Colombia Conference Takes Hands-On Method to the Extreme

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 1 : January – April 1996  [Curriculum]

When one of their jeeps lurched half-way over the edge of a cliff-side road, participants in the recent Environmental Literacy Institute in Colombia said the escape from danger had brought them closer together. When representatives of a local guerrilla movement walked into one of their seminars carrying guns just a few hours later, they realized that venturing outside the traditional classroom can bring risks as well as rewards.

The 30 professors and university officials, representing fields as diverse as anthropology, medicine, social work, biology, and professional training for municipal employees, had gathered from all regions of Colombia for a week-long environmental literacy institute, held September 24-30. They drew on local case studies in participatory workshops and learning exercises designed to help them develop new ways of teaching about environment and development in accordance with the Talloires Declaration of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future.

Over the course of the week-long residential program, participants worked in interdisciplinary teams building models, defining problems, and proposing solutions. In the end they created prototype university programs, all based on visits to local communities. They studies the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta-which sits closer to the ocean than any other mountain of its size in the world-and La Cienaga Grande, the wetland area that once thrived where runoff from the some of the country’s major rivers meet the Caribbean Sea. The environment has declined sharply since a road cut off the flow between the bodies of water approximately 30 years ago.

The region offers a unique ecosystem that ranges from coastal zone to snow-capped peaks. Not only does the area provide a full range of ecosystem types, but it also has a full range of socio-political groups, some of which were encountered during the course of the program.

Participants were just beginning a scheduled talk with farmers whose livelihood depend on the health of the mountain environment when three people carrying guns walked into their outdoor classroom. The man and two young women, all dressed in camouflage clothing, represent on of the country’s 20 or so guerrilla organizations. Followed by a dozen other group members, they read a letter addressed specifically to the workshop’s participants and one that had been printed in a local newspaper. They stayed nearby until participants finished their session and began the trip down the mountain road that had upset the jeep earlier in the day.

These encounters highlight the value as well as the difficulty of moving a process-oriented learning approach from one setting to another. The method, which gives participants as much first-hand information and experience as possible and then encourages them to draw their own conclusions, has been applied successfully for six years at the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute (TELI) in Medford, Massachusetts, which is run under the ULSF Secretariat’s umbrella. It was used two years ago in Brazil, last year in the United Kingdom, and then most recently in Colombia.

Thomas Kelly, director of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF), said the experience is completely different in each country. The context is different, and the preoccupations and priorities of the people there reflect their own circumstances.

“[In Colombia,] concern over political violence surfaces immediately as a sustainable development issue,” he said. “Issues of social justice, inadequate infrastructure-physical and regulatory-all emerge very early on as priority issues, as opposed to the economic costs and benefits of environmental issues that come later. There’s almost a set of prerequisites we take for granted here [in the United States].”

Marta Goenaga, a professor at Fundacion Universidad de Bogota Jorge Tadeo Lozano, coordinated the institute and helped introduce the Talloires Declaration in Colombia. In both processes, she said, cultivating contacts were essential. When Kelly first visited Colombia to promote the Talloires Declaration in the summer of 1994, Goenaga arranged for him to meet the country’s first environment minister, who had been appointed just a few months before. She also set up face-to-face meetings with university officials.

The idea of signing on to an environmental declaration caught on quickly in Colombia, Goenaga explained. Kelly’s timing was opportune. The Rio Earth Summit had recently focused the world’s attention on South America and the environment, and it was almost fashionable to be concerned. In addition, Colombian universities were in the process of getting worldwide accreditation, and they were searching for innovative ways to increase the number of doctorates they awarded.

At a deeper level, both the idea of sustainable development and the multi-disciplinary method the declaration promotes struck a chord with Colombian academics, not only with faculty, but also with top-level administrators.

“The social responsibility of Colombian Universities in relation to the problems of the environment is very great,” said Elsy Castillo of the University of the Amazonia. “The rapid development of negative environmental impacts challenges all our creative potential, all our knowledge, all our dreams, in procuring strategies that make possible a tomorrow where respect, tolerance, self-esteem and love will e the essence of an environmentally sustainable society.”

La Tgadeo Rector Evaristo Obregon Garces and Vice Rector for Post-Graduate Studies Miguel Bermudez Portocarrero took the lead in expressing support for the new lines of thought. Goenaga’s successful networking secured collaborative funding for the week long institute. Sponsors included Colombian government agencies, non-profit organizations, corporations, and academic institutions.

The workshop held as many lesions for pedagogues as for administrators. They key is its two-tiered approach. Not only did participants learn the details of La Cienaga and La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, but they were asked to step back and examine the process of the learning. The case study with which they were presented followed a distinct process that:

used team-teaching methods;
incorporated a variety of media;
involved perspectives from a variety of stakeholders;
included content on environmental literacy concepts as well as pedagogy and learning; and
gave participants enough information to develop their own intuition about the relationship between environmental health and human health, as opposed to just having that relationship explained to them.
Other stakeholders also came away with new insights. Karen Blades, regional representative for the Technology and Environment division of AT&T, who spoke at the conference said, “Participating in and supporting programs such as ULSF’s environmental literacy institutes are invaluable for the development of collaborative industry-academic partnerships that promote environmental literacy. These venues provide opportunities to bring together various perspectives and work toward mutual solutions for global environmental problems.”

Universities can use the process-oriented approach to instill ecological awareness in their faculty, who in turn can use it with their students. The tools used in the workshop can be applied to teach undergraduates and graduate students, and the conference inspired and supported participants in reaching that goal. They developed prototypes for four projects to take back to their universities-a new course, a university-wide environmental policy, a community outreach program, and a faculty development plan.

Like the workshop’s methods, its achievements cut across a variety of sectors. Speaker Paul Epstein, M.D., a Harvard University Medical School professor and members of the ULSF Board of Directors, collaborated with participating professors Jacobo Blanco, a biologist, and Osvaldo Caliz Pena, M.D., to author a letter about La Cienaga to the British medical journal The Lancet. Goenaga has been given a budget at La Tadeo to establish a national ULSF Secretariat for Colombian signatories. There are now plans to hold the Colombian environmental literacy workshop annually. In addition, an institutional ecology workshop for university administrators will be held in 1996 under the auspices of ULSF. The gathering laid the pedagogical and practical groundwork for Colombia’s university community to become a South American model of the Talloires principle in action.

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