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Environmental Movements, Politics and Agenda 21 in Latin America



The scarce interest in, and the lack of support given to, Agenda 21—the official, mainstream agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro, 1992)—by Latin American governments, non-governmental organization (NGOs) and social movements may be explained in part by the region’s economic, political and social crises that have defined priorities other than those stipulated in Agenda 21. The main concerns of the region over the last decade have been poverty and political stability, not sustainable development. Another obstacle for the advancement of Agenda 21 is the fact that sustainable development and participatory democracy are such broad concepts that there is no agreement on their meaning among Latin American governments, NGOs and social movements—and not even within NGOs and social movements.

This paper analyses the values, expectations and proposals of Latin American governments, and environmental and social organizations and movements, within this context, in an attempt to identify the sets of principles, and the economic and political models they propose for achieving sustainable development. The paper shows the divergence of perspective and the difficulties of reaching a consensual agenda. This analysis shows that the values, expectations and demands of NGOs and social movements are very heterogeneous: some of them denounce economic globalization, free trading, privatization and the accentuation of poverty and social inequalities as the causes of environmental problems, while others focus on ecological issues and disregard sociopolitical causes; some accept Agenda 21 as the basis for a dialogue with governments and international multilateral institutions and as a platform from which to solve such problems, while others reject it on the basis of a substantive critique, not only of the prevalent economic model but of the “civilization model” as well, and propose an alternative agenda. Information and data for this comparison come primarily from a content analysis of the official and alternative agendas adopted in Rio de Janeiro, as well as multiple official and alternative documents coming out of meetings between 1992–2002, such as the World Summit for Social Development, the Fourth World Conference on Women, Special Session of the General Assembly to Review and Appraise the Implementation of Agenda 21 (Earth Summit+5), the World Social Forum (Porto Alegre) and preparatory meetings for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (the Johannesburg summit), among others.

In the 10 years since the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 guided the aims, praxes and policy proposals of international institutions and governments, but the spaces, mechanisms, values and agendas that could garner the favour of Latin American governments and social movements toward sustainable development were lacking. Thus, the author argues, the main challenges of the Johannesburg summit were the creation of new spaces for the participation of civil society in the decision-making process, and the promotion of a dialogue regarding the type of development required for the next decade. The instrumentalist, “techno-scientific” rationality on which Agenda 21 relies, she claims, excludes the visions, aims and proposals of an important group of social organizations and movements. Alone, it does not provide the basis for a democratic agreement. A meaningful dialogue centered on sustainable development has to focus on a humanistic approach, and not be based on technology or economic growth per se. It has also to be grounded in one of the characteristics of democracy—that is, in its pluralism—which implies the recognition and the acceptance of the great diversity of beliefs and values held by human beings. For this to be possible, all parties must have similar bargaining power. Since this is not the case of social movements, there is the need for these organizations to empower themselves through the reinforcement of their already existing networks, thereby creating a space from which to participate in the collective and democratic construction of a viable and equitable framework for sustainable development.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 3 Oct 2005
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD