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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


This paper, prepared jointly by the Organization of American States, the United Nations for Education, Science and Culture, and the Ministry of Education of Colombia, presents a picture of the process involved in building the concept of sustainable development and the education required to achieve this type of development in the Americas.  It is based on the conviction that if we are to advance in efforts to achieve sustainability, the underlying concepts must be better understood and adapted to the natural, cultural, social, and economic reality of the Hemisphere. Moreover, the type of development we seek must be clarified, adopting the problems inherent in the present social structures as a point of departure, and identifying the changes that must be made to ensure that the process is appropriately redirected.

This document analyzes the major international commitments assumed by Governments over the past 25 years to ensure sustainability and the way that the region has reacted to them. In the South, these commitments produced the foundation for “Latin American environmental thought.” In the North, they led to a new appreciation of the contributions indigenous cultures have made to sustainability.  We also refer to the advance of environmental education in Latin America during the period, and how that process has evolved into a new understanding of the logic underlying harmonious relations between society and nature.

In discussing the relationship between education and sustainable development, the paper identifies major points of convergence. The central theme of this relationship incorporates various concepts: intergenerational responsibility; sustainability as a system; the view of sustainable development as a process; indicators that must be built to evaluate this process, questions that may help in evaluating sustainability; subjective indicators of quality of life; and, the need to design and implement strategies to ensure that proposals conform to existing circumstances.

Education for sustainable development in the regional context of Latin America and the Caribbean is best approached by examining the biodiversity of the region, including its cultural and ethnic manifestations, its ecosystems, species, and genetic resources, as well as differing views, narratives, and conflicts. The sustainable development of the region can only be conceived and designed on the basis of this biodiversity, and we can only understand ourselves in terms of the natural and cultural processes of which we are both a part and a product.

In North America, education for sustainable development must evaluate the proper balance to be struck between economic growth on the one hand and income distribution on the other as means to achieve greater social equity.  The culturally dominant definition of success, as access to material goods and services, with a heavy emphasis on consumption, must also be re-examined.

Within this framework, education must give priority to the exchange of knowledge, the use of our capacity to communicate with each other and with our environment, the development of sensitivity, and a reassessment of the ways we acquire knowledge and interrelate.

All of this must be placed in an ethical framework of sustainability, and in the context of an analysis that links global concepts with the local situation and defines guidelines for gender-based, interethnic, and intergenerational equity.

In order for the process of building a sustainable society to make concrete advances in the region, certain theoretical and practical elements must be further developed.  Their direct implications for actions to be taken in the field of education, in keeping with the goals of sustainability, must be specified.

For instance, the concept, practice, and scope of environmental education for sustainable development will need to be enhanced and expanded. Real opportunities and mechanisms for the participation of all sectors and agents in the community will need to be established and tailored to local situations.  Processes for teaching everyone about a new concept and an integral, complex, and interdisciplinary view of life in all its manifestations will have to be fostered.

This transformation will also require strategies in the area of ideas, organization, participation, and action.  We therefore present a series of operational proposals, together with various steps that can and should be taken by Ministries and Secretariats of Education in the Americas.  These actions should be undertaken in cooperation with other sectors and with the participation of communities at local, national, subregional, and regional levels.