OP-ED: LATIN AMERICA: Ecological Chaos: How Educational Systems Can Help

Latin American environmental sustainability education is crucial. It is time to develop a generation that understands and addresses the damage. 
Photo (c) Eco Portal 2017Latin American environmental sustainability education is crucial. It is time to develop a generation that understands and addresses the damage. Photo (c) Eco Portal 2017

By Amanda Sparks – Problems with our environment are by no means exclusive to Latin America. It is global – disappearance of entire species, holes in the ozone, ocean warming, ecosystems destroyed, air barely breathable. The pollution that man has wrought through energy use, overpopulation, greed, and failure of governments to act is literally killing the planet. Ocean warming alone has brought two recent devastating hurricanes, one week apart, with more on the way.

And it is not that all nations of the world are not aware of and attempting to address the ecological problems we face as a human race. The UN has numerous departments and sub-organizations that are dedicated to environmental issues; the Paris Climate Accord is certainly a step toward reducing CO2 emissions. But environmental issues go beyond just air pollution. We are destroying our oceans; we are destroying our fresh water supplies; we are eliminating entire species of plant and animal life. How much our planet can take is still up for question, but scientists have been very clear. Either we get on this now or we will soon reach a point of no return.

We have precious little time to reverse the damage we have caused, and it will be up to the coming generations to repair what their parents and grandparents have ignored. We need politicians, scientists, and entire populations with a commitment to the environment. That commitment can only come through environment-based education in our schools. While educational systems have little influence over government and laws, they do have a major influence on the children and young adults they teach, and this is how change will come.

What Our Schools Need to Do

Photo (c) Venezuela Analysis 2014

Schools must raise citizens who are committed to and who know how to become stewards of the environment. Photo (c) Venezuela Analysis 2014

Schools must raise citizens who are committed to and who know how to become stewards of the environment. And just raising awareness through classroom curriculum is not enough.

Students must be given opportunities to tackle local environmental issues in their communities and to pressure local and national politicians.

Through these activities, all students will become better environmental citizens, but many will also internalize a commitment that leads them to higher education in environmental sciences. The more the better.

Beginning with Object Lessons

Photo (c) NY Books 2000

In 2016, Martino was commissioned by UNESCO to prepare a report on education and the environment in Latin America and to make recommendations based upon the current status of environmental education and what could be done to enhance it. Photo (c) NY Books 2000

Among the social factors influencing education in all Latin-American countries is urbanization. In fact, according to Diego Martino, researcher on education and the environment, Latin-American and Caribbean cities now contain 80% of the populations of those countries. This makes the region the most heavily urbanized of the world.

In 2016, Martino was commissioned by UNESCO to prepare a report on education and the environment in Latin America and to make recommendations based upon the current status of environmental education and what could be done to enhance it. This report lays out a framework for environment education in urban school systems.

Children in urban schools must be given opportunities to explore the ecosystems of green spaces in urban settings, and it is up to local governments to provide those green spaces, through urban parks. These parks can provide early exposure to nature and to the interdependence of all species of plant and animal life. Important basic concepts can be instilled through object lessons, and elementary children can begin to see how important it is to maintain ecosystems.

In those urban areas that are on coasts, environmental object lessons related to ocean environments can also be incorporated.

The goal of these object lessons is to form behaviors in young children that will promote environmental sustainability in the future.

Curriculum in Upper Grades

Photo (c) Intercoonecta 2017

Deforestation also destroys entire biodiverse ecosystems, because more than half of global species (plant and animal) live in tropical rainforests. Photo (c) Intercoonecta 2017

Education for the environment should be an integral part of any upper elementary and secondary school curriculum. Consider all of the environmental issues that Latin American countries face. These issues can be incorporated into life science, sociology, and political science coursework, because this coursework all relates to environmental initiatives that need to take place.

Here are just a few of the issues that must be addressed as schools look toward education for the environment.

  1. Deforestation

It is estimated that deforestation produces more carbon dioxide that the entire amount produced by all of the vehicles in the world – about 15% actually. The biological explanation is that as each tree is felled, all of its stored CO2 goes immediately into the atmosphere.

And we reward deforestation. The trees are worth more dead than alive, and loggers in areas such as the Amazon basin results in good income for poor residents.

Deforestation also destroys entire biodiverse ecosystems, because more than half of global species (plant and animal) live in tropical rainforests.

Students of biology need to understand how using less land for such things as coffee and meat production can reduce deforestation and how this can be done using the newest agricultural technology and science.

It’s important that biology students in schools are provided opportunities to conduct research on deforestation and produce essays and papers that demonstrate their understanding of the challenges that lie ahead for their generation.

  1. Rising Oceans and Water Temperatures

The recent hurricanes should be enough evidence that something must be done about global warming. Here are just a few of the other issues involved.

  • The Mesoamerican Reef is just over 600 miles stretching across Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. It is home to over 500 species of fish, 60 species of coral, and more than 350 types of other animals. These coral reefs are being bleached by warming ocean temperatures, and the algae that keep this ecosystem alive are dying.
  • Rising temperatures has also meant that tropical glaciers are melting at a rapid rate. The Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru, for example, is melting so fast that it threatens the fresh water supply for that country in the future.
  • Weather is obviously an issue with warming ocean waters.

How scientists will be able to stem the tide of the devastation from ocean warming and reduction in fresh water supplies is still unknown. But what schools must do is ensure that students understand the full ramifications of these issues and what every individual can do to participate in the slowing of this damage.

  1. Lack of Government Intervention and Regulation

Another major issue relates to the slowness with which governments are responding to environmental issues. Mining in dumping huge amounts of toxic chemicals into water supplies, especially in Chile and El Salvador; Over-fishing is wiping out entire species; illegal hunting, such as shark fins and alligators, goes largely unchecked; bad waste management has resulted in large toxic landfills.

Schools need to address these issues in their political science courses, so that students are aware of the departments and legislators responsible for fixing these issues and enforcing what regulations do exist. With enough emphasis on the critical role of government, perhaps some will be motivated to careers in government/politics with a commitment to these environmental issues.

Higher Education to Promote Environmental Studies

Photo (c) EMOL 2017

Programs in political science will also produce graduates with a major commitment to improving governmental structures. Photo (c) EMOL 2017

There are many universities in Latin America that are considered premier institutions of higher learning around the world. And within Latin American populations, the percentage of students, aged 18-24 who have enrolled in university programs has more than doubled since 2000. While Brazil dominates the field of high quality research programs, there are many universities in other countries that are progressing at rapid rates, particularly in the hard sciences.

Environmental studies are offered in all major universities, and this bodes well for future work on climate change and reversing the current devastating impact of pollution and global warming in the region.

Programs in political science will also produce graduates with a major commitment to improving governmental structures. This will, of course, include intervention into environmental issues – they are a critical element in the future growth, prosperity, and sustainability of the region as a whole.

Conclusion

Photo (c) Peru 21 2017

Latin America faces its own regional environmental issues, as do all regions of the world. Photo (c) Peru 21 2017

Environmental issues are global. But every region of the world must be a participant in reducing the impact of man-made damage to this planet.

Latin America faces its own regional environmental issues, as do all regions of the world. But efforts to address regional problems will contribute to the larger global picture.

The responsibility of the educational systems in Latin America is clear. It is time to develop a generation that understands the damage that has been done, that understands the critical importance of addressing that damage, and that is ready to work tirelessly to develop the political, economic, and social solutions that will ensure a cleaner planet for the future.

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About the Author:

Amanda Sparks is a professional writer and blogger at Huffington Post. She believes that the protection of our environment is the ultimate role of the society.