Global summit highlights need for local agenda

Basel's Daniel Lehmann and Tshwane's June Matlala have lessons for each other

While world leaders talk at the Johannesburg Earth Summit, two local communities are pushing ahead with sustainable development on their own initiative.

This content was published on August 27, 2002 - 16:57

A joint Swiss-South African project - unveiled as part of Switzerland's programme in Johannesburg - is bringing two communities together to their mutual benefit.

The Swiss city of Basel may be half a world away from the South African capital, Pretoria, but this has not stopped the two communities from forging an unusual alliance.

The partnership stems from the so-called Local Agenda 21 Network, the result of an international agreement struck a decade ago at the world's first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Part of the landmark deal - which sought to save the Earth's biodiversity from human destruction - called on local authorities around the world not to wait for national governments to act, but to implement their own programmes of sustainable development at a community level.

Mutual benefits

Daniel Lehmann, coordinator of the project and representative of the city of Basel at the launch event, says the partnership will assist both communities to put into practice mutually beneficial policies of sustainable development.

"The main goal of this linking is to have an exchange of knowledge and experience," Lehmann told swissinfo, "and perhaps also to fight against the feeling that on a local level nothing can be achieved."

Lehmann argues that global leaders attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development cannot alone shape the future course of planet.

"I liken this summit to a mountain of ants who have poured into Johannesburg," he said.

"There are some king ants which make major policies, but there are also a lot of small ants just working, talking and networking, which is just as important for establishing how to put sustainable development into practice."

Madeleine Bolliger, representative of the Swiss Coalition of Development Organisations, agrees that global accord and local cooperation are not mutually exclusive.

"It's important to have agreements at a global level," she says, "but at the same time it's important that people feel integrated and can participate actively."

Around 6,000 villages and towns around the world are estimated to have taken on board the spirit of Agenda 21, but the Basel-Pretoria initiative is one of the first attempts to bring together two local communities.

Working together

Those in charge of brokering the agreement between the two cities say Basel and Pretoria - part of a wider municipality known as Tshwane - may be geographically distant, but they also share common goals.

"Even though their circumstances are very different, they have similar ways of approaching how to develop an urban environment," Lehmann explains.

Links have already been forged between two small community centres, one in downtown Basel and the other halfway across the globe in a Tshwane township.

"The main approach of both these centres is very similar: to educate and empower people to help themselves," Lehmann says.

During a fact-finding mission to Pretoria in July, Lehmann also discovered that both cities share a common goal of developing a concept of integrated urban development.

"What this means is that if you plan anything like a motorway, you always look at the interconnection between social and economic aspects: not just 'how do we best build this highway?', but 'how is this highway best integrated into the urban environment?'

"Basel and Pretoria have adopted the same kind of approach, and it would be a good idea to exchange ideas and to find out what the successes and problems are."

Local contact

June Matlala, a representative from the municipality of Tshwane, says the global alliance at a local level could help both cities to better manage their respective resources.

"We always have to work out how we use the little resources we have to achieve more, whereas in Basel they have a lot of resources, and a lot of knowledge," Matlala told swissinfo.

"So they can teach us how to better manage the resources we have to benefit us, based on their experiences," she added.

"But this is not a partnership where one partner will gain more than the other: it's much more about an exchange of ideas."

Organisers of the Swiss information platform in Johannesburg hope the announcement of the partnership initiative will encourage parts of French and Italian-speaking Switzerland to forge similar alliances with local communities on the other side of the world.

by Ramsey Zarifeh in Johannesburg

Johannesburg summary

The Basel-Pretoria partnership agreement was officially launched on Tuesday on the sidelines of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Organisers hope towns in French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland will forge similar links with communities committed to sustainable development in other parts of the world.

Agenda 21, an accord signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, called on local communities to implement their own programmes of sustainable development.

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