José Francisco Bernades Milanez
Fellow Since 1993
This profile was prepared when José Francisco Bernades Milanez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1993.
Francisco Milanez is developing new approaches to environmental education that are particularly effective in commanding the attention and commitment of their intended audiences and both motivating them to forego environmentally harmful actions in their own pursuits and to support effective governmental action to curb environmental abuse. His initial efforts are focused on school children and farmers, but he is developing programs embodying a similar approach for other groups.
The New Idea
Unlike most of his fellow Brazilians, Francisco Milanez is convinced that environmentally destructive practices in every part of the country and every economic sector are gravely imperiling Brazil's future. He is also strongly persuaded that most attempts to enhance public awareness of that threat and to encourage environmentally protective practices are severely, if not fatally, flawed because they pay too little heed to factors that motivate the behavior of their intended audiences.In his home state of Rio Grande do Sul, Francisco is designing and implementing new environmental awareness and education initiatives that acquaint their audiences with the immediate burdens of environmentally harmful practices in which they are engaged and the benefits of alternative approaches. In one of those initiatives, which is directed to school-age children, he is integrating environmental learning into the treatment of standard school subjects (rather than introducing a separate course on ecology or environmental protection) and using "problems" and homework assignments to expose students and their families to the adverse environmental consequences of practices in which they are engaged. In another initiative, which is focused on farmers, he is demonstrating that environmentally harmful production technologies that they commonly employ are also costly in immediate farm revenue terms.Heartened by the way in which those two initiatives have been received, Francisco is developing similar programs and training materials for other target audiences.
In recent decades, Brazil's once enviable natural resource endowment has been ravaged, and in every part of the country, environmental quality continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate. The causes of that deterioration are both numerous and well known: the pressures of a rapidly growing population, the extension of farms and ranches into areas ill-suited for those purposes, unchecked urban sprawl, the growth of polluting industries and gasoline-powered transport and the absence of effective governmental measures to curb polluting practices, to cite but a few. The problem of environmental degradation was exacerbated during more than two decades of military/authoritarian rule, when Brazil's leaders perceived environmental protection to be at odds with other, more pressing priorities. But even under the democratically elected governments of the past decade, environmentally destructive practices continue and adequate public regulation is still lacking.Underlying the absence of appropriate actions, both by the Brazilian government and by every other major segment of Brazilian society, is a lack of sufficient awareness of the damage that is being done and the long-range burdens that environmentally abusive practices entail. In recent years, a number of nongovernmental organizations with conservation and environmental education agendas have come into being. Sadly, however, most of them have failed to capture the interest and commitment of large numbers of people. For much of their intended audience, persistent poverty and its tragic consequences are more compelling issues. And for others, the prospects of immediate gains in industry or agriculture eclipse concern over the longer-term consequences of environmentally destructive economic "progress." In short, for most Brazilians, environmental protection is somebody else's concern.
In two ongoing projects in Porto Alegre and neighboring communities in Rio Grande do Sul, Francisco is demonstrating the proposition that the effectiveness of environmental awareness and education programs can be markedly enhanced by tailoring them to the everyday experiences, motivations and self-interest of their intended audiences. In the implementation of those projects, he is developing new approaches and instructional materials that will be used in similar endeavors throughout the country.Francisco's initiative in primary and secondary schools is a marked departure from traditional approaches to environmental education in school settings. The usual approach involves the introduction of special courses in ecology and related topics, but such courses often meet with resistance from teachers who regard them as "frills" that compete for students' attention with more important "main-line" disciplines and thus dilute the intensity and quality of instruction in the latter fields. In Francisco's endeavor, however, materials relating to environmental protection and sustainable development are integrated into the courses of study in "main-line" disciplines. In some disciplines, such as the natural sciences and social studies, the paths for doing so are relatively simple and straightforward (though infrequently traveled prior to Francisco's initiative). In other fields, examples and "problems" are used to convey environmental messages. In mathematics, for example, instruction in percentages includes homework assignments in which students are asked to examine the several costs that are reflected in the market price of familiar products and to calculate the percentages of the purchase price that are attributable to each of those costs. In so doing, students (and other members of their families) are often startled by the high economic costs associated with expensive forms of packaging that are also environmentally harmful. And having made that "discovery," they see connections between their own behavior and environmental deterioration that conventional approaches to environmental education often fail to establish.In his project with farmers, Francisco is demonstrating that the use of environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices is both simple and profitable. To allay skepticism on those counts, he has persuaded several farmers in the area to allow him to use small plots on their farms, where he has succeeded in demonstrating that that the use of environmentally "friendly" techniques results in higher earnings than the farmers would have achieved with their traditional, environmentally harmful production methods. The not surprising outcome of that on-site demonstration is that farmers, who are normally hesitant to abandon familiar practices, are now rapidly embracing environmentally sustainable production techniques.In a related endeavor, Francisco has also established a Center for Organic Agriculture in the town of Lindolfo Collor, near Porto Alegre. The center, which includes a substantial garden for research and training purposes, will serve as a base for extension activities with farmers in nearby areas. With the aid of the local township, he is also laying the groundwork for an "international center for popular education." Francisco is carrying out these projects under the aegis of ECO fund, a nongovernmental organization that he established in 1989 with the aim of promoting "environmentally sustainable development" and related changes in values and human behavior. Through ECOfund, he is developing instructional materials for use in other endeavors similar in purpose and approach to the projects in which he is currently engaged. He is also seeking funding, from Brazilian and international sources, that will enable ECOfund to expand its programmatic and geographic scope and permit the nascent international center to develop a broad array of training and information-sharing activities.
Now in his early 40s, Francisco was born and raised in Porto Alegre. As an undergraduate at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, he combined studies in biology with a degree program in architecture and urban studies. He later completed a graduate program in ecology at the same school and a course in environmental impact analysis at the University of Amazonas.Spanning the private, public and nonprofit sectors, Francisco's professional career has maintained a steady focus on environment-related issues. In the private sector, he has developed and managed a group of stores and restaurants featuring the products of organic gardening and directed a firm providing consulting services on environmental issues to business and government clients. He has also served as president of an association of young business leaders in Porto Alegre. In the public sphere, he worked during the late 1980s as a technical advisor in the State Secretariat of Health and Environment in Rio Grande do Sul. In 1989, he founded ECOfund, the nongovernmental organization that hosts and sponsors the several initiatives described above.In addition to his work at ECOfund, Francisco continues to provide consulting services in environmental planning and environmental education to public and private organizations. He also teaches courses in environmental education in a university-level school of education in Rio Grande do Sul.