[ Summary ]
From exploiting resources to environmental competitiveness
1.1 Brief overview
a) Growing role of the public authorities
For a very long time, man’s relationship with his environment has
been limited to exploiting the local natural resources. At best
there were concerns about renewing such resources, especially
farmland, water, pasture and forests. These resources were
therefore maintained directly by the community or the local
authorities, or even by collective forms of management, with
individual, family and collective rights and obligations clearly
With the rapid development of industrial society, the environment
was exploited on a larger scale and the central government and
local, regional and intermunicipal authorities gradually took over
from traditional forms of management:
- From a legal standpoint, the rights relating to individual
ownership were extended, leaving owners free to exploit their land
as they saw fit and to make any investment in it that they wished
(with legal authorisation compulsory only for building dwellings,
setting up industrial activities or exploiting the subsoil).
- From a management standpoint:
- the management of water and forest resources was taken in
charge at levels that were to a greater or lesser extent
decentralised (national water and forestry services, regional,
departmental or municipal administrations, etc.);
- the government assigned itself the task of managing the
public infrastructure and living environment (paths, roads, public
facilities, etc.), also at various levels (local, regional and
- in addition, waste management services were set up (for
household and industrial waste).
Since the last World War, the worsening environmental problems
caused by agricultural intensification, industrial development and
pressure from tourism has only strengthened the role of the central
government and/or the local, regional and intermunicipal
- New legislation has emerged to limit forms of environmental
degradation (e.g. water pollution), to protect the architectural
heritage and to regulate land use.
- New restrictions on exploitation have been introduced, in
particular with the establishment of protected areas (national or
regional nature reserves, biosphere reserves, etc.).
This form of environmental management still characterises today’s
society, in that:
- The public authorities are responsible for environmental
- The central government is often perceived as a bureaucratic
machine that imposes restrictions on exploitation, which arouses
opposition rather than cooperation (e.g. the frequent opposition of
farmers to the establishment of protected areas);
- Associating the idea of a resource with the idea of
“potential to be exploited” on an individual basis has become the
accepted rule virtually everywhere. This has led to the neglect of
resources that have no, or have lost, their economic interest. The
dilapidation of certain areas, the existence of derelict industrial
land, the failure to maintain buildings and the historical
heritage, etc. are all illustrations of this.
In some countries, the introduction of the principle of planning
and regional development has led to a more integrated approach to
the public management of space, but it did not always consider the
importance of preserving landscapes. Institutional divides
sometimes resulted in a piecemeal approach and hence to disparate
space management tools. It was also common for local councils,
which are traditionally responsible for local infrastructure, to
take action largely without consulting the institutions responsible
for managing natural resources.
However, a gradual awareness of these problems has resulted in the
creation of ever more elaborate provisions and regulations.
This overall trend conceals differences between countries and
- in some countries environmental policies are more or less
centralised, coercive and interventionist, whilst in others they
are, on the contrary, decentralised: competence for regional
planning and development policies may belong to different levels,
including local management level;
- the sense of a collective asset is more developed in some
regions than in others;
- the extent of exploitation and degradation of natural
resources differs widely from one area to another. Some areas have
had to turn the battle against soil pollution caused by intensive
agriculture into a key element of their development strategies,
like in the Netherlands, whereas isolated areas are often
relatively well preserved.
b) Outdated environmental management methods
Over the past 15 to 20 years, new trends have emerged.
- Due to its scale (accumulation of waste, nuclear and oil
incidents, consequences of intensive agriculture, etc.) and
geographic scope (pollution knows no boundaries), the impact of
human activities on the environment has demonstrated the need for
new intervention measures.
- The necessity of an environmental management system extending
beyond geographical national boundaries  having been established in
the 1970s, the issue of the relationship between the international
and local spheres and between international commitments and local
constraints has been stated in new terms, as evidenced by Agenda 21
for example (see box).
- The public authorities have gradually abandoned their
monopoly over environmental management in favour of setting up
consultation procedures, sometimes moving to a certain degree
towards sharing responsibilities, which has once more given the
various players a place and role (communities, business firms,
etc.). This trend has led to the introduction of the “polluter
pays” principle and the precautionary principle . Likewise, in
pursuance of Article 3 of Regulation R 1259/99, which came into
force in the European Union, direct payments to farmers are now
conditional upon their compliance with environmental rules .
Agro-environmental clauses in the Common Agricultural Policy
Since 1992, the European Community has supported agricultural
production methods that respect the environment and biodiversity.
The rural development policy for the post-2000 period confirms the
key role of farmers as paid suppliers of environmental services,
going beyond good agricultural practices and compliance with basic
legislative standards. In the new generation of rural development
programmes, agro-environmental measures are therefore the only
measures to be compulsory for the Member States (however, they
remain optional for farmers). The planned subsidies are granted to
farmers who sign up to agro-environmental commitments for a minimum
period of five years. Where appropriate, a longer period may be
established for certain types of commitment, based on their impact
on the environment. The subsidy is allocated annually and
calculated on the basis of loss of earnings and additional costs
resulting from the commitments, as well as from the need to provide
a financial incentive.
- The public, increasingly confronted with environmental
problems, has set about seeking solutions at all levels. Proof of
this is the proliferation of environmental organisations, not only
local ones (pressure groups fighting pollution or a project they
consider to be potentially harmful, associations for safeguarding a
natural heritage, collective management of a collective asset,
etc.), but also national and international organisations (WWF,
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, etc.).
- The Rio Conference has taken on board the concept of
sustainable development, which, in Europe, has led to environmental
issues being taken increasingly into account in policymaking, as
well as in the gradual implementation of Agenda 21. However,
evaluations carried out into the subject have shown that there is
still a long way to go (see box).
c) A new approach to the environment...
The seeds of a radically new approach to the environment have
therefore started to germinate and this approach should take firm
root as time goes by.
Indeed we are moving from an approach that treats natural and
heritage resources as a reserve that can be drawn upon in order to
fuel economic activities, to an approach wherein the environment is
considered as a collective asset, which whilst being essential to
certain economic activities, is also a factor in the quality of
life that needs to be safeguarded for the welfare of future
The architectural heritage, not limited merely to buildings of
historic interest, has itself become part of this collective asset.
Reviving villages, salvaging abandoned houses, reconstructing
historic buildings, renovating derelict industrial land, etc. have
therefore all become increasingly shared concerns.
As a result, natural and heritage resources have acquired value in
- due to the image they create, these resources contribute to
the quality of products and services. Proof of this is the way in
which producers and distributors are exploiting the image of a
healthy and natural environment to vaunt the quality of their
products to consumers;
- they contribute to the aesthetic quality of the living
environment which, though not a concern in the past, has today
become an increasingly shared value, in terms of the landscape,
architecture, town planning, etc. In this area, natural resource
management is decisive: vegetation becomes a key element of the
aesthetic quality of natural or cultivated areas or of built-up
areas, associated with traditional or more modern architecture.
d) … involving new ways of managing natural and heritage
This new approach to the environment is leading to a rethink of the
ways in which resources are managed.
- As opposed to a purely administrative form of management by
the central government and local, regional and intermunicipal
authorities, we are now seeing a consultative style of management
in which public/private partnership plays an essential role.
- As opposed to a very broad approach involving individual
ownership rights, we now have the notion of the owners’
responsibility for the use they make of their property, not only
from the standpoint of the physical and biological impact of their
economic activities (pollution, improper use of certain resources,
etc.), but also their aesthetic impact (coherence within the
overall framework, etc.).
- In addition to the principle of an individual project, we now
have the principle of a collective area-wide project to valorise
the area’s natural and heritage resources.
- In addition to the idea of local responsibility, we now have
the concept of general responsibility which extends to a global
- Environmental protection concerns are no longer limited to
protected areas and now tend to be applied to all the resources of
a given area.
e) … and new development opportunities
This new approach to the environment has led to changes in
production systems, which are gradually focusing more on quality
(in order to assert their competitiveness) than on quantity, which
in the past frequently led to the over-exploitation of resources
and negative environmental effects. This is especially the case
with agricultural and livestock products that satisfy the
environmentally-sound production standards demanded by consumers.
The proliferation of quality labels is ample proof that respect for
the environment is a growing factor in product differentiation, and
hence commercial competitiveness.
Furthermore, this global approach to the environment has made it
possible to create new products, especially in tourism, based on a
set of resources, and to confer a specific identity on the area,
sometimes so much so that the area can be “re-christened”.
Today, the environment is a resource in its own right and a key
factor in the competitiveness of rural areas. Preserving the
environment means preserving an area’s distinctive characteristics
and identifying new vocations for it. There is no doubt that this
trend is set to grow still stronger within the globalisation
context since, in parallel with the market and corporate
restructuring, we are witnessing renewed interest in identity
resources, the first of which is the environment.
“Agenda 21” is an international initiative for promoting
sustainable development and ensuring that it becomes a reality in
the 21st century. At the 1992 United Nations Conference on the
environment and development (Rio Conference), 110 Heads of State
and Government adopted Agenda 21 as proof of their commitment. This
programme sets out the objectives to be achieved, specifies
guidelines for preserving and managing development resources and
the role of the principal groups concerned, and proposes means for
The programme recommends a voluntary approach, on a local, regional
and national scale, to define a short-, medium- and long-term
strategy, with international cooperation being provided to support
and complement national efforts.
According to a survey carried out in 1996, i.e. four years after
Rio, 1,812 Agendas have been created worldwide, 87% of which
(1,576) are in the European Union. These figures show just how
limited the application of Agenda 21 still is. Even within the
European Union the number of agendas being set up remains low
compared with the existing number of local authorities (more than
30,000). In the places where it has been implemented, local
authorities have encouraged the formation of “local Agenda 21
groups” proposing participatory and integrated approaches. These
forums, based on partnership, consensus and dialogue have
- draw up an inventory of environmental and development
- identify the possibilities for reducing wastage on a local
scale (energy savings, recycling of waste and materials, etc.);
- set up forms of partnership between the local authorities,
business firms, research centres and civil society to promote
- estimate the need for external aid.
Initiatives are concentrated in countries where a national campaign
is under way (in the European Union, this mainly includes the
United Kingdom, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Greece and
Ireland). An analysis conducted by ICLEI (International Council for
Local Environmental Initiatives) for the period 1992-1996 shows
that these initiatives had had an impact on institutional
management, public participation and the improvement in management
The experience amassed so far points to a few of the keys to the
success of such groups:
- Setting up a multisectorial steering committee to prepare the
- Wide-ranging consultation (associations, industrial concerns,
development agencies, trade unions and trade organisations) in
order to develop a common perspective, gather proposals and
establish priorities for action.
- Participatory evaluation of local social, environmental and
- Definition of operational objectives through consultation
with the key players based on an action plan.
- Development of information and monitoring procedures that
include progress indicators.
 By means of transnational agreements
(agreements for protecting the Rhine, RAMSAR
treaty for protecting wetlands, Helsinki
agreements) or through the intervention of
international bodies such as the European
Union or the United Nations.
 For details about the precautionary
principle as defined by the European Commission,
see Internet site
 See Internet site