New left = new extractivism in Latin America

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29 June 2010

It was clear at the recent Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth in Cochabamba that Latin America´s leftist leaders are taking strong positions on issues of environmental sustainability and respect for indigenous people. But is that rhetoric actually borne out by their domestic policies?

As a previous Due South blog noted, the political left has made significant advances in Latin America in the last decade, and seems to be emerging from the global recession intact. Moreover, national governments such as the Evo Morales administration in Bolivia have made considerable progress in increasing national control over their natural resources, and using the proceeds for crucial poverty alleviation programmes. However, arguments over Latin America´s left often overlook the issues of ecological sustainability and communities living in areas with important natural resources. This oversight is rather bewildering; after all, leftist social movements have increasingly incorporated pro-indigenous and environmentalist discourses in their agendas in last two decades, and have become critical of environmentally damaging extractive industries.

What has never been clear though is whether or not the assumption of power by more left-wing governments would actually lead to a significantly different take on the interactions between the economy, local communities and the environment. Historically, many socialist governments have ridden roughshod over local communities and environments by promoting authoritarian forms of state power and industrial development.

At a rhetorical level, Latin America´s new radicals have not disappointed. New constitutions have placed an unprecedented emphasis on environmental principles. Ecuador´s constitution, for example, recognises ‘the rights of nature’, defends food sovereignty, and calls for development to be driven towards the ‘buen vivir’ (literally, good life). The buen vivir is a translation from the Quechua term, ‘sumak kawsay’ and is advocated by its supporters as an alternative to the western materialist concepts of development.

Beyond these constitutional changes, Latin America´s leftist presidents have become increasingly vocal on the issue of climate change. At the Copenhagen conference in December, Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia blamed climate change on capitalism, and denounced rich countries for provoking a ‘holocaust’ against the poor. Evo Morales even made the remarkable call for global rise in temperatures to be limited to 1°C. Recently, Bolivia hosted the World People´s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of the Mother Earth in Cochabamba, which was attended by 30,000 people, including NGOs, scientists, indigenous leaders and social activists.

Global discourses versus local policies

But how much of this commitment to ‘Mother Earth’ is actually borne out by these governments´ own domestic policies? On closer examination, not much. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador are all highly dependent on exporting hydrocarbons and minerals, and their governments have shown a strong desire to perpetuate natural resource extraction in order to capture the substantial rents that lie in their nations' subsoils. Uruguayan academic Eduardo Gudynas calls this process ‘new extractivism’. According to Gudynas, ‘new extractivism’ differs from the ‘old’ extractivism in that the state has a greater role, and more of the proceeds are redistributed to the population, but it retains the negative environmental and social impacts, as well as economic dependency on foreign demand for such resources.

But maybe Gudynas’s critique misses the point: after all, simply leaving their resources below the ground is not a viable option for governments who owe their popular support to promises to increase spending on health, education and infrastructure. From this, it seems absurd to expect democratically elected governments to overlook the significant revenues that lie in their countries´ subsoil. In the words of Evo Morales:

‘What, then, is Bolivia going to live off if some NGOs say ‘Amazon without oil’? They are saying, in other words, that the Bolivian people ought not have money, that there should be neither IGH [a direct tax on hydrcarbons used to fund government investment] nor royalties, and also that there should be no Juancito Pinto, Renta Dignidad nor Juana Azurduy [cash-transfer and social programs]’.

(translated by Bebbington)

Extending the frontier

What is particularly grating for many indigenous and environmental activists, however, is that national leftist leaders are not merely reorienting extractive industries that were already in place; they are actively expanding them and doing little to promote a transition to a more sustainable economy. In Ecuador, while President Rafael Correa has impressed observers by promoting the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, he is also overseeing a significant expansion of open-pit mining activities in the Andes. But the real ‘elephant in the room’ is the half a trillion barrels of ‘technically recoverable’ heavy oil in Venezuela´s Orinoco belt. Traditionally, it has been unprofitable to exploit this oil, but this may change in the future. The climate change impacts of extracting these reserves would be on a par with the highly criticised tar sands in Canada. In short, it is simply inconceivable that anyone who is seriously concerned about climate change could even consider exploiting it. Yet the Venezuelan government recently announced plans to invest US$120 billion over the next 7 years, and is currently signing deals with multinational oil companies.

Who decides?

Apart from being highly damaging to local and global environments, ‘new extractivism’ is often carried out without consulting local people or organisations, which has led to an increase in local conflicts. Anthony Bebbington points out that ferocious arguments are emerging between the Bolivian government and lowland indigenous organisations, who complain that the government has failed to genuinely consult them on hydrocarbon exploration. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa has repeatedly called critics of his mining policy ‘nobodies’ and ‘extremists’. In fact, in terms of policies towards the political ecology of extraction and local people, there is simply no difference between left-wing or right-wing national state governments in Latin America. In the words of Anthony Bebbington, they both agree on the following principles:

‘These resources belong to the nation, not to local or indigenous populations. They will be developed, consultation will be a managed process, and dissent will not be brooked.’

It all makes tough reading for anyone under the illusion that Latin America´s leftist trends would throw up some more sustainable and inclusive development paths. That is not to say that there are no other options in the region. There are social movements across the continent trying to propose alternatives, as well as political figures such as Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta, and former Brazilian Minister of Environment and Green Party candidate for the upcoming elections, Marina Silva. For now, though, Latin America´s leftist national leaders show few signs of listening to them.

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