Latin American environmental emergency

The Latin American economy based on exploitation of natural resources does not create social well-being and is unsustainable in the context of climate change, says Uruguayan ecologist Eduardo Gudynas, lead researcher at the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology (CLAES). Interview by Milagros Salazar.

Gudynas, who was in Lima to lead a workshop with the Peruvian Network for Equitable Globalisation, is one of the contributors to the new report Global Environmental Outlook for Latin America and the Caribbean (GEO-ALC), produced by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to be officially presented later this year.

Q: You assert that there is an imbalance in Latin America between the exploitation of resources and protection of the environment. How serious is the problem?

A: Latin America is faced with an environmental emergency, because the pace of establishing new protected areas and setting up environmental regulations, for example in the industrial sector, is much slower than the increased pace of negative impacts from resource extraction.

Q: In the context of climate change, is the threat any greater?

A: Much more, not only because of the vulnerability of developing countries, but also because Latin America isn’t taking responsibility.

Always left in the margins is the fact that the region’s principal source of greenhouse gas emissions is deforestation, followed by changes in land use and agriculture. As such, discussing climate change means talking about rural development, agricultural policies and land ownership.

But there are economic and political interests that stand in the way. It is simpler to propose using energy efficient light bulbs than talk about these issues.

In the international sphere the focus is on the historic responsibility of the countries of the North for emissions, and requiring compensation from them, but there is little action in this region to confront climate change and preserve our ecological heritage.

Q: How did we arrive at such a state?

A: Historically it has been argued that the road to development for South America is the appropriation and extraction of natural resources. Attention went to how to do it most efficiently and we missed the opportunity to diversify the economies in the years of high prices for basic commodities.

That accentuated the focus on raw materials, to the detriment of the environment, even in countries with strong industry, like Brazil.

Q: Which countries in the region are worst off?

A: Brazil is in a critical state because of its nearly complete appropriation of resources and their impacts. It is followed by the Andean countries, like Peru (with big mining projects) and Ecuador (extensive petroleum exploitation).

Brazil is already a major mining country, mostly iron and aluminium, and has a policy to increase that production through low taxation in order to continue attracting foreign investment. Most worrisome is that the strategy includes flexibilising its environmental policies. Also of concern is the search for “cheap energy” through hydroelectric dams in the Amazon.

Q: Is “extractivism” bad in and of itself, or is the problem that the environmental and social costs are not included?

A: There is global overconsumption of raw materials. The economic impact of the social and environmental damages should be taken into account to evaluate the costs of the productive process, as well as the contribution to climate change.

But these assessments are not done, because if they were the extractive projects would never be approved.

The impacts in the areas where the resources are extracted are ignored, and that explains why there are conflicts. It’s the paradox of macroeconomic well- being at the cost of local harm.

Q: Does this happen in countries governed by political parties of the centre and right, and of the left?

A: It does. Although there are substantial differences in the role that the government plays in the extractivist sector. In the countries governed by the left, like Bolivia or Brazil, a portion of the wealth generated by that sector is used for social programmes as a way to legitimise the policy in order to continue exploiting the resources.

At this point, extractivism, in addition to being a political problem, is a cultural problem. It is deeply rooted in the idea that mining and petroleum are sources of wealth and that they should be exploited as soon as possible.

The governments of the left have used that idea to say that they are more efficient in using the Earth’s resources. But being a cultural problem, it is reproduced in different political currents.

Q: So how can other alternatives for sustainable development be generated?

A: That is the problem. Because the idea of extractivism is so widespread, other possibilities are seen with mistrust or are rejected. And that is a serious situation because there are sectors like petroleum that are going to disappear. Survival lies on the “post-extractivist” path.

Q: What role does regional integration play in that path?

A: It plays a fundamental role. To escape the old approach requires economic and social coordination among neighbouring countries, even if those alternatives do not aim to annul the mining or petroleum industries, but rather to reformulate them.

Q: How can anyone negotiate integration with Brazil without losing? The energy agreement between Brazil and Peru has undertones of inequality.

A: A prime objective is to reduce the asymmetries among the nations so that the smallest can have relatively the same level of development as the largest.

Peru shouldn’t just sell electricity to Brazil and be left with the environmental and social damages as well as having to buy Brazilian cars. They have to find other ways so that the neighbour advances as well.

This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank. Published by IPS, 8th July 2010, here …