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How Green is the Latin American Left?

A Look at Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia

Thursday 3 April 2008, by Daniel Denvir and Thea Riofrancos

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 Inácio Lula da Silva’s plans to expand agrofuel production. UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Zingler went so far as to call agrofuels a "crime against humanity."

With increasing economic pressures to generate revenue from agrofuels, mining, and petroleum, whether a new more environmentally sound economic model will emerge in any of these three countries remains to be seen, and in large part depends on the priorities and strength of popular movements.

In an incisive study of Latin American social movements’ response to the Agenda 21 environmental goals set out in the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Venezuelan Professor María Pilar García-Guadilla argues that there is a major divergence between the way governments, corporations and mainstream environmental NGOs on the one hand, and social movements on the other, approach the environment.

The principle difference, according to García-Guadilla, is that governments and corporations insist on solving environmental problems through perfecting the free market. A broad array of Latin American social movements, on the other hand, argue that capitalist globalization cannot be part of the solution since neoliberal globalization is the primary cause of environmental degradation and social inequality. She concludes, "Social movements consider the causes of environmental degradation to be inherent in the prevalent economic order." While presidents and CEOs promote the latest market fix, Latin American social movements oppose the very model of industrial civilization.

As is clear from the recent fanfare over biofuels and carbon offset markets, corporations and governments consistently view the environmental crisis as another opportunity for "development" and "profit", undertaking policies that further exacerbate environmental and social exploitation. The greenwashing of corporate globalization excludes a more fundamental critique that links economic injustice and the current ecological crisis.

Social movements across Latin America are struggling to move beyond decades of neoliberalism and many are still recovering from brutal military dictatorships. Garía-Guadilla notes that over the last decade, "Policy formulation with regard to environmental matters was considered of secondary importance and the concerns of the region were economic development, peace, and political and democratic stability, rather than sustainable development."

Fortunately, environmental movements across the Americas are beginning to connect ecological degradation to the daily injustices suffered by poor and indigenous majorities and propose solutions that build viable local economies. In other words-to take a cue from the Ecuadorian alliance of indigenous and environmental movements-a form of ecologismo popular (popular ecology) is gradually taking root.

Oil, Environment and Revolution in Venezuela

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, led by President Hugo Chavez, has made progress in fighting poverty, expanding access to health care and boosting literacy rates through the misiónes (social missions) and other government initiatives. According to economist Mark Weisbrot, "The proportion of households in poverty has dropped by 38 percent." The Bolivarian Revolution has also for the first time brought the Venezuelan majority, long excluded by a light-skinned wealthy elite, into a participatory and democratic political process.

The relationship between society and the environment, however, in a country where most private and public wealth comes from oil, has in many ways gone unchanged. Venezuela scholar Daniel Hellinger notes, "The intentions are good, and the policies on paper are an advance, but as with so much else there seems to be limited administrative capacity." The environmental crisis in Bolivarian Venezuela is the result of myriad factors: poor government decisions, an inept and corrupt bureaucracy inherited from past administrations, the economic legacy of three quarters century old oil economy, the political and economic global order along with the historical weakness of environmental movements have all contributed to making ecological issues a low-priority in a country facing major environmental crises. The structure of Venezuela’s environmental movement stands in sharp contrast with Ecuador’s ecologismo popular.

The Venezuela-led movement for Bolivarian regional integration is a cornerstone of Chavez’s administration. Many of the plans, while intended to lessen Latin American dependence on the United States by strengthening intra-regional ties, depend on environmentally destructive megaprojects in the form of pipelines and other energy initiatives.
According to Bart Jones, author of the recently published biography Hugo!, environmentalists were immediately wary of Chavez when he, upon taking office, continued with a controversial plan to run large electricity cables through the Amazon to Brazil. The project sparked protests from the Pemon indigenous people who opposed the 30-meter tall, 200-megawatt power line passing through their land. This resulted in the militarization of Pemon territory to protect the line from attacks. The project was completed after the Pemon were promised land titles and economic development assistance, and the communities went on to play a major role defining the indigenous rights provisions in the Venezuelan Constitution. Chavez and then-Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso were on hand to cut the ribbon. A Venezuela-led initiative to build a natural gas pipeline from Caracas, through the Brazilian Amazon, to Buenos Aires has recently been put on hold. The 10,000-kilometer Gran Gasoducto del Sur (Great Southern Pipeline) would be the world’s largest pipeline. Friends of the Earth charged that 45,000 square kilometers of forest would be razed for the project. Financial and diplomatic problems-the pipeline would cost an estimated $20 billion-have become, at least for now, insurmountable. The megaproject would cause massive environmental and social damage to the ecosystems and communities through which it would pass.

While the Bolivarian Revolution has brought a degree of positive change to Venezuela’s indigenous communities, environmentally destructive projects have complicated their relationship with Chavez. On the one hand, indigenous people have been accorded historic land and cultural rights in the revolutionary constitution of 1999. Chavez has also expelled predatory Christian missionaries from the country. But for the Wayúu, Venezuela’s largest indigenous people, coal mining in the Guajira Peninsula has sparked massive resistance. The peninsula is in the state of Zulia, near the Colombian border. The Wayúu also declare that the land rights the government has extended are misleading, as they do not entail control of subsoil resources. The Wayúu mounted national marches to Caracas in 2005 and 2006, demanding that Chavez put an end to all mining in indigenous territory. While indigenous people have usually led environmental struggles in Venezuela, Venezuela’s indigenous population is, at 2.1%, relatively small for Latin America.

According to Hellinger, the situation is "emblematic" of the relationship between the environmental movement and the Chavez administration. As he explains, "It took many months of organizing and pressure to get the government to finally respond. To its credit, the Chavez administration finally made major concessions to indigenous and environmentalists. But it took much too long...several environmental leaders had to endure threats from local military officials." Zulia anthropologist and environmentalist Daniel Castro notes that the government has still not enforced the mining ban, pending finding new jobs for the miners.

Pollution Threatens the Life of Latin America’s Largest Lake

Oil production in and around the lake basin, and nearby mining activity, have had notably damaging effects on Lake Maracaibo, which at 12,000 square kilometers is Latin America’s largest lake. Most recently the lake has suffered from an invasion of duckweed, caused by the runoff of sewage and fertilizer. Scientists are worried that the duckweed bloom could lead to a "dead zone"-an area where no living thing can grow because of low oxygen levels. The lake’s severe environmental problems pose a major threat to local fishermen, who have mounted a number of protests over the years in defense of the lake and its fish.

[Satellite image Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela. The green swirls are duckweed which is infesting the lake. Credit to Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.]

In 2004, a number of environmental, student, neighborhood, community radio and fishermen organizations in the state of Zulia signed a Manifesto Against the Death of Lake Maracaibo: "The situation has not changed with successive governments. In its moment, each new government has taken up the old lines about how everything is "under control", despite the fact (as the duckweed shouts at us) that everything is out of control." The organizations demanded that the government immediately develop a "concrete plan and timetable to eliminate or control the contamination sources" and undertake popular consultations before undertaking any environmentally destructive megaprojects.

Sowing the Oil

Venezuelans have always been simultaneously attracted to and worried about "sowing the oil" for national economic development. Economic and, to a lesser extent, environmental concerns have led to efforts to diversify the Venezuelan economy. When Venezuela first struck oil during World War I, the economy began a drastic transformation, effected by the economic phenomena called "Dutch Disease." In an article on the history of agriculture and land reform in Venezuela (, Greg Wilpert describes the effects of Dutch Disease in Venezuela:

The inflow of foreign currency as a result of oil exports has an immediate two-fold effect. First, it increases the population’s purchasing power and thereby fuels inflation. Second, it makes imported products, whether industrial or agricultural, cheaper than domestic products, thus increasing the volume of imports. In Venezuela, comparatively cheaper imported goods-including food-flooded the market and practically destroyed agricultural production, while also putting a brake on industrial development in Venezuela.

By 1960 the percentage of the population living in rural areas had declined to just 35%, and by the 1990’s this number had dropped to a mere 12%, making Venezuela one of Latin America’s most urbanized countries. Another result of Dutch Disease is that Venezuela is the only Latin American country that is a net importer of agricultural products, and it has the smallest percentage of GDP-6%-that comes from agricultural production.

Hellinger notes that the national dependence on oil has also had negative cultural effects: "the flow of oil rents also has created a consumerist culture that is more voracious than any other in Latin America, very much influenced by imitation and importation of U.S. mass culture." From this perspective, the array of Venezuelan government programs to prioritize national music and culture begin to make sense to the outside observer.

Diversifying an Oil Economy

The Venezuelan government has made increasing efforts to diversity the economy and make the country "food sovereign", meaning that it be able to produce all of the food necessary for domestic consumption. Jones notes that "Venezuelan political parties and leaders have been speaking about diversifying the economy for decades. That’s not new. But Chavez is starting to talk about food sovereignty." One reason is that food companies have responded to attempts at regulation by driving up the prices of basic goods like bread and milk. Food sovereignty is a way to increase national control over food production and distribution and take power out of the hands of conservative private enterprise, thus ensuring people’s access to food.

Daniel Castro says that the refoundation of Venezuelan agriculture has made clear gains. "In Venezuela, the growth of agrodiversity and agriculture have gone hand in hand: 8% in the last year alone. The problem is that the demand has grown even faster (quadrupled) as a result of the increased buying power, and importing food continues to be a Damocles Sword."

Land reform is a big part of the project to make Venezuela food sovereign. The government has distributed thousands of acres to landless families. In addition, the government has a program to voluntarily relocate urbanites to new farms in an effort to increase the rural population and boost agricultural production. The program has had some success. The government has offered credit and technical assistance, something past attempts at land reforms have failed to do.

Dependence on oil, mining and other resource-extraction based industries is certainly not a problem of Chavez’s making. The global economy has long been structured around the mass extraction of resources in Latin America, Africa and Asia for consumption in Europe and the United States. Neither are governments in the wealthy North in much of a position to criticize countries like Venezuela, given that the United States is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse emissions. But as the environmental crisis worsens, the world heats up, and oil runs out, all countries must begin thinking about transitioning towards sustainable economies.

Environmental Activism and the Bolivarian Revolution

Environmental groups are small and weak in Venezuela under Chavez, as they were before Chavez. According to Bart Jones, many environmental groups in Venezuela are middle-class organizations that focus on "environmental preservation" and are more concerned with funding from foreign NGOs than with the troubles of Venezuela’s poor majority. Many of the people in these organizations are part of a broader conservative movement against government reforms that have redistributed wealth and empower the poor.

Environmental defense has not been a top demand for most Venezuelan social movements. Daniel Castro notes, "The important transformations in Venezuela are driven by the revolutionary government. But it should be noted that only those proposals that correspond to organized citizens’ level of organization and conscience. The environmental movement has at times distanced itself from the communal councils, community media and health missions. This is in part because of the ecological movement’s disarray and the inability of its leaders to translate criticisms into coherent public policies." Castro goes on to say that people in Venezuela care about "the environment...but as of now ecological consciousness has not been sown in the hierarchies of the national agenda. Transnational business interests and sectors within PDVSA [Petroleos de Venezuela, the state oil company] have taken advantage of Venezuelan society’s relatively passive response."

Jones argues that over the past year and a half Chavez has paid increasing attention to the environment and global warming. Of particular note is a large-scale project to distribute energy efficient light bulbs in poor Venezuelan neighborhoods. Cuban volunteers have gone door-to-door, handing out the light bulbs and explaining the economic and environmental benefits to residents. The barrios populares in Caracas, once shining bright white in the evening, now emit a subdued blue glow.

Chavez has also spoken out against agrofuels, calling them "contrary to life" and a means of continuing U.S. economic colonialism.

The steps the Venezuelan government has taken merit support. But a more radical and systematic critique of a resource-extraction based economy is wanting. While more leadership from Chavez, an understandably popular figure, would be a big help, the environment will never be a big issue until Venezuelan social movements make it one.

New Frontiers in the International Extractive Economy

We are at a critical juncture in environmental politics in Latin America. Despite the new ecologically sensitive rhetoric of left-wing governments in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, construction of mega-development projects continues to wreak havoc on some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the continent and the peoples that inhabit them. Social movements are torn between pressing for increased state control of natural resources and ensuring that said control is sustainable and under the full consent of indigenous communities. At the same time, there is an urgent awareness among both governments and social movements that the prevailing economic model must change. Argentine economist Jorge Beinstein argues that for centuries, capitalist development has been based on access to large amounts of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels. That era is coming to an end.

From the Huaorani tribes in the Amazonian region of Ecuador to the Wayúu of Venezuela to FOBOMADE in Bolivia, local movements-often led by the indigenous peoples whose cultures are so closely tied to the preservation of biodiversity-have sprung up to challenge the extractive model. These movements have been most successful when they take the form of a broad coalition of environmental, indigenous, labor and campesino organizations and focus on connecting the dots between economic and environmental injustice.

It is clear that a rejection of the "Washington Consensus" by the governments of Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela does not entail a rejection of environmentally disastrous mega-development projects. As the U.S. sees its influence waning in Latin America, and the economies of China and India grow exponentially, geopolitical power relations are in a process of realignment. Many on the Latin American Left are worried that the current North-South axis of U.S. dominated trade will be replaced by a similarly destructive East-West axis based on investment from Asian countries, particularly China, and regional giants like Brazil. While entering into conflict with U.S. and European transnationals, Correa has moved to increase access for Chinese and Indonesian state oil companies. In fact, Galo Chiriboga, the current Ecuadorian Minister of Mines and Petreleum, is a lawyer for the Indonesian state oil company.

In Ecuador, resistance to the government’s environmental policies is linked to the criticism that the Correa government is, in spite of the revolutionary rhetoric, simply shifting control from an old oligarchy to a new bourgeoisie. In December of 2007, members of FETRAPEC and activists sent a letter to Correa protesting plans to cede oil operations currently controlled by Petroecuador state oil companies Indonesia (PERTAMINA), China (SINOPEC) and Venezuela (PVDSA). The signers called Correa’s move part of a "policy of dismantling the State and the continuation of the ill-fated privatization of natural resources. We do not understand how a government that says it is of the Left has taken so many unwise positions... unfortunately, we must tell you Mr. President, that the long neoliberal night continues intact, in particular in the management of Petroecuador." This new economic model linking Brazil, Ecuador and China is referred to as the Manta-Manaos axis.

In a letter of solidarity with environmental, human rights and indigenous organizations in protest of the government’s attack on Dayuma, a number of intellectuals and social movement leaders opposed "the transfer of the Manta Base given over to North American imperialism by the old oligarchy, to the Port of Manta, given over to Chinese and Brazilian capital by new business sectors related to Manta-Manaos."

Venezuela, Bolivia and countries throughout Latin America are all implicated in and constrained by myriad regional and global economic forces that make environmental protection a difficult proposition.

Rejecting US trade deals and nationalizing natural resources-while important steps in diminishing the control of foreign multinationals over water, oil, gas and mining-do not on their own reverse an environmentally unsustainable economic model, nor do they build concrete economic alternatives for local communities destroyed by megadevelopment. The fight for a radical change in the relationship between economy and ecology is far from over.

Daniel Denvir and Thea Riofrancos are independent journalists from the United States and collaborators at the Latin American Information Agency ( in Quito, Ecuador. They are also editors at the forthcoming journal Caterwaul Quarterly (

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