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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 16: Environmental Movements, Politics and Agenda 21 in Latin America

28 Oct 2005

  • Author(s): María Pilar García-Guadilla


Latin American governments, non-governmental organization (NGOs) and social movements have scarcely paid attention to Agenda 21, María Pilar García-Guadilla writes in this new paper released by UNRISD, and this may be explained in part by the economic, political and social crises that have defined other priorities for the region over the past decade.

Agenda 21 was the official, mainstream agenda adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (also known as the Earth Summit), which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Yet the main concerns of the region since then have been poverty and political stability, not sustainable development. Another obstacle for the advancement of Agenda 21 is the fact that the concepts of sustainable development and participatory democracy are so broad that there is no consensus on their meanings.

The author finds that the values, expectations and demands of NGOs and social movements are very heterogeneous: 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 outright and propose an alternative agenda. At the same time, since the Earth Summit, Agenda 21 has 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 have been lacking.

The instrumentalist, “techno-scientific” rationality on which Agenda 21 relies, claims the author, excludes the visions, aims and proposals of an important group of social organizations and movements. A meaningful dialogue has also to be grounded in one of the characteristics of democracy - pluralism - which implies recognition and acceptance of a great diversity of beliefs and values. 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.

María Pilar García-Guadilla is a Professor in the Department of Urban Planning at Universidad Simón Bolívar, Caracas, Venezuela.

Order CSSM PP 16 from UNRISD (US$ 12 for readers in industrialized countries and US$ 6 for readers in developing and transitional countries and for students).