ICLEI at 30: An interview with Rodrigo Perpétuo, Executive Secretary of ICLEI South America

New York, September 1990. During the 1st World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future, at the headquarters of the United Nations, 200 local governments from 43 countries founded the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. In 2003, the organization was renamed ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability.

In September 2020, ICLEI is celebrating 30 years of existence. Over these three decades, the organization has expanded its influence to all continents on the planet, and has established a network in which almost two thousand local and subnational governments participate.

In Latin America, ICLEI’s activities began in 1994. Two years later, the first office in the region was opened in Santiago (Chile). In 2000, this regional office moved to Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). Between 2006 and 2010, the city of Buenos Aires (Argentina) was chosen as the headquarters of the Secretariat for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The year 2011 marked the beginning of a new model for the operation of ICLEI in the region, with the separation of activities into two secretariats: one for South America, based in São Paulo (Brazil), and another for Mexico, America Central and Caribbean, established in Mexico City. Recently, the Secretariat for South America gained the support of regional offices in Bogotá (Colombia) and Santa Fé (Argentina) for the execution of projects in the region.

In an interview, the current ICLEI South America Executive Secretary, Rodrigo Perpétuo, reflects on the history of ICLEI’s work. “This anniversary represents an inflection of the organization towards maturity”, says Perpétuo. Pedro Jacobi, president of the organization’s Board of Directors since 2011, sees the 30 years of ICLEI as an opportunity to strengthen regional operations. “In South America, there is a procedure for local governments to not simply connect to the network, but to also get involved with ICLEI.”

Here’s what Perpétuo and Jacobi had to say:


What does ICLEI’s 30th anniversary represent for the South American Secretariat?

Rodrigo Perpétuo: Turning 30 is an important milestone for any institution. For ICLEI South America, this anniversary represents an inflection of the organization towards maturity, consolidating movements related to management and internal organization and preparing the entity to generate more and more added value for the associated local governments and for all partners and funders.

Pedro Jacobi: I have always been interested in urban issues, and since the 1990s I have also been involved with environmental issues. In my view, ICLEI’s agenda has always been innovative, but with a somewhat fragmented profile.

This agenda has been strengthening since the mid-2000s, when the theme of climate change began to gain more visibility and concreteness in solutions for city management. Resilience, urban biodiversity, circular economy and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are part of a set of aspects that characterize ICLEI’s action.

I have been president of the Board of Directors since 2011 and, since then, I have followed the trajectory of ICLEI South America. Today we have a very solid and consistent Board, which has a strong dialogue with management. I currently see an expansion in the region. We already had activities and actions with several Latin American cities and this number has been growing in the last three years, through collaborations with important governments, such as the Metropolitan Area of ​​Vale do Aburrá, in Colombia, and the province of Santa Fé, in Argentina . At the same time, ICLEI South America has been strengthening through its partnerships and new institutional projects.


What do you see as the defining characteristics of ICLEI’s work in South America?

Perpétuo: The first feature is that ICLEI’s work in our region is permeated by the challenge of social inequality. We will not deviate from our commitment to reduce these inequalities, and that adds a layer of complexity and challenge to our work. 

Regarding ICLEI’s history in the region, one interesting fact is that the Secretariat headquarters has already been based in four different cities: Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and, currently, in São Paulo. The decentralized model that we are implementing helps ICLEI build even closer relationships with Members and helps us to understand the political-institutional contexts that permeate each of the countries of South America. The opening of offices in Colombia and Argentina is a very significant step in that direction.

Jacobi: I see that, in South America, we are strengthening the dialogue between local governments. We still have a very centered operation in Brazil, but there is an ever greater effort to reinforce operations across South America. In this sense, I consider that ICLEI – working with Members such as Medellín in the metropolitan region of Colombia  – has great potential to further expand.

In South America, there are procedures in place to ensure that governments are not simply associated with the network, but are also actively working with ICLEI toward their sustainability goals.


In these three decades of existence, ICLEI’s global network of subnational governments has grown to almost two thousand cities, states and metropolitan regions. How do you see the next 30 years of ICLEI?

Perpétuo: The challenge for ICLEI is to reinvent itself and realize that it is no longer enough to propose and promote advocacy actions and campaigns in favor of the commitment to sustainability (which continue to be fundamental), but also to find ways of acting more concretely, in partnership with local organizations, increasingly encouraging transformation through programmatic, robust, scalable and replicable actions.

I see that this is the way for ICLEI to remain large and relevant in the midst of an ecosystem that receives more and more networks and associations from local governments.

Jacobi: I want to see ICLEI increasingly robust, with its fundamental role in the dissemination of practices to promote actions for urban sustainability.

Over the next 30 years, the scenario is worrying in terms of climate change. It is a great challenge for cities to prepare for this, ICLEI has an agenda that can promote the reduction of the impacts of this change and advance programs that allow the elaboration of adaptation and mitigation plans, besides stimulating the reuse of materials and conscious consumption that represent the circular economy.

In global terms, we see in most continents – mainly in Africa, Asia and Latin America – cities with increasing inequality and social vulnerability. ICLEI has a very important role in reducing environmental liabilities and strengthening good practices and sustainable policies that have an impact on equity and in reducing this vulnerability and inequality.

The participation of civil society organizations is essential to encourage the transformation of public management into sustainable. We live in a society that produces its own risk and we also need to produce forms of urbanization that are more resilient and change unsustainable practices in cities. We cannot have contaminated rivers or landfills in urban territory. We cannot lose biodiversity in our cities or prioritize individual transport. In its agenda, ICLEI has the expertise and technical knowledge to replace these challenges with programs, projects and actions in favor of urban sustainability.