SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- The advance of a United Nations program intended to foster sustainable development around the world is coming to haunt the residents of this idyllic coastal town nestled between Monterey and San Franscisco.
Known as Agenda 21, the agreement is aimed at altering consumer behavior and reducing consumption in order to balance the need to develop land and use natural resources now with the need to preserve and conserve land and resources for future generations.
But however well-intentioned Agenda 21 is, critics of the agreement see in it government efforts to reduce the number of houses being built, the size of cars, limits on mining and agriculture, and government control of land, water and gas.
In Santa Cruz, local supporters of Agenda 21, which was agreed to by 178 countries at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janiero, are trying to convince officials to install meters on privately owned water wells in an effort to reduce consumption.
"They want to have control over all our resources," complains Nick Vrolyk, a Santa Cruz property and well owner. "We basically have the right to the water on our property. They're trying to circumvent our constitutional rights."
Environmentalists in Santa Cruz say the effort is a sensible approach to conservation that recognizes the objectives of both sides.
"Sustainable development is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations' ability to meet their own needs," says Jeanne Nordland of Santa Cruz Local Agenda 21. "It's not about surviving into the 21st Century. It's about thriving."
But many Santa Cruz residents oppose Agenda 21, insisting environmental causes shouldn't trump private property rights.
"It's the taking of the rights that I really, really hate," Vrolyk says. "Incrementally,
they are nibbling away at our private property rights, and private individual rights as a whole."
The California water war is just one example of the sort of local conflicts being created by Agenda 21 and its supporters around the country and world. Particularly guiling to its American opponents what they see as Agenda 21's subtext - that the United States has a history of environmental irresponsibility and needs to pay for that.
Arguing that Americans have forfeited the rights to manage their own resources because they embraced urban sprawl, gas guzzling cars and unchecked consumption of resources, the U.N. says someone has to take over.
"The rate at which we are depleting the environment is so fast, if we actually hit the crisis we won't be able to put the brakes on and stop," says Vic Desotelle of the Sustainable Quality Alliance.
The same push for sustainable development behind Agenda 21 is also driving other, similar efforts around the world that property rights advocates see as a troubling trend.
Another controversial project is the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by the U.S. and Mexico and others. As part of that effort, the U.S. is financing the building of a "bio-reserve" for migratory birds just over the U.S. border in Mexico.
According to records from the Mexican Department of Forestry, a host of U.S. agencies has provided subsidies for equipment, buildings, uniforms and other aspects of the biosphere project.
Marco Ciretti of the Mexican Department of Forestry said the U.S. is contributing about 25 percent of the project's total budget, not including contributions from American non-governmental organizations like the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, which is spearheading the project.
Alice Valenzuela and other Mexican ranchers and land-owners in the path of the preserve are fighting the project, though. They see it as an attempt by the Mexican government and environmental groups to control their land by regulating what they use it for and how. Officials want 2million acres for the project, much of it privately-owned land like Valenzuela's that they are buying.
"The intent from the beginning was not to protect existing national parks, but it was part of a much larger nucleus for expanding environmental protection efforts over a much larger territory," Valenzuela says. "Most of that territory encompasses private ranch land.".
But environmentalists and other supporters of efforts like the biosphere project and Agenda 21 say protection of the planet for everyone is, in some cases, going to have to take precedent over individual land owners.
"You have to think across borders and boundaries," says Holly Richeter, a spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy. "The Nature Conservancy approach is to protect species that support diversity on earth, species headed for endangered status."
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