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Trivializing sustainability: Environmental governance and rhetorical free-riders in the Brazilian Amazon


Igor Ferraz da Fonseca is at the Institute of Applied Economic Research — IPEA, Brazil. E-mail:

Marcel Bursztyn is at the Center for Sustainable Development, University of Brasilia — CDS/UnB, Brazil. E-mail:

Benjamin S. Allen is at the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. E-mail:


Interventions focused on sustainability at a local level tend to employ practices according to criteria that are widely accepted in the international development community. These practices constitute an informal “handbook,” establishing general rules for sustainable development to be applied to any situation. In response, local communities endeavor to formally meet these procedural criteria regardless of whether or not the desired end — sustainable development — can be achieved through them. The aim of this study is to demonstrate how the factors that are regarded as necessary for good governance affected the implementation of Agenda 21 programs in three Amazonian municipalities in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. We find that, contrary to expectations among international development practitioners, preoccupation with a formal adherence to good governance criteria is associated with the opening of a gap between the discourse of sustainable development and the actual results of the Agenda 21 processes. This paper stresses the need to avoid overtaking the rationale of ends by the discourse concerning means.