The Green Backpack
by Trevor Donald
People are drawn to the magnitude and beauty of mountains. What happens though when the air pollution is so thick you can no longer see the mountains? All around Santiago, Chile, on a clear day you can see the snowcapped peaks of the Andes off in the distance. I find the experience similar to looking to the foothills of the Rockies from Calgary. Clear days in Santiago are few and far between and quite often when you look toward the Andes you see that the smog has invaded and obscured them like a Bay of Fundy fog. Air pollution here in Santiago is far above WHO limits. There is little education to encourage people to drive their cars less or to promote car sharing. There are vehicle restrictions in place that ban cars that have license plates ending in certain numbers on certain days from entering the city but some people who can afford it get around these restrictions by buying two cars.
Chile is a country that extends several kilometers from north to south and the Andes runs across the length of the country. There is great geographic diversity as a result of these great distances from the Atacama Desert in the north to Patagonia in the South. This diversity is not only ecological but also economic and societal. Chile is a country with strong economic growth but with enormous income disparity. Chile has no deficit and it has one of the strongest economies in Latin America. Despite Chile’s stability and increased economic prosperity as a country, I learned it has a huge disparity of wealth. During the 30-minute drive from the airport I passed shanty towns before arriving at the cosmopolitan business district of Santiago. The middle class is growing and so is commercial development and consumption for things like cars.
Being new to Latin America and Chile I met with Astrid Hollander who is in charge of the Education for Sustainable Development program with UNESCO in Santiago, Chile. She explained to me that many nations around the world have embraced the need for education to achieve sustainability and Chile is amongst those countries. The Chilean Government recognizes that, in spite of the high and sustained rate of economic growth, social inequality and pressure on natural resources constitute serious threats to the quality of life and to social and economic sustainability. In the context of the UN Decade for Education for Sustainable Development, Chile adopted a National Policy on ESD in 2009, which aims to include ESD in the formal, non-formal and informal learning processes. While there is no national curriculum for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Chile, several efforts are being made to promote ESD and environmental consciousness through the formal school system. For example, in 2003, the ministry of the environment initiated the Environmental Certification System for Schools (SNCAE) a program that aims to promote a whole-school approach to environmental education into the school curriculum. The SNCAE is a voluntary program. Schools apply a checklist against the three strategies/criteria. They then present a two-year working plan and create an environmental committee to plan, implement and monitor the program. To gain certification, the school must apply its working plan successfully for at least six months. Since its start in 2003, a total of 1,290 schools nationwide have registered with the program, of which 572 schools are currently environmentally certified.
Is sustainable development the best direction to go in? In South America the indigenous concept of sustainability can be summed up in the Spanish words buen vivir or good living. The way of living in harmony with oneself, other members of the community, nature and one’s surroundings while satisfying one’s daily needs is central to indigenous life and contradicts the concept of “living better” and getting larger, which is at the centre of most current development models. Thus, the term “sustainable development” is often criticized as it still implies development and economic growth. The skyline of Chile's capital has been altered over the past years by the building of skyscrapers, the tallest in Latin America, Costanera Center or Torre Santiago overwhelms the view of a city that remains proud of its colonial-era buildings. Traditional residential houses are being torn down to make way for apartment complexes. There are local initiatives to retain neighborhoods but there is little urban planning to keep cultural heritage buildings standing. The indigenous intercultural view towards development should certainly be considered. Within the framework of sustainability, culture is typically included under the social pillar but it can have its own pillar amongst the environmental and the economic pillars.
In a world where our beautiful awe inspiring natural spaces are disappearing at an unprecedented rate, people living in growing cities like Santiago need to be able to see majestic Andes at their doorstep. ESD is a key means through which education can build a global and local lobby for effective action, showing people as conscious consumers and responsible citizens there concrete actions can contribute to lasting solutions to such challenges such as climate change and air pollution.
Trevor Donald is the student communications intern with RCE Tantramar, a Regional Centre of Expertise on Education for Sustainable Development. He is also a student at Mount Allison University, where he is studying geography and environment.