Climate change and biodiversity loss cannot be separated from one another. I think of this as I think of the Amazon forest: everything is connected – the rivers, the trees, and the people who live beneath the trees. Everything. We’ve seen the impacts of climate change – fires, rivers drying up... Addressing them is extremely important. We all live on the same planet.
UNESCO’s World in 2030 survey revealed that respondents across all regions see climate change and biodiversity loss as the top global challenge in the lead up to 2030. According to Denise Alvarez, addressing the joint issues of climate change and biodiversity loss is intrinsically linked to the protection of indigenous cultures and knowledges, and cooperation with indigenous peoples. The translation of these values into effective public policy and holistic education programming, she says, is key to repairing humanity’s relationship with nature.
“The [Amazon] forest has a huge value if standing, not cut down. You preserve important knowledge – the wisdom carried by indigenous people – only if it is standing. If a scientist goes to such a place, they will begin to learn, and to discover the people who have been there for thousands of years. It is a matter of respecting indigenous peoples, and their relationship with the environment.”
Conservation of the environment implicitly linked to protection of indigenous rights
“Today [in Brazil] we have 252 indigenous peoples who speak 160 languages. It is vital that we protect their cultures. They are the guardians of the forest, and all this knowledge is in them; it is oral, it does not have a library. During COVID-19 some chiefs have died, and with them wisdom: knowledge of forest management and conservation, and all those [biodiverse] plants and animals. We must encourage the implementation of public policies for the preservation of the environment and indigenous peoples.”
The precarity and exclusion that many indigenous peoples face mean that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic can have long-term implications for the preservation of indigenous knowledges and cultural life. For Denise Alvarez, the protection of such living heritage is vital to consider in environmental conservation, policymaking and education, as is addressing prejudice and providing platforms through which indigenous peoples can share and preserve their knowledge.
These actions, which are beneficial to both indigenous groups and the environment, should be reinforced through a focus on access to education for indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. Addressing structural barriers to education must be accompanied by coherent and holistic education programming. In order to be comprehensive and future-oriented, says Denise Alvarez, such programming should help to communicate the value of both cultural heritage and environmental sustainability.
Environmental education an important tool for valorising natural heritage
“I think that natural heritage should be better valued. This is connected to education. Children should be taught the value of natural heritage since childhood, so that when they leave school, they will understand the challenges we face, like forest fires and deforestation in the Amazon, and be able to find solutions.”
Natural heritage preservation can encompass cultural heritage and environmental sustainability. In Brazil, says Denise Alvarez, the Amazon represents a vast body of natural heritage that must be valorised and preserved, and whose value can be instilled in children through environmental education. According to Denise Alvarez, the best provision of such education would be via incorporation of environmental and cultural heritage principles in formal education curricula.
“Education for sustainable development should be delivered through formal education. It needs to come from ministries of education, so that it can reach as many children as possible. And the school curriculum should be a curriculum for a citizen of the 21st Century, so that a child who enters school today can, in fourteen years, deal with the world they find when they leave school.”
This education can also be facilitated through targeted vocational programmes.
“One successful education program I know of is called “florestabilidade”, where they train young people as managers and educators for Amazon forest management and sustainable productive activities. These young people then apply those lessons in their communities.”
Holistic education systems link sustainable development with early childhood
According to Denise Alvarez, one of the most important considerations for education programming is how early you engage children in education. For her, we must start in early childhood.
Early childhood is the most important period of child development, which not all people value – we see a child playing, where in fact that child is developing a series of connections that are vital for how they perceive the world. Early childhood education is very important for the future outcomes of children.
In keeping with a focus on holistic education systems, says Denise Alvarez, integrating education for sustainable development in early childhood education is extremely beneficial, not only for the planet, but also for a child's foundation of understanding and later cognitive development.
“The earlier you teach children, the more knowledgeable they will be. We can show children from an early age that they are part of a world where everything is connected. They can understand the planet, and that all these issues interact.”
Education and heritage preservation instil important values for our common future
According to Denise Alvarez, who speaks from her private sector experience in education delivery, imparting this knowledge and making education available to all are important steps in giving children the power of choice, and the tools to engage as citizens of the world.
“To deliver a quality education is difficult, but we don’t give up. It is challenging because these children enter school – a big school, mounted, beautiful and organized – thinking that it does not belong to them, because they have low self-esteem; they are poor and not used to such an environment. In the first year they enter half-scared, thinking that we will charge them, though it is free; but in the second year it is beautiful, because they feel they belong to this world. This is a great transformation. They leave the school as citizens of the world, understanding that they can go to university, they can become musicians, they can be doctors. They can go anywhere.”
Part of becoming a global citizen means understanding our collective challenges, like climate change and biodiversity loss, and the values that help us address them. In this pursuit, says Denise Alvarez, UNESCO can advocate for the importance of active engagement with indigenous peoples, fostering social tolerance, peaceful coexistence and inclusion of marginalized communities, and valuing their wisdom and knowledge on environmental conservation. Another important strength of UNESCO, she says, lies in its ability to translate into action such important values as the preservation of natural and cultural heritage for future generations.
“If I teach a generation that its top priority should be cutting down trees to make money from wood, we will have no more Amazon. If I have an education where I value extraction, and disregard pollution in the rivers of the Amazon, that is what I will create. Teaching children the value of our natural heritage – the forest, the indigenous peoples – will help us build a future where those things are protected.”
Denise Alvarez is a member of the Director General’s High Level Reflection Group, an initiative of UNESCO’s Strategic Transformation designed to anticipate and analyse global developments and contribute to the enrichment of UNESCO’s next Medium-Term Strategy.
*The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or official position of UNESCO. This interview was conducted in English and Portuguese.