mayor Horst Mller was overwhelmed. Around 200 citizens of Olpe, a small industrial town west of Cologne, Germany, had gathered to attend the first meeting for the Local Agenda 21 ( la21 ). The numbers were much more than expected. "From Rio to Olpe is a long way," Mller said, "and we want to proceed without getting lost." The message is to start at home to change the course of the world towards sustainability. And citizens were invited to discuss ways and means on how to achieve it. "Think globally, act locally" is the catch-word.
Imagine a city where public transport is free, so traffic is reduced, air quality improved and carbon dioxide emissions have gone down. Traffic is reduced further because the city decided to buy products from within the region as much as possible. Because of the increasing demand for local products, many farmers shifted to organic farming, thus improving soil and protecting water resources. And with a huge new department store for second-hand clothes set up by the local association of traders, new jobs were created and trousers, jackets and shoes no longer discarded or sent to Third World markets, destroying local production. The store became a sales point too for products from developing countries traded "fair" like coffee, tea or bananas.
Sound like Utopia, but all these projects have already been realised in other municipalities in Europe, said Ulrich Nitschke from Clearing House for Applied Future ( caf )/ Agenda Transfer Office in Bonn. caf is a small company, which organises the exchange of information and experiences on la processes. The Agenda Transfer Office was then set up in Bonn to research activities related to Agenda 21 across Europe.
la21 comes from the Agenda 21, which was signed in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by more than 170 heads of state. In 40 chapters the United Nations document outlines the measures for a sustainable world. Partnership and cooperation of all groups of society is a centre piece of the Agenda 21 to achieve social justice, ecological stability and economic sustainability. Chapter 28 asks specifically local authorities to implement Agenda 21 locally, not leaving the necessary activities exclusively to national governments. Municipalities are being called upon to start a consultation process with all citizens till end of 1996 to agree upon aims and perspective of a la 21
As an immediate result of the meeting in Olpe, three working groups with member from church groups, trade unions, environmental organisations, Third World initiatives and the administration were set up -- one on employment and economy, one on development, trade and energy, the third one on consumption. Their agenda: to start the dialogue on how to make Olpe into a "sustainable city". But what does "sustainable" mean? Nitschke offers a handy definition: "better, less, different".
Olpe is one of the "youngest" members among of the more than 1,300 municipalities and towns in Germany that joined the Agenda process so far. Compared to Great Britain, Denmark or the Netherlands, Germany was a slow starter in this process. But it is picking up in the last two, three years. Now, nine per cent of all municipalities or towns have resolutions to start the process. Yet it is much less than, for example, Sweden, where nearly every municipality has its own Agenda-Officer. More than 80 per cent of these activities take place in eleven industrialised countries, some in newly industrialised countries, but almost nothing in developing countries.
While on national and global levels, the "spirit of Rio" is rapidly fading, in Europe at the local level the commitment to environmental and development activities is continuously growing. Ernst Welters, city councillor in Berlin-Kpenick, a town southeast of Berllin, even believes, that without the activities of the Local Agenda, Rio would already be dead and forgotten.
Kpenick the pioneer: Kpenick once was an important fishing centre. Then it became an industrial area in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). The fishermen have gone long time ago. And now the industry too. Post-German unification saw rapid de-industrialisation. And it did not spare Kpenick. "We are a developing region," says Helmut Nowatzky, who heads the Agenda 21 office, a few tiny rooms just behind the impressive Kpenick city hall of red brick, built in better times.
In the new development strategy, environment and sustainability became quite naturally a central focal point, explains Ernst Welters, city councillor for the Youth and the Environment. The region around Kpenick with lakes and forests is the biggest source of drinking water, an important area for recreation and the "green lung" of the capital Berlin. In 1993, Kpenick started the first la initiative in Germany.
Right from the beginning, the Agenda process in Kpenick was a "holistic approach", not issue based like in many other municipalities. It combines environmental, social and economic objectives. The showpiece so far is ibasolar , where house owners and companies get information, advice and training on solar energy. It is part of the efforts to make Kpenick a "solar district". Already, boats driven by solar energy are plying the lakes around the city.
But the civil society front is still rather weak, says Nowatzky. Public awareness about the existence of the Agenda process is low. Reaching the people proves to be difficult. The best response so far came from the more than 130 watersports associations like boat clubs and angling clubs. They have a keen interest in an intact, undisturbed environment and clean waters. But the non-organised public has hardly been reached yet, he adds.
Women for Agenda 21: When Doris Freer, head of a women's office in the harbour and industrial town of Duisburg on the river Rhine, learned of the city council's resolution to start la 21, she immediately called on women in Duisburg to commit themselves. More than 100 women -- individuals and representatives of 50 institutions -- attended the start-up event in June 1997 and discussed "women's requirements". In the workshops that followed, they drew up an inventory of the situation and a list of demands for a sustainable future in Duisburg.
Similarly, in the city of Hagen, situated in the heart of the industrial belt of the Ruhr region of North-Rhine Westphalia, women too took the initiative. When the city council decided to initiate a la process, the women's office proposed five women for the advisory board, all of them highly qualified. "The male board members were really puzzled," remembers Hedwig Schuermann, working for the Trade Union Congress dgb .
The intention of the women was not to write ambitious programmes, but to use the la as an opportunity for quick action. Urgently needed were, for example, jobs for women because many of the growing number of urban poor are women and single mothers. The women are also concerned about working conditions and low payment for women in other countries. "Agenda 21 means to me partnership with the South too," says Klaudia Pempelforth, who works for a Third World initiative. So she introduced into the discussions the Clean Clothes Campaign, which tries to convince department stores to care about labour and social standards in the countries of origin of the clothes they sell, where mainly women do the work.
Partners in progress: Bremen, a city state in northern Germany, has a long history of links with the world. The second most important German port after Hamburg, it is the seat of powerful trading houses. It was also one of the first German cities to initiate a city partnership programme outside Europe with the Indian city of Pune and to set up an Office for Development Cooperation.
Not surprisingly, after the la 21 initiative was signed in June 1996, "international cooperation and partnerships" became one of the seven working groups. To implement bilateral agreements between municipalities in the North and South in the development of la 21, Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, became another partner city.
One example of an activity, which has become possible through city partnership, is saving electricity in Bremen's churches. A large part of the money saved through reduced electricity consumption is paid into a joint church fund, from which decentralised energy supply projects in Namibia are supported. Further activities are being planned, contributing to greenhouse gas mitigation.
For many, the Agenda process has given opportunities to reach new groups and to involve new actors in Third World issues. The promotion of "fair" traded products (see box: Fair price shops ), campaigns against child labour or the Clean Clothes Campaign, for example, find tremendous response in Agenda processes. But most observers agree, that the process is developing very slowly. Only five per cent of the more than 4,500 city partnerships in Germany are with cities in the South.
Mnster, often described as the unofficial "Agenda capital" of North-Rhine Westphalia, was one of the first cities to complete la 21. Several working groups and citizens groups over a period of two years developed more than 80 proposals like a department for cultural diversity, a trademark to promote regional products and a system for resource flow management within the municipality. Now it has been decided to close the Agenda Office, which had facilitated the dialogue and discussions. Different departments are in charge to implement the proposals.
After finalising the la 21, it is mainly up to the local government and administration to implement the concept. As Jrgen Maier, coordinator of the Forum Environment and Development in Bonn, set up to co-ordinate ngo activities in the post-Rio process, warns, that while participation of citizens is necessary, it can not be a substitute for firm actions and decisions by the municipalities themselves.
Like Mnster, more and more municipalities and towns are now reaching a point where the question of implementation in a systematic way is coming up. So far, a somewhat impressive range of activities or projects have been realised. But taking the Agenda process seriously means much more. la 21 is only a chance to strengthen local policy and identity if it succeeds to establish an integrated, holistic and sustainable solution for the problems faced.
But in many cases la 21 seems to be just a new label for things the administration has been doing anyway. Even Agenda enthusiasts like Ernst Welters admit that mayors and city councillors may see the la 21 as some sort of public relations measure to improve the popular image of the local government, while in day to day politics, the usual short term considerations, financial constraints or party politics continue to dominate the agenda.
While environment departments like in Berlin-Kpenick, Offices for Development Cooperation like in Bremen, or Women Offices like in Duisburg may be enthusiastic about the chances of the Agenda process, hard issues like industrial policy or finance, which have to be prepared to shift resources towards the Agenda activities, may be reluctant or even hostile. This conflict is further aggravated by the financial situation of most towns and municipalities, which are heavily indebted. Their budgets are tied by fixed expenses for salaries, debt service, social services and social welfare. This underlines the necessity of having independent funds for the Agenda process.
Here and there, there are also signs of frustration among actors and activists coming up. One reason is the lack of support from above. Even with a Green Party in power at the Centre and in some of the states, the Agenda process and the development of a National Strategy of Sustainability has a very low profile. Neither the former minister for the environment, Klaus Tpfer, nor the present one Jrgen Trittin from the Green Party ever moved a national resolution to promote la21 , says Albrecht Hoffman, co-founder of caf . And there has been little support from the national level to strengthen the Agenda process.
Another reason is the time and energy needed to move the process forward, often only inch by inch. Jrg Pietschmann, who works in Berlin as a consultant for Agenda groups, observes, that "many initiatives on development policy withdraw from the discussions about the la21 because of the workload involved".
Of course, it is still too early to see results of the la21 . But it's limitations become more and more visible. "Faced with limited responsibilities, little will to the required changes and chronically low funds, the la21 soon reaches its political limits," says Jrgen Maier. Some consider it already as a "playground" for academicians, ngo s and local groups, with little consequences for sustainability.
Still, Bernd Hamm, professor for sociology on habitat, environment and planning, offers a different, more optimistic interpretation for the gap between a lively dialogue process and progress on the ground, between knowledge and action. Civil society is pushing and demanding an implementation of the la21 , he believes, and the plethora of activities could be a sign of a "new, participatory model of society", oriented towards more self sufficiency and independent organisation. But the necessary and unavoidable reforms are still resisted by the "dinosaurs", the decision makers in politics and society.
With inputs from Kai Bhme and Ulrich Nitschke of the CAF/Agenda Transfer, and Christa Wichterich .
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.