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

Almost all recent major social conflicts in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Bolivia 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.
Chavez and Kirchner Plan Pipeline Through Amazon

[Note: The following is an excerpt–dealing mainly with Venezuela–of a much longer article posted at UpsideDownWorld.org. –ed.]

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.

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.

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?

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.

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."

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.

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 ProfessorMaría 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.

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

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.


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.]

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

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
(http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1310), Greg Wilpert describes
the effects of Dutch Disease in Venezuela:

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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."

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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."

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.

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.

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

Source: UpsideDownWorld.org