Latin American progressives and environmental duplicity

What governments must do, now more than ever, is decisively leave resources in the ground, reject mining projects, resist the short-termist temptation of a fossil fuel fix. 

Daniel Macmillen
23 October 2014

Over the past sixteen years, Latin America has undergone what has been termed a “pink tide”. Since 1998, a wave of electoral victories has swept an unprecedented number of leftist governments to power across the region, from Sánchez Cerén in El Salvador to Bachelet in Chile. For many, this shift has signalled an unravelling of neoliberal hegemony, and its replacement by emboldened new models of development, characterised by redistributive, progressive, anti-imperialist, and environmentalist politics.

Some of these perceptions are broadly accurate, but there has certainly been a gulf between the rhetoric of Latin American governments and their practical record. Nowhere is this deficiency more blatant than in the environmental sphere. Latin American states, despite leading the charge at international climate summits, have rather different credentials at home.  

A key explanation for this asymmetry lies with the fact that the leftist surge coincided with an unprecedented commodity boom. Deftly managed, the boom brought historic windfall savings for governments, as they increased taxes on private oil firms and agribusiness, and nationalized particular industries.

Accordingly, public spending has increased significantly, allowing for heightened investment in healthcare, education, housing, culture, and social security.

While there have been important social gains, a starkly problematic result of this process is that leaders such as Correa, Maduro or Morales have deepened a model which depends on funding welfare and purchasing political legitimacy through extractive earnings. Extractive industries make up over half of exports in Ecuador, where 44% of the government’s revenue stems from oil sales. In Peru, 70% of exports come from extractive industries, whereas in Bolivia, mining and fossil fuels account for 83% of traded goods.  

This dependency shows no sign of abating, propelled by the shale revolution enveloping the region, which holds some of the world’s largest shale oil and gas reserves. Aware of this endowment, most of Latin America’s governments, from Chile to Venezuela to Mexico, have either been assiduously exploring their territories for shale deposits, or have begun the process of extraction.  Amid widespread protests and public concerns, they defiantly wave away any apprehensions about downstream social and environmental consequences. Miguel Galuccio, CEO of the Argentine state energy firm YPF, assured everyone that any suggestion of environment impacts from the country’s shale fields was a “myth”.

With nearly 30% of international mining investment flowing into Latin America, dozens of open-cut mining projects are also under way. Even in Uruguay, the renowned progressive coalition lead by José Mujica opened the path to large-scale mining last year.  

Obstacles to resistance

Despite vociferous resistance from indigenous communities and affected groups, effective opposition to these developments is encumbered by a number of obstacles. Firstly, there is a dearth of political parties capable of disrupting what sociologist Maristella Svampa describes as the “commodity consensus”, an almost unanimous endorsement of extractivism across the partisan spectrum. This consensus is further bolstered by the proximity of petrochemical companies to governments.

Neither is there an entirely safe space for those willing to express dissent. Latin America is the most dangerous region in the world for environmental defenders. A Global Witness report noted that the rate of environmentalist killings has “dramatically increased… [t]hree times as many people were killed in 2012 than 10 years before.” Local opposition to ecologically destructive projects is often met by violent repression from state or private security forces. Recently, twenty-three Paraguayan farmers opposing the expansion of the industrial soya industry were injured after their protest was quelled by police.

Institutionalised environmentalist groups are regularly derided by public officials as extremist or traitorous, and are occasionally suppressed, exemplified by the forced closures of Acción Ecológica and the Pachamama Foundation in Ecuador.

With limited grievance mechanisms available for groups to voice their distress over project impacts, disputes are commonplace. According to the Environmental Justice Atlas, five Latin American states rank among the top ten most environmentally conflictive countries in the world. 

There is also a significant ideological impediment. Latin American leaders recurrently rationalize the exploitation of hydrocarbons as a developmental necessity, claiming they are merely obeying pragmatism.

When the Ecuadorian government abandoned its ground-breaking Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which encouraged the international community to compensate the country for refraining to exploit oil reserves in Yasuni National Park, President Rafael Correa justified the decision by arguing that, “We do not have another alternative, we need this money to end poverty”.  

An analogous attitude is articulated by his Argentine counterpart Cristina Fernández, who has often declared her belief in a “contemporary and rational” form of environmentalism, based on an equilibrium between jobs and sustainability. She clarified this position by arguing that while “it is noble to defend flora and fauna, it’s more important to take care of the human species so it has work, water, sewers…”

Yet the suggested dilemma between environmental protection and development is demonstrably false, ignoring a rich tradition of thinking about ecological development and sustainable economics.  

Further, their arguments (and those of most Latin American leaders) depend on what we might call the “extractive illusion”, the belief that the intensive exploitation of natural riches will translate into societal wealth.

But much of the fortune accrued through extractivism leaves the country, and questions surround whether re-priming the economy is the best strategy for long-term prosperity. Extractivism after all, leaves countries heavily reliant on global commodity swings and dwindling resource pools. Domestically, it locks them into a predatory model, one which depends on laying waste to nature and communities in the midst of “sacrifice zones”.

Future prospects

The blunt reality is that climate change and ecological stewardship have always been ancillary issues for Latin American governments. For all the rhetorical embrace of sustainable economics and constitutional changes made to enshrine greater respect for nature, environmentalism remains little more than a discursive device, an instrument to carry favour with certain domestic consistencies and score points on the international scene.

Driven by a “compensation logic” which maintains that economic wealth is worth the damage wrought, they have pushed the extractive frontier further back than ever before.

Many of the aforementioned governments shirk their responsibility by making reference to international inequities, inveighing against the emissions impunity enjoyed by developed nations for centuries. 

It is a truism that developing countries have borne and will bear the brunt of the toxic impacts of the industrial economy, despite contributing the least to the problem. But to publically advocate for the repayment of a climate debt is no longer enough; what governments must do, now more than ever, is decisively leave resources in the ground, reject mining projects, resist the short-termist temptation of a fossil fuel fix.

This need not be seen as restrictive. The global ecological crisis furnishes Latin American governments with a real opportunity to brandish their progressive credentials, to forge a unique, relevant model that enhances social justice whilst remaining in touch with the carrying capacity of our planet.

The region is uniquely posed to do this. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Latin America boasts a renewable energy potential which could cover its projected electricity needs 22 times over. Populated by a vibrant civil society and indigenous communities with multigenerational ecological knowledge, there is no shortage of actors who can help enact meaningful change.

There is also no more urgent time to act. As the “pink tide” recedes and institutional politics return to the middle, environmental issues may begin to lose even their rhetorical relevance. This can only be foreseeably challenged by broad and determined popular movements, ones which bolster those struggles already taking place, and hold administrations to account for their effusive pledges. The possible penalties for inaction, both globally and in Latin America, are unimaginable.


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