Marcos Sorrentino/Simone Portugal /Moema Viezzer

The “Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility” was ratified at the First International Conference on Environmental Education, which was held in 1992 parallel to the first Earth Summit in Brazil. Twenty years later, we are still a long way from achieving the mutually agreed goals. In their article, the authors appeal to adult educators and environmental educators to combine forces in a worldwide network, and to work together to develop new approaches to learning and knowledge, and to proactively foster the creation of a wide range of alternative, self-determined, and sustainable forms of work and consumption.

REAJA! Environmental Education for Young People and Adults

Human values such as solidarity, dialogue, and respect for all forms of life – principles which we have inherited from the various philosophical, political, and spiritual traditions – represent challenges and options for us in the face of the baffling socioenvironmental changes that we are witnessing in societies all over the world today.

At the same time, the events shaping modern history are making it clear how urgent it has become for humanity to eliminate all forms of discrimination and prejudice, from the most subtle to the most brutal. Gender and environmentalist movements play a key role in the process of developing new levels of awareness (Castells, 1999). The present article seeks to discuss various aspects of endeavours toward this end.

Human societies must be willing and committed to implement changes that will ensure the future of the species. For changes to occur in behaviour and attitudes, however, permanent and continuous education is necessary in every facet of our daily lives. Although the need for close communication and cooperation in the various areas of education may seem obvious, records of events and reports contain too little evidence of dialogue between the environmental education sector and popular education for young people and adults.

Our aim in the following is to demonstrate the urgency that exists to integrate environmental education into education for young people and adults, and to foster closer cooperation and dialogue between the two areas in order to expand our perspectives on the issues and challenges referred to above.

Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility1

The Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility is an outcome of the First International Conference on Environmental Education, an event which took place in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, parallel to the Second United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which was held during that year’s Global Forum. The Treaty was drafted over the course of a year in a cooperative effort among adult, youth, and childhood educators from eight regions of the world (Latin America, North America, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia, the Arab States, Africa, and the South Pacific). It was initially published in five languages: Portuguese, French, Spanish, English, and Arabic.

Besides serving as a guideline for educational activities, the Treaty stimulated the creation of civil society organizations and networks within the framework of environmental education.

The following principles, as outlined in the Treaty, continue to inspire the work of countless Adult Education initiatives throughout the world today:

  1. Education is the right of all; we are all learners and educators.
  2. Environmental education, whether formal, non-formal or informal, should be grounded in critical and innovate thinking in any time or place, promoting the transformation and reconstruction of society.
  3. Environmental education is both individual and collective. It aims to develop local and global citizenship with respect to the self determination and the sovereignty of nations.
  4. Environmental education is not neutral but is value based. It is an act for social transformation.
  5. Environmental education must involve a holistic approach and thus an interdisciplinary focus in the relations between human beings, nature and the universe.
  6. Environmental education must stimulate solidarity, equality, and respect human rights involving democratic strategies and an open climate of cultural interchange.
  7. Environmental education should treat critical global issues, their causes and interrelationships with a systemic approach and within their social and historical contexts. Fundamental issues in relation to development and the environment such as population, health, peace, human rights, democracy, hunger, degradation of flora and fauna, should be perceived in this manner.
  8. Environmental education must facilitate equal partnerships in the processes of decision-making at all levels and stages.
  9. Environmental education must recover, recognize, respect, reflect, and utilize indigenous history and local cultures, as well as promoting cultural, linguistic, and ecological diversity. This implies acknowledging the historical perspective of native peoples as a way to change ethnocentric approaches, as well as the encouragement of bilingual education.
  10. Environmental education should empower all peoples and promote opportunities for grassroots democratic change and participation. This means that communities must regain control of their own destiny.
  11. Environmental education values all different forms of knowledge. Knowledge is diverse, cumulative, and socially produced, and should not be patented or monopolized.
  12. Environmental education must be designed to enable people to manage conflicts in just and humane ways.
  13. Environmental education must stimulate dialogue and cooperation among individuals and institutions in order to create new lifestyles which are based on meeting everyone’s basic need, regardless of ethnic group, gender, age, religious, class, physical, or mental differences.
  14. Environmental education requires a democratization of the mass media and its commitment to the interests of all sectors of society. Communication is an inalienable right and the mass media must be transformed into one of the main channels of education, not only by disseminating information on an egalitarian basis, but also through the exchange of means, values and experiences.
  15. Environmental education must integrate knowledge, skills, values, attitudes, and actions. It should convert every opportunity into an educational experience for sustainable societies.
  16. Education must help develop an ethical awareness of all forms of life with which humans share this planet, respect all life cycles, and impose limits on human exploitation of other forms of life.2

The Treaty was reviewed and updated in 2006, at the Fifth Ibero-American Congress on Environmental Education, which was convened in the Brazilian city of Joinville (State of Santa Catarina). It was also the subject of a workshop held by the International Council for Adult Education (ICAE) in 2007, in Nairobi, Kenya, and was presented in Ahmadabad, India at the international conference which marked the completion of 30 years of the first international Environmental Education conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. These international events confirmed the continuing validity of the Treaty, paving the way for the Second International Conference on Environmental Education.

Considering that the year 2012, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Treaty, also represents a culmination point in history, the participants of the first conference decided to schedule the second conference in that year not only in recognition of the need for ongoing follow-up and periodic evaluation of the Treaty, but also as a symbolic act and a political opportunity to use the occasion of the year to set the course that humanity should follow in coming generations. All the projections and scenarios that have been sketched for the future, from the Mayan prophecies to the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and, last but not least, the decision on the part of the UN and the Brazilian government to hold the conference, point to the importance of this moment.

From now until 2012, it will be up to the organizations of civil society together with university faculties, the State and other social actors, to take up the challenge and, in a process of debate and public action, to lead the efforts to bring environmental education into the forefront of public policy.

Adult and Youth Education from the Perspective of Environmental Education

The quest for human and social transformation and the incentive to build equitable and ecologically balanced societies, in accordance with the objectives set forth in the Treaty, require us to address the causes of human and social degradation from a global and systemic perspective, while at the same time taking local realities into consideration. To achieve the kind of world envisaged in the treaty demands that we promote cultural diversity, that we recognize and respect diverse forms of knowledge, and that we create alternatives for life based on self-determination in matters relating to labour, resources, and knowledge, and sustainable modes of production and consumption.

Environmental education “aims to develop local and global citizenship with respect for self-determination and the sovereignty of nations”, and must “act to eradicate sexist, racist and other prejudices, as well as contribute to the promotion of (...) territorial rights”.3

Equally important is the role played by public policies in environmental education and adult and youth education in order to ensure the right to education without discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnic origin, class, sexual orientation, and religion. There is a need to bring stakeholders together to develop synergies in the implementation of activities, and to encourage exchange of information so as to stimulate reflection and improve the different modes of practice.

It is essential for us to develop critical awareness of this present and existential situation, and to reflect on modes of being and interacting in the world when we concern ourselves with educational action and policies, because

“to exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming”. (Freire, 2000, p. 88)

Besides being a generative theme, environment in a social context is an issue that can and must encourage processes of literacy learning and continuous education. It has the potential to reinforce acquired skills by incorporating them in an ongoing process of learning, thereby fostering the continuity of literacy within the world and for the “world of life”.

The demand for environmental education in adult and youth education is evident from a look at recent documents (Haugen, 2006; Merriam et al., 2006; Schemmann, 2007; Soriano, 2007; Tanvir, 2007). At the same time, these documents show an under-representation of environmental issues in the adult and youth education sector. These considerations point to the urgent need to more closely connect the two fields. The following observations in particular emerge from our analysis:

Various texts and authors explicitly, albeit generally, acknowledge the need to include environmental issues and environmental education in adult and youth training programmes.

There is a conspicuous lack of concepts, methods, techniques, and materials on environmental education in adult and youth education. Many texts and authors fail to mention them at all, and only very few describe them in any detail.

Only a minimal number of texts and authors point out examples of concrete activities and proposals for including environmental education in adult and youth education programmes.

REAJA: A Network of Environmental Education for Youth and Adults

The heading of this section sums up the proposal presented in the following paragraphs. It is a call for adult and youth educators to combine forces with environmental educators so that through interaction they can complement one another in achieving their objectives.

Besides being the Portuguese acronym for “Environmental Education Network for Youth and Adults” (Rede de Educação Ambiental de Jovens e Adultos), REAJA, as the imperative form of the Portuguese verb reagir (to react), is a call to action, an exhortation to act, to synergize action, to seize the challenge of building a better world, both individually and collectively. It is an invitation to take action in response to the tide of despair and authoritarian or eschatological solutions and to encourage and support young people and adults in every country and community on our planet to become environmentally literate and to take up the cause of protecting our environment. It is a petition to involve all citizens in permanent and continuous lifelong education, and to combine forces with all the relevant stakeholders to achieve that goal.

The point is to learn to “read the world and the word”, as Paulo Freire tells us; to improve the conditions of life and the systems that support life; to become qualified for jobs that are sustainable, and to promote the construction of sustainable societies; to come to know and transform the environment as a way to improve personal existence, but also as an act of solidarity with life, both human and non-human, and both near and far in time and space. In other words, we must learn to promote lifelong education as an instrument for the survival of life, an instrument that permits us to keep on improving life from day to day for each and every individual who lives on this “small and still beautiful planet”.

Without environmental education it will not be possible for us to respond to the anticipated global socio-environmental changes that are already taking place. Without adult and youth education, it will not be possible to achieve the Millennium Goals and the objectives of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development – goals and objectives which the nations of our world have also deemed to be of high priority in many other conventions and programmes.

The present time, accordingly, is a good opportunity for us to consider and discuss the relevance of and need for environmental education in training for young people and adults. As we approach the Second International Conference on the Treaty of Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility, it is an important opportunity for us to identify possible points of convergence.

To overcome different forms of imperialism, colonialism, armed invasion, and cultural oppression, to reach the goal of universal primary education, to reduce infant mortality, increase life expectancy, secure democracy and guarantee the right to vote, are all regarded as achievements for humanity. But such achievements have yet to be attained in many communities and countries of the world. And where they have, they come with a package of “modernity”, (the hyper-consumerist form of capitalism which Gilles Lypovetsky discusses in his book Le bonheur paradoxal / Paradoxical Happiness). This type of capitalism homogenizes cultures and eliminates diversity (substituting an “I-it” relationship for the “I-Thou” relationship, as Martin Buber phrases it). It endangers the survival of the entire human race. It has led to the extinction or degradation of various peoples and languages, as well as countless species and natural systems.

Young people and adults will be called upon more and more frequently to defend and protect their environment, to conserve and preserve the surroundings where they live, and to build their dreams of the future. Without them we will not be able to provide our children with education, nor will we be able to create the conditions they need to teach themselves.

Can the fragmentary data that has been collected on “global warming” wake us up to the connections that exist between what is happening and the lifestyle that has become characteristic of contemporary society? Or will the mass media portrayal of the phenomenon, the excess of information and consumer individualism, move us farther away from individual and collective action for change for the common good and public welfare?

How can it be that there are still governments of entire countries, large-scale corporations, and different civil society organizations around the globe which do not invest in Adult Education? And how can we continue to ignore the subject Environment in education for young people and adults?

These questions raise still others: How can we open up local and global spaces to reflect on our reality in terms of society and the environment in a way that will make adult and youth education “education for life”, the kind of education that can truly improve the quality of life for humanity as a whole and for each of us as an individual. How can we transform adult and youth education into a prerequisite for every other type of education and for every development, cultural, and social programme and project? How can we keep adult and youth education from being restricted solely to learning the basic skills of literacy and arithmetic alongside a few other bits of general knowledge?

What Are our Hopes for Adult and Youth Education?

It is our hope that the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility will be widely disseminated and implemented so that it reaches a high level of public awareness and stimulates critical debate; that it will promote participatory commitment on the part of the public as well as on the part of environmental educators and the social groups with whom they work. It is our hope, in particular, that adult and youth education will foster reflection and debate on the different socio-environmental realities both locally and globally, and that it will lead to individual and collective commitment to initiatives that are working to transform society for the common good in terms of conservation, environmental rehabilitation and improvement, and the quality of life for everyone. In this sense, it is our hope that adult and youth education will:

  1. foster dialogue and critical debate among young people and adults on socioenvironmental reality and ways for individual and collective participation to build sustainable societies;
  2. utilize the Treaty on Environmental Education and the time from now until the Rio +20 Earth Summit in 2012 as an opportunity to form participatory learning circles on environment and the quality of life, and relate the treaty to other global charters for a sustainable future, in particular the Earth Charter; and
  3. promote the building and/or strengthening of educator collectives so as to unite and combine the efforts of environmental and educational organizations, and elaborate and implement territorial projects that focus on political education oriented to synergizing concerted efforts of popular environmental educators and a wide variety of other social actors.

Public policies on environmental education must not be monocultural. It does not suffice for us to find good concepts and treat them as if they were the only ones that are sound. We must rather deal with, in, and for a diversity of stakeholders and their needs, demands, ideas, and alternatives for solutions in terms of conservation, environmental rehabilitation and improvement, and the quality of life for each and every human being, species, society, and ecosystem.

Examples of efforts which have been following this aim in Brazil’s school system over the past decade include: the national curriculum plan (Plano Curricular Nacional PCN), curriculum action plans (Planos Curriculares PCNs em Ação), commissions to promote environmental education and quality of life in the school system (Com-Vidas Comissões de Meio Ambiente e Qualidade de Vida nas Escolas), sequential environmental education programmes (Educação Ambiental Seqüencial), the national children and youth conference on environment (Conferência Nacional Infanto-Juvenil de Meio Ambiente), transversal projects and studies, environmental education centres, environmental working groups, art-based environmental initiatives, ecology clubs, and the re-adoption of a decision that had previously been put aside to make environmental education a discipline in its own right.

In the nonformal education sector, there are other projects that merit mention: green rooms (environmental education telecentros); educator collectives (together with a diversity of social actors); environmental management training initiatives; measures to acquaint people with the procedures for obtaining environmental permits; environmental education in conservation units; participatory learning circles on environment and quality of life; measures to build awareness about environmental legislation and supervision. These examples represent only a few of the many positive efforts that are being undertaken.

Despite all these initiatives, we still cannot make the simple claim that we are all “environmentally educated”.

Education is a process. As such, it must be permanent and continuous. It must be a lifetime process that is realised in an articulated manner by all the institutions and people who are involved in every facet of our existence. It is a process that must always seek to include every participant in every space of life.

Neither the State nor isolated and rivalling institutions that compete with one another for the few souls that are interested and involved in environmental education can be expected to work a miracle that will turn us into environmentally educated people.

It is the role of public policy on environmental education to bring together all the different actors who can contribute to the process, and to stimulate them, within the limits of their individual realities and their objective and subjective potential, to synergize their efforts and exchange information so as to improve their practice and concepts. The object must be to foster integrated and integrating action and to encourage the greatest diversity of constructive initiatives that will enable every sphere to do its part to advance the cause of environmental education.

Our actions must proceed from local reality. They must be based on synchronic and diachronic solidarity, and must be constant and continuous. In other words, we must work together in solidarity to conserve and improve the quality of life for each and every one of us who are presently sharing this planet, and for all those who will be sharing it in the future. This is what makes it important to search for sustainable modes of production and consumption.

Since its inception, the World Social Forum has insisted that “Another World is Possible”. Many uncertainties have arisen over the feasibility of this affirmation, especially in the face of the ongoing global financial and economic crisis, the socio-environmental changes associated with global warming, the persistence of wars and military spending on every continent in the world, the growing numbers of people living at or below the poverty line, and so many other disheartening trends.

But just as in Portuguese the word vida (life) is imbedded in the word dúvida (doubt), and considering the fact that where there is life there is always doubt as well as hope, it is, indeed, possible for us to believe that another world is possible, and that other human societies are possible. But such societies must be built by people in the course of their daily lives, both now and in the future.

It is crucial that every school be transformed into a centre that provides permanent lifelong education parallel and complementary to schooling for young people and adults. Above all, however, these centres must facilitate access to education in the spirit of the cultural circles proposed by Paulo Freire.

By anchoring the kind of cultural circles or participatory learning groups that focus on environment and the quality of life within our schools and other public and community facilities, we can create opportunities for people to critically examine their environment and learn how to leverage their individual and collective power to act.

If we work to strengthen society’s grassroots organizations, and encourage them to form collective learning groups that collaborate in all the different regions of every country; if our institutions cooperate with the inhabitants of these regions to realize participatory models of political education projects, we will succeed in shaping and implementing public policies committed to environmental sustainability.

The organization of learning communities and learning circles to promote the training of popular environmental educators, and the creation of a global network of all stakeholders to facilitate and strengthen contacts and initiatives on the part of environmental education for young people and adults, are good places to start. REAJA is a step in that direction.


Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Translated by Ronald G. Smith. New York: Scribner’s, 1958; New York: Collier Books, 1987.

Castells, Manuel. A Era da Informação: economia, sociedade e cultura [The age of information: economy, society and culture], 3 Volumes, São Paulo: Paz e Terra, 1999.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Haugen, Caitlin Secrest. Environmental Adult Educator Training: Suggestions for Effective Practice. In Convergence. Montevideo: ICAE. Volume XXXIX, no. 4, 2006. pp. 91-106.

Lipovetsky, Gilles. A Felicidade Paradoxal [Paridoxical Happiness]. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2007.

Merriam, Sharan B; Courtenay, Bradley C.; Cervero, Ronald M. Temas Mundiales y Educación de Adultos: Perspectivas para América Latina, Sur de África, y Estados Unidos [Global issues and adult education: perspectives from Latin America, Southern Africa and the United States]. In Convergence. Montevideo: ICAE. Volume XXXIX, no. 4, 2006. pp.142-144.

Schemmann, Michael. CONFINTEA V desde la perspectiva de la organización política mundial [CONFINTEA V from the world polity perspective]. In Convergence. Montevideo: ICAE. Volume XL, no. 3-4, 2007. pp.167-179.

Soriano, Cecilia. Desafíos de la alfabetización de personas adultas: las 7 M [Adult literacy challenge. The 7 Ms]. In Convergence. Montevideo: ICAE. Volume XL, no. 3-4, 2007. pp.193-201.

Sorrentino, Marcos; Portugal, Simone; Viezzer, Moema. Educação Ambiental de Jovens e Adultos – EAJA – A Educação de Jovens e Adultos à Luz do Tratado de Educação Ambiental para Sociedades Sustentáveis e Responsabilidade Global. [Environmental education for youth and adults – EYA – education for youth and adults in the light of the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility] Revista LatinoAmericana de Educación y Política La Piragua. CEAAL no. 29, II, 2009.

Tanvir, Mohammad Muntasim. Más allá de la retórica: una receta para la acción de la sociedad civil sobre la alfabetización. [Beyond Rhetoric: A Recipe for Civil Society Action on Literacy] In Convergence. Montevideo: ICAE. Volume XL, no. 3-4, 2007. pp.137-150.

Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility.

Viezzer, Moema; Ovalles, Omar; Trajber, Rachel. Manual Latino-Americano de Educação Ambiental [Latin American Handbook on Environmental Education], São Paulo: Editora Gaia, 1995.


1 Parts of the following section are taken from the article “Educación ambiental de jóvenes y adultos – EAJA –: la educación de jóvenes y adultos a la luz del Tratado de Educación Ambiental para Sociedades Sostenibles y Responsabilidad Global”La Piragua, 2009. [Environmental education for youth and adults – EYA – education for youth and adults in the light of the Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility], written by the same authors and published in the Latin American journal on education and politics La Piragua, 2009.
3 Treaty on Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility.

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