European Geologist Journal 50

The Science and Education Network for Sustainability in Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark


by Hugo Gomes1,2, Emanuel Castro1, Magda Fernandes1, Fábio Loureiro1

1 Associação Geopark Estrela, Guarda, Portugal

2 Geosciences Centre , Coimbra University, Portugal



The Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark is a territory where sustainable development is sought in an integrated way, based on its geological heritage, marked by the landforms left by the last glaciation, its biodiversity and its culture, which reflects the secular adaptation of its communities to this mountain. In this perspective, the Science and Education Network for Sustainability was implemented in 2019, based on an articulated set of interdisciplinary working groups with close links to higher education institutions and the Portuguese scientific and technological system, with emphasis on entities that carry out research in mountain regions. As such, the Science and Education Network for Sustainability of the Estrela Geopark can play an essential role in the promotion of development and territorial cohesion, leveraging new educational approaches and, by doing so, reinforcing the important role of education for geosciences in Portugal, in Europe and the World.

Cite as: Gomes, Hugo, Castro, Emanuel, Fernandes, Magda, & Loureiro, Fabio. (2020). The Science and Education Network for Sustainability in Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark. European Geologist, 50.


The UNESCO Global Geoparks are territories of science, education, culture and communication, but science has not always played a prominent role in these classified territories. One of the goals of the Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark (UGGp) is to put science and research effectively at the service of populations. The actions carried out since 2016 and the planned activities for the future reveal the importance that science has for this territory. Thus, a concerted, cohesive and coherent strategy with a medium- and long-term vision towards sustainability has been prepared, based on the fulfilment of the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals of UN’s 2030 Agenda), including ambitious commitments to stimulate the region economically in the short term and to help the agents of the territory in the definition of a medium-to-long term trajectory.

Thinking about science or research is still today a distant idea for many, reduced to the image of a research centre, a university, or a laboratory. However, science is increasingly a strategy that opens up to society, incorporated in our daily lives, becoming more accessible and democratic. Since its foundation, UNESCO has sought to achieve development and peace through scientific knowledge, placing it at the service of all, on the assumption of contributing to the resolution of the real problems of societies, making them more informed and trained, and thus better prepared to achieve development.

In the second decade of this century, UNESCO formalised the creation of UNESCO Global Geoparks, defining them as territories where education, culture and science converge to build a more sustainable future (UNESCO, 2015). So, why have the 161 geoparks worldwide been selected as territories of science? The answer to this question lies in two points. Firstly, geoparks are territories with a unique geology, which because of their value, are considered a common legacy for communities, i.e. as heritage. In this context, one of the ways to perpetuate their value and contribute to their preservation is through the knowledge that one has of these resources, using science to help us understand the shapes and landscapes that we see. The affirmation of geoparks as living laboratories effectively brings science closer to people, making them actors of knowledge, grounding new visions that foster citizen science or open science.

Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark

The Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark was recognised in 2020. It is made up of nine municipalities, with a total area of about 2216 km2, whose identity is directly linked to Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal. It has a long geological history, which is reflected in its great geodiversity, ranging from deeply deformed rocks of more than 600 million years to the important landforms left by ancient glaciers during the last ice age. The Estrela Geopark seeks to work in an integrated way on sustainable development, based on its geological heritage, its extraordinary biodiversity and its culture, a reflection of the centuries-old adaptation of communities to this mountain, with education being one of its strategic priorities. Therefore, this work seeks to demonstrate the importance of education and science in the valorisation of heritage and the relevant role of the Estrela Geopark in their promotion as a strategy for Geoconservation and dissemination of scientific knowledge, since only what is truly known can be preserved and valued.

The Estrela Geopark (Figure 1) is a territory with a remarkable heritage that with its relevance, uniqueness and meaning constitutes a common legacy that must be safeguarded and valued (Gomes et al., 2019). Its geological history extends for millions of years, beginning more than 650 Ma, when the territory was at the bottom of an ancient ocean, culminating with the uplift of the current mountain and the highlight of Estrela´s geological heritage, the landforms left by the last glaciation, with special relevance to its position in southwest Europe.

Figure 1: Estrela Geopark map and location.

Its heritage values, in particular its geological heritage, are enhanced by its geographical position, at the crossroads of different biogeographical zones, in addition to the strong link between communities and the mountain, where human occupation of over a thousand years has given rise to a mosaic of ecosystems and natural and semi-natural landscapes with a rich cultural heritage. For these reasons, the UNESCO seal proves to be a great tool to foster the preservation, promotion and valorisation of this heritage in a holistic way.

The strategy outlined for science is focused on research in specific disciplinary areas, sometimes transversal, that can promote a structural transformation, namely in the area of training and capacity building of the territory, contributing to help a variety of stakeholders obtain the appropriate training to act and work in a world in transition, including decision-makers and the public administration, teachers and students, professionals in the area of tourism, catering and hospitality, among many others, obtain the appropriate training to act and work in a world in transition. The strategic plan developed relies on applied science with a general and interdisciplinary approach, where access to resources can be facilitated, thus enhancing quality education and lifelong training, stimulating job creation at regional level, while taking advantage of the opportunities arising from its unique heritage (geological, biological and cultural). It can, for example, promote the territory as a health destination by promoting fluvial beaches and thermal waters; find innovations that contribute to a more circular economy and to the improvement of the living conditions of communities; also, it can promote work on the adaptation and mitigation of climate change in the territory.

It is a pre-requisite that UNESCO Global Geoparks must develop educational activities for all ages to spread awareness on geological heritage and its links to other aspects of natural, cultural and intangible heritage. Geoparks establish partnerships with schools, universities and research centres, focusing on research collaborations, to offer educational programmes for schools and education, both formal and informal, for adults, such as providing training courses for teachers and local people (Álvarez, 2020).

The Estrela UGGp promotes the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goal 4 – ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning education for all – because it actively educates their local communities and their visitors of all ages. According to UNESCO (2017), Global Geoparks are “outdoor classrooms and incubators for sustainable development, sustainable lifestyles, appreciation of cultural diversity and the promotion of peace”.

The importance of education in the dissemination of scientific knowledge, especially in the field of geosciences, show how the Estrela territory can be an authentic living laboratory where didactic experiences are developed (Fernandes et al., 2018).

Estrela UGGp Science and Education Network for Sustainability

The Estrela UGGp uses its extraordinary natural heritage to promote multidisciplinary educational programmes, transforming the Estrela mountain range into a big classroom, where students and teachers can learn about geodiversity, biodiversity, and culture, promoting the conservation and valorisation of its heritage through education. In fact, the goal of the Estrela UGGp Science strategy is to transform the territory into a “living laboratory” for the achievement of sustainability and its promotion among communities, the country, and the world (Fernandes et al., 2018).

Taking into account these objectives, the Science and Education Network for Sustainability (RCES) was implemented (Figure 2), aimed at supporting and promoting applied research to the Estrela territory. The network is based on an articulated set of interdisciplinary working groups spread throughout the territory with close links to higher education institutions and the national scientific and technological system, with emphasis on entities that carry out research in mountain regions. It will also serve as a catalyst for the new generation of scientists that will benefit from the more than 2,200 km2 of the Estrela UGGp as an open laboratory. In this context, RCES will support all areas of scientific research, including natural, social, human and sports sciences. The activities defined in the framework of Estrela Geopark Strategic Plan for Science are focused on the following areas: Geology and Geomorphology, Landscape, Culture and Heritage, Climate and Climate Change, Biodiversity and Ecology, Environment and Natural Resources, Spatial Planning and Risks, and Tourism, Leisure and Sustainable Development.

Figure 2: Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark Science and Education Strategy.

This network promotes five science and education Working Groups on Territory: Climate and Climate Change; Water Resources; Biodiversity and Mountain Ecology; Tourism and Sustainability; Geodiversity and Geoconservation. The working groups aim to create structures to promote science, education and scientific knowledge in a collaborative way, based on the establishment of medium and long-term strategic partnerships between different actors of the territory and institutions that develop research in the different areas.  Its main objectives are cooperation in identifying challenges, creating projects, sharing resources and infrastructures and mobility and/or exchange of qualified human resources between network members and research & development agencies, with the objective of sharing and disseminating knowledge. This network is not a closed structure and can be extended to other disciplines and other working groups in different areas.

The Estrela Geopark constitutes the most emblematic mountain range in mainland Portugal, with evident local climatic contrasts controlled by differences in altitude and topography and their interaction with atmospheric flows. The climatic importance of Estrela is also felt on a regional scale, causing important asymmetries in the distribution of precipitation and temperatures, with consequences for the ecosystems and human occupation of the territory. The climatic character of Estrela also makes it one of the most important resources for water in the country, used for human consumption, industry and energy generation. This is also the only place in Portugal with significant snowfall, with an ecological, socio-economic and cultural impact. The climate history of the Estrela has left indelible marks on the landscape, particularly in the coldest periods of the Quaternary, marked by an extensive ice plateau and glacial valleys. In a context of rapid climate change and accelerated changes in land use, driven by unbalanced regional and national socio-economic dynamics, the Working Group on Territory, Climate and Climate Change aims to foster basic and applied scientific research, linking it to regional development and education for sustainability.

The Working Group focused on Water Resources will play an essential role in the development of research lines related to water resources and thermal waters. The objective of this working group is to develop some measures that will promote a harmonious local and regional development of this low-density territory. It is not enough to have well-equipped and qualified thermal resorts, it is fundamental to work in a network to attract new audiences, invest more in the sector, establish partnerships, encourage greater promotion/dissemination and organise activities that can energise and promote the territory. On the other hand, the water resources of Estrela are a valuable asset of this territory, so greater knowledge of them will allow greater capacity for innovation, preservation and valorisation. The region of Serra de Estrela, in the context of the Portuguese landscape, is excellent in terms of water resources. It is one of the regions with the highest precipitation, either in the form of rain or snow. This characteristic leads to a territory with great richness in surface water, with a large number of natural lakes, many of them converted into dams. It is also in this region that the largest Portuguese rivers are born, such as the Mondego and the Zêzere rivers. As a consequence, the region of Serra da Estrela is also a territory of excellence for abundant and high-quality groundwater. There are significant aquifers that have been used to supply local populations for millennia, leading to their eventual settlement. Thermal and/or mineral-rich groundwater is also found, which in some cases has led to the creation of spas and bottling industries, which are relevant to both local and national economy.

The Science and Education Working Group in Biodiversity and Mountain Ecology will play an essential role in the development of research projects in ecosystems and agroecosystems of the Estrela villages, aiming at the recompilation, classification and production of knowledge that will serve to promote the conservation and sustainability of this territory, as well as the enrichment of science. The Serra da Estrela is located in the westernmost part of the Iberian Central System, in the transition area between temperate and Mediterranean climates, a location particularly vulnerable to global warming. The Estrela ecosystems are closely linked to human action as well as to forest management or moving herds to pasture in the Alpine-like ecosystems. These ecosystems, located in the upper part of the mountain, are an important reserve of biodiversity with a significant number of endemic species and offer a unique opportunity to study the effect of climate change on the functioning of ecosystems. The conservation of these ecosystems requires education and environmental awareness, which currently play a fundamental role in the development of sustainable strategies.

The establishment of a Working Group on Tourism and Sustainability aims to consolidate studies on culture, leisure and tourism in its relationship with the territory, the latter assuming a role in the relationship between different resources and tourism products. Taking into account that tourism is one of the pillars of UNESCO Geoparks, actions were selected that aim to boost tourism in the Estrela territory, strengthen partnerships and contribute to the continuity of the Estrela’s identity by creating a strong tourism brand based on heritage and culture, leading to an increase in the number of tourists and their average stays and helping decrease tourist seasonality. In fact, tourism assumes increased importance as an inducer of development in the territories where it occurs. However, it must be promoted as a sustainable phenomenon, valuing local potential as a differentiating resource capable of generating motivation and tourist attractiveness.

The Working Group focused on Geodiversity and Geoconservation will play an important role in promoting geodiversity in modern civilisation, in prospecting for and exploiting raw materials, as well as specific actions of geoconservation, safeguarding and enhancing the outstanding elements of the geological, geomorphological and landscape heritage. In addition to these intervention areas, special attention will be given to networking among UNESCO Global Geoparks. Thus, this will be an important part of the dissemination of geosciences, namely in geoconservation strategies, valorisation of geological heritage and interpretation of landscape.

Final Remarks

The Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark, one of the 15 new territories classified in 2020, is seeking to give special emphasis to the actual reality of populations, affirming itself as a true territory of science, a place that must promote and achieve a main objective – sustainable development. In this sense, long before its classification, the Estrela Geopark has clearly committed itself to science and scientific knowledge, relating it to education and turning the territory into a real laboratory. In fact, the Estrela mountain range presents unique characteristics for studies in several scientific areas. However, the science produced in these areas must be done with the participation of the populations (citizen science), using research to tackle problems and making the results available in an open and accessible way. Proof of this is the work carried out on forest fires, climate change, geological heritage and geoconservation, among many other studies. These results are presented at the International Conference on Managing Mediterranean Mountains and Geoheritage (3MG), organised every two years in the territory of the Estrela UGGp.

Due to our awareness of the value of science and its importance, the Science and Education Network for Sustainability was implemented. Its main goal is to promote the knowledge of Estrela in various areas. The next four years are a challenge for this territory and for this UNESCO Geopark, to place science as a foundation for the development of Serra da Estrela in Portugal, involving its populations and creating knowledge networks.

To sum up, all of these initiatives in the field of science, promotion of culture and territorial development are part of the everyday life of the Estrela UNESCO Global Geopark and must take a holistic and promotional approach to sustainable development. In this context, each year until 2030 will be dedicated to one of the SDG, through an action plan in the areas of citizen science and education, raising awareness, promoting and defining strategies to achieve the recommended development goals adapted to the reality of this territory. This is intended to alert people to or solve concrete problems of this geographical region through multiple actions aimed at community participation.


UNESCO (2017). UNESCO Global Geoparks contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals: celebrating earth heritage, sustaining local communities. Paris, France: UNESCO.

Gomes, H., Loureiro, F., Cezar, L., Castro, E., Vieira, G. (2019). Interpreting Late Pleistocene paleoenvironments through the geosites of the Estrela Geopark (Central Portugal). In: Pena dos Reis, R..; Henriques, M. H.; Oosterbeek, L.; Rosina, P.; Alves, E.I.; Garcia, G.G. e João, P. (2019). International Meeting on Paleoclimate: change and adaptation – book of abstracts. série Area Domeniu, vol. 8, Instituto Terra e Memória – Centro de Geociências da Universidade de Coimbra. pp 57–58.

Fernandes, M., Castro E., Loureiro, F., Patrocínio, F., Firmino, G., Vieira, G., Gomes, H. (2018). Geodiversity and geo-education in the construction of tourist and leisure territories: the case of Aspiring Geopark Estrela. Abstract Book, 14th European Geoparks Conference – Geoparks: Pathways of Sustainable Tourism for Development (Açores).

This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 50 – Let’s become geologists! Challenges and opportunities in geoscience education in Europe

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