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Education and Sustainable Development


Armindo Maia, Rector, National University of Timor Lorosa’e



The title for this presentation would probably be better if it were Education for Sustainability, to follow the module developed by John Fien (2000). However, I would prefer to leave it open, to allow the theoreticians, academics and educators in this area to develop an appropriate and suitable module for environmental education for East Timor, for both curricular and non-curricular purposes.

As an academic, I would be expected to deliver some kind of highly-academic and seminal paper regarding this topic.  I am afraid that I might disappoint many people in this conference room if they have such an expectation.  In fact, on top of lacking the relevant academic background and expertise in this area, I myself am not involved or engaged in any activity, either curricular or non-curricular related to this area.  Some background study in Natural Resources and Environmental Economics some 10 years ago does not help much for the purpose of this conference.  For these reasons, I will rather place myself as an observer who, obviously, will delve into this issue more from an empirical than theoretical perspective.

I will divide this presentation into three parts.  The first section will briefly look at the major concepts such as sustainable development, environmental education and the goals of environmental education.  The second part will look into why environmental education is necessary for East Timor.  The last section, will focus on the necessity to introduce environmental education into the school curriculum from primary up to the tertiary levels, as well as in informal education.


  1. Sustainable Development and Environmental Education

A wide range of definitions of Sustainable Development have been proposed and developed by experts, some stressing certain aspects more than others - a function of their respective views.  For the purpose of this presentation, and for simplification, I picked John Fien’s definition (2000), which focuses primarily on the environment: “A sustainable environment is one in which the natural environment, economic development and social life are seen as mutually dependent - and the interaction between them contributes to the sustainability and enhancement of the quality of people’s lives and the natural environment”.

Whereas “Environmental Education” means “an across-the curriculum approach to learning which helps individuals and groups to understand the concept of sustainable environment”.  The ultimate aim of such understanding “is to help young people develop caring and committed attitudes and the desire to act responsibly in the environment and towards each other”.

Moving along, we come to the goal of Environmental Education which fundamentally “is the creation of sustainable environments in which people can live and work” not only for the present generation but for all the future ones to come.

Important concepts for environmental education comprise; finite/non renewable resources, renewable resources and the “closed” life system, comprised of the four systems of the environment, namely: political, social, economic and biophysical.  The well-known R.O. Donoghues’s diagram (Figure 1. below) on the four systems of the environment illustrates the interrelation between them and the whole system as a “closed” one, moving within the circle.



Figure 1. The Four Systems of the Environment

R. O’Donoghue, Source J. Fein 2000.


  1. Why Environmental Education for East Timor?

Many people, including researchers, academics, observers and politicians have voiced their concern at the alarming rate of environmental degradation in East Timor over the last 30 years or so.  Many of them have explained the causes, which include; economic, cultural and educational factors.  I will leave the economic aspect to others and I will focus on the cultural and educational ones.

On cultural factors, I will categorise them into two major attitudes - positive and negative - that can still be witnessed all over the country, with variations in the larger urban centres. Positive attitudes towards the environment in the traditional society are rooted in their belief in the “Lulik”, as well as resulting from social interactions and economic needs.  “Lulik” as has already been extensively described earlier in this conference, attributes sacred values to many natural and man-made elements.  “Lulik” attributes sacred powers to certain old and huge trees, rocks, springs, animals and mountains.  As such, destruction of these elements by humans is totally prohibited. This functions very positively in terms of the protection and enhancement of the environment. 

Practices such as tree planting along the boundaries of properties (either communal or private) are quite common all over the territory.  A similar practice can be witnessed at every spring (water source), particularly in the countryside, where certain palm trees like coconut and betel-nut predominate, alongside huge banyan trees. 

Unfortunately, these beliefs, and practices have been gradually eroded as civilisation and “education” made progress to the interior.

On the other hand, some social and cultural practices, which have had a highly negative impact on the environment, need to be dealt with seriously at all costs.  They include: “slash and burn” agricultural practices, shifting cultivation, increasing urbanisation, wood-cutting for firewood and bush-burning for game or just for fun.  Another cultural factor which needs reorientation is the custom of constructing houses on the slopes or on the tops of the hills accompanied by the subsequent clearing for gardens (ladang) on the slopes which contributes greatly to serious soil erosion and land degradation.


  1. Environmental Education as a component of the School Curriculum

There is no doubt that every conscious Timorese sees and feels the need to do something to improve the condition of the environment.  There is no doubt that education, particularly formal education is seen as one of the major and powerful means to achieve that goal.  Young people learn easily and quickly and can easily inculcate these attitudes in their values.

There was nothing in the curriculum of the previous Portuguese and Indonesian administrations in East Timor that contained any related-subject on Environmental Education.  The Indonesian curriculum (Secondary School) gave some room for what is called “muatan lokal” (local content), which actually could be used for this subject.  However, given the lack of knowledge and skills of teachers in this area, it summed up to what was called “kegiatan reboisasi” (reforestation activities), with dubious results.

During this transitional period, a “transitional curriculum” has been adopted to respond to the educational needs while efforts to come up with a national curriculum are under way.  I believe and strongly recommend that environmental education should be gradually introduced in the school curriculum, from primary to at least the secondary levels.  To achieve this, there is obviously a need to have a group of knowledgeable and skilled teachers in this area.



Fien J, (accessed 10 October 2000), Education for Sustainability, UNEP, Asia-Pacific Centre of Educational Innovation and Development (UNESCO), Griffith University,