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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

Participation and Action

Participation was the thematic core of the “United Nations Development Program 1993 Report on Human Development”. The UNDP report focuses on the existence of the following “five new pillars for a new world order centered on people:”
1. New concepts of human security stressing the security of people, and not only that of nations.

2. New sustainable human development strategies focused on development at the service of people rather than focused on people at the service of development.

3. New relationships between the State and markets, in order to combine market efficiency with social cooperation.

4. New governmental policies at national and global levels.

5. New mechanisms of international cooperation for the purpose of directing assistance to people’s needs rather than to governments’ preferences.24
These intentions bring to mind the statement made a year earlier at the Rio Summit. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration asserted:
The best method for dealing with environmental issues is through the participation of all concerned citizens at appropriate levels. At the national level, every person should have adequate access to all relevant environmental information available through public authorities. Citizens should have access to information about materials and activities that may be harmful to their communities, as well as the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. Nation states should facilitate and foster public sensitivity and participation by making information available to all.
Principles 20 and 21 of this Declaration incorporate the need for women and young people to participate in processes intended to construct sustainable development.

Apparently, consensus concerning the need to participate as a requirement of sustainability exists, especially, when we take a closer look at the actions proposed by Agenda 21, which stress wide and varied public participation in decision-making. The question is, how can we participate?

Once more, facts take us to questions: Who is called upon to participate? What for? How? When? Through what mechanisms?

A focus on facts also reveals that in many instances people are asked to participate (or to be present) when it is no longer possible to modify the course of decision-making or to influence the processes that circumscribe it. At times, a lack of education and information is used as an excuse to deny communities the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process. However, a community’s specific knowledge of its own context should make it uniquely qualified to contribute. Additionally, the education of a community could and should be strengthened through participation in public decision-making. Most importantly, those public authorities responsible for making decisions should be aware of their own need to review the criteria that they use to plan, execute and assess development. They should also take the steps necessary to prepare themselves to manage the concepts underlying sustainable development theoretically and practically

Thus, participation leading to action, and environmental education directed toward sustainable development, are two processes that should go hand-in-hand. In order for this to occur, however, a true political willingness to open participatory spaces for society’s diverse actors and sectors is required: a willingness to conceptualize democracy in real terms, supported by processes arising from the community itself. In addition, participation should be explicitly expressed in mechanisms and concrete means of lending legitimacy to the outcome of these processes without sacrificing their authenticity.

As an example of the progress made toward real community participation in the decision-making process, we can recall the “Ley de Participación Popular” issued in 1994 by the Bolivian government, and preceded by the preparatory work on a State general policy framework for sustainable development. The framework anticipated the creation, in 1992, of the Ministry of Sustainable Development and the Environment in Bolivia, as well as the policies on “Promoción de la participatión de la sociedad civil” in Colombia.25

The concepts of community and participation characteristic of Latin America and the Caribbean arise from the region’s cultural heritage, as illustrated in the writings of Popol Vuh (or the Maya Community Book), in the traditional Andean minkas, and in other examples of the thinking of indigenous communities, where work and participation for the common good represent the axis and purpose of collective actions.

Similarly, in North America, the practice of political democracy and a particpatory culture has deep roots in indigenous tradition. Thomas Jefferson, the drafter of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and a framer of the Constitution of the United States, borrowed liberally from the Iroquois League in seeking inspiration for a new political system. Both he and another framer, Benjamin Franklin, studied the League’s political practices and ultimately incorporated many of them into the basic documents for U.S. governance, including provisions for impeachment, referendum, recall, personal liberties, freedom of speech and religion, the principle of equality, division of power and popular rule.26 Moreover, the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations is frankly indebted to the Great Law of Peace, which governed the Iroquois Confederation in the eighteenth century.27

In reorienting education toward sustainability in our hemisphere, it is important to understand that indigenous peoples in the Americas maintained viable civilizations for thousands of years, guided by the principles of intergenerational equity and ecological balance. The members of the North American Iroquois League lived by the principle of accountability to the next seven generations for the condition of the lands and resources they passed down.

It is useful to note that these principles were not rooted in elaborate education systems, such as those we rely on today. Instead, they were deeply entrenched in culture, and were therefore observed and practiced by each member of society from an early age. Respected members of a community, from parents to elders to legendary heroes, lived in keeping with these principles. The principles were woven into religion, political decisions, food production, harvesting, and land management systems. This practice from the past strongly suggests, therefore, that reorienting formal education without an overarching transformation of the cultural context will not be enough to effect a change in our orientation toward the environment. Nonetheless, it is an important starting point.

Challenge for the Future
  • To create real spaces and participation tools for all community sectors, on the basis of local realities, traditions and customs; to articulate and support these processes through an approach to environmental education that encourages participation in pursuit of sustainable development.