Small, brown-skinned child kneels down on the forest floor and looks up to the tree canopy hopefully
Image credit: Photo by Los Muertos Crew on

On May 1, 2023, a Cessna plane took off from the tiny Amazonian town of Araracuara in Colombia, carrying seven passengers: the pilot, four children, their mother, and another adult. The plane’s destination was San José del Guaviare, a stopover before proceeding on to Bogota to join the children’s father. But it never arrived. The plane crashed due to engine failure.

All seven passengers on board were members of the Huitoto Indigenous community in the Putumayo region. The three adults perished in the crash; their bodies were found near the plane. But the four children—Lesly (13), Soleiny (9), Tien Noriel (4), and Cristin (1)—survived.

The story of their survival and eventual rescue offers some important lessons about what early childhood development requires—and how international policy often undercuts rather than supports wellbeing.

The Search for the Four Missing Children

For over a month, a group of 100 special forces personnel scoured a search area of 1,650 miles alongside 70 members of a civilian patrol known as the Indigenous Guard. These volunteers—numbering nationwide in the tens of thousands—represent a form of civil resistance and autonomy, seeking to protect the ancestral way of life and Indigenous territory from violence and environmental destruction.  

The search for the children lost in the forest—an ancient theme of fairy tales—gripped the popular imagination in Colombia and beyond. According to reports, Guard members happened at one point to come across a tortoise. A group member picked it up and appealed to the animal to “give” them the children as a condition of its release. 

A few minutes later, they heard a child’s cry in the distance and quickly discovered Lesly, holding the hand of her sister Soleiny with the baby Cristin in her arms. Their brother Tien Noriel was lying quietly nearby on a bed of leaves. The rescuers blew tobacco as an offering to the jungle, released the tortoise, and sprinkled the children with holy water before carrying them on their backs to the nearest military camp. 

The children’s rescue on June 9, after an unimaginable 40 days alone in the jungle, caused an outburst of national jubilation led by Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who described the rescue as un milagro (a miracle). Already, there is talk of a film. Yet like so many narratives in our world, the story may end up being stripped of nuance and, above all, excluding the insight of the very Indigenous communities that are the central protagonists. Survival was less a miracle than a product of the self-reliance that the Indigenous children had developed due to their upbringing. 

What the International Development Community Misses

“There’s a risk here of exoticizing the ecological knowledge of these Indigenous communities,” comments Francesca Mezzenzana, a social anthropologist specializing in Latin America and the Ecuadorian Amazon. “It’s less trendy but no less important to understand Lesly’s care knowledge and what this tells us about the capacity of children to care for each other.” Mezzenzana’s work at the multidisciplinary Rachel Carson Center in Munich includes the Learning Natures project, for which she is the lead investigator.

“Danger or failure is a normal part of the learning process.”

She has written about the childcare practices of the Runa people in Ecuador and, with her husband Franks Mayancha—who is from an Ecuadorian Indigenous community—about the “ineffable knowledge” of Indigenous children in the Amazon region, which includes “an embodied moral orientation” or readiness to respond to others. While the lost children’s ecological knowledge is exceptional, a more universal lesson—especially for those of us in the Global North—is the degree of freedom, autonomy, and independence they experience.

Mezzenzana notes her husband’s experience growing up in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where three- and four-year-old children can be seen roaming in bands, fishing by themselves in the river, climbing high up trees to gather fruit, and handling rusty machetes without adult supervision.

This hands-off approach has been widely documented across the Amazon and in other Indigenous communities worldwide. As Mayancha and Mezzenzana write, “Danger or failure is a normal part of the learning process.” Similarly, practices of involving children in household work, such as gutting fish or other animals, preparing food, and carrying wood, have been shown by research to foster responsibility and social responsiveness.

And yet, as highlighted by Mezzenzana, the international development agenda still often devalues this type of care and local knowledge. This type of thinking among largely WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic) communities often starts from the assumption that a large percentage of children in the Global South are at risk of inadequate cognitive development.

Take, for example, the Nurturing Care Framework issued by the World Health Assembly (part of the World Health Organization), in partnership with UNICEF (United Nations’ Children’s Fund) and the World Bank. The framework was grounded in three articles published in The Lancet. One of their fundamental claims is that “250 million children (43 percent) younger than five years in low-income and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential” (Black et al. 2017, 77). This claim is derived from the estimated number of children who are living on less than $1.90 per day.

“Suboptimal” early childhood development is seen as contributing to poverty in communities. Yet, a recent literature survey by Mezzenzana and four other colleagues notes how the Nurturing Care Framework largely excludes insights and evidence from anthropology, cultural psychology, and ethnography. Nor does it incorporate context-sensitive research from the target communities.

“From Colombia’s colonial history, we still have attitudes which misvalue this kind of knowledge—it’s treated like the knowledge of savages in uncivilized communities,” comments Maria del Pilar Peralta Ardila, a Colombian doctoral candidate also affiliated with the Rachel Carson Center.

Like her colleague, Mezzenzana sees the children’s story as more than a tale of heroic individualism. “When I was a child growing up in the city of Cali, my father would take us on vacation to visit farms in the Cauca countryside. Children were allowed a lot of freedom.” Unlike what is known in Western culture as the nuclear family model, she saw Indigenous mothers operating together in a context of shared responsibility and guardianship. “And they allowed the children to make mistakes, even to suffer a little.”

Ethnographic research shows that in many communities in the Global South, children…predominantly play with other children.

In these cultures, not responding promptly to a child’s request puts a focus on group bonding rather than one-to-one bonding, the latter an aspect of the attachment theory highly influential in the Global North. (See Mezzenzana’s personal experiences with her baby in her husband’s village in the Ecuadorian Amazon and her Ethos article on the same.)

Bias is also evident in the definition of what constitutes play and what is acceptable. The concept of learning through play is central to all early childhood development approaches with a very specific definition of what play should look like, one which is based on perceptions from WEIRD societies. Yet these approaches often fail to incorporate what the environment and play may look like in many rural communities around the world and the views of parents themselves.

For example, early childhood development research often assumes that mothers or parents are a child’s only noteworthy partner in play and provider of play material and spaces, an assumption which the survey finds to be unverified. Yet ethnographic research shows that in many communities in the Global South, children do, for example, predominantly play with other children. As suggested above, play is also inherently linked to the freedom and autonomy that children are given, which may not involve their parents at all. In the words of Mezzenzana and her colleagues, “the alleged lack of play opportunities for children—with its far-reaching insinuations about cognitively underdeveloped populations in the global South—rests again on the nuclear family model we challenge” (18).

Hundreds of billions of dollars are dedicated to early childhood development programs worldwide. Facts and Factors estimate that the global early childhood education market was worth $247 billion in 2021; it projects spending to climb to $487 billion by 2030. But often this money is spent in a manner that is not aligned with Indigenous cultures.

Civil society efforts to promote the wellbeing of Amazonian communities like the Huitoto, including and especially their land rights, have been highly effective.

Recentering Indigenous Models of Care

The good news is that civil society efforts to promote the wellbeing of Amazonian communities like the Huitoto, including and especially regarding their land rights, have been highly effective. With the recognition of the rights of Indigenous communities in the 1991 Colombian Constitution, Indigenous-led organizations such as the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) mediate between Indigenous groups and the state during conflicts and continuously advocate for Indigenous self-determination and inclusion in the country’s decision-making process. (Community leaders are calling for them to be involved in the planning for any films about the children’s experiences.)

These groups have engaged in strikes, boycotts, and marches to highlight their cause. The Coordinating Group for Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon (OPIAC) have held forums for Indigenous people such as the Huitoto to engage in discussion and collective action.

Within Colombia itself, a key actor has been the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (ICBF or Colombian Institute for Family Wellbeing). The government body focuses on the care and welfare of children throughout the country and critically has deep knowledge of diverse Indigenous cultural and child-rearing practices that it has integrated into its work. 

There is no doubt that safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with loving, responsive adults are critical to the flourishing of young children and their families globally. But no one way of child-rearing is the right way—so much depends on country, culture, community, and familial context.

The point is not that child-raising practices in the Global North are wrong. But it is important that early childhood development research, policy, and practice be inclusive of different models and approaches. The hope is that communities that don’t fit the model embraced in WEIRD societies can overcome the outside world’s insistence that they are somehow deficient in their child-raising practices. 

“I recently came across Martin Luther King’s famous quote about being ‘maladjusted,’” says Mezzenzana. King’s quote goes: “I must honestly say there are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized.”