Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Environmental Education in Brazil

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_316


Environmental education (EE) in Brazil is part of the ecological turn in Western societies, led by ecological movements that emerged in the middle of the twentieth century. EE goes beyond the notion of the public sphere as an exclusively human common space, including the presence and the agency of the other nonhumans (e.g., the planet, the interspecies relations, biodiversity, forests, water, climate) in the common ground of life.

There are important differences between EE practices in relation to the understanding of the environmental issues. The research field of EE in Brazil has been developed under the influence of national policies and of global governance over the past decades. A recent proposal aiming to set new national goals for education and rebuild curriculum propositions has questioned the presence of EE as a compulsory discipline in Brazil. The debate raised between educators and policy makers has been marked by controversies motivated by political interests.

The environmental field is a concept based on the notion of “social field” defined by Bourdieu (1989) as a relatively autonomous space of social relationships historically situated. It produces a set of ethical values, identifying features of an ideal subject, and naturalizes certain ways of seeing and behaving that triggers the rules of the game established within the field. In this context, the environmental field can be defined by the extensive diversity of players and social interests that it engages.

The beginning of the EE field in Brazil dates back to the 1970s, during the earliest environmental movements and the emergence of organizations toward the conservation of nature. In relation to government actions addressing EE, there was the establishment of the National Secretary of Environment (Secretaria Nacional do Meio Ambiente – SEMA) in 1972. It was created as a response to the international debate raised in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, also known as the Stockholm Conference. However, it was only in the 1980s that EE was expanded through the increasing number of environmental organizations.

The countercultural environment of the 1960s and the revolutionary principles of the 1970s drove the emergence of the environmental field in the 1980s. The environmental movement was guided by a romantic and revolutionary utopia in the face of environmental issues and as a reaction to rationalist thought and technocracy that prevailed in the 1980s (Carvalho 2010). In Brazil, it was only from the 1980s that educators started being called “environmental educators.” Since then, an increasing number of national, and more recently Latin American, meetings have been organized indicating the construction of a social identity related to educational practices concerning the environment.

From the 1990s, partnerships between civil society (e.g., activists, intellectuals, and scientists) and the State were established in nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This cultural environment sought to improve environmental practices, which was enhanced by the Conference of Environment and Development in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro (ECO-92). The “Earth Charter”, created in the ECO-92, was completed in 2000, as a declaration of fundamental ethical principles for building a fair, sustainable, and peaceful global society.

During the preparatory process of the Civil Society Conference – Global Forum – concomitant to the ECO-92, the Brazilian Network of Environmental Education (Rede Brasileira de Educação Ambiental – REBEA) was established in Rio de Janeiro with members from all regions of Brazil. The REBEA encouraged the first Journey of Environmental Education, as well as the Environmental Education Treatise. This institution also organizes the Bi-annual Regional Forum and the National Forum of Environmental Education. Also, the “Treaty of Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility” was created during the International Day of Environmental Education, at the Global Forum. In the 2000s, educational changes following the National Curricular Parameters and Guidelines established in 1997 also contributed to the institutionalization of EE in Brazil. In the last two decades, the developments of the research field, as well as public policies for EE, have expanded in Brazil, as shown below.

EE Polices in Brazil

The EE institutionalization process through public policies begun in the 1980s and was consolidated in the 1990s. The proposal of a National Environmental Policy approved in 1981 included EE as a discipline in all educational levels. The importance of EE was strengthened with the Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil, enacted in 1988. This Federal Constitution included a specific chapter on environmental issues where the EE was established as a civil right. In 1994, the National Environmental Education Program (Programa Nacional de Educação Ambiental – ProNEA) was created, in line with the Treaty of Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility and in order to “ensure, at the educational level, the balanced integration of multiple dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social, ethical, cultural, economic, spatial and political.” Then, the National Policy for Environmental Education (Plano Nacional de Educação Ambiental – PNEA) was implemented in 1999, with the understanding that environmental education is an essential and permanent component of national education and should be present in an articulated manner, at all levels and modalities of the educational process. Launched by the Brazilian Ministry of Education in 2001, the “Parameters in Action Program” included EE as a theme required for all levels of education. In 2002 the government launched the Brazilian Agenda 21, organized by the Commission for Sustainable Development Policies (Comissão para o Desenvolvimento Sustentável – CPDS), supported by the Ministry of Environment.

By the 2010s, there was already a well-structured legal framework to regulate the EE, and public policies for EE have been improved. In 2012, the National Council of Education (Conselho Nacional de Educação – CNE) elaborated the National Curriculum Guidelines for Environmental Education. In 2013, the Direct Money in School Program was launched by the Ministry of Education with a specific section aiming to support Sustainable Schools. This program aimed to offer financial support for the improvement of environmental sustainability in public schools. Under the motto of transition to sustainability, this program promotes Environmental and Quality of Life Committees, called COM-VIDA, as a local key element in the transformation of these schools into sustainable educator’s spaces. The COM-VIDA improve the participation of the whole school community seeking to promote social and environmental actions of sustainability as well as establishing relationships between the school community and its territory. In 2014, the National Education Plan was approved for the period of 2014–2024. The National Education Plan is a law, guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, which sets guidelines, goals, and strategies for the national education every 10 years. Currently, the National Education Plan unfolds the construction of the Common National Curricular Basis (CNCB). This aims to establish the essential knowledge and skills that Brazilian students should learn throughout their basic education. The Ministry of Education is the institution in charge for the development of the CNBC. It launched a first version document in 2014 in the form of public consultation for analysis and suggestions. Brazilian researchers and educators have spoken out in favor of including EE in the CNCB. In that document, sustainability is cited as an integrating theme, but there is no specific reference to EE.

The case of Brazil corroborates with a debate raised in Latin America in relation to concepts of sustainability and environmental education in the area of education. In Brazil and in most Latin American countries, the most suitable concept is environmental education and not education for sustainability or education for sustainable development (Sorrentino and Portugal 2016). This argument is shared by the majority of Latin American environmental educators who acknowledge that environmental education is the concept that bears the entire history and the social context in the area. Thus, even the United Nations Organization sought to disseminate the concept of education for sustainable development; environmental education was mostly kept in specialized literature, legislation, and everyday school and community actions in Brazil and Latin American.

Finally, despite the entire legal framework and the attempt of public policies in reiterating the importance and even the obligation to EE in all levels of education in schools, the EE practices are still punctual and discontinued. Two factors contribute to the difficulty of establishing EE in schools. First, the emphasis of these policies was on the crosscutting nature of EE. The legal framework prevented, for example, the creation of an EE curricular discipline in school, allowing it only in higher education and keeping EE as a peripheral issue in the formal curriculum system. A second factor is the complexity of laws established at the federal level to be implemented in the local realities by the State and local levels of governance, in a large country like Brazil.

A summary of the main public policies for EE in Brazil is presented in Table 1.
Environmental Education in Brazil, Table 1

Key public policies for EE in Brazil since the 1980s

1988: The Brazilian Constitution establishes that EE in all level of education is a citizenship right and a duty of the State

1989: Establishment of the National Environmental Fund to support EE projects

1992: Establishment of the Ministry of Environment

1994: Launch of the National Environmental Education Program in line with the Treaty of Environmental Education for Sustainable Societies and Global Responsibility

1997: Establishment of the National Curricular Parameters and Guidelines with environment as one of the crosscutting themes

1999: Implementation of the National Environmental Education Policy that determines the inclusion of EE at all educational levels

2001: Launch of the Curricular Parameters in Action Program that included EE as required for all levels of education

2002: Implementation of the National Environmental Education Policy by Decree 4.281/2002 and launch of the Brazilian Agenda 21

2012: Establishment of the National Curriculum Guidelines for Environmental Education

2013: Launch of Direct Money in School Program for Sustainable Schools

2014: Implementation of the National Sustainable Schools Program

2015–2016: Development of Common National Base Curriculum

Source: elaborated by the authors

The Research Field of EE in Brazil

Research in EE has increased in Brazil in recent decades. Scholarly works have been developed in different areas of knowledge, addressing the mainstreaming of environmental education as a research field in the country. Many researchers agree to address the problems environmental in the school curriculum, but point out that this discussion should place these problems in wider contexts like democracy, autonomy, quality of life, sustainability, relationships society and nature. Discussions on the theme also raise the need for a curricular subject of EE or to assert it transversally.

In the 2000s, the number of graduate programs in Brazil increased and included EE research. There has also been an increase of national scientific events, which include EE in their working groups (Carvalho and Farias 2011). These events include the participation of institutional research groups and specific journals for publication in the field.

In 2005, the Ministry of Education launched the survey “What do schools do when they say they offer environmental education?” in order to map out the presence and trends of EE in basic education. The survey conducted by Trajber and Mendonça (2006) revealed an increase in the number of schools that included EE between 2001 and 2004. It was established that the main methods applied in schools were projects, followed by Special Subjects and insertion of environmental issues in subjects. As for motivation to include EE, 59% of schools participating indicated that this was due to the initiative of teachers, and 35% said that it was a result of the implementation of the national curriculum standards.

In higher education, the University Network of EE Programs for Sustainable Societies (Rede Universitária de Programas de Educação Ambiental – RUPEA) was created in 2001, with the aim of expanding spaces of action and dialogue of university groups in the field of EE, as well as disclosing environmentalization experiences of higher education. A survey conducted by RUPEA between December 2004 and June 2005 indicated a controversy surrounding the interdisciplinary and transversal insertion of the environmental dimension in the curriculum, since many of the surveyed universities used a specific course in EE as a strategy.

Carvalho and Farias (2011) conducted a survey of the papers presented at the Meetings of the National Association of Graduate Studies and Research in Education (ANPEd), at Meetings of the National Association of Graduate Studies and Research in Environment and Society (ANPPAS), and at Meetings of Research in Environmental Education (EPEA) between 2001 and 2009, as representative of the research output in environmental education (EE) in the period. The outcome of the survey indicated that the most highlighted topics were the theoretical and methodological discussion on the fundamentals of EE in ANPEd, popular and community EE (e.g., EE focused on specific communities and social groups such as women, indigenous, black people descendants of slaves – the quilombolas) in ANPPAS, and EE in formal education in EPEA. Examining the themes of the three events, they found that the concern with EE in formal education was constant in all of them, representing 22% of the work. The authors emphasize that the presence of research production in EE in the researched events was a factor of legitimacy as a research area. It highlights the demand of researchers in EE as to the acknowledgment of this as a practice sustained by rigorous knowledge.

Another reference on the research field in Brazil is the Theses Bank of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) and the Brazilian Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations of the Brazilian Institute for Information in Science and Technology (IBICT) where master’s dissertations and doctoral theses conducted in Brazil in recent years are deposited. The search for environmental education in the IBICT shows a total of 3,763 theses and dissertations in this decade (between 2010 and 2016), being that 468 related to formal education. In the CAPES bank there are 1,221 publications in EE registered between 2011 and 2012, 736 related specifically to formal education. The majority of research comes from the field of education, with the remaining distributed in 79 other areas of knowledge. It can be observed that more than 60% of the records are related to formal education, reinforcing the importance of this research focus in Brazil in recent years, which also reported Carvalho and Farias (2011).

Concepts of EE

Facing the controversy emerged from the environmental education, EE could be characterized generally as the production and reproduction of the belief in nature as “good” (i.e., “good” in the philosophical sense) that should be preserved above the simple interests of society. That is an eminently ethical question. This belief sustains the utopia of a symmetric relationship between the interests of society and natural processes. This utopia is challenged precisely because we still live inscribed in a paradigm of human/nature dichotomy. This reference is historically constituted, especially in relation to the legacy of modernity, which was founded on the constitution of a “great divide” between nature and culture (Latour 1994; Descola 2005). To maintain alive this great division, it becomes necessary a permanent effort of “purification,” especially by normal science, in order to separate natural and cultural phenomena. However, this effort is not always successful, because in the plan of material life the permanent overlap between society and nature insists on creating difficulties for the modern project of objectivity that is intended to separate nature and culture into two distinct ontological zones. This epistemological crisis has led philosophers, anthropologists, and other thinkers to discuss this separation, claiming a symmetrical ontology (De Landa 2003) or a symmetrical alternative (Escobar 2007). It can be argued that the tension between nature and culture gives rise to a new modern epistemology. Corroborating with this idea, Steil and Carvalho (2014) proposed the concept of “ecological epistemologies” to identify the region of convergence of non-reductionist thinking that opens up new possibilities to operate within this tension, reordering the dualities without resorting to determinisms, whether culturist or biological. Ecological epistemologies oppose both the idea of a the dilution of culture in nature and an assimilation of nature by culture, considering that the coproduction of human and natural history makes us all human and nonhuman, guests, and “co-citizens” of the same world.

Another perspective of EE is its justification as a pedagogical action necessary to confront the environmental crisis. One of the substantive arguments in this case relies on the criticism of the consequences of industrial capitalism. Again, the criticism refers to modernity and the rise of industry; intensive use of natural raw materials, based on the exploitation of labor; and the concentration of population and urbanization. The more intensified the processes of industrial society became in order to allow access to material goods in larger scales, the more risks are produced. An example is the contamination of food with pesticides, which is an “invisible” risk, even if it is a well-known fact. In this sense, Beck (2011) believes that nowadays the social production of wealth brings with it the social production of risks, which affects everyone regardless their social class. Although joining in the criticism of the legacy of modernity, authors take different positions in the field of actions. While Beck (2011) tends to seek a departure from the paradigm of modernity, presenting political and normative solutions for environmental issues, Latour (1994) and Descola (2005) choose a less radical approach. For Latour, the project of separation between humans and nature was never accomplished; therefore, “we have never been modern.” Thus, by investing in the utopia of symmetry between humans and nature, we walk alongside an ethical evolution of thought, which considers nonhuman as political agents that interact with humans. Descola (2005) believes that the concern with the effects of human action on the environment points to a change in this modern thought. Furthering the debate, Ingold (2012) proposes the notion of meshwork to think about material culture and relations of communication, integration, and flows between “things.” These “things” or “nonhumans”, unlike “objects”, are porous and fluid, laden with vital flows and integrated with the cycles and dynamics of life and the environment. In this sense, the author criticizes the theory of actor-network of Latour, Law, and Callon (Latour 1999), understanding that it still preserves a metaphysical division between subjects and objects, since it gives objects a fetishized agency and disregards the unequal distribution of flows and senses along the network.

This way of understanding nature and nonhumans from the concepts of flow, symmetry, continuity, and coevolution brings potentially new opportunities for environmental education practices in contrast to the predominantly normative practices in EE. Perhaps we could call this educational attitude as post-humanist, since it takes the human decentralization in the hierarchy of environmental determinations seriously. Thus, in this perspective, the recognition of the nonhuman is due to an aesthetic and ethically oriented attitude and is not exclusively cognitive or based on technical and instrumental rationality of what is recognized as “environmentally friendly” to the greater benefit of human life.

We must, however, consider that inside the general concept of environmental education, various particular notions of EE still remain, disputing the particular meaning of environment in a field of social conflicting interests and epistemologies. So, the diverse ways to understand EE bring to educational sphere the great division and the ways to overcome it. On the other hand, the different EEs pursue to influence on the ways society understand and make use of the nature, producing specific social environmental conditions in relationship between the universal and the particular, that is, between the society as a whole and the education in particular coproducing relationship.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Programa de Pós-Graduação em EducaçãoPontifical University Catholic do Rio Grande do SulPorto AlegreBrazil
  2. 2.Federal University of Rio Grande do SulPorto AlegreBrazil