not going to work with me,” but I kept on listening to Vanessa, and that triggered memories, images of my childhood, when I was asking my parents why the world was like this, full of suffering, where a lot of people die without apparent reason: “they just died.” I remembered the compañera Bety, murdered by the mean government some years ago. The images of the thousands of dead of this country came to me, of the compañeritos of Ayotzinapa and I broke down in tears, I couldn’t stop crying, my heart shrank. I come from a place where “men don’t cry” and for me, during all my life, it has always been very hard to cry, but this time I could relieve myself. I cried in rage, in courage, in anger, and I felt liberated because that pain turned into an inner fire that leads me to the conviction that sooner or later WE ARE GOING TO WIN THIS WAR. But the victory will not come from heaven; we need to fight.

During the Ecoversities gathering there were a lot of hearts sharing: Brazil, Jordan, Slovenia, United States, Argentina, Canada, and many others, who recognized that this is actually a global war that is destroying ourselves everywhere and that is why it is so important to WEAVE our experiences, to share our learnings, to learn how to transform the pain into rage so that we can transform it later into rebellion and resistance.

When we share from the heart we cannot judge; the field of the analysis becomes different. We share feelings and then we can understand everything better. We understand why we are the way we are, where our fears and our pains are coming from, and we learn together to respect ourselves and to tell each other: “you are not alone.”

Learning to learn in a context of war

Being aware of the gravity of the current situation, the question about education or learning radically changes. Learning is translated into survival, learning to learn in a context of war is fundamentally learning to defend and create life. So, how do we generate this kind of learning? That is the big question. Our survival depends on it.

Learning to learn has a lot do with ruptures. I love ruptures. They are like earthquakes that shake you deeply from the interior and destroy the form in which you were looking at the world. During our gathering we lived a lot of ruptures. I think that is what learning is about. It is about questioning the imposed truths, to open ourselves to the other, and it is in that bareness that we can learn that the world is not reduced to the place in which we live,[4] and that there are other forms of understanding life, love, and spirituality.

In order to be able to learn we need to break with everything that refrains us from understanding the other. To achieve this, we need to start by destroying the individual. At Unitierra we say that the individual is just a fiction, that it does not exist, that nobody is completely an “I” but that WE ARE an assemblage of social relations that makes US who we are: our family, community, ancestors, territory. But we see that many of us still believe the tale of the INDIVIDUAL or of INDIVIDUALITY; we go through life thinking that we are an “I”. The individual is the base of the current system: in the name of the individual, nature is destroyed. The I is the first person of the singular that razes and spoils everything. It is the base of progress and development that has left thousands of millions dead in this world. That is why we need to destroy it and to start reconstituting ourselves from the WE. We need to reveal its falseness and counter it with the recuperation of our WE, of the collectivity, the understanding that we are not INDIVIDUALS but PERSONS, and that we need the others so that we can live.

I told some of you that in our indigenous communities, in our mother languages we don’t have a word to say “I”. It just does not exist. All the time we speak from the WE and that radically changes the way of seeing and understanding the world. Let’s try not to say the word ‘I’ for one day and we’ll notice the huge difference that naming the world in another way brings.

While reviewing our learnings, we realize that not everything is lost. We have many examples all around the world of people trying to answer to the question: what to do? How to survive to the war and create a new world at the same time? For us, the closest, clearest and most inspiring examples are in our original peoples and communities, because they have been doing that, not only now but for more than 500 years. Our communities teach us the meaning of the words TERRITORY, DIGNITY, RESISTANCE and LIFE. We need to invert the form in which we have been generating knowledge in recent years. Let’s turn our regard to those who, without big discourses or elaborated concepts, are defending the territory and the life, not only for them and their communities, but for the entire planet.

The Zapatista people,[5] rebel men and women, are an enormous light to us. Those indigenous to the Mexican southeast declared war on the bad government and opened a crack in the wall of history that, since 1994, keeps expanding across the world. It is not a trend or a religion but a learning that we reclaim. Today, the compañeros Zapatistas have shown us that it is possible to bury capitalism, building autonomy in several areas: health, education, economic resistance, food sovereignty, and self-government.

Image by Gráfica de Lucha

The escuelita Zapatista was for us a turning point regarding learning for life. Thousands of people from the five continents came to the Zapatista territory and lived with Zapatista families for a week. We were not learning in a classroom. Instead, we were learning in everyday life how one fights, how one resists. The whole community was the space for learning. A kind of learning tied to the defense of life and the creation of new worlds.

But we know that this is not about copying models. Rather, each one of us needs to do what needs doing wherever we are working, because we are clear that we are not going to be able to do this alone. If we fight, all of us, at the same time, everyone, everywhere in the world, we will achieve in collapsing the system from its very foundations. We’ll defeat the capitalist monster and finally, we’ll create that world where many worlds are embraced, as the Zapatistas say. That is why we need to organize ourselves today, not tomorrow, here and now, no matter where we are, in the countryside or in the city. Every struggle or resistance is worthwhile: small alternatives, everywhere across the world, facing simultaneously the capitalist monster. The struggle needs to be global, from north to south, from east to west.

This way of looking at things bolsters the deep meaning of solidarity. It is not about “supporting the poor indigenous/marginalized/underdeveloped folks who fight in the Global South”, nor is it about “bringing the Black, the indigenous, the women, so that they can learn from our model.” It is about being responsible for what happens in our contexts and to start fighting and organizing wherever we are. In the transition from charity to responsibility, solidarity is translated into mutual support, reciprocity, and respect. Let’s break down the hierarchies and let’s meet each other horizontally!

How do we avoid falling into the models? We need to resist constantly the idea that “we are the good ones,” that “our model is the best,” because it is this arrogance which leads us to replicate the same system that we are combatting. We need to learn to recognize our own mistakes, to criticize ourselves so that we can know what we are doing wrong and to learn how others struggle and resist.

And it is at this point that we ask: how far are we willing to go to defend life? One indigenous compañero told me once: “for us, it is very clear: this war is about those who bet for death against those of us who bet for life. What are we willing to do to defend life? We are willing to do everything to defend life, even giving our lives. That is why we fight. For us, the people, fighting is like breathing. If we don’t fight we feel that we cannot breathe. In this vision, we do not see heroes or martyrs but the real and deep meaning of understanding territory and life. The people say: “where those above destroy, we, those below, rebuild.” That is why it is important to repeat: learning to learn in the current planetary context means to bet for life, to defend it, to take care of it, and to create it.

Friendship as the glue[6] to create community

One of the most recurring questions in our gathering was: “How can we create community where there is no longer community?” It seems that in the Ecoversities gathering we pointed to one of the answers: through friendship.

Participants at the Ecoversities gathering. Photo by Edgardo García.

We have a lot of friends everywhere, but friends like those we met at this gathering we do not find that easily. In Tamera we built “another friendship,” a deep and radical friendship, full of hope. A friendship that has no limits or barriers; that overcame the languages, the words; a friendship that was expressed as the harmonic movement of our hearts beating in synchronicity in that room of that ecovillage in the middle of the desert in Portugal. There is a word for that here, we call it conmoción, which means “to move with the heart,” and it was you, compas, who taught me to conmoverme (co-move with the heart) in all the ways: in the feeling of pain and rage that as a contagion was spread on me through your personal stories; in the spiritual sense of understanding the quests of everyone; in feeling love to all levels; in moving with the other, with you, with us.

When the original communities have been destroyed, what is left for us? When we have lived in an urban setting, stripped off, away for any form of community, how do we build community again? One answer is in that DEEP FRIENDSHIP that works as a glue to rebuild our communities. The indigenous communities are there. Despite all the efforts to vanquish them you can be sure that we will be here for a long time. Meanwhile, we cannot wait for our indigenous communities to survive the storm; we need to MULTIPLY THE COMMUNITIES IN THE CITIES. They do not have to be a copy of rural communities: we need to reinvent them. Deep friendship enables that.

So, the challenge is: how can we generate that feeling of deep friendship that we felt in Tamera with those that we have closer to us? Because in order to build community, it is very important to liberate the territory. And we, in the distance, cannot meet in a territory, even though we long constantly for that. That is why it is important to gather with those who are closer to us, in our neighborhood, on our block, in our building, in our work space. There is no time, we cannot keep waiting, we need to do it TODAY.

If capital is a social relation of exploitation and if the Deep Friendship is a social relation of hope, the latter thus enables us to destroy capital and create new social relations that have as a premise the creation of other worlds.

Deep Friendship lasts forever because it is not subjected to conditions, it surrenders without limits, it expands infinitely, and it is very contagious. This friendship fulfills the heart and charms it with hope. This friendship is a way of knowing that in the most remote corner of the world there is somebody, a compañero, a compañera, that also fights for a better tomorrow.

I miss you all my friends, I love you very much, compañeros, compañeras.

Here we keep on fighting, for more than 500 years now. Here we are, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

October 26, 2015.

From some corner of this beautiful planet, your friend and compañero.


[1] Translator’s Note [T.N.] Compa, the shortened version of compañero or compañera, carries within it a charge of solidarity, of acknowledgment of the other as someone who shares the deep struggle for another kind of world. It is not vanguardist, and it opens up the room for instant friendship. It could be translated as “partner” in English, but I have decided to preserve the original Spanish word throughout the essay to honor this energy in the word.

[2] [T.N.] Compañeroas is the term that the Zapatistas invented to escape from the gender binary, using both vowels that in Spanish denote masculine and feminine nouns, exchanging them and placing them in different orders, to reflect the untamed fluidity and rebellion to labels that may put us in certain boxes.

[3] This is the name of a talk given by Illich in the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on April 20, 1968. In his usual biting and sometimes sarcastic style, Illich goes to the heart of the deep dangers of paternalism inherent in any voluntary service activity, but especially in any international service “mission.” http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm

[4] [T.N.] El pedazo donde nos tocó vivir, in the original. This sentence makes reference to the fact that somehow, ¨we were chosen¨ to live in certain places. We don’t just live or choose where to live.

[5] [T.N.] Los pueblos Zapatistas, in the original. The literal translation for pueblos is people. However, the meaning associated to that word in Spanish denotes a political category, a feeling of unity and solidarity, while simultaneously associating the people to the territory. Pueblo is the same word for “people” and for “town.”

[6] Author’s note: I am not sure this is the best word but it gives the idea.

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