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Number: 67
Year: 1999
Author: Eloísa Trellez Solís and Gustavo Wilches Chaux
Title: Education for a Sustainable Future in the Americas

The 1980s and Latin American Environmental Thought

Throughout the decade, the main strength of Latin American and Caribbean environmental thought expressed itself through the work done by CIFCA students and teachers, and by regional experts, aware of the need to promote environmental and developmental concepts and related educational applications in close relation to specific conditions in the countries of the Region. In this sense, the region truly originated a school of environmental thought.

At different times and from diverse approaches, distinguished Latin Americans have contributed the basic elements of environmental thought to both national and international discussions, applying concepts in the educational field through effective proposals implemented in the region.

In 1981, Latin America and the Caribbean set up the Network for Environmental Education in the region, established through UNEP, as an indication of the countries’ concern with the link between education and environmental processes. This network has performed a key role in the search for alternative educational proposals, as illustrated by the work produced at the “First International Meeting on the University and Environment in Latin America and the Caribbean,” convened jointly with UNESCO in Bogotá in 1985. At the meeting, participants discussed two important papers: “The Ten Theses on Environment in Latin America” and “The Bogotá Chapter on the University and the Environment.” Many of the statements contained in these papers are as valid today as they were years ago, when they created a close link between considerations regarding sustainable development and education. We believe it is worthwhile to mention some of them:
Excerpts from “Ten Theses on the Environment in Latin America”
In Latin American countries, the current international economic order has prescribed a model of development responsible for both the degradation of ecosystems and the impoverishment of most of the population. Methods of exploitation of natural resources result in an impairment larger than the regeneration possibilities of natural systems.

Latin America is endowed with natural riches sufficient to meet the basic needs of its population and with the ecological and human potential to bring about a sustainable development process. However, inadequate management of its resources has led to the destruction, or drastic alteration of its natural ecosystems.

Thus, the degradation of the environment’s potential for development is not the outcome of a demographic pressure on territory, rather, it is fundamentally due to the incorporation of technological patterns driven by a dependent, centralized and homogenizing development style.

The environment is seen as a potential for alternative egalitarian and sustainable development, based on the integrated management of its ecological, technological and cultural resources. This conception contrasts with the prevailing idea, that conceptualizes the environment as a restrictive factor or as an available natural resource, the degradation of which would be the unavoidable cost of development. Thus, Latin America has produced an original and indigenous school of thought where environmental issues are concerned.

In the final analysis, concrete solutions to environmental problems depend on a new organizational capacity of society as a whole, based on the cultural values of the community, on popular creativity and potential for innovation. These solutions cannot be implemented outside the framework of a political willingness to depart from economic, ideological and technological dependence, a framework that promotes conditions favorable to participatory and democratic management of natural resources.4
The statements make clear that the socioeconomic history underlying the environmental problems of Latin America is different in many ways from the framework of these same issues in North America. First, because the United States and Canada evolved rather than imported their development strategies, issues of sustainability are not so closely linked to questions of economic, ideological and technological dependence. Secondly, the North does not confront ecological disruption aggravated by imported production and consumption patterns, as the South does. The introduction of technologies and approaches to natural and human endowments that created environmental disturbances even in their native settings, often result in still greater disequilibrium when suddenly introduced into societies evolving from different socioeconomic structures.
Excerpt from the “Bogotá Chapter on the University and the Environment in Latin America”
The incorporation of the environmental dimension into higher education requires restatement of the role the University plays in society and in the contemporary world order that frames Latin American and Caribbean reality. The University’s significance and function as a laboratory for specific regional conditions of contemporary reality in the world context must be stressed (…)

Incorporation of the environmental issue into the university’s functions and the internationalization of the environmental dimension in the production of knowledge, poses again the issue of interdisciplinary themes that force us to transcend earlier pluridisciplinary efforts and methods. Among these questions is the need to decentralize both political power and economic processes, on the basis of environmental criteria, in order to encourage a more environmentally balanced regional process of sustainable development which, in this context, allows for a more democratic management of productive resources. Therein, global and complex problems would be addressed, such as the rationality of productive processes, the food-related problems of our peoples, the integrated management of our resources, the fulfillment of the basic needs of the population and the improvement of their quality of life.5
At this meeting in Bogotá, UNEP and UNESCO and all universities participating made a commitment to incorporate the environmental issue, from an interdisciplinary and global perspective, in all career programs and postgraduate studies in Latin America. We must recognize, however, that this commitment has not been fulfilled in the intervening years. A series of postgraduate programs on environmental and development issues alone has been created, but the courses are uneven in quality. Moreover, environmental considerations have yet to become part of university-level studies in general and, as a result, of the professional profile of university graduates.

Reasons for this vary, although the unmodified and compartmentalized university structure, operationalized in rigid disciplinary educational processes and resistant to change is among the most obvious. Academic activities, themselves, have been characterized by this parallelism, while inroads toward interdisciplinary approaches and the construction of new knowledge have generally been met with lack of understanding and rejection.

Despite these difficulties, the process moves forward. The Directory of Latin American Environmental Educational Institutions and Programs, issued in 1995 by the UNEP Regional Office for Latin America and the Network for Environmental Education, listed 156 programs related to environmental and sustainable development issues, which are currently offered by 85 institutions in the region. Advances achieved in this educational process, however, should be consolidated through a deeper insight and better understanding of the integration of knowledge, the construction of new environmental knowledge and its articulation with sustainable development.

In the North, until very recently, university-level programs in environmental issues also tended to compartmentalize the field into disciplines mastered by scientists and technical experts. This strict division created discrete information fiefdoms in the university and relegated to government the role of mediating between them. Thus, both the politics and the academics of the environment became increasingly fragmented and elitist.

In 1987, however, a milestone event occurred in the international arena, which established a foundation for democratizing the environmental question once again. The Brundtland Commission, which had been established in 1984, issued the report “Our Common Future”. For the first time, this report contained the basic definition of sustainable development, now widely used, which served as a point of reference for the organization of the 1992 Rio Summit:
Sustainable development is development that allows for the fulfillment of current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to fulfill their own needs.
  • To study the scope and influence of “Latin American environmental thought” and determine its potential for contributing to sustainable development in the region.
  • To outline its future evolution and capacity to contribute to the construction of new knowledge and to the restructuring of educational processes, through the promotion of inter and transdisciplinary research, both at university and community levels.
  • To conduct these activities with a view to educating new types of professionals, committed to providing guidance, from within their own fields of action, for the reorientation of the region’s current development toward authentic sustainability.
  • To broaden the applications of Latin American environmental thought to include North American social and ecological systems.