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Practice from my Experience

Home > Local Agenda 21s > Practice from my Experience

Local Agenda 21s: Practice from my Experience

In my professional life and over 15 years, primarily through my work in politics and later in the NGO sector, I have acquired countless experiences in engaging the diversity of a community in two-way (even bottom-up) public processes and exchanges. Related, I specifically have two experiences with LA21s and one direct experience in developing a community Sustainability Strategy.

My first experiences with an LA21-type process was when I worked as the inaugural Executive Director of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust (CBT), the administrative centre of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (see: http://www.clayoquotbiosphere.org/ ). The second was through Public Agenda Group Inc., a company with which I was a principal and under whose auspices I was involved, over a one year period, in negotiations with PEMEX, Mexico’s government-owned oil company.

Clayoquot Biosphere Trust (CBT)

My work on an LA21-type process at the CBT clearly demonstrated to me the best humans are willing to offer when presented with engaging and meaningful opportunities for involvement in a positively-focussed process.

Our work at the CBT entailed our developing a wide array of two-way, bottom-up, processes involving the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations and local peoples who, in an area of approximately 347,847 hectares, live within 8 separate community areas (3 communities of which can only be accessed by boat).

The Clayoquot has a recent history in Canada of being a conflicted area, mostly related to international attention and pressures to halt the logging of old growth cedars (with ages of upwards of 1,000 years) that are located primarily on Nuu-chah-nulth land. The largest mass arrests in Canadian history - over 300 persons arrested at one time - occurred in the Clayoquot, when people from across earth came to halt loggers from cutting what some people term as “ancient cedars”.

A UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Biosphere Reserve was proposed and eventually adopted in the region. Support for the Biosphere Reserve idea came early from industry and NGOs, and then also from each of the Canadian federal, British Columbia provincial, Alberni-Clayoquot regional, Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, and other local governments. It was presented as one of a number of solutions to try and bring some social peace and renewed economic prosperity to the conflicted region.

On behalf of the CBT, I developed, led and facilitated a sustainability (LA 21)-type process in the Clayoquot / Barclay Sound areas. This process aimed to identify citizen-established sustainable development solutions for the region, including a Sustainability Vision, Sustainability Mission, and Sustainability Strategic Goals & Objectives.

Our “engagement” activities (ways to involve people in the LA21-type process) were specifically designed for the needs of each unique community and group we sought to actively engage:

  • In Tofino, Ucluelet, and the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District, public meetings were a more common activity. • A radio ad in the Nuu-chah-nulth language was developed to access those members of this community who spoke their traditional language.
  • A school curriculum was developed for use in the community elementary school in Tofino.
  • A home workbook was developed and mailed to every post box in the region, so that people could take time in their own homes to share their SD ideas in writing and then return these to the CBT.
  • For the whole region, a special phone-in show on the local radio station was arranged so people could phone-in their sustainability ideas.
  • Newspaper ads advising on activities and progress in the process were run weekly in the local newspaper.
  • In keeping with local Nuu-chah-nulth customs for being family oriented and meeting with people over food, community dinners were held in each of the five Nuu-chah-nulth communities, so that their people, including their children, could join together to discuss sustainable development ideas for the region.
  • A monthly newspaper column on sustainability matters was written and printed in the local newspaper. • A separate meeting on SD ideas was held only for the Board of Directors of the CBT.
  • A meeting was held with the local Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, so their hereditary and elected First Nations leaders could share their own experiences, knowledge and ideas on SD for their traditional lands.
  • I arranged personal meetings with practically all major community groups in the region and business associations, so they had a secure and guaranteed forum in which to discuss their SD ideas.
  • I held countless one-on-one meetings with the leaders of most regional community groups, regional business leaders, local politicians, the elected Chiefs of each of the five Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, and with each of the CBT Interim Board and CBT Founding Board of Directors, as well as with anyone who wanted to meet with me to learn about the process and to share their ideas in a more personal setting.

On participation rates, from my own experience you can expect benign (over controversial) public events to achieve a rate of participation of anywhere from 1% to 5% of all people invited. On meetings centred on controversy, participation rates of 20% or higher are fully possible. For mail-in items, expect a rate of return of between 3% and 5%. For community dinners, expect a participation rate of anywhere from between 10% to 15% of invitees.

One of the highlights for me out of the whole CBT LA21-type process, which truly showed me the value of the SD model, was a private meeting we held specifically for the elected and community leaders (including prominent NGO leaders) of the region, a number of whom could be considered enemies over adversaries. Through the use of a professional facilitator trained in conflict management, these leaders willingly joined together to develop mutual SD solutions for their region. At one point, they were even willing to take on role playing by considering the perspective of one other (with one prominent environmentalist and one prominent business leader sitting down together and willingly role playing each other’s perspectives.) And they did this because they believed that the cause was worth the effort: that being, they truly desired trying to find mutually agreeable solutions for the sustainable development of their shared region.

At every meeting held in the process, notes were taken. As much as is humanly possible, these notes were intended to be neutral observations of what we heard at the meetings. Then after the first round of the process, these same notes were released to the public for their review and comments. In follow-up to this release of the notes, public meetings were then held in each main community, so that people could join together to provide comment on the notes. Changes in understandings in the notes, as agreed to by the public at these meetings, were then made to the notes.

Next, the CBT Board of Directors sat down for two days at a retreat, where they reviewed the revised notes before arriving at a draft set of a Sustainability Vision, Sustainability Mission, and Sustainability Goals & Objectives for the region. These draft sustainability strategic statements were then returned to the communities for comment, after which the CBT Board then made some final changes to them based on the public comments received. To conclude the process, the CBT Board then approved a final set of sustainability strategic statements for the region. These then formed the basis of the CBT’s Sustainability Strategy for the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve region.

Overall, this process at the CBT took about 8 months to complete, with most weekends and many evenings worked through by my staff and myself as the means to complete a fair and thorough process.

(Some of the public meeting notes from this time can be viewed at: http://www.clayoquotbiosphere.org/documents/cbt/CBTPublicMeetingNotes.pdf . The crafted Mandate, Vision and Mission of the CBT can be viewed at: http://www.clayoquotbiosphere.org/organization/mandate.php . The CBT’s Sustainability Strategic Goals & Objectives can be viewed at: http://www.clayoquotbiosphere.org/organization/goals.php ).

Not everyone, of course, was fully happy with the outcomes. The process revealed to me that some groups and people will never be satisfied unless they get all of what they want. But the majority of people of the community seemed generally pleased with the process and its outcomes, which honestly tried to find a balance between the competing needs and interests expressed by the diverse people of the region.

The process, tailored as it was to the realities of the region and to each unique community, helped it achieve respectable levels of participation from local peoples and their communities. This then provided the LA21 with the involvement of more minds and, thus, with more ideas inputted in to the process and its Sustainability Strategy outcome document. In the end, this then provided what can be said to be better outcomes and practices for sustainable development in the area.

I highly recommend the LA21 process for identifying common sustainable development solutions for your community or institution. I strongly encourage the development of Sustainability Strategies for any community or institution, as their way to help humans make their necessary transition to sustainable societies.

PEMEX

Mexico’s State of Tabasco is also an area of Mexico known for being “hot”, in that its people often seem inclined to protesting and taking matters in to their own hands. (Just as they did at the time Napolean invaded Mexico and when Tabasquenos rebelled against, and also defeated, his southern excursion force.). However for PEMEX, Mexico’s nationalised oil company and the primary economic generator in Tabasco, this “hot” dynamic poses many business challenges.

PEMEX experiences a significant number of lost days of production each year due to human-generated conflict in Tabasco. The Company also regularly experiences reductions in oil flows through its pipelines in the state due to their being cut by locals for various reasons, one of which includes some locals wanting cash compensation for land contaminated by the very oil they caused to be released. While PEMEX’s environmental record is far from stellar, cut pipelines do, of course, result in environmental pollution from released oil and this situation has resulted in a significant quantity of land in the state becoming contaminated. This ongoing dynamic was starting to and still does negatively affect PEMEX’s corporate image in the State’s media and thereby with the people of Tabasco.

With the help of a local acquaintance, I helped put together a local consortium of business persons that included a partnership with a State university. We then developed a proposal to PEMEX, suggesting their use of the LA21 process and Sustainability Strategies as a means to reduce community conflict in the three municipalities within the state where PEMEX was experiencing the most disruptions to its business operations: Centro, Cardenas, and Dos Bocas - Paraiso.

Over a period of one year, numerous meetings were held with most senior regional PEMEX officials, including the Regional Director, his sub-director, and an area Manager for Sustainable Development (who was anxious to work with us as he wanted his first sustainable development project in his then two-year old department). I compliment this sub-director of PEMEX, for he remains one of the few people I have ever met in any sector who has a clear and complete understanding about the substance of SD, including its pros and cons.

For the proposal we researched those areas where we would hold LA21 processes and where we intended to developed Sustainability Strategies. This included site visits, identifying some community stakeholders and local “moral leaders” whose involvement would be essential in an LA21 processes, and completing a number of complete budget scenarios for the project.

PEMEX genuinely seemed interested in the project, yet one identified challenge we both found difficult to overcome was that Mexico’s, Napoleonic-code modelled, constitution is said to forbid PEMEX from spending money on PR activities with the media (the federal government uses PEMEX as a main source of national revenue and so also uses PEMEX’s monies to advertise on behalf of the federal government itself.). Active use of the media is essential to messaging in Tabasco and so was an integral part of our LA21 process. Without access to the media, we could not see how an LA21 process for PEMEX could realistically proceed in Tabasco. And then there were some other business anomalies specific to the Mexican culture which surfaced and that eventually resulted in the project not moving forward.

What this experience did provide me with were very many professional and personal understandings about SD, many of which involved the challenges the concept, approach and practice faces in achieving success. These understandings were gleaned from my: direct engagement with PEMEX; work alongside my Mexican business colleagues; involvement in local communities in Tabasco; and my work with business entities and people located in a country and culture very different from that of my Canadian home. These understandings included:

  • How little the SD concept is generally known, let alone understood.
  • How much of the science underpinning SD remains generally unknown.
  • That greenwashing is a challenge to be faced in industry and business, where the practice is used as a means to enhance either corporate images or as a way to make money.
  • How much the idea of monetary gain motivates people working in industry and business, regardless of the broader societal and environmental consequences of their actions.
  • How challenging it is to get people to move outside of their usual, traditional and set patterns of thinking, to instead look at earth and human development patterns through different eyes, such as those provided by SD.

PEMEX, coming after my work at the CBT (which involved working with people of a region who were highly attuned to environmental science), helped highlight for me the need for extensive public education in SD. A need for education on the science underpinning sustainable development and also a need for education on the reason why SD practices are now a necessity for humans and their societies.

(To personally ask me questions about my experience with LA21s or Sustainability Strategies, you are invited to contact me through the Contact Tom section of this web-site.)