PCDForum Column #38 Release Date July 20, 1992

by Nola Kate Seymoar, Ph.D.

While the official delegates deliberating at the Earth Summit
in Rio Centro argued over the placement of commas in their
documents, something substantial was happening across town
in the Gloria Hotel and the tents at Flamingo Park. Ordinary
people from all around the world were forging a global social
movement to challenge the foundations and institutions of
development orthodoxy.

Alberto Melucci, an Italian sociologist, defines a social
movement as having these dimensions:

  • It engages in collective action involving a mutual sense
    of solidarity.
  • It is engaged in conflict with an adversary who lays claim
    to the same goods or values.
  • Its actions push the established system beyond the range
    of variation it can tolerate without altering its structure.
  • It has an identity characterized by a common cognitive
    framework, an interactive network and the emotional
    involvement of its participants.

Each of these elements began to come together in the processes of Global Forum ’92, the independent sector events
parallel to the official negotiations in Rio Centro, as diverse
international networks of women, youth, religious leaders,
indigenous peoples, and others grew in solidarity and found
common cause with one another.

The centerpiece of this process was the International
Forum of NGOs and Social Movements. When some one
thousand NGO representatives met in Paris in December 1991
to plan inputs to UNCED, it was already evident that the
official UNCED conventions were going to fall far short of
resolving the planet’s ecological and social crises. It was thus
decided that the NGOs would organize their own treaty negotiation process. The intended outcome was to be a series of
conventions defining the commitments of the NGO signatories
to act in solidarity with one another on behalf of the planet
and its people.

Attempting to carry out a substantive dialogue in search
of consensus among several thousand people who do not share
the same organizational history, culture, or language and with
no legal chain of command is a gutsy undertaking. The Rio
process was a difficult, and for many, a frustrating experience. The discussions were frequently dominated by the
Brazilian participants, who were by far the majority. Some
treaty groups were shanghaied by Marxist Leninists whose
single minded determination outwitted the well intentioned
democratic style of the group leaders. The treaties themselves
varied in the quality of their prose, depth of analysis, and
breadth of vision. Yet though often repetitive and full of
rhetoric, the resulting documents revealed a newly forming
consensus, best summarized at the end of the deliberations in
“The People’s Earth Declaration.”

Seldom in human history have people from such diverse
backgrounds and special interests found they shared a
common analysis and commitment to a set of assumptions and
principles regarding the planet and the poor. Peace activists,
environmentalists, religious leaders, development NGOs,
alternative economists, and others from both North and South
found common cause with leaders of indigenous peoples,
youth, and women’s movements in their commitment to
develop just, sustainable and participatory societies.

Their consensus placed them in direct, conscious, and
informed opposition to powerful establishment institutions that
claim leadership on the sustainable development agenda.
While embracing the need for change to sustainability, group
after group rejected the orthodox development models and
policies of the World Bank and IMF based on the premise that
undifferentiated economic growth, free trade, and foreign
investment are the answer. Given evidence that human
economic activity already exceeds the ecology’s limits, the
need to redistribute the use of ecological resources was seen
to be inescapable, as was the need to decentralize economic
power to increase accountability to the community interest.

By calling on citizens to assert their basic right to
determine the directions of their own development, citizen
groups in Rio seriously challenged the limits of tolerance of
the government-to-government system. They called for
change through a peaceful people power revolution of the
kind that restored democracy in the Philippines and brought
down the communist empire in Eastern Europe. It is significant that the citizens who issued such calls in Rio were mostly
middle-aged, middle-ground, articulate and concerned
members of mainstream citizen organizations.

Most all of the elements of a powerful social movement
are in place save one, a name that affirms the movement’s
collective identity. I have no doubt the movement will soon
find its name.

When such forces coalesce within civil society they are
not easily denied. Decision makers in business and government will be well advised to take them seriously and attempt
to anticipate their consequences.


Nola Kate Seymoar is Executive Director of the World Congress
for Education & Communication on Environment & Development
(ECO-ED), 110 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto, Ontario M4R
1A3, Canada. This column was prepared and distributed by the
People-Centered Development Forum based on a report prepared
by the author.

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