Inclusive environmental education for civil society in multicultural cities

From left to right:

Julio César Tovar-Gálvez
Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

María Esther Téllez-Acosta
Antonio Nariño University

Diana Martínez Pachón
Antonio Nariño University




Abstract – Bogotá in Colombia is a multicultural city. How can one develop inclusive environmental education processes in a city like this? Inclusion here means recognising people and their experiences, validating different forms of knowledge and ways of producing knowledge, as well as learning and acting together. This article proposes a set of principles and a pedagogical alternative, explained through examples of specific processes.

Environmental education is a challenge in a multicultural city such as Bogotá. The coexistence of people from different regions of the country living there, with diverse histories and a multiplicity of cultures, raises questions about how to understand processes that include the particular characteristics of its inhabitants. Large numbers of Columbians moved to the capital Bogotá for economic reasons or due to the internal armed conflict. As a result, some sections of the city’s population have roots in Bogotá, with its history, traditions, customs and values, whilst others do not. Some of the newcomers have come to identify themselves with Bogotá, but others have not. Some of the outside customs, values and traditions endure, at the same time as others become diluted. Some of the new arrivals learn about the culture of those who already live in the city, whilst in other cases those who already live in Bogotá take on new customs from outside. It is this diversity that raises the question of inclusion.

Our experience with environmental education in schools (Martínez-Pachón and Téllez-Acosta 2015), as well as in Universities (Tovar-Gálvez 2014) and in civil society (Tovar-Gálvez 2012), has taught us some lessons, encouraging us to think that we can contribute towards the environmental education of people in the city.

Understanding environmental education

“Inclusive education is a process of strengthening the capacity of the education system to reach out to all learners, and can thus be understood as a key strategy to achieve EFA. [Education for All]. […] Inclusion is thus seen as a process of addressing and responding to the diversity of needs of all children, youth and adults through increasing participation in learning, cultures and communities, and reducing and eliminating exclusion within and from education.” (UNESCO 2009: 8–9).

“Inclusive education is an educational approach based on the valuation of diversity as an enriching element of the teaching and learning process and, consequently, conducive to human development.” (Parra 2010: 77).

In certain peripheral areas of Bogota, the urban and rural intermix, © Julio César Tovar-Gálvez

“How to bring the concept of inclusive education into the area of environmental education for civil society in the face of multiculturalism?”

These quotes highlight the fact that inclusive education must reach all people and meet their needs, meaning that it must cater for the diversity of participation and of values. How to bring the concept of inclusive education into the area of environmental education for civil society in the face of multiculturalism? This is where education transcends institutions, where contexts have multiple interpretations, where the roles are different (teacher and learner), where diversity is latent in all its expressions, and where different types of knowledge and interests coexist. To arrive at this point, we need a set of principles.

1. Complex interpretation of environmental contexts

A complex reading of environmental contexts means coming to grips with the perspectives and experiences of the people, in addition to the knowledge provided by governmental, non-
governmental, research and educational entities. Thus, an environmental phenomenon is the result of interactions between people in and with a historical biophysical context. People relate to each other through language, forming organisations, communities, etc., from which institutions emerge (such as educational, governmental, etc.). All of this is immersed and in a constant relationship with a biological, geographic, geological and climatic space. One system influences the other, so that environmental phenomena emerge.

Let us take for example the problem of contamination in the tannery in the Tunjuelito River Basin, south of Bogotá. This is an environmental phenomenon that at least merits consideration:

a. from the traditional perspective: the policy for dumping, the systems to optimise the processes of colouring the hides, the handling of organic and chromium salt residues, the “lack of awareness among the population”, and

b. from a more complex perspective: the origin of the people who derive their livelihoods from leather tanning (many were displaced by violence), employment options, public health, education of the population, the alternatives presented by the government, extreme poverty.

This new interpretation demands new actions on the part of the government and the communities. Suddenly it is no longer a problem that can be solved through activism alone, in which we classify materials, plant trees or make the population “become aware”. Rather, it is something so complex that it involves the work of several institutions in several areas, the people themselves and the government.

Another case is the communities that live where the Doña Juana Sanitary Landfill is located. Some people in this area have a peasant tradition from south of Bogotá, whilst others came to occupy land, and others still were displaced by violence. However, the Doña Juana Sanitary Landfill has literally overflowed, and is affecting the public health of the people there to such an extent that interpreting the phenomenon and determining the problem involves a reading and action that are both complex. Actors seeking to address the situation include communities which have built an identity around the landfill and have engaged in community organisation. This has escalated to the point where there are several community environmental organisations in the area which have a great deal of experience. They are now proposing alternatives for coexistence and management to the government.

“Culturally-inclusive environmental education for civil society implies starting from the life history of the people in question and the communities in their biophysical contexts.”

2. Recognition of the people and their culture

Culturally-inclusive environmental education for civil society implies starting from the life history of the people in question and the communities in their biophysical contexts. It includes looking at the approach to local customs, beliefs, values, knowledge and traditions, as well as at the new forms of relationship and interpretation of a city. All of this is in addition to taking into account the knowledge provided by educational institutions and by the government. This process contributes towards achieving more than a condition of mere coexistence between cultures, and thus leading to a mutual understanding of a real approach and working inclusively.

One example is the process of training the professionals who work in the Botanical Garden of Bogotá, who have a variety of educational interactions with the communities of Bogotá in their work (Tovar-Gálvez 2011). This educational space emphasised and prioritised the experiences of the education professionals over the lectures of the professors. The lesson to be learned is that, in order for professionals to formulate actions or processes of environmental education aimed at the different population groups in the city, it is important that they examine their own experiences with the communities, whilst at the same time analysing the experiences and knowledge of the communities with which they work.

3. Political education: organisation and civil society ­participation

The political education of civil society includes two levels of work in the community, the internal and the external (Tovar-Gálvez 2015). At the internal level, communities are formed in mechanisms and organisational schemes based on the history and identity that they have in common. Their objective is to solve or improve aspects related to territory, productivity, urban development, health, education, food, transport, communication, etc. At the external level, communities form mechanisms and processes to supervise and regulate public affairs (budgets, application of norms, programmes, projects, services, plans, etc.), to thus be able to negotiate with governmental entities in order to resolve situations that are of interest to civil society.

In the case of the city of Bogotá, the District Institute for Participation and Community Action ( educates civil society about the processes, mechanisms, instruments and tools for organisation and participation in the public sphere (formulation and development of policies, resources, projects and programmes, etc.) in monitoring, management and implementation.

4. Dialogue of knowledge

Communities possess knowledge and ways of generating knowledge and products that are particular to their history, customs and biophysical context. Those who have been to a city such as Bogotá, and those who migrate to such a city, represent a considerable asset when it comes to understanding environmental phenomena and how to approach them. Similarly, the institutions offer knowledge about ecological, normative, management and sustainability, amongst other aspects, all of which can potentially be combined to functionally transform an environmental reality. The dialogue of knowledge, as part of the processes of inclusion, means lending value to the different varieties of knowledge and ways of knowing, in the same way that those involved learn and make use of this diversity.

An example of this process is that of Professor Castaño (2009), who has led instructor training processes in the Tenza Valley region, a few hours from the city of Bogotá. By combining the knowledge of biology with the popular and ancestral knowledge of the local communities to address environmental issues, the most suitable elements from each can be used in order to achieve the objective.

5. Regulatory and management knowledge

Educating communities about regulations aims not only to inform, but also to show how these become a vehicle for civil society organisation and participation, for example in order to have recourse to public goods as instruments for action. Similarly, management training covers specific types, such as resource management, project management, public affairs and environmental management. This knowledge is a tool for communities to organise and participate in the transformation of their environmental reality, but also so that they can be included in public processes that focus on the environment.

In addition to international regulations and management mechanisms, communities in Bogotá have also taken an interest in learning about National and District Policies for Environmental Education, the District Development Plan, Local Development Plans, the Territorial Organisation Plan, River Basin Management Plans, the Environmental Management Plan of the city administration, the District Public Policy on Wetlands, and the National Environmental System, among other initiatives.

Bogota is a city in which diverse cultures converge, © Julio César Tovar-Gálvez

6. Community-centred education

Education directed towards communities, with the aim of pushing community work in the direction of social, ecological and political education situations, has been called many things: Environmental Education, Community Environmental Education, Community Education and Popular Education (Tovar-Galvez 2013).

This diversity allows us to think of processes in accordance with the nature of the phenomena and the community contexts, for example: a) Environmental Education for the transformation of the type of relationship which people have in their historical biophysical contexts (including institutions), b) Community Environmental Education, when communities seek autonomous transformation of their context without major intervention on the part of institutions, and c) Community Education or Popular Education, when communities seek to resolve aspects of their daily lives in an endogenous manner, and not always in relation to the complexity of the environmental context as a whole. The objective of inclusion is not exclusive to any of these modalities, provided that each one is a space in which the principles described above are practiced.

Project-centred work: pedagogical alternative

Developing inclusive environmental civil society education processes, as well as their development through projects (Tovar-Gálvez 2012), permits us to link all the actors, listen to their experiences, make use of the different ways of knowing, as well as learning and acting together.

To better understand the processes of environmental education through projects, an educative experience is revisited in which teacher and students seek to conceptualise the environmental problems of the Tunjuelito River Basin in Bogotá, in which the traditional classes change for the development of a project and thus allows them to address this problem (Tovar-Gálvez 2014). In this process, the role of the teacher has been one of a guide, but sometimes a pair of students are needed to jointly develop a process of approach to the environmental problem of the region, which includes consultation, discussion, approach to communities and the integration of different dimensions of knowledge.

Work to be done

Culturally-inclusive environmental civil society education is a field that requires greater conceptualisation, generation and development of policies and systematisation of experiences. One of the major challenges has been the search for principles that allow the inclusion and inclusive education that already exists to be taken and applied to the environment, civil society and cultural diversity. One of the situations that traverses this inquiry is, as in the case of Bogotá, that multiculturalism is sometimes a product of migration, which in turn implies diversity in terms of the identity, expectations and interests of the members of civil society. The proposed principles, as well as the examples and experiences cited, allow for the visualisation of environmental education for civil society in which there is recognition of the people and their culture, validation of the different manifestations of knowledge and their forms of production, as well as learning, construction and action which tie them together.


Castaño, N. (2009): Construcción Social de Universidad para la Inclusión: la formación de maestros con pertinencia y en contexto, desde una perspectiva intercultural. In: D. Mato (Coordinator): Educación Superior, Colaboración Intercultural y Desarrollo Sostenible/Buen Vivir. Experiencias en América Latina, 183–206. Caracas: IESALC-UNESCO.

Martínez-Pachón, D. & Téllez-Acosta, M. (2015): Salidas de campo como estrategia didáctica para el fortalecimiento del concepto ambiente. In: Libro de actas CIMIE 15, 1–9.

Parra, C. (2010): Educación inclusiva: Un modelo de educación para ­todos. In: Revista ISEES, 8, 73–84.

Tovar-Gálvez, J. C. (2015): Condiciones de vida y su relación con las formas de asumir el ambiente: caso de comunidades en la Cuenca Media del Río Tunjuelito. In: M. Czerny and H. Córdova (Anthologisers): Desarrollo sustentable en regiones rurales periféricas, 183–201. Quito: Abya Yala.

Tovar-Gálvez, J. C. (2014): Docencia universitaria a través de la investigación en el aula: proceso de formación ambiental. In: Memorias del XII Jornadas de Redes de Investigación en Docencia Universitaria, 1492–1506. University of Alicante.

Tovar-Gálvez, J. C. (2013): Relaciones entre universidad y comunidades: hacia un currículo de educación ambiental contextualizado. In: Revista del Centro de Estudios Latinoamericano de la Universidad de Varsovia, 16, 109–122.

Tovar-Gálvez, J. C. (2012): Hacia una educación ambiental ciudadana contextualizada: consideraciones teóricas y metodológicas desde el trabajo por proyectos. In: Revista Iberoamericana de Educación, 58(2), 1–11.

Tovar-Gálvez, J. C. (2011): La reflexión y la autoevaluación en la transformación de los procesos de educación ambiental: estudio de un caso en el Jardín Botánico de Bogotá. In: Revista Luna Azul, 32 (enero-junio), 32–44.

UNESCO (2008): Directrices sobre políticas de inclusión en la educación. UNESCO: París.

About the authors

Julio César Tovar-Gálvez has been the coordinator of the Training Programme for Environmental Leaders in the Botanical Gardens of Bogotá. He has led classes, training processes and research projects in environmental education at different universities in Bogotá. He is currently developing his doctoral research in the intercultural teaching of chemistry.


María Esther Téllez-Acosta has been engaged in teacher training in chemistry and environmental education, and has offered special courses on the use of resources in the production of biofuels and on public policies on care for water. She has also directed programmes and research projects in the pedagogical and didactic training of university lecturers.


Diana Martínez Pachón has been engaged in teacher training in chemistry and environmental education. She has led research projects and programmes aimed at training secondary school teachers in service in environmental education. She is currently a doctoral candidate in Applied Sciences, focusing her research on water purification processes.



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