In recent decades, a number of countries have instituted mechanisms for expanding participation in public hearings to support or even as an alternative to traditional mechanisms of political representation and decision making. Such experiences cover a wide range of questions, including the environmental agenda that also emerged at the fin-de-siècle.
The normative dimensions of such experiments have generated extensive debate, reaching into the very heart of social theory, as can be verified by the repercussions from Habermas’ work (e.g. Habermas 1984, 1995). However, less attention has been given to the empirical experience of initiatives which endeavour to establish principles for the democratisation of decisions. The purpose of this article is to contribute to this debate with an in-depth analysis of one of these participative experiences.
The Brazilian literature on the practices of participative consultation and deliberation in the environmental arena has drawn conclusions which are broadly similar to those that can be found in international literature (Alonso and Costa 2002a). However, empirical and sociological studies are scarce. Our objective in this article is to contribute to the understanding of the actual dynamics of mechanisms for broadening participation in environmental questions. 1 Our analysis investigates the operation of an environmental governance mechanism in Brazil: the Public Hearing for Environmental Licensing (Apla). Aplas are nonformal forms of political incorporation, open meetings that seek to expand popular participation in the public discussion of undertakings with potential environmental risk. We evaluate the effectiveness of this “environmental governance” institution as a mechanism for negotiation and deliberation among agents with a disparity of resources, its degree of influence over the results of the environmental licensing process and its capacity to include the interests and opinions of unorganised sectors of society, through a case study of the environmental licensing process for the Rodoanel, a ring-road around the São Paulo Metropolitan Area.
Our hypothesis is that, in Brazil, mechanisms for “deliberative democracy” applied to environmental questions have not been very successful in their objective of incorporating social groups usually excluded from traditional mechanisms of deliberation as relevant actors in the decision-making process. This is because such groups lack the economic, social and cognitive resources that would enable them to participate actively and influence decisions on environmental questions. As a consequence, Aplas tend to express the opinions of organised civil society more than those of the social groups that are directly affected.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.2 (2004) The Dynamics of Public Hearings for Environmental Licensing: The case of the São Paulo Ring Road