Socio-Environmental Conflicts and Environmental Governance in Local Management

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During the last two decades, in both Latin America and the Caribbean, the importance of municipal institutions has increased significantly, as the result of the decentralizing trend in the region. In many countries, environmental aspects have acquired importance in local policy-making and have become more visible in development plans and land use planning.

Decentralization and the implementation of local governments’ competencies often give rise to conflicts. Issues include water supply and sanitation service, solid waste management, environmental pollution, land use and zoning, and even extractive activities that often may not be within local governments’ competencies, but involve diverse stakeholders and sectors interacting in their territory. Latin America is facing increasing environmental and social conflict, as a consequence of unsustainable natural resource management, limited access to information and the existence of few opportunities for multi-sector dialogue at the local, national and regional level.

In this context, Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano (FFLA), in collaboration with German Cooperation (GIZ), Ecuador’s Association of Municipalities, the Simón Bolívar Andean University and the Confluencias Group, organized the Seventh Regional Forum on Transforming Socio-Environmental Conflicts in Latin America (16-17 September 2014) in Quito, Ecuador. Two hundred participants attended from Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador, and reflected on decentralization in the region and the opportunities this offers for environmental governance and transforming socio-environmental conflicts. Local good practices were highlighted in the cases presented during the Regional Forum.

María Soledad Quiroga-Trigo, of Bolivia’s UNIR Foundation, defined governance as action and decision-making regarding environmental resources, involving the State, economic and societal stakeholders and different forms of association and coordination. She also emphasized that proper environmental governance involves a strong but not self-sufficient State, with organized, active society and private economic stakeholders involved.

According to Rubens Barbery-Knaudt, Director of CEPAD (Bolivia), trends in Latin America show that the greater the decentralization, the greater the democratization. Decentralization should lead to greater efficiency by bringing administration closer to the citizenry and to local problems.

Local governments have a unique opportunity to transform conflicts insofar as they know the local public’s needs best, provide fundamental day-to-day services, receive demands directly and are in a position to directly cope with conflicts. They can also draw on experiences in local environmental governance and showcase their outcomes.

Therefore, decentralization offers an opportunity to transform socio-environmental conflicts if key elements are considered, such as technical resources and capacities, adequate institutional interaction on various territorial scales, democratization of information, transfer of decision-making and power to local level, as well as financial resources. Decentralization must be viewed as a process requiring ongoing strengthening, and currently poses a series of challenges which need to be overcome in order for it to be truly effective.

Land use planning and its role in transforming socio-environmental conflicts. Land use planning contributes to identifying and transforming socio-environmental conflicts, however depending on the context may exacerbate conflicts. To reduce conflicts, the diverse existing visions of development must be complemented and discussed with the greatest possible number of stakeholders in tune with local timing.

Conflicts involving urban environmental management. Issues generating socio-environmental conflicts in cities arise from limited and inadequate planning processes, non-observance of norms, little access to information, power asymmetries, etc. Multiple stakeholders without adequate organization or representativeness, and weak participation, make conflicts unmanageable. Conflicts affect local governance by undermining the credibility of public action, eclipsing other positive actions, fostering political polarization and necessarily requiring both technical and economic resources.

Conflicts involving water management under local governments’ competencies. The public’s different visions of water resources cause an intensification of socio-environmental conflicts. The relationship between climate change and water is indivisible, which poses the need to generate measures to sustainably manage the territory and water resources. Stakeholders’ participation in adaptation to climate change is crucial for a broader vision of local reality in order to prepare holistic strategies for adaptation.

Climate change and socio-environmental conflict. Climate change escalates local socio-environmental conflicts, by impacting natural resources and people’s livelihoods. It also weakens environmental governance and reduces the responsiveness of public institutions to society’s demands. Cities play a crucial role, as centres of innovation and problem-solving, showing how many consequences of climate change can be addressed better locally and holistically.

Participation on the local level. To ensure that civil society’s local participation will actually be useful, the diverse local and national stakeholders must be identified. Their social organization, representativeness of their interests, relationships and their level of involvement with the issue being addressed should also be identified.

Miguel Pellerano, President of FFLA’s International Board, summarized: “There is nothing more productive than the heterogeneity of groups and homogeneity of goals”, to reflect the great diversity of viewpoints expressed, but all under the same common denominator: moving toward conflict transformation in the region and utilising conflicts as an opportunity for social change.

The Regional Forums on Transforming Socio-Environmental Conflicts provide an opportunity for reflection and debate. The Futuro Latinoamericano Foundation is committed to continuing to hold these events of regional transcendence. Presentations from the event may be downloaded from this link.

This summary has been prepared on the basis of the ideas and inputs generated by the speakers and participants during their lectures, thematic panels and round table discussion.

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