Safeguarding community autonomy

Inclusive Economy01 May 2014Fabio de Castro

Challenges for participatory environmental governance in Latin America

Although participation in the decision-making process has increased in the last twenty years in Latin America, genuine participation of local people in environmental governance has been far from reality. Local communities’ level of autonomy in shaping their livelihood strategies is even reducing and their participation is relegated to a supporting role.

Unequal distribution of access and control of land and resources has long driven the cycle of poverty, dependency and land degradation in Latin America. A history of boom and bust economic cycles of minerals, forest products, and monocrops has led to inequalities, exclusion and environmental degradation throughout the region. In the last two decade, numerous participatory initiatives have emerged, offering new hope to reverse this pattern, repair historical injustices and promote more sustainable practices, for example in relation to ethnic communities, local consultations and compensation mechanisms.2

However, participatory environmental governance is enmeshed in a complex process of environmental, economic and social change under the strong influence of globalization and climate change. Demands for water, energy, minerals and food to supply China, Europe and USA clash with demands to halt deforestation in the Amazon and Mesoamerica. At the same time, global calls to mitigate carbon emission in the region often conflict with demands to adapt to environmental changes like glacier retreat in the Andes and the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes in Central America and the Caribbean, flooding and landslide events in densely populated urban areas, and drought and fires in rural areas.

In this context of conflicting demands and goals, priorities and trade-offs are set according to the interests of those who participate actively in the decision-making process. For example, conservation policies often clash with the rapid expansion of extractive activities and infrastructure, which may take place nearby protected areas.3 Whether or not conservation and economic development can be reconciled is the subject of heated debates among researchers, policy-makers and activists.4 At the core of this debate is how local voices are included in the decision-making process shaping natural resource-use patterns. Hence, any attempt to solve this dilemma will depend on an effective participatory process.

Participation is the key ingredient of environmental governance, as it implies the inclusion of relevant actors at all stages of the decision-making process. If well implemented, it is a fundamental mechanism to foster structural changes for a more inclusive, fair and equal decision-making process. If implemented deficiently, however, it may not only overlook issues of power asymmetries but may exacerbate the position of marginalized groups as it serves to legitimize unequal principles with the alleged endorsement of affected groups.

Participation of local communities

In the last two decades, efforts by socio-environmental movements to develop participatory mechanisms in environmental governance have produced significant results in Latin America. Of the 22 countries that have ratified Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization on the rights of tribal and indigenous people, 14 come from Latin America.5 These countries have taken important steps to align their national legislation to the Convention  including the application of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), a principle that assures indigenous groups a role in deciding on the implementation of activities like mining and infrastructure development in their own territories.

In addition to legal rights to indigenous territories, some non-indigenous traditional communities have been granted special rights to their territories. These include rubber tappers, riverine and maroon communities in Amazonian countries, like Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Suriname. Civil society organizations have also been directly engaged in multi-stakeholder governance initiatives, for example River Basin Councils in Brazil and the Round Table of Responsible Soy. The RTRS includes representatives of companies and civil society from Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina and aims to establish norms for sustainable conduct for companies and producers.

The ‘participation paradigm’ has become the core element of environmental governance, as it fosters the interaction of relevant actors – namely state, civil society and companies – in the decision-making process. Its relevance in achieving effective solutions to economic, social and conservation problems is no longer questioned, even by the state and corporations. However, less powerful groups claim that exclusion, injustice and inequality remain major challenges for participatory environmental governance. Why is this?

The answer, as academic research recently revealed, lies at the core of the struggles over the definition of participation. The way participatory strategies are framed and practiced strongly influences how different views, voices and aspirations are taken into account in the decision-making process. Who participates? When and under what circumstances? These questions deserve close attention in order to better understand how inclusive the participatory environmental governance in Latin America really is.

Increase in participation

Since the 1980s most Latin American countries have experienced a re-democratization process, which offered promises of participatory governance. Political decentralization created participatory spaces, while civil society organizations combined social justice and environmental sustainability agendas to fight against state-centred and neoliberal environmental governance. As a result, the region was flooded with nationwide mobilizations against corporations, such as the Water War in Bolivia, the food sovereignty movement to protect the maiz criolla in Mexico, and the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil against agribusiness.6

These acts of environmental citizenship supported the election of leftist-oriented national governments. Social and labour union activists like Evo Morales in Bolivia, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Lula in Brazil, brought new hope to the fight against poverty and injustice. In Brazil, activist Marina Silva, daughter of a rubber tapper, became the Minister of Environment in 2003. This new political context brought participation to the centre of policy circles. Even private companies, which are regarded as main driver of social exclusion, have incorporated participation as part of their corporate social responsibility agenda.7 For example, the Soy Moratorium, an initiative to prevent deforestation for soy cultivation in the Amazon, was strongly supported by the participation of the Brazilian Vegetable Oil Industry Association (ABIOVE).8

Paradoxically, socio-environmental conflicts in Latin America are growing as fast as the participatory initiatives. The Anti-Mining Movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement and the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) are only a few examples of environmental justice movements addressing social exclusion and injustices in rural areas. They denounce lack of transparency, constrained deliberative spaces, and authoritarian action by the state, including criminalizing social mobilization against mining in Peru, and unconstitutional acts such as the overruling of the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Hydroelectric Power Plant Belo Monte in Brazil.9

Shift in the definition of participation

The  paradox between  increased participation and increased socio-environmental conflicts is related to how the definition of participation has changed over the years. When left-oriented governments first came to power, participation was framed by environmental justice movements under the umbrella of the autonomy of marginalized groups in agenda-setting and decision-making. As a result, land rights were returned to traditional groups in Bolivia and Brazil, natural resources were re-nationalized in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, and indigenous worldview, such as Buen Vivir, was incorporated in national Constitutions, e.g. the rights to nature in Ecuador.10

This shift to socially inclusive policies was short-lived.  Expectations of improvement in the distribution of rights and decision-making power among different actors in relation to natural resources, framed in the ‘sustainable development’ model, was replaced by  the ‘green economy’ model which prioritized market-based mechanisms to drive the sustainable use of natural resources. In this new scenario, participation has taken on a different meaning in order to accommodate growing demands from both extractive and conservation activities in the region.

Participation in commodity extraction favours elite groups such as agribusiness and mining companies, which are treated as revenue generators that enable the implementation of redistributive social policies. Their role in the conservation agenda is limited to voluntary initiatives of their own design, such as corporate social responsibility programmes. By contrast, the rural population – who are directly affected by the expansion of commodity production – are included in the national development agenda mainly as a labour force or as beneficiaries of profits through compensation mechanisms. Their participation in conservation, on the other hand, has become instrumental for climate governance. They are required to protect ecological services for the global community by keeping their territories safe from external threats, which ironically include decisions by the state.

In other words, participation has been redefined in terms of the division of roles – who does what, where and when. Participation of marginalized groups swings between them being protagonists and playing a supporting role. The former refers to influence at all stages of decision-making processes, while the latter means being included in particular phases, depending on the interests of more powerful actors.11

Participation as protagonists

Participation as protagonists implies the full involvement of excluded groups in decision-making process, from agenda-setting and appraisal to designing and implementing innovative solutions. This is the ultimate goal of marginalized groups, as it promotes change in the power structure and active engagement in environmental governance in order to protect their livelihoods.

Among several participatory initiatives observed in Latin America, two are of particular relevance in environmental governance. First, co-management in protected areas is a participatory strategy that allows the incorporation of local knowledge, and the legitimacy and accountability of local populations in the governance in their own territories. Second, local consultation is a strategy to include affected local populations in endorsing or rejecting the implementation of extractive projects.


Co-management systems imply shared responsibilities between local users and the state in the local governance of some protected areas. Protected areas have become a major strategy in environmental governance in Latin America, leading to a two-fold growth in the last two decades.12 Ethnic groups are key partners in this endeavour, through the creation of several territorial models, based on indigenous lands, extractive reserves, maroons, riverine and coastal communities. According to these models, local populations are granted special rights to land and resources and participate in the design, implementation and monitoring of the co-management plans.

This participatory mechanism is a major accomplishment of the socio environmental movements, with rights to nature, lost throughout the colonization process, being returned to ethnic communities. In Brazil, this process has transformed the spatial configuration of protected areas into a mosaic covering approximately one quarter of the national territory distributed among more than 2,000 ethnic territories.13

Nevertheless, the high level of social inclusion through the return of territorial rights and the provision of space for participation in management plans among ethnic territories has marked the beginning of a new struggle. These communities face a growing impact and threat from the expansion of extractive activities and infrastructure developments in and around their territories, a sluggish implementation process, and unresponsiveness to local demands on the part of state agencies. In addition, the limited timeframe for local mobilization, technocratic languages and procedures, and the paternalistic attitude of the state towards local communities, often lead to ineffective participation. As a result, co-management plans are often formulated through a sort of ‘imposed’ participation, in which NGOs end up directing local leaders and gatekeepers to legitimate the implementation of management plans with a low level of local engagement.14

Local consultations15

While co-management systems target ‘conservation’ areas, local consultations are mainly focused on ‘production’ areas and are a precondition for mining companies before they initiate extractive activity in the region. The increasing metal mining investment in Latin America since 1990 has triggered major conflicts between companies and local communities across the region. Pressured by shareholders, consumers and national governments, companies seek to comply with local consultations grounded on the principle of FIPC set by ILO’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

Official consultations, however, are led by the companies, which often turn them into pro-mining meetings characterized by financial promises, selected information and limited participation to legitimize the approval process.16 Frustrated by this strategy, local communities initiated a new participatory strategy of bottom-up consultation. Characterized by transnational networks comprising of state and non-state actors, nearly 70 alternative consultations and referenda have been conducted in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina and Guatemala. These alternative consultations allow local opposition to mining projects to be expressed.

The bottom-up consultations represent a peaceful way for local communities to re-establish themselves as protagonists in the decision-making process, in a way which goes beyond the role of information recipients. Ironically, these protests have often been labelled by the national state as criminal acts, being dubbed terrorism in Peru and ’environmental infantilism’ in Ecuador, with the aim of sabotaging development projects aimed at improving wellbeing at national level.

Participation as supporting actors

Protagonist participation initiatives are designed to have a major impact on the power relations between conflicting actors. It boosts the influence of rural populations in decision-making and, in turn, challenges the corporations’ control, forcing them to adapt their strategies to minimize the protagonism of marginalized groups. They consequently become more actively engaged in the development of new ‘participatory’ strategies in which local communities play only a supporting role.

Supporting participation implies the inclusion of less powerful groups in the implementation process, as a labour force or as beneficiaries. In the context of a high level of social mobilizations and the institutionalization of participation, the growing dominance of supporting participation used by corporations and the state raises concerns about the ability of local communities to get their demands included in the decision-making process.

Supporting participation usually relies on regulatory policies and market-based mechanisms that create incentives for resource-users to adopt sustainable practices. Therefore, the initiatives themselves are not up for discussion – the participation of local communities is limited to engagement in its implementation. In Latin America, two main initiatives are of major relevance in environmental governance. First, payment for environmental services consists of a financial bonus to forest-holders to avoid deforestation. Second, green certification has been used as a mechanism to improve the power balance between companies and small farmers in contract farming.

Payment for environmental services17

Reduced Emission from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) is a form of payment for environmental services designed to protect both biodiversity and livelihoods in forested areas.18 The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), funded by the World Bank in 2008, supports the development of institutional readiness for the implementation of REDD+ at national level. Since then, several countries have been actively involved in national assessment and institutional design to apply for this new funding opportunity. Although the funding is targeted at forest-holders, intermediate organizations such as NGOs, state agencies, and research centres are the main active participants.

Analysis of this process in Costa Rica and Colombia reveals some hurdles to promoting the protagonist participation of local communities due to a historical legacy of state control and the paternalistic attitude of agencies. The participatory arena created to deliberate on and design strategies for the implementation of REDD+ has been limited to invited experts, who decide on behalf of the marginalized groups. As a result, the participatory strategy to include traditional groups in both countries suffers from limited representation by local communities, who are a key target group in the forest conservation agenda.

Green certification

By contrast to promoting forest protection, green certification has emerged as a market-based mechanism to promote sustainable small-scale farming systems. In Latin America, certification schemes have been implemented by NGOs like Fair Trade and the Rain Forest Alliance or by national governments.

The Social Fuel Stamp (SFS) is an example of a green certification scheme developed by the Brazilian government to promote the inclusion of small-scale farmers in the production of biodiesel.19 Created in 2005, the SFS provides both small-scale oil-seed producers and oil-seed crushing plants with special benefits, including tax exemptions, special credits and market access. Despite efforts to increase the inclusion of small farmers in oil-seed production, the certification scheme was not successful in attracting them to the programme. In 2010, although the biodiesel production level was successfully achieved, the participation of small-scale farmers reached only one quarter of its targeted level. Constraints to their participation included poor technical assistance, limited technology and lack of social organization in rural villages. In the meantime, soybean producers became the main supplier of oil seeds for biofuel. Recently, the Oil Palm Zone Programme was launched by the national government in the northeast Amazon to improve the participation of small farmers in the production of oil seeds. However, although the planted area has doubled in only three years, the large majority is owned by large landholders or oil companies.

Supporting participation is framed around the discourse of poverty alleviation through creating jobs and economic alternatives for marginalized rural groups. According to this rationale, employment and financial return fosters the inclusion of the poor in conservation and production plans and, in turn, improves their consumption levels. However, it overlooks the restricted level of autonomy of these actors in shaping their livelihood strategies. Local communities are included in REDD+ programmes through financial incentives but have limited decision-making power regarding their land-use practices. Likewise, participation of small-scale farmers in biofuel production not only limits them to maintaining their subsistence farming systems but may also create economic dependency on a single crop system.

Table 1. Participation of local communities in environmental governance in Latin America.

Conservation Areas Production Areas
Protagonist Co-Management Bottom-up Local Consultation
Supporting Actor REDD+ Social Fuel Stamp

Participation beyond poverty alleviation

The environmental justice movement that emerged in the 1990s in Latin America came a long way towards making marginalized groups visible and getting them included on the socio-environmental policy agenda. The early victories in terms of participatory environmental governance, however, have been overshadowed by the recent appropriation and re-framing of the meaning of participation by elite groups. Limited efforts to foster much-needed structural changes in participation procedures have in some cases turned promising initiatives into mechanisms to depoliticize decision-making on natural resource use. Corporations and state agencies rapidly adapt their strategies to the new political context and frame participation as a value-free concept. Corporations embrace participation in their corporate social responsibility programmes by providing local infrastructure (e.g., schools, health centres, roads) and financial support to affected populations. The state adopts participatory methods which are often carried out under rigid technocratic procedures and in a highly politicized environment. In more extreme cases, efforts of local communities to regain their protagonist role are criminalized under the justification of national security.

The alliance between corporations and national state is progressively invigorated while political space for contestation is reduced. The current context of increasing urbanization and reduction of poverty20 adds to the challenges faced by rural populations. They are gradually confronted with less political representation while the expansion of natural resources extraction fuels economic growth and finances poverty alleviation programmes. Now, a second generation of environmental justice movements has emerged and aims to re-appropriate the definition of participation.

In this contested political space, the roles of dominant and marginalized actors have been redefined. Elite groups are portrayed as developers and are invited to be protagonists in productive spaces. Their role is to benefit the economic development of the nation and to finance the livelihood improvement of the disadvantaged population through social policies. Local communities are portrayed as conservationists and are invited to be protagonists in nature preservation. Their role is to benefit the global community by safeguarding the forest. The outcome is clear. Marginalized groups not only bear the full responsibility for protecting natural resources but are trapped in a dependency relation with the state or corporations.21

Local communities are contesting the definition of participation that emphasizes their recruitment as a labour force or as emergent consumers in the developmentist project with no regard for their own priorities. They continue to develop and provide national and global society with creative and effective solutions to environmental challenges based on their traditional knowledge and community ethics. Local consultations on extractive activities in their territories and the community-based management systems described earlier are examples of local solutions designed by less powerful actors.

In other words, participation is framed by corporations and the state as a purely economic issue, based on poverty alleviation and job generation. However, the main challenge for participatory environmental governance is mainly cultural and political. Local populations, national governments and corporations contest fundamentally different meanings of participation. The key element of this struggle is the practice of citizenship in which the state must play a key role. In order to advance this debate, the state must safeguard the public domain for political contestation, provide efficient institutional arrangements to minimize power asymmetries, and ultimately promote a shared understanding of the definition and practice of participation. In sum, a genuine participatory environmental governance in Latin America must go beyond poverty alleviation and increasing the consuming power of marginalized groups. It should also address their role as protagonists in agenda-setting and designing alternative solutions.


Barbara Hogenboom: Associate Professor in Political Science at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Mariana Walter: Phd candidate at ICTA, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Her thesis addresses mining conflicts in Latin America. She works for the ENGOV Project, an European funded project that aims to develop a framework for sustainable and equitable natural resource use.

Mariel Aguilar-Støen: Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM), University of Oslo. She works on environmental governance and REDD in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as on land use change and migration.


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  11. This article draws from illustrative examples investigated by Mariana Walter (Local Consultations), Mariel Aguilar-Støen (REDD+) and Fabio de Castro (Social Fuel Stamp and Co-Management). These studies are part of the research program ‘Environmental Governance in Latin American and the Caribbean (ENGOV) – Grant Agreement No SSH-CT-2010-266710. ENGOV is a collaborative research project funded by the European Commission which focuses on obstacles and opportunities for sustainable production systems that can generate both economic development and a more equitable distribution of benefits across ethnic, socioeconomic and gender lines (for more information go to
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