Grassroots - thinking globally, acting locally

OUR PLANET 9.1 - The Way Ahead

Grassroots -
thinking globally,
acting locally


children on beach All over the world local communities are putting the resolutions of the 1992 Earth Summit into practice in their own areas, making the slogan 'think globally, act locally' a reality. While national governments have often drawn back from the commitments they made in Rio five years ago, local governments have taken the lead.

Worldwide, some 1,800 authorities have now adopted their own Agenda 21s. They are particularly widespread in the United Kingdom, where the local authority associations have set up a joint local Agenda 21 initiative. A recent survey shows that more than two-thirds of the nation's local councils have committed themselves to the Action Plan agreed at the Earth Summit, and over half are already drawing up strategies for sustainable development.

A steering group, including representatives of local government, non-governmental organizations, women, business, trades unions and education, oversees a comprehensive programme of projects, prepares guidance and monitors action. It works closely with the United Nations Association UK Sustainable Development Unit (UNED-UK), the national non-governmental umbrella body responsible for tracking United Nations environment and development programmes.

Chris Church, who works with the Unit, says that tens of thousands of people have become involved in local Agenda 21 initiatives. He adds: 'Environmental problems cannot be considered in isolation from social and economic ones if we are to find sustainable solutions. If there is any one principle that underlies local sustainable development, it is that we should seek to develop programmes that will start to reduce the inequities that exist in UK society.'

The steering group's latest survey of United Kingdom local authorities reveals that:

- Seventy per cent are committed to Agenda 21;

- Seventy per cent have established internal working groups on Agenda 21 issues;

- Fifty-five per cent are preparing sustainable development strategy documents;

- Fifty per cent have organized training and awareness programmes for elected members;

- Forty-two per cent are implementing environmental management systems;

- Thirty per cent are working with their local communities on developing local sustainability indicators.

The process is rooted in community participation. Council staff are encouraged to participate by identifying key groups and getting involved with them, helping to build contacts, providing information and promoting local Agenda 21 through their own networks, mailings and newsletters.

Local groups have completed hundreds of village or parish appraisals, based upon household and individual questionnaires. Many have resulted in practical action by parish councils and local authorities, made confident by the level of public concern and support. Examples include the provision of community minibuses, new low-cost housing schemes, new evening classes and youth clubs, identifying the demand for recycling collection points, tree-planting schemes, and footpath guide maps.

Local Exchange Trading Schemes, where people trade goods and services with each other using a special local currency, have blossomed throughout the country, often helping unemployed people find their way back into participating in the economic lives of their communities. Businesses and Chambers of Commerce are actively supporting local Agenda 21s and sponsoring projects, while in Luton, Bedfordshire, a Local Economy Working Group has started supporting small businesses with a seminar on energy efficiency and a pilot waste minimization scheme.

Through the local Agenda 21 initiatives, United Kingdom local government authorities are also playing an international role:

- Assisting the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) in developing a handbook for Central and Eastern Europe;

- Supporting and participating in the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign;

- Creating and assisting a European network of local government;

- Establishing partnership programmes with Botswana, Uganda and Malawi local authorities;

- Helping to establish a regional local government initiative in Africa and an African Cities Network

Don de Silva is a communication specialist and environmentalist. He can be reached at:

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