Higher Education, Environment and Sustainability in Latin America and The Caribbean

SÁENZ, Orlando; BENAYAS, Javier

In this article Orlando Sáenz and Javier Benayas from University of Applied and Environmental Sciences, Colombia and the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain respectively, present a condensed version of the regional article on Latin America and The Caribbean included in the GUNi Report Higher Education in the World 4.

The process of including the environmental dimension in higher education institutions (HEIs) in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) began in the 1950s and has passed through three successive stages: natural resources, the environment and sustainable development.

A recent historical study on the emergence and early development of higher environmental education in Colombia shows how, from 1950 onwards, Colombian universities began offering technical and vocational training programmes regarding the use and conservation of natural resources. During the 1950s and 1960s, a total of 26 such programmes were created in 14 different HEIs. Studies, if undertaken, would likely encounter similar or greater progress in other LAC countries.

Environmental education proper commenced in the 1970s, simultaneously in LAC and internationally. Latin American academics were active participants in meetings held after the Stockholm Conference of 1972 and major promotion was undertaken in the region by the International Centre for Training and Education in Environmental Sciences (CIFCA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In 1977, CIFCA conducted a study entitled “Overview of environmental higher education in Latin America”, which provided evidence of significant progress in this field.

At the start of the 1980s, UNEP created the Environmental Training Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (ETN-LAC). This network was responsible for the 1984 report entitled “Diagnosis of inclusion of the environmental dimension in higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean”. Its results were presented at the First Seminar on Universities and the Environment in Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Bogota in late 1985, which brought together 59 universities and environmental agencies from 22 countries in the region. In general, these initiatives highlighted the fact that LAC universities were already including environmental activities in their teaching, research and extramural programmes, but that the process of fully incorporating the environmental dimension in higher education in the region still faced serious obstacles.

The third stage in the process of “greening” universities in LAC, currently underway, focuses on concepts such as “education for sustainable development”, “education for sustainability” and “education for sustainable societies.” In this stage, which was launched by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the process of incorporating environmental and development issues in higher education in LAC has accelerated dramatically in comparison with the two previous periods. Unfortunately, no regional study has been conducted to compare progress made with the diagnoses made during the 1970s and 1980s. Such a report would almost certainly highlight great quantitative and qualitative advances in training, research and extramural activities regarding the environment and sustainability in HEIs in the region in the last 20 years.

Colombia is a clear example of progress in this latest phase. An early diagnosis by CIFCA and UNEP’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean has led to studies and analyses on the inclusion of environmental and development issues in higher education being implemented with some frequency in Colombia. The two most recent quantitative studies report that Colombian HEIs offered 465 programmes in 2006, compared to 190 programmes in 1999.

A similar level of growth in higher education programmes on the environment and development has been documented for Mexico. A study entitled “Environmental programmes at higher education institutions in Mexico” was released in 1993 and a survey was conducted over 2000 and 2001 on “Educational activities related to the environment and sustainable development in higher education institutions in Mexico.” A comparison of results reveals explosive growth in the number of academic programmes offered in the area of ​​environmental studies, from 290 programmes in 1993 to 1,399 in 2001.

Since the mid-1980s, with the support of UNEP and several national governments, LAC universities have begun to organise themselves into networks aimed at furthering environmental training, research and extramural activities. The first such network was the Colombian Environmental Training Network, which began operating in 1982 and became further consolidated after the Bogota Seminar of 1985; over 40 Colombian universities are currently active members of this network.

Other national networks established under UNEP’s ETN-LAC programme have been less successful. Reported in 1986 was the creation of national networks in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela; however, none of these networks came to be fully consolidated. Between 1988 and 1990, however, several national seminars on universities and the environment were held, aimed at promoting the inclusion of the environmental dimension in HEIs. In 1996, a group of institutions and universities in Guatemala created the National Network for Environmental Research and Training, which is still functioning.

The growing importance of environmental education as part of higher education is clearly reflected in the major academic and scientific events held in the field. Under the auspices of the First Iberoamerican Congress on Environmental Education, held in Guadalajara in 1992, a document was drawn up setting out experiences and initiatives in including environmental education in higher education in various countries. Congresses held in Guadalajara (Mexico, 1997), Caracas (Venezuela, 2000), Havana (Cuba, 2003), Joinville (Brazil, 2006) and San Clemente del Tuyu (Argentina, 2009) further explored this issue.

It seems to be the case that the universities themselves, with the support of some international agencies, are leading the inclusion of environment and sustainability issues in higher education in LAC. Some governments, however, have also begun to formulate specific national policies aimed at guiding and fostering environmental education in general, including in higher education. The earliest national strategy papers on environmental education were drawn up in Guatemala (1990), Mexico (1993), Ecuador (1994), Costa Rica (1995) and Cuba (1997). It was Brazil, however, which, in 1999, embodied strategic declarations in a National Environmental Education Policy. Colombia approved a National Environmental Education Policy with explicit guidelines for HEIs on this subject in 2002 and Guatemala adopted a similar initiative in 2004.

Recent years have witnessed a resurgence in environmental networks in universities in LAC. They continue to grow in number and are now so many that reviewing them all is impossible. Among the more recently created networks is the Mexican Consortium of University Environmental Programmes for Sustainable Development (COMPLEXUS), established in December 2000. Another important initiative was that of several environmental education networks in Brazil, which began to organise in 1988. A particularly important network is the Environmental Committee of the Association of Universities in the Montevideo Group (CA-AUGM), created in 1991. In late 2009, Argentina created an Argentinian University Network for Sustainability and the Environment (RAUSA). In 2010, seven universities in the Santiago de Chile metropolitan area signed a cooperation agreement to promote a sustainable campus initiative in Chile.

In October 2007, several of the above networks formed the Alliance of Iberoamerican University Networks for Sustainability and the Environment (ARIUSA). Under its auspices, new networks have been created to implement training and environmental research projects and activities, such as the Universities Network in Environment and Sustainable Development (MADS), the Research Network for Iberoamerican Science, Technology, Innovation and Environmental Education (CTIE-AMB), the Iberoamerican Postgraduate Environmental Science and Technologies Network (PICYTA) and the Iberoamerican Network of Sustainability and Environmental Research (RINSA). These initiatives to promote interuniversity cooperation on joint projects will undoubtedly underpin a new dynamic momentum in introducing environmental change into universities in LAC and in strengthening the commitment to sustainability.

The process of incorporating an environmental dimension in higher education in LAC has largely focused on teaching activities. New training activities have not always been appropriately accompanied by research and extramural activities, although in general terms, the number of university projects of this type has been progressively growing. To be added to environmental activities undertaken within the three traditional areas of university activities are new HEI environmental management practices undertaken from the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, the crucial and very rich process of higher education greening in LAC in recent decades has been poorly documented at the regional level. Drawing on the latest statistics available for Mexico and Colombia, it is likely that several thousand environmental education programmes are being run by universities in the region. Environmental research and university outreach projects are likely to be even more numerous. HEIs with some degree of greening in their management model, meanwhile, can probably be counted in their hundreds.

All these estimates give a rough idea of ​​the general magnitudes of the most important aspects of the process of greening higher education in LAC but are very far from furnishing precise knowledge regarding the current situation. There is therefore an urgent need for further regional studies regarding various aspects to do with the inclusion of the environmental dimension in universities in LAC.

About the author

Javier Benayas is a Professor of Ecology at the Autonomous University of Madrid, where he was Vice President of Campus and Environmental Quality from 2003 to 2009. In 2003, he promoted the creation of the Sectoral Commission on Environmental Quality and Sustainable Development and Risk Prevention (CADEP) at the Conference of Rectors of Spanish Universities (CRUE). He is currently its Executive Secretary. Since 2000 he has been the coordinator of the Interuniversity PhD program "Environmental Education" that is being taught by nine Spanish universities.

Orlando Sáenz is a PhD of Education and Society Candidate at the UAB. He is a researcher at the University of Applied and Environmental Sciences (UDCA) and coordinator of the Alliance of Ibero-American Networks of Universities for Sustainability and the Environment as the Colombian Network of Environmental Training (RCFA) representative. He also coordinates the Network of Research on Science, Technology, Innovation and Environmental Education for Ibero-America (CTIE-AMB).


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government