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Environmental Education: a quest for Autonomy, Citizenship and Social Justice – The case of Latin America

2002, by Marcos REIGOTA

In this text written by Yolanda Ziaka we present an approach to Environmental Education used by Professor Marcos Reigota, a teacher at the Department of Education at Sorocaba University, Brazil. It gives priority to political, philosophical and cultural concepts as well as to autonomy, citizenship and social justice.

This analysis includes a critical approach of the method of development used in Latin America, of the exploitation of natural resources dictated by the colonizing countries, of the genocide and the depreciation of indigenous cultures.

In Brazil, Environmental Education is considered by many educators as political education to promote citizen participation in the search for solutions to ecological, local, regional and global problems. This approach goes hand in hand with the attempt by the new generation of intellectuals to go beyond the ambiguity of their relationship with cultural, political and economic centers and their nationalist positions, so that they can confront the challenges of today: globalization, ecological problems and the claims of indigenous populations.

At the beginning of the ecological movement in Latin America, arguments were put forward in favor of the citizen participation. It was associated with the claim for democracy, especially in countries subject to military regimes whose development policies were implemented by technocrats. Now, this argument is no longer limited to groups opposed to dictators, and citizen participation cannot stem populist policies or other policies aimed at transferring government responsibilities to the people. Citizen participation is understood as meaning the autonomous action of individuals and groups at national and global level.

The starting point of this approach, interpreted in different ways in Brazil, is that Environmental Education must not lose sight of complex problems (political, ecological, social and economic) that occur in the short, medium and long terms. As for values of autonomy, citizenship and social justice, they are considered as the basic principles of education. They are not goals to be achieved in a remote future; they must be built every day not only within pedagogical relations, but also within affective and social ones.

Autonomy characterizes an individual who is clearly aware of his specificity in a collective society. For the author, education, whether it be formal, informal or environmental, is only complete when the person learning can, at the major moments in his life, be autonomous, independent, think and act for himself. However, this approach is little included and developed in the main educational institutions, and those who participate in education are not all adepts to this principle.

Citizenship occupies an important place in the education debates in Brazil. When we talk about citizenship, we are attempting to place the human being in the political sphere, in contrast with other viewpoints emphasized principally in mass media that sometimes consider the citizen a "taxpayer" and, at other times, a "consumer". Citizens are more than mere consumers (and more than their rights and obligations in relation to the products they buy) or taxpayers (and more than their right and obligations in relation to the taxes they pay).

We cannot think of citizenship without thinking of school, in the sense of an educational, political and philosophical project in which students are given suitable training to enable them to address the political and ecological challenges of our times.
The idea of citizenship, based on political equality among all members of a nation, has been enriched by claims for the right to be different, resulting from the ever-increasing political participation of social groups (homosexuals, blacks, women, indigenous peoples, youth, the elderly, etc.) who have organized on the basis of specific proposals and have broken with the hegemony of a uniform discourse.

In our continuous demand for local and immediate citizenship, we should incorporate the perspective of a more abstract, extensive and scattered citizenship as the idea of a planetary citizenship. We need to expand the real and imaginary frontiers and limits of the specific space of our global intervention and responsibility. In such a global and local context, Environmental Education involves expanding our limits, as well as our immediate limits for political action and participation.
The question of social justice is essential in a society such as that in Brazil, characterized by enormous social, economic and cultural differences. It will only become a just society when there is equitable distribution of the social and cultural goods that it produces. This means that we must consider those who are "different" as such, and not as "equals". A just society would take into account the actual economic and social differences among those who complete the second stage of education, and would give priority, or would reserve a certain number of scholarships for those with a lower level of social conditions, in order to obtain a common asset: the free and public university. This example is controversial, just as nearly all positions that view the standardization and equitable distribution of social goods for the complementation and maintenance of social justice.

The idea of social justice also appears in the definition of sustainable development, which implicitly includes concern for justice and ethics of the present and future generations. But the term "sustainable development" has become banal and its deeper meaning remains unclear for the vast majority of the world’s population. Social justice is not simply a local or national problem, it should be situated in the globalized world in which all relationships have distinct results and consequences in different parts of the world. In that sense, diverse action aimed at attaining worldwide sustainability will only respond to the political and ecological challenges of our times if they include claims for social justice in their arguments.
We also insist on the fact that the quest for autonomy and social justice of those who develop political thoughts and actions in a space that is both local and global, constitutes at the same time a fight against the monolithic, homogenous, conformist and neocolonialist thought that has once again gained dominance at the present time. Much work lies ahead for Environmental Education that underscores the three inseparable elements of autonomy, citizenship, and social justice. Such an education must increasingly expand its arguments and practices. It is our only hope for considering the possibility of building a sustainable society.

Sources: "Global Ecology and Environmental Education in Latin America", Marcos Reigota, in Environmental Training, Vol. 5, N° 11, UNEP, 1994 (Mexico).
"Environmental Education: Autonomy, Citizenship and Social Justice", Marcos Reigota, in Environmental Training, Vol. 10, N° 22, UNEP, 1998 (Mexico).

Note: Text written by Yolanda Ziaka on the basis of Marcos Reigota papers mentioned above, also published in Environmental Education for the 21st Century, (2000, Polis-INEE) and in the bulletin “Dialogues for Environmental Education”.