Commons Sense

Readings on environment, development, and governing the commons

One of the articles in Dancing Toward The Future (IC#32)
Originally published in Summer 1992 on page 20
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and its massive set of nonbinding agreements (the largest – some 500 to 800 pages long, depending on typeface – is called "Agenda 21") will inevitably stand as an historical marker. "There," future historians will say, "we first made our attempt to come together as a planet, confront the manifold global crises we had previously been denying, and plan a course of action.

"Of course," they will go on to say, "we didn’t do a very good job of it. But we kept trying. We got better at it. And we learned how to do it," we hope they will be able to add, "just in time."

What follows is a collection of readings on moving beyond the Earth Summit and cooperating for a sustainable future – locally, regionally, globally. The writers range from heads of state to grassroots activists, but their messages contain a common thread: we must seek each other out, learn from each other, and join as partners in the work of integrating human activity with our ecological base. This is the real "Agenda 21," and the challenge of the next century.

Governing The Global Commons

Hillary F. French

The following is excerpted from Worldwatch Paper 107, After the Earth Summit: The Future of Environmental Governance, published in March 1992 and available for $5 from Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036, Tel. 202/452-1999. Hillary French is a Worldwatch senior researcher.

As we approach the twenty-first century, the once-simple concept of national sovereignty has become increasingly fraught with complications – and contradictions. On one level, nations are guarding their sovereignty more jealously than ever. The former Soviet Union has broken up into 15 independent nations, Yugoslavia has been wracked by gruesome civil warfare that could lead to its disintegration into as many as six more nations, and ethnic and tribal tensions are running rampant in many parts of the world.

At the same time, nations are finding that their interdependence is greater than ever before, with both the economy and the environment increasingly disrespectful of national borders. Thus, the European Community is becoming a dominant force in setting all manner of policies, and other regional organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are beginning to follow its lead. Individual countries or groups of countries are also turning to the United Nations and the international economic institutions to regulate conduct between them. Jean Monnet, a founder of the EC, wrote in the 1950s, "Like our provinces in the past, our nations today must live together under common rules and institutions freely arrived at. The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present: They cannot ensure their own progress or control their own future."

In the environmental arena, the progress nations have made toward the common rules and institutions Monnet refers to offers some reason for optimism that international cooperation will become, increasingly, the rule rather than the exception. As a result of the world community’s united effort to combat ozone depletion, and the willingness of the developed countries to provide financial and technical assistance, millions of lives will be saved. While progress on the climate change negotiations seems slow compared to the urgency of the problem, it has been rapid by historic standards of international diplomacy – particularly considering that a mere five years ago, most people around the world had never even heard of global warming.

Though the progress to date offers reason for hope, the magnitude of the challenges facing the international community is still daunting. While diplomats debate, primary forests continue to be felled, irreplaceable genes disappear as species become extinct, and power plants and cars pump heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What is being lost is not only a natural heritage, but the resources upon which future economic productivity depends.

Even in the best of circumstances, the slow pace of international diplomacy and the urgent rate at which the problems themselves are growing worse are difficult to reconcile. The best hope for speeding up the process of governing the global commons lies with the global citizenry. When governments act, it is generally in response to political pressure to do so. To some, the idea of global governance might seem hopelessly idealistic or quixotic; yet few would judge it any less conceivable than the astonishing events of the past two years in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. These events demonstrated how quickly even the most seemingly-intransigent governments can be moved if their citizens feel passionate enough about their cause. When the cause is the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the climate that produces their food, the probability of an escalating pressure on their governments to take expeditious action is very real indeed.

At the Earth Summit, the 20,000 concerned citizens and activists expected to attend from around the world may outnumber the official representatives by as much as two to one. As a next step, some have proposed the creation of an "Amnesty for the Earth" organization modeled after Amnesty International’s path-breaking work in the human rights field, that would investigate environmental violations and issue annual reports on states’ environmental records. As environmentalists from around the world learn to work together for shared goals, the nongovernmental movement stands to become as influential at the international level as it is within nations.

For this to happen, however, the international governing process will need to be opened to public participation to a far greater extent than it is today. Presently, at the international level, there are no provisions for public review and comment, and no mechanisms for bringing citizen suits; nor is there anything resembling an elected parliament in the United Nations itself or any of its agencies. Most international organizations are closed off to public participation, and even access to documents of critical interest to the public is highly restricted. International laws and institutions have traditionally functioned as compacts between nations; but if they are to solve the problems of a rapidly deteriorating biosphere, they must also evolve into compacts between people.

Global environmental governance may sound like a utopian concept. But it is in fact well on the way to becoming a hard reality, as the worldwide shutting down of CFC production, for example, is showing. Far from utopian, such governance is proving to be a practical and unavoidable response to otherwise-unmanageable threats. There can be little doubt that as the international economy, the communications revolution, and the global environmental predicament all continue to make the world more interdependent, nations will have to adapt more rapidly to changing times.

To create an effective system of international environmental governance will require wide departures from business as usual. But there is little choice. The world faces a future of climbing global temperatures, depleted fisheries, reduced agricultural yields, diminished biological diversity, and growing human suffering, unless governments move quickly. Only by joining forces in forms of environmental governance that are stronger than the sum of their parts, will nations be able to secure their citizens’ futures.

The Environment Has No Borders

François Mitterand

The following is excerpted from a keynote address by French president François Miterrand before "Roots of the Future," a global conference of nongovernmental organizations funded by France and held in Paris in December, 1991. Reprinted from Ecoforum, published by the Environmental Liaison Centre International, PO Box 72461, Nairobi, Kenya (subscriptions US$30 per year). The text appears in the February 1992 issue.

There is no paradox between ecology and development, but there is a paradox between under-development and democracy. Development is not the characteristic or the privilege of one particular country or region; the whole planet is affected. The planet has been misused by man. In some places it is worn out from over-use even though it is still young. If I have understood the scientists’ opinions correctly, the Earth is still very young; it is still very close to its beginnings. Indeed, I hope that it is nearer to its beginning than to its end. But who can tell? One thing is certain though – it is sick. It is sick from over-development; it is sick from under-development. It is a pity that it is unable to strike a balance between the two tendencies.

Due to the desire to exploit nature unreservedly, man has forgotten nature’s rhythms and laws. Everyone who has lived as I have in direct contact with nature knows this. I spent my youth in a house that was three kilometers from the nearest little town, with no running water or electricity. We experienced some inconveniences, but there were also great advantages, such as learning how to appreciate the seasons and live according to their rhythms: days, nights and hours, and the great natural changes that eventually become a part of you.

The environment has no borders. That famous hole in the ozone layer which can be seen in the southern polar regions will affect the whole Earth. Similarly, atmospheric pollution produced by a given country affects the quality of the air breathed by others. For instance, will the acid rains in the Black Forest spare the Vosges [a French mountain chain near the German border] when their effects have already reached Scandinavian forests? The sunsets in France have been modified by the eruption of the Pinatubo Volcano in the Philippines in June.

In May 1989, the Netherlands and Norway (which have now been joined by 40 other countries) met in France. We launched together what is called "The Call of the Hague." This was a proposal to the entire United Nations to appoint a supranational authority. This proposal caused a scandal: a supranational authority for environment could introduce restrictive rules which would run against the interests of national leaders, or the pride of a given country, or of the majority of countries. This supranational authority would have to ensure that its decisions are respected; it would be set up to protect the atmosphere. This, to me, is not a scandal.

In 1992, we will take action to see that this authority is indeed created. We will speak about it everywhere, even in Rio. It should establish its legitimacy by its competence and independence; it should caution world political and economic leaders. Inaccuracy and lack of foresight are not found only in politicians.

Nature has created invisible balances, and links between different species and different regions of the world. These balances must be maintained. In order to do this, they must be better understood. You must point them out.

Participation Is Central

Shimwaayi Muntemba

Also Excerpted from a keynote speech to the "Roots of the Future" conference in Paris, France, 1991. The author directs the Environmental Liaison Centre International in Nairobi, Kenya.

Participatory democracy is central to sustainability: how are all poor rural women struggling for livelihoods to be heard? How will development paradigms ensure the sustainability of their assets? What about indigenous people in the Amazonia and North America; the Maoris in New Zealand; the urban poor in our cities, the young, men and women, outside mainstream structures? Many of us in the NGO world believe that these are central to the sustainability of the life-support systems, of cultures and ultimately of entire societies. Among the challenges of the 1990s to governments, business and NGOs is the central one of bringing about and ensuring participatory democracy.

National Green Plans:
Virtue Born Of Necessity

Peggy Lauer

"In the real world, the environment and economy are linked. It is only in institutions that they are kept separate." – Jim MacNeill, Secretary General, UN World Commission on Environment and Development

In March, 1992, the California-based Resource Renewal Institute held an international environmental workshop that highlighted integrated environmental recovery strategies being developed and implemented in Canada and Europe. These "Green Plans" are big-picture political processes aimed at "sustainability."

Huey Johnson, president of the Resource Renewal Institute, opened the three-day workshop with a high note of optimism, saying that through these Green Plans, "We are finally approaching environmental problems on a level where we can solve them."

Each speaker, from Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Britain and Austria, told the audience, that they were defining sustainability or sustainable development by action, not in words. "We consider [the word "sustainability"] a useful phrase of constructive ambiguity," said Robert Slater, Assistant Deputy Minister for Policy in Environment Canada.

According to Dr. Slater, population pressures make the process of developing a Green Plan for sustainability "inevitable and unavoidable." He and the others saw this as positive: "Making a virtue out of necessity is a pleasant experience, and one we should all get underway," he remarked to his mostly American audience.

What makes a national Green Plan distinct is its vision and cooperative spirit. (There’s nothing like the unhealthy and destructive effects of massive pollution on one’s air, water and soils to focus the national mind.) Although there is a range of support within the governments of Green Plan countries, by and large the various ministries and industry leaders are joining forces with consumers to turn things around for themselves and future generations.

"You must translate environmental concerns into business concerns," says Dr. Paul deJongh, the Director General of the Environment in the Netherlands, if you want any real improvement. Four Dutch ministries now work directly with "target groups" of polluting industries and consumers to reduce pollution going into their air, water and soil by 70 to 90 percent, by the year 2010.

The Dutch Government sets the goals for reductions, then allows industries to determine how they will get there. (Industry requested this arrangment to avoid a changing regulatory environment.) The two sectors then sign voluntary contracts. The Government provides incentives, such as subsidizing company transportation plans, but it still wields a stick. By 1995, for example, there must be a system to process 6 million tons of cow manure, or livestock numbers will have to be reduced. The Dutch regulators also require that the polluters pay for environmental damage caused by their failure to comply.

Norway’s system is similar. All industry emission regulations are long-term and applied across the board. The Norwegian government believes in economic development, but not at the expense of the environment. Those who buck compliance pay heavily. Dr. Paul Hofseth, Special Advisor to the Environment Ministry, told of a potato chip factory caught dumping effluent into the water. The factory owner faced a jail sentence, paid a severe fine, and had all his profits confiscated dating from when the violations started.

In Norway, and throughout Europe, reducing pollution requires a lot of international negotiating (nearly 90% of air pollution over Scandinavia comes from elsewhere). Because of such cross-boundary concerns, many of the nations’ plans focus on whole ecosystems. This is also true in Canada, where the government must consider the needs of indigenous people in the Arctic and Northwest Territories as well as acidification in the Great Lakes, which involves negotiations with the US. The government has also endowed universities to help achieve centers of ecosystem research centers across the country.

Bringing business into the Green Planning process requires new thinking as well for environmental activists. Rick Findlay, who represented the Ontario (Canada) Roundtable at the workshop (one of several similar provincial initiatives), spoke to the audience about a need for all three sectors to transcend their old institutional attitudes in favor of a sustainable society.

Like the Canadian provinces, some US states are taking their first steps. With funding from the EPA, 19 states over the past two years have formed government, business and public advisory panels to discuss the social and economic risks of environmental degradation in their states and regions. Panelists from Washington State, California, Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey and Louisiana talked about how the process is changing the way their governments do business. Most of these programs have recently stalled due to political inertia or lack of funds to take the next step. But, Dr. Slater said, in quoting another Jim MacNeill maxim: "If we change the way we make decisions, we will change the decisions we make." Whatever the rate of progress, the inevitable process has begun.

Peggy Lauer is the Vice-President of Resource Renewal Institute. For more information on Green Plans, call or write the Institute at Fort Mason Center, Bldg. A, San Francisco, CA 94123.



The Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely populated and polluted countries, is also a world leader in enacting law to require economic changes that promote sustainability. The following is excerpted from the introduction to the National Environmental Policy Plan (NEPP) of the Netherlands, a detailed set of strategies and policies enacted in 1989 and expanded by an additional document (NEPP Plus) in 1990.

1.1 This NEPP contains the strategy for environmental policy in the medium term. The strategy has been developed against the background of the desire to solve or gain control of environmental problems within the duration of one generation….

1.2 The pursuit of sustainable development is the premise for environmental management. The recommendations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) are being built upon. Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In addition, the NEPP is built upon the set of ideas embodied in the indicative Multi-year Programmes for Environment of the previous years. The recommendations of the Brundtland Commission add the following elements to those ideas:

* attention for the long-term effects for future generations

* tackling of large-scale global environmental problems

* mutual dependence of environmental quality and socio-economic development.


3.7 Everyone is expected to know his responsibility for the environment and to act accordingly. The large scale at which some environmental problems occur does not reduce this responsibility.

In justifying individual activities, one should answer the question what the effect would be on environmental quality if the same activity was to be carried out by the number of people as determined by the physical and market potential of that activity.

A Sustainable Lifestyle:
Learning From The Global "Middle Class"

Alan Thein Durning

Perhaps the greatest irony of the global environmental movement is that its members – the millions of us in scores of countries who call ourselves environmentalists – almost all practice the most ecologically destructive lifestyle in human history. Our efforts to recycle and conserve notwithstanding, we in the world’s affluent fifth, the global consumer class, still cause the lion’s share of planetary ills, and most self-described environmentalists are solidly in the consumer class.

Our cars and airplanes, our diet of meat, junk food, and soft drinks, our suburbs and malls, and our excessive packaging, planned obsolescence, and disposable goods are among the worst culprits in the global assault on the Earth. Natural systems, we environmentalists have learned to say, cannot support the burden of humanity’s present activities. On closer scrutiny, of course, most of those destructive activities are carried out by the consumer class.

So the Earth cannot support the consumer lifestyle even for the 1.1 billion of us who currently enjoy it, much less for the 5.5 billion humans living today or the 8 to 14 billion expected within a century. Some alternative is desperately needed. The place to look, it turns out, is not to science fiction or the ancient past but to our neighbors in places like China and Costa Rica – the middle of the world’s economic spectrum.

Economically and ecologically speaking, it makes more sense to divide humanity into three classes – consumers, middle-income, and poor – than it does to speak of "first world" and "third world" (see table). At the bottom of the economic ladder, the world’s 1.1 billion poor clearly consume too little for their own good. These people, most of them rural Africans and Indians, eat meager portions of grains and root crops, and drink mostly unclean water. They live in huts and shanties, travel by foot, and most of their possessions are constructed of stone, wood, and other substances available from the local environment. Not only are their consumption patterns – their lifestyle, if you can call it that – too paltry for a decent human existence, they often result in environmental harm. Driven by desperation, the poor often abuse their natural resources, putting forests to the torch and fragile drylands to the plow.

The 3.3 billion people of the world’s middle-income class, who live mostly in Latin America, the Middle East, China, and East Asia, are different. Though they eat a diet based on grains and water like the poor, their food supply is sufficient and nutritious – it’s the kind of low-fat cuisine for which yuppies now pay top dollar. They live in moderate buildings with electricity for lights, radios, and, increasingly, refrigerators and clothes washers. They travel by bus, railway, and bicycle; maintain a modest stock of durable goods; and reuse and recycle meticulously.

At the top of the ladder is us: the consumer class of North America, Western Europe, Japan, and the elites of other regions. We consumers dine on meat and processed, packaged foods, and imbibe soft drinks and other beverages from disposable containers. We spend most of our time in climate-controlled buildings equipped with refrigerators, clothes washers and dryers, abundant hot water, dishwashers, microwave ovens, and a plethora of other electric-powered gadgets. We travel in private automobiles and airplanes, and surround ourselves with a profusion of short-lived, throwaway goods.

For decades, our way of life – familiar to all the world’s people because we film ourselves and beam the images around the world to the screens of 800 million television sets – has been the dream of international development. It has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: attain development and you will someday live like the Cosbys or the Brady Bunch. Unfortunately, our growing understanding of this planet now tells us with ever greater certainty that achieving that goal for all people would only hasten the ruin of the planet.

We environmentalists have, however, been slow – exceedingly slow – to come to terms with this conclusion. The reason for the delay, I expect, is not logical but psychological. Whatever the cause of our reticence, we cannot ignore the facts forever. If there is to be a future worth living in, the ultimate aim of world development can no longer be to bring the poor and middle-income classes up to the consumer plane. Instead, we might aim to bring about a convergence of the three groups. Specifically, it appears that we consumers must, without surrendering the quest for advanced, clean technologies, climb several rungs down the consumption ladder. We can contribute some sophisticated technologies to a sustainable way of life (lap-top computers, fiber optics, super-efficient appliances, and solar designs are good candidates) but most of its ingredients will come from the middle-income class.

Life on Earth hinges on whether we among the richest fifth of the world’s people, having fully met our material needs, can turn to nonmaterial sources of fulfillment. Whether we – who have defined the tangible goals of world development – can now craft a new way of life at once simpler and more satisfying.

Having invented the automobile and airplane, can we return to bicycles, buses, and trains? Having pioneered sprawl and malls, can we recreate human-scale settlements where commerce is an adjunct to civic life rather than its purpose? Having introduced the high fat, junk-food diet, can we instead nourish ourselves on wholesome fare that is locally produced and minimally wrapped? Having devised disposable plastics, packaging without end, and instantaneous obsolescence, can we design objects that endure and a materials economy that takes care of things? The health of the biosphere depends on it.

Alan Thein Durning is a senior researcher at Worldwatch Institute. His book How Much Is Enough? Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth will be published this summer and is available for $8.95 (postpaid) from Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036, 202/452-1999.

Tin Wis: An Experiment In Cooperation

Bejurin Cassady

In 1988, an unusual coalition began to take shape on Canada’s Vancouver Island. As far as its members know, the Tin Wis Coalition – which took its name from the site of its first meeting, near the British Columbia town of Tofino – is the first working coalition of timber industry workers, Native Americans, and environmentalists. The purpose of the coalition was to find solutions to problems arising from competing claims on timberland, which the members of the coalition tended to see variously as an economic resource, an ancestral home and sacred refuge, and an irreplaceable wilderness.

The common ground for these three groups is the desire for sustainability, which they define as "that which endures." The timber workers want enduring jobs and meaningful work. The First Nations want to preserve their sovereignty and way of life, which has been imperiled by the advance of the nonnative immigrants. And the environmentalists want to preserve vulnerable ecosystems. What the Tin Wis participants have discovered is that all of their problems can be traced to a common source: an economic system run amuck. The dominant economic system, including both capitalism and Eastern bloc-style socialism, is based on industrialization as the core principle of development. The motive force is not the quality of the product, or the well-being of the workers or the environment, but expansion. A failure of the Gross National Product to grow is considered unquestionably bad news.

For owners, growth means increasing profits. This can be done by driving workers to be more productive, or by cutting costs of production, which often means eliminating workers or cutting their wages. Native cultures don’t fit well with this kind of world view, and often don’t want to, so those in control simply eliminate the bothersome cultures or change them to fit their needs. And of course, the environment is seen as simply the source of needed materials and places to dump wastes, there for the taking.

Tin Wis has forged some remarkable agreements, especially when you consider the diversity of its constituents. Their founding document is the Tin Wis Accord, which was signed by all participants in February, 1989:


1. We commit ourselves to active support for the recognition, by all non-Native governments, of aboriginal title and rights; and for the immediate commencement of governmental and community processes to negotiate treaties between Native nations and non-Native governments. We recognize that these rights have not been and cannot be extinguished.

2. We further commit ourselves to develop and implement a process of learning and sharing within and between Native and non-Native communities and organizations, with a goal of developing trust and a shared vision about how we can justly and sustainably share in this Earth. This includes a process of learning about the full meaning of terms like democracy, community, local control and ownership.

3. In accordance with the above, we further commit ourselves to develop and implement the mechanisms for Native people, trade unionists, environmentalists, women, youth and others to work together on a regional basis to resolve resource development and environmental issues and conflicts and to further the process of developing a "people’s" alternative to the policies of the present government.

At a second conference, in October 1990, the participants agreed on a number of other points:

* The role of the coalition would be that of facilitating, at the community level, a process of social consensus building towards democratic control in our communities and regions, within the context of developing ecological sustainability;

* Achieving solidarity particularly among native, labor, environmentalists, and social justice activists is essential for building democratic, sustainable communities;

* Undertaking a program of education within community groups around such concerns as the effects of corporate control, privatization, deregulation, and similar threats, as well as the nature of the global environmental crisis and the fragility of local bio-systems;

* Encouraging the development of long term sustainability plans for our communities and regions; and

* Promoting constitutional and legislative change by forming working groups to look at such things as proposed changes to the municipal act and the forestry act, as well as the entrenchment of aboriginal title in the Constitution.

The working groups have been actively involved in a number of projects, and have seen some success begin to build. Of particular note has been the work of the forest practices group, which has produced a draft Forest Stewardship Act to govern the use of forest resources. This draft is now being circulated for commentary and revision.

The Tin Wis Coalition is proving that traditional "enemies" can work together effectively, and that their interests are not so disparate as they once imagined.

Bejurin Cassady is an IN CONTEXT volunteer. This report was based on a special issue of The New Catalyst, No. 21, available for $18 yearly from PO Box 189 Gabriola, BC, Canada V0R 1X0.

Field Report:
Community Development In El Salvador

Suzanne Tedesko

Leaving behind the glitter and hype of a North American Christmas, in December, 1991 our delegation of eight women from Northern California and Seattle traveled to meet with women’s groups in El Salvador (and elsewhere in Central America) to hear their stories and offer support. Each of us carried financial donations and extra suitcases filled with supplies and materials – wooden puzzles, Legos, and art supplies to stock the fledgling day-care centers and schools we would visit. Bags brimmed with contraceptives of every variety, complete with Spanish instructions. Still other crates contained medical supplies, directions for making and using solar cookers, and miscellaneous items we thought might be useful.

We arrived in San Salvador at an auspicious time. After twelve years of civil war, the country was at last poised for peace, and thousands of Salvadoran refugees living in the US had returned for the holidays to visit their families and deliver savings to their loved ones. Negotiators for the government and FMLN "guerrillas" were meeting at UN headquarters in New York to sign an historic accord.

My personal agenda for the trip included learning as much as I could about family planning [at the request of IC, for issue #31]. We had a chance to discuss family planning openly with members of CONAMUS, a powerful women’s organization that operates a gynecological clinic and has recently opened El Salvador’s first shelter for abused women and children. Their work is hindered (as is family planning in many Central American countries) by conservative religious attitudes that consider family planning a sin, as well as by machismo. For example, many women must ask their husband’s permission to use birth control. And in two clinics for male sterilization opened by the Salvadoran government, business was exceeding slow – only one man in a month – so the clinics were soon forced to close.

Many of the women we met had lost children, husbands, or companions in the war. I soon realized that in a country where 75,000 civilians had been killed in the past twelve years, questions about birth control were frequently tasteless or inappropriate.

Instead, I was irresistibly drawn to the broader issue of planning truly democratic, humane communities. I learned that the Salvadorans were managing to build, from the ground up, many new communities infused with energy and vision. How could a people bloodied by war transform their brutal experiences into something so positive and life-giving? This question seemed to hold an important lesson for our times.

Despite the brain drain implicit in the loss of 75,000 lives, vigorous new Salvadoran leaders have continued to emerge from within the popular movement. Many of these leaders are women. There is a popular saying in El Salvador: "We don’t bury our martyrs, we imitate them." Each new martyr of the past decade has rekindled the popular spirit. This spirit is rooted, not in malice, but in love for the country, belief in the Salvadoran people and in the principle of social justice. Mediated through faith, it has a "can-do" practicality which can move mountains.

In the capital city of San Salvador, thousands of people live in shacks called "champas" made of cardboard or tin, framed with wire or mattress springs from the city dump. A few lucky ones live in cinderblock houses. These so-called "marginal communities" bear names like "Exodus of the 29th of October" to immortalize the day that the land was taken. Usually the communities begin on cliff-sides, on land nobody wanted.

The Association of Marginalized Women (AMMA in Spanish) works with 22 marginal communities in an advocacy role and supports these communities in their land take-overs. Most occupy unused land put aside by former president Duarte for a land reform program that was never implemented. If the people don’t hold official title, they won’t be given services like water or power. Land take-overs are also occurring in Nicaragua, where one Managua community – "The Promised Land" – accommodates 400 families.

We visited several marginal communities and watched their industrious residents work with pick and shovel to move earth, dig trenches, and tap into water and power lines. What little financial support they receive comes from international nongovernmental agencies. Men and women work side by side. Together, they took a moment to pose for our photographs, proud as suburban gardeners showing off their prize roses.

Like the marginalized communities in San Salvador, rural areas of the country are witnessing a similar phenomenon. In the past few years, Salvadoran refugees who were living in refugee camps in Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua have returned to take over land and build new agricultural communities from the ground up. The largest and best known, Segundo Montes, was named in honor of the Jesuit University professor of sociology who was assassinated along with five other priests in 1989. Just three months before his death, Dr. Montes visited this refugee community and confided, "I thought there was no future for El Salvador, but upon seeing your model of organization and development, I’ve changed my mind."

Our delegation, too, found the repatriation communities we visited inspiring. In less than nine months, the 250 residents of Nueva Esperanza have cleared mosquito-infested land, created a water supply system, planted corn and sorghum, built houses, and established an educational system. Their assembly and working committees, which handle everything from building roads to protecting human rights, represent participatory democracy at its finest.

These scattered victims of war had escaped El Salvador in 1982 to a refugee camp in Nicaragua. From there they were sent to work alongside local farmers in agricultural cooperatives newly created under the Sandinistas. In Nicaragua, they learned their lessons well. After eight years acquiring community development skills, they decided to return to El Salvador as a group. They had already picked the name for their settlement – "New Hope." Despite poverty, deprivation and the continual harassment by soldiers from a military base down the road, the community is thriving, fueled by community spirit and the vast inner resources of its members.

I watched the next generation of Nueva Esperanza draw pictures for a Seattle sister school, happy that these children in their "classroom" under the spreading tree would be connected to my town. I listened as community leaders shared their plans and dreams, moving their story along seamlessly from one person to the next. No egos nudged or elbowed for position. This was a fellowship of mind and heart. Painfully aware of the excesses of my own, overly individualistic culture, I hoped I would be able to remember everything I saw there.

Just Another Fund-Raising Letter – Not!

Peter Schweitzer

The following was sent as a letter to people on the mailing list of PLENTY, a non-governmental relief and development organization affiliated with The Farm in Tennessee. PLENTY works with disadvantaged populations in the areas of health care, sustainable agriculture, cottage industries, indigenous culture and protection of the environment, with a special focus on native people. Contact PLENTY at PO Box 2306, Davis CA 95617.

Dear PLENTY Friends,

It is with the deepest gratitude and appreciation that we greet you once again. Gratitude for your ever so generous, heart-warming support, and appreciation that you would entrust us with an investment in PLENTY’s work. We will try our best to nurture your investment into efficient and worthwhile action on behalf of those who have asked for our assistance.

Every now and then I feel the need to make this formal pledge, because I would never want you to think we take your support for granted. Furthermore, some of the current news would tend to make any fair-minded person a little skeptical about charities in general and development work in particular. When we hear about executives of big charities getting salaries that are 15 times PLENTY’s total payroll for four people, we scratch our heads, but we’re not surprised.

Then we catch wind of another mega-conference that we should attend. The "Earth Summit" on global development and the environment coming up in June in Rio De Janeiro will attract 6,000 delegates from 150 countries including 100 "heads of state." Adjacent to the Summit, a parallel citizen’s conference will be attended by 20,000 to 30,000 representatives of the "NGO" [nongovernmental organization] Community. Let’s say 30,000 people actually show up. At a cost in airfare and hotel expenses conservatively figured at $1,500 each, that adds up to $45 million. Here’s another idea for spending $45,000,000: at an average installation cost of about $10,000 for a village of 500 people, that’s the price tag for bringing potable water via a gravity-fed water system to 4,500 villages with two and a quarter million people.

Ironically, it now appears that the people who attend the conference may be exposed to the cholera epidemic ravaging South America, a disease that is spreading at an alarming rate primarily due to the lack of potable, running water. More than 26 million people in Brazil live without accessible potable water.

Under "Headlines We’d Like To See" how about:


I don’t want to pick on the Earth Summit. Heaven knows we need one, but if individuals don’t radically alter the way they consume and act and think and treat each other, what can we expect from self-interested governments and faceless bureaucratic agencies, or conferences and cocktail receptions? PLENTY’s contribution to this heralded gathering will be to submit Climate in Crisis [by Albert Bates; see IC #29] as our statement for the record.

Spring is here and it’s time to hit the road again. Program Director Chuck Haren is headed for Liberia in West Africa, where he’ll be meeting with small farmers and conducting soybean processing demonstrations and generally looking for ways PLENTY can be of service to that struggling African nation. His visit will be hosted by Imani House.

I’m going to Dominica with a computer and fax machine to be set up at the new Carib Council Building our volunteers helped to construct. Then on to St. Vincent, another Caribbean island with large Carib community, and then to Guyana in our continuing quest to assist the Arawaks with their economic and cultural development plans. I’ll be videotaping the indigenous people I meet as I go, and I’m going to be asking them to speak their minds in answering the question, "If you had a microphone wired up to broadcast to the world, what would you say?" Not a bad question for all of us to consider.

Take care. We love you.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!