Agenda 21 – What is it? How Did it Get Here?

By [post_author] –

“Agenda 21 and the United Nations” – Prepared for the Mises Institute Austrian Scholars Conference, March 16-18, 2006, Auburn, Alabama.

Agenda 21 is a 300-page, 40-chapter, “soft-law” policy document adopted by the delegates to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The document is not legally binding; it is a set of policy recommendations designed to reorganize global society around the principles of environmental protection, social equity, and what is called “sustainable” economic development. At the heart of the concept of sustainable development, is the assumption that government must manage society to ensure that human activity conforms to these principles. The idea that government is inherently empowered to manage the affairs of society is diametrically opposed to the idea that the just power of government is derived from the consent of the governed. As these conflicting principles collide in the arena of public policy, the people who are governed are losing the ability to limit the power of government. Consequently, government power over people is expanding.

Nowhere is this transformation more dramatic than in the policies governing private property rights and the use of land and its resources. Historically, the right to own and use private property in America has been considered to be a sacred right.This right is being usurped by government, which now dictates to private property owners how their land may – and may not – be used. This paradigm shift from sacred private property rights to government-managed land use, is a perfect example of how sustainable development is transforming America into a government-managed society.

This transformation is not the result of a deliberate decision made by elected representatives after fair and public debate. It is the result of years of subtle influence and obscure processes relentlessly imposed through the United Nations’ agencies and organizations, and a multitude of non-government organizations accredited by, and sympathetic to the United Nations’ agenda. Among the most influential non-government organizations are the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Worldwide Fund for Nature ( formerly the World Wildlife Fund, and still known as the WWF), and the World Resources Institute (WRI). These three organizations, together with various United Nations agencies and organizations, shaped the policies that are now being implemented in the United States, and around the world, under the banner of sustainable development. These three organizations participated in the preparations for the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in 1976, where the first formal policy on land use was adopted by a U.N. agency. Many of the land use restrictions now imposed on land owners across America arise directly from the policy recommendations adopted at this U.N. conference. The preamble to the conference report on land use sets the tone for more than 50 pages of very specific land use policy recommendations:

“Land…cannot be treated as an ordinary asset, controlled by individuals and subject to the pressures and inefficiencies of the market. Private land ownership is also a principal instrument of accumulation and concentration of wealth and therefore contributes to social injustice; if unchecked, it may become a major obstacle in the planning and implementation of development schemes. The provision of decent dwellings and healthy conditions for the people can only be achieved if land is used in the interests of society as a whole. Public control of land use is therefore indispensable….”[1]

Here is an example of the policy recommendations that follow: Recommendation A.1

(b) All countries should establish as a matter of urgency a national policy on human settlements, embodying the distribution of population…over the national territory.

(c)(v) Such a policy should be devised to facilitate population redistribution to accord with the availability of resources.

Recommendation D.1

(a) Public ownership or effective control of land in the public interest is the single most important means of…achieving a more equitable distribution of the benefits of development whilst assuring that environmental impacts are considered.

(b) Land is a scarce resource whose management should be subject to public surveillance or control in the interest of the nation.

(d) Governments must maintain full jurisdiction and exercise complete sovereignty over such land with a view to freely planning development of human settlements…. [2]

The recommendations contained in this report are remarkably similar to the conclusions reached in three publications financed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, compiled and edited by William K Reilly. The first, The Use of Land: A Citizen’s Policy Guide to Urban Growth, was published in 1972. The second document, entitled The Unfinished Agenda, was published in 1977. Many of these recommendations were included in the “Land Use Policy and Planning Assistance Act” advanced by Morris Udall during the 1970s. Congress rejected the legislation, which forced the proponents to develop another strategy. The third publication of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund was entitled Blueprint for the Environment, which was 1500 pages containing 730 specific recommendations delivered to President-elect, George Bush on November 30, 1988.

William K. Reilly was responsible for the development of each of these publications. He was also one of the U.S. delegates to the 1976 U.N. Conference on Human Settlements who signed the document on behalf of the United States.This same William K. Reilly, left his job as head of the World Wildlife Fund, to become the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, appointed by George H.W. Bush.

This same William K. Reilly, while serving in the Bush Cabinet, accompanied then-Senator Al Gore, to the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. There, he publicly urged President Bush to sign Agenda 21, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and ridiculed the President for not signing the Convention on Biological Diversity. Agenda 21, Chapter 37.4(a) recommends that:

(a) Each country should aim to complete, as soon as practicable, if

possible by 1994, a review of capacity – and capability-building requirements for devising national sustainable development strategies, including those for generating and implementing its own Agenda 21 action programme; On June 29, 1993, President Bill Clinton complied with this recommendation by appointing Vice President Al Gore to conduct a National Performance Review, and by issuing Executive Order Number 12852, which created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.[3] Its 25 members included most Cabinet Secretaries, representatives from The Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and other non-government organizations, and a few representatives from industry. The function of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development was to find ways to implement the recommendations of Agenda 21 administratively. Al Gore’s National Performance Review resulted in overhauling the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to implement what he called the “Ecosystem Management Policy.” This policy embraced many of the recommendations found in Chapters 10 through 18 of Agenda 21, all of which deal with management of land and resources. At the 11th meeting of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, Ron Brown, then Secretary of the Department of Commerce, reported that his department could implement more than 60 percent of the recommendations of Agenda 21 through the rule making process, without additional legislation. Similar reports came from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

These two departments were primarily responsible for funneling more than $5 million in grants to the American Planning Association for a project that resulted in the publication of Growing Smart Legislative Guidebook: Model Statutes for Planning and the Management of Change. [4]

This publication provides model legislation for state legislatures which, when adopted, writes into state law many of the policy recommendations set forth in Agenda 21. The Ecosystem Management Policy, coordinated with existing legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, gave the federal government the power to regulate land use in rural America. The model legislation provided in the American Planning Association’s publication, gave state governments the power to regulate land use at the state, county, and municipal levels. The federal government encouraged states to adopt this legislation by offering incentive grants to states and to local governments. Consequently, the recommendations prescribed in Agenda 21 are being systematically implemented across the nation.

This process is transforming America into the managed society envisioned in the 1976 U.N. Habitat document. This vision has been described in much greater detail in subsequent documents published by both the U.N., and the federal government.

The Global Biodiversity Assessment, published by the United Nations Environment Program, to be the instruction book for implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity, describes a nation where most of the land is protected for wildlife and biodiversity: “This [protected areas] means that representative areas of all major ecosystems in a region need to be reserved, that blocks should be as large as possible, that buffer zones should be established around core areas, and that corridors should connect these areas. This basic design is central to the recently-proposed Wildlands Project in the United States.” [5] The Wildlands project referenced here has an even more vivid description: “…that at least half of the land area of the 48 conterminous states should be encompassed in core reserves and inner corridor zones (essentially extensions of core reserves) within the next few decades…. Nonetheless, half of a region in wilderness is a reasonable guess of what it will take to restore viable populations of large carnivores and natural disturbance regimes, assuming that most of the other 50 percent is managed intelligently as buffer zones. Eventually, a wilderness network would dominate a region…with human habitations being the islands. The native ecosystem and the collective needs of non-human species must take precedence over the needs and desires of humans.” [6] Protection of these vast reaches of land requires the removal, and redistribution of the population, as was recommended in A (b) and (c)(v) of the 1976 U.N. Habitat Conference document. The “National Policy on Human Settlements,” developed by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, has come to be known as “sustainable development.” The islands of “human habitation,” described in the Wildlands Project, are now called “sustainable communities,” which are defined in the model legislation created by the American Planning Association. The Department of Housing and Urban Development prepared a progress report for the U.N. Conference on Human Settlements in 1995, which describes in great detail the features of the “national policy on human settlements.” Here is a sample: “…Community Sustainability Infrastructures [designed for] efficiency and livability that encourages: in-fill over sprawl: compactness, higher density low-rise residential: transit-oriented (TODs) and pedestrian-oriented development (PODs): bicycle circulation networks; work-to-home proximity; mixed-use-development: co-housing, housing over shops, downtown residential; inter-modal transportation malls and facilities …where trolleys, rapid transit, trains and biking, walking and hiking are encouraged by infrastructures.”[7]

This report describes precisely what the model legislation produced by the American Planning Association is designed to accomplish.

Most states have now enacted some form of comprehensive planning legislation, which requires each county to develop a land use plan that conforms to the recommendations that originated in the international community, and were filtered through the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, and written into law by state legislatures. Nearly every community in the nation is involved in some form of “visioning” process designed to construct public policies consistent with the recommendations set forth in Agenda 21.

This process virtually ignores the idea of sacred private property rights. This process assumes that government has the right, and usurps the power, to “manage” not only land and resource use, but nearly every facet of human activity. Throughout the entire process, the role and influence of the U.N. is minimized, or denied. Especially at the local and state level, even the most active proponents of “sustainable development” are either unaware, or deliberately deny, that the process is related to the United Nations at all. Nevertheless, American society is being transformed. Private property rights have been all but extinguished, and government is now managing land and resource use – exactly as the United Nations said it should – in the 1976 U.N. Habitat Conference document, and in the 1992 Agenda 21.

[1]. Information here cited is from “Report of Habitat: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements,” Vancouver, 31 May – 11 June, 1976, (A/Conf.70/15), personally photocopied from the archives of the U.N. Library at Geneva, Switzerland, December 6, 1996. (On file)
[2]. A more thorough analysis of the policy recommendations from this conference report was published in eco•logic, January/February, 1997 edition, page 8, and is available on the Internet at

[3]. The President’s Council on Sustainable Development ceased operations in 1999. Much of their work is preserved on this website. See:

[4]. More detailed information about this publication is available here:

[5]. Global Biodiversity Assessment, Section 13, Page 993.
[6]. Reed F. Noss, “The Wildlands Project,” Wild Earth, Special Issue, 1992, pp.13- 15. (Wild Earth is published by the Cenozoic Society, P.O. Box 492, Canton, NY 13617).

[7]. “Community Sustainability; Agendas for Choice-making and Action,” U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, September 22, 1995. See also:

Agenda 21 – What is it? How Did it Get Here? by Henry Lamb

Henry Lamb is the Executive Vice President of The Environmental Conservation Organization, Inc. Mr. Lamb assembled the first meeting in Chicago in 1988, from which the Environmental Conservation Organization grew. He is also Chairman of Sovereignty International, Inc., and writes a weekly newspaper column for WorldNetDaily and other publications. Visit the eco-logic Powerhouse at Henry Lamb has a comprehensive archive totaling more than 2,000 pages and accumulated since 1994, located at Sovereignty International’s Library.

This article contains links to outside sources not controlled by Freedom Advocates and therefore are subject to change.

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