Planning sustainability?

The dispute surrounding social participation in the discussions on development in Peru

Abstract: It has been 20 years since the Rio Summit not only placed sustainable development at the top of the agenda - a form of development that is sustainable both from an environmental and social perspective. As one of the key elements on this path of participation of civil society, it also legitimised the involvement of various social actors in the discussion and planning of development. Since then, various environmental and territorial management instruments, including the Local Agenda 21, have incorporated the participation of civil society into its methods, and this rich experience has enabled us to learn about the challenges that represent the paradigm of sustainability at a local and regional level. However, this remains a controversial issue, and there is permanent tension regarding the citizens' real power to participate in the socio-environmental context concerning major extraction projects that have a significant impact on local and regional planning.

Civic participation in political decisions is a controversial process. There are perhaps currently no decisions that are more fraught with conflict than those focusing on the use of territory and natural resources within the context of a complex environmental crisis: a water crisis, a food crisis, an energy crisis, a climate crisis. In this context, there is a permanent tension between two opposing interpretations of participation: there are those who want to reduce participation to a mere formality that legitimises the decisions taken by authorities; and then there are those who seek to convert this into real democratic practice where social actors can exercise real power.

In Peru, this dispute continuously surfaces in the face of numerous socio-environmental conflicts regarding major – mainly extraction – projects.

These conflicts could in part be prevented by taking the participation of social actors in the planning of land use seriously and ensuring that the different voices are heard and carry a certain weight when the time comes for decisions to be made. This participation has been contemplated in numerous legal instruments focusing on land and environmental management. However, since we are dealing with a field in which economic interests and national political priorities are at play, there is a resistance on the part of public officials and corporate actors which perceive civic participation to be quite restrictive.

Rio and the legitimisation of civic participation

In 1992, the 178 nations participating at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro made use of various instruments to draw up a road map for sustainability: the Climate Change Convention, the Forest   Declaration and the Convention on Biological Diversity, as well as Agenda 21, an exhaustive action plan which is to be adopted globally, nationally and locally.

This "plan of action" established the importance of involving organisations from civil society and the citizenship in general. Even if the wording of Agenda 21 is sufficiently general to enable more than one interpretation, it is clear that social participation is not considered to be a mere accessory and much less an instrument for legitimising decisions that have already been taken. On the contrary, it is deemed to be a key element for restructuring decision-making processes in a way that guarantees that changes established within the Agenda-process are accepted and adopted by the public. In other words, it is a way of ensuring that the environmental sustainability plans also include political and social sustainability.

Thus, political discussions, but also national and subregional norms have started to include civil participation as an important aspect, especially with regard to territorial and environmental management.

In Peru, this process has coincided with the rise of an authoritarian regime, which for political reasons needed to demonstrate to the international community that it is opening up democratically.[i] These gestures were essentially symbolic, since, on the one hand, the rights of "civil participation" such as allowing referenda or the revocation of municipal authorities were guaranteed, while, on the other, one had constructed an authoritarian and repressive model which established clientelistic relations with social groups, criminalised dissidence, recentralised power, imposed liberalisation policies and attracted investments for the extraction industry without taking into account the voices of those actors who saw themselves affected by the changes in land dynamics.

Though the Fujimori government – in response to international and national pressure – dictated the first Environment and Natural Resources Code, it soon chose to yield to corporate pressure and reduce the scope of the rule.[ii] Environmental policies were thus put on ice for the following years.[iii]

New advances had to wait until the downfall of the Fujimori regime during the first decade of the millennium. During the period of the so-called "transition to democracy", various norms dedicated to civil participation, in general, and their role in environmental management, in particular, were enacted. The need to incorporate civic participation in the territorial planning processes and the decisions made on investments which could have a socioeconomic impact in the local communities was thus gradually incorporated into national legislation.

Disputes concerning the land-use planning

In 2004 the Ecological and Economic Zonification Regulation (Reglamento de Zonificación Ecológica y Económica, ZEE) assigned environmental land use planning processes to the regional authorities and established that these processes have to be "participatory, promoting agreement with various social actors". While the ZEE is a random kind of mapping of the economic and environmental potential of the land, land-use regulations must define which activities are to be prioritised in accordance with the respective potentials that were identified.

The authorisation of departmental governments gave rise to a difficult area of dispute, since there is a series of responsibilities regarding the use of land which is still controlled by the central government, including the granting of concessions to major mining companies, as well as forestal and energy concessions, etc. This has caused a series of conflicts in recent years: There was, for instance, a conflict between the regional government of San Martín and the Ministry of Agriculture after the latter granted authorisation to a deforestation company to fell 1372 hectares of primary forest for planting oil palms, which contravened the participatory zonification plans.[iv] The same occurred in Cajamarca where the Ministry of Energy and Mining granted extensive zones for major mining projects, despite the fact that land use management had prioritised other activities in this area.

The absence of the private corporate sector in these initiatives is a crucial factor: In the case of Cajamarca, the mining companies with investments in the region formed the Grupo Norte (North Group) initially participated in discussions and workshops on zonification, but later chose to abandon the consultations and instead initiated a political campaign advocating stopping the process. “It is obvious that the land-use plans are inconvenient for the mining companies”, points out an assessment made on this matter.

Faced with the proliferation of socio-environmental conflicts surrounding the use of natural resources, the need for participatory land-use planning became so evident that in 2011 the President of the Republic himself, Ollanta Humala, announced “a major consultation with the citizens about how we wish to shape the land. This will help to establish the social peace we want for all Peruvians", he stated.

However, the pressure exercised by corporate groups was so immense that it forced the government to abandon the initiative.[v] The Ministry of the Environment has currently introduced a new regulation which sets up additional hurdles for the planning and zonification processes. Furthermore, the president has not readdressed the issue. A draft bill presented by the opposition in Congress is still waiting to be placed on the parliamentary agenda.

Hence, we can see the limitations of the participatory instruments when these affect economic interests. Despite all the local and regional legitimacy which the priorities in development planning may have, the groups in power often have greater leverage to assert their own priorities.

This context of dispute, in which the instruments of participation and the instances of social collaboration are ignored when it is time for political decisions to be taken, has created the conditions for the rise of new social and political movements. Their agenda demands a new way of managing the territory, and they understand that this is essentially not a technical matter but a political one, since it depends on the power relations established within the country. In this context it is interesting to look at the testimony of Marco Arana[vi], founder of the Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) party, which has strong ecological roots, and has passed through a series of stages, which – to a certain extent – reflect the evolution of an important part of the Peruvian social movement. Following its beginnings as a local force of resistance towards the oil-extracting industries, it has moved on to promote local and regional development planning, and to actively participate in negotiations and in forums of cooperation. In recent years, it has taken a clear political stand in terms of the creation of a new political-electoral front, which seeks to give a voice to social movements in order to promote a change in power relations at a national level.

 Peru: local experiences in participatory planning

Apart from the slow incorporation of civil participation mechanisms into national policy a number of processes were initiated at the local level in the 1990s and 2000s which made way for democratic participation in the governance of sustainable human development.[vii] The implementation of the proposals of Agenda 21 at the level of the regional authorities (Local Agenda 21) which were initiated by organisations associated with the UN allowed various locations to gain experience in planning development from the point of view of sustainability and with the participation of civil society.

In conjunction with these experiences associated with the UN-driven process, there has also been a series of independent experiences that relate to civic participation and environmental policies. Between 1993 and 2002, one of the governmental processes with a greater participation of social actors took place at the district municipality of Limatambo in the province of Anta (Cuzco). This experience still serves as an inspiring example. In the three periods (in office) of the local government in that decade, a participatory body called Communal and Neighbourhood Council (Consejo Comunal y Vecinal, CCV) was created which united the (rotating) representatives of the rural communities and the urban zone; the CCV convened every three months in order to implement activities at three levels: planning, management and audit.[viii] Not without difficulty, this momentum prompted the intense involvement of the local citizenship in the municipal decisions and priorities. This form of control over the municipal government also ensured the political sustainability of the decisions, since they are "socially legitimised agreements" and not provisions established only by the public authority but by the whole community.

Since 2003, this approach has been transferred to the province[ix] of Anta, where a CCV also established itself and a strategy of participatory planning was developed, the same which also led to the creation of a Concerted Development Plan for 2015.[x] This plan establishes five strategic pillars, the first of which being the environment. As a result of this plan, Anta was considered to be the "first village in the country to be 100 per cent ecological”,[xi] thanks to a series of successful initiatives for managing solid waste and recycling, reforestation, the production of organic fertilisers, and the recovery of the river basin, among others. "The participatory assumption was that in our work we needed to take into account the treatment of solid waste, to take care of our river, and create new possibilities for the forest, and therefore we managed to involve everyone in this problem, including the children, youths and neighbours", as the former mayor and initiator, Wilbert Rozas, pointed out.[xii]

However, this experience also suffered from a lack of sustainability as far as political commitment is concerned. In the case of the Limatambo district, after Rozas' term of office ended, the CCV continued to exist but no longer had a leading role. In the case of the province of Anta, the change of political leadership in the local government also led to a weakening of the initiative. On the other hand, the intensity of local participation faced new challenges after growing beyond the micro-level (Limatambo) to a higher level (Anta), where it was much more difficult to achieve the sustained involvement of the population.


The experiences of the last two decades enabled civil society actors to draw some general conclusions and show the possibilities and also the challenges of participatory regional development planning.[xiii] For instance, instead of limiting oneself to purely environmental aspects, it is important to maintain a holistic focus, and to incorporate these issues into a broader process of urban planning. It also became clear that participation cannot be improvised: participatory decision-making and implementation processes require appropriate methodological tools as well as consistent effort to develop the capacities of the participating actors. Nevertheless the political will is an indispensable prerequisite, and in order to be effective in the long term, civil society-driven sustainable development processes need to be aligned with the way the local, public administration functions.

Participation is an important tool for promoting the political sustainability of decision making processes. Only if the citizens are involved in these processes can they survive beyond public authorities’ terms of office. The instruments of participatory management, particularly with regard to the environment, have opened up important possibilities for social actors to get involved. However, the degree of participation varies considerably, depending on the context and social processes involved: ranging from more formal consultation processes to a very close collaboration with the local authorities. Participation faces difficult political limitations especially when issues of private economic interest and national political priorities are at stake. Furthermore, there is still a deficit regarding the participation of the corporate sector, which tends to regard these processes with disinterest, or indeed apprehension. It will therefore be a challenge to convert the local and regional legitimacy of participatory decision-making into a source of real power.


[i]       As Aldo Panfichi recounted: “In 1993, the year following the self-coup, the Fujimori government adopted a new constitution which for the first time incorporates the right to civic participation in the management of public resources. The following year, in April 1994, the law 26300 on “Law on the rights of civic participation y control” was passed, which included the right of citizens to intervene against their elected representatives in the initiative and adoption of constitutional laws and reforms. However, these measures appear to have been a response to the pressure exerted by international financial bodies, rather than as an own initiative and conviction of the Fujimori regime. Peru made similar commitments at OAS the meeting in May 1992, at which it was negotiated that the government shall return to full constitutionality after the self-coup. The constitution from 1993 also includes the right of citizens to participate in public affairs via a series of democratic mechanisms: referenda, legislative initiatives, the removal or dismissal of authorities; all of them are trying to promote a kind of relationship between the executive power and society without the intervention of political parties or the organised civil society”. Panfichi, Aldo: Participación ciudadana en el Perú: disputas, confluencias y tensiones (Civic Participation in Peru: disputes, convergence, tensions). PUCP, Lima, 2007.

[ii]      “Between 1992 and 1994, environmental policy is put on hold. Even though Fujimori participated in environmental meetings such as the Rio Summit and its preparatory meetings, nothing changed at the national level, and there was no significant progress in terms of taking a different approach with regard to the environment in the legislative and institutional areas. (...) In the course of 1992, the government created a regulatory framework favouring foreign investment. The Fujimori government passed a series of decrees, such as Decree 757: Framework Law for the Growth of Private Investment, which provided an opportunity to repeal 30% of the norms of the 1st Environmental Code”. Soria, Carlos: Avances en el derecho ambiental en el Perú. Ponencia preparada para el Seminario (Advances in Environmental Law in Peru. Speech prepared for a seminar).“Direitos Fundamentais e Relações Sociais no Mundo Contemporâneo”, Universidade Federal do Pará, 24 October 2003. Available at:

[iii]     However, one exception to be taken into account is the promulgation of the Organic Law for the Sustainable Use of Natural Resources, which was passed in 1997 and establishes the need for economic and ecological zonification, even though it is still lacking in significant details. The regulations of this law were endorsed in 2004.

[iv]     “Romero group activities paralised in Barranquita”, headline published in Actualidad Ambiental in January 2010; available at

[v]      See, for example, the article published in the daily newspaper Gestión, main media voice of the corporate sector: “They propose to stop the land-use planning and the ecological and economic zonification”, which picks up the voice of Roque Benavides, one of the mining entrepreneurs who are interested in the execution of extensive mining projects in Cajamarca. Published on 26/06/2013, available at:

[vi]    See “Minería y movimientos sociales en el Perú: Instrumentos y propuestas para la defensa de la vida, el agua y los territorios" (Mining and social movements in Peru: Instruments and proposals for defending our life, water and land), PDTG, Lima, 2013.

[vii]    Here we agree with the proposal made by Peris, Acebillo and Calabuig: Local Agenda 21 as an instrument for local democratic governance. Carolina Foundation; Think-Tank for Development, Cooperation and Ethics of the Engineering Department, Valencia Polytechnical University.

[viii]   Participatory democracy in the Andes: The experience of four rural municipalities in Peru. REMURPE, CICDA and OFAM GB. August 2003, Lima.

[ix]     Immediate territorial area superior to the district.

[x]      Plan Coordinized Development Plan of Anta Province for 2015. Provincial Municipality of Anta, Regional Andean Studies Centre  Bartolomé de las Casas (CBC), Consejo Comunal y Vecinal - Communal and Neighbourhood Council (CCV) and Consejo de Coordinación Local (Local Coordination Council) (CCL). Cuzco, 2006.

[xi]     “Anta, pueblo ecológico” (Anta, ecological people) A report by Luis Miranda broadcasted in the programme Cuarto Poder, América Televisión, 2009. Available at:

[xii]    Idem.

[xiii]   All these recommendations stem from Peris, Acebillo and Calabuig: Agenda 21 as an instrument for local democratic governance. (op. cit.).


Paul E. Maquet is a Journalist with degrees from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Universidad Jesuita Antonio Ruiz de Montoya (UARM) and the Instituto Internacional de Formación Ambiental. His writing focuses on political and environmental issues. He lectures on journalism, human development and public opinión at UARM and is author and co-author of various documentaries, studies and publications dealing with socio-environmental issues. Recent publications include “Mitos y realidades de la minería en el Perú” (PDTG, 2013) and “La Amazonía Rebelde” (PDTG, 2009). Paul Maquet currently works as Advocacy Coordinator of Red Peruana por una Globalización con Equidad (Peruvian Network for a Just and Egalitarian Form of Globalisation).


This article is part of the series Democracy & Sustainability, a joint project of FES Sustainability and SGI News. The series investigates the factors that influence the success or failure of sustainability policy. Two authors tackle the same question from different perspectives, and present their findings simultaneously for FES Sustainability and SGI News.

Part 5 of our series focuses on the social dimension of the sustainable development paradigm. Using the examples of Peru and the Nordic Countries, Paul Maquet, Mi Ah Schoyen and Marianne Takle discuss the meaning of democratic participation and social inclusion and analyse how they are changing.

Please find Mi Ah Schoyen and Marianne Takle's article Nordic Civil Society: Schools of Democracy or Organised Individualism? here.

Part 1 of our series: Is sustainability a question of regime type?
Part 2 of our series: Sustainability and Civil Society Engagement in Russia
Part 3 of our series: Education at the Limits of Growth
Part 4 of our series: Climate Change and Energy in Vietnam