How Green is the Latin American Left? A Look at Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia

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How Green is the Latin American Left? A Look at Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia
Written by Daniel Denvir and Thea Riofrancos   

Thursday, 03 April 2008



Planning Oil Pipeline

Across Latin America, resurgent indigenous, labor and campesino movements have contributed to the rise of new governments that declare their independence from the neoliberal economic model, promise a more equitable distribution of wealth and increased state control over natural resources. But it is uncertain how far these new governments have gone to transform the ecologically unsustainable model of development that dominates the region.

This article examines the environmental records of governments in Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. Over the last decade, in all three countries—as in the rest of the region—there has been growing criticism of over twenty years of neoliberal policies that have exacerbated poverty and inequality. Neoliberalism refers to a trio of economic orthodoxies: privatization of all state enterprises, liberalization of all markets, and currency stabilization. This turn against neoliberalism includes an emerging concern about environmental issues, and particularly about the way in which ecological degradation and its accompanying affects on public health are closely linked to economic exploitation.

As a result of rising oil and mineral prices coupled with global warming, almost all recent major social conflicts in the three countries have revolved around access, control, and ownership of natural resources: oil, natural gas, water, and minerals. These conflicts are centered on two separate, and at times conflicting, popular demands. First, social movements are calling for national control over natural resources. Second, these same movements—in particular those led by indigenous organizations—have also begun to criticize the extractive economic model its accompanying infrastructure of dams, pipelines and mines. This leaves the new left governments of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia in a difficult bind. Historically, the economies in each country have depended on revenues from natural resource extraction, yet the benefits have always accrued to a small elite. These governments are hard-pressed to fund social programs that redress extreme poverty and inequality without oil and gas revenues. The question remains: how can Latin America construct a sustainable economy that is ecologically and socially just?

To help answer this question, we also take a look at each of the country’s environmental movements, particularly at their relationship with and incorporation into broad-based popular movements for social and economic justice. In Ecuador, home of the continent’s most powerful indigenous movement, there is a long history of collaboration between radical environmental groups and the national indigenous federation, the CONAIE. At the same time, President Rafeal Correa—in spite of his revolutionary rhetoric—is for the most part continuing an extractive economic model, albeit with increased state control. In Bolivia and Venezuela, the tensions between social movement demands for national control of natural resources and the sustainable use of those resources are becoming increasingly apparent.

While one of the greatest social and ecological threats facing Latin America, we do not enter into an in-depth discussion of so-called "biofuels", since this subject has received a great deal of attention from other analysts and international activists. Biofuels refer to the conversion of plant matter—including corn, sugar, palm and rapeseed—into a replacement for petroleum. Food and farmer advocates say that the very term "biofuels" is mere greenwashing, since the use of land otherwise used for agriculture drives up the price of land and food. Food sovereignty and farmer activists insist on calling ethanol, sugar and other such fuels "agrofuels." Brazil, in conjunction with the United States, has taken the lead in converting farmland and forest for agrofuel production. The Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST) has declared their opposition to "the employment of goods destined for human food consumption to obtain agrofuels" and mounted protests against Brazilian President Luiz In&aac

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