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

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.


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 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.

Ecuador: A New Model for Environmental Politics? Ecologismo Popular and Ecological Debt

The Landscape of Struggle

In November 2007, Ecuadorian President Rafeal Correa declared a state of emergency in the Amazonian town of Dayuma after protests erupted against oil operations. Residents set up road blocks to a number of oil fields, angry about the government’s failure to follow through on promised infrastructural improvements in the town of poor mestizo settlers (colonos). Communities throughout the Amazon have suffered serious social and health problems caused by oil exploration and extraction.


Police repression in Dayuma, Ecuador. Photo from Diario Expreso

Violent repression followed and 23 people were arrested, many of whom were dragged from their homes at gunpoint. The detainees included Guadalupe Llori, the governor of the Amazonian province of Orellana, where Dayuma is located. The repression caused an outcry among on the Left, including several Constitutional Assembly members from Correa’s own party, Alianza País.

Many social movement leaders and intellectuals signed a letter of solidarity with environmental, human rights and indigenous organizations, asserting that Correa’s "promises of change are diluted by oil interests."

According to a number of analysts, Correa was infuriated by the protests because they interfered with the new East-West trade axis that is being constructed between Brazil, Ecuador, China and other countries throughout Latin America and Asia. This realignment—which replaces the dominant North-South axis of trade relations between Europe and the U.S. on the one hand, and Latin America, Asia and Africa on the other—falls under the rubric of the Multimodal Megaproject Manta-Manaos, referring to the cities in Ecuador and Brazil, respectively, that will be the project’s two central hubs.

Many in Ecuador, including the signers of the solidarity letter, consider the government’s repression in Dayuma a pivotal moment. The signers note that, in Ecuador "…[there] is the possibility of realizing change in favor of the dispossessed and needy…What is in play is whether we will have a sovereign country for all, or if we will just shift from North American hegemony to Chinese and Brazilian hegemony, from Occidental [U.S. oil and gas company] to Petrobras [Brazilian state oil company]."

On March 14th, Ecuador’s Constitutional Assembly approved an amnesty for those arrested in Dayuma, as well as other imprisoned human rights and social movement activists. The last few months have also witnessed a disturbing number of attacks against people, especially indigenous activists, opposing oil and other resource extraction activities.

The new President of the CONAIE, Ecuador’s national indigenous federation, is a 32-year old Amazonian Kichwa from the small community of Sarayacu. Marlon Santi grew up fighting transnational oil companies in the Amazonian province of Pastaza. Santi’s election signals a return to the CONAIE’s militant roots and a total rejection of oil activity in indigenous territories. Santi promises that the indigenous movement will fight hard for the inclusion of territorial and cultural rights in the new constitution, under the rubric of a plurinational state—including the possibility of a national indigenous uprising.

On February 22nd, just over three weeks after Santi’s inauguration, three men kidnapped and tortured Miriam Cisneros, Marlon Santi’s wife. According to the CONAIE, the men asked Cisneros about the movement’s plans for an indigenous general uprising if the Constituent Assembly refuses to include indigenous demands in the new constitution. She was also asked about the CONAIE’s advisors and international supporters. The identity and motivation of the assailants remains unclear.


[An Amazonian Kichwa home and chacra, or traditional garden, on the Yasuni River. Credit to David Guzman and the Municipality of Orellana.]

On February 15th, loggers or logger-affiliated paramilitaries reportedly massacred members of the Tagaeri community, a clan of the Huaorani people, in the Yasuní National Park. The incident is still under investigation. The Tagaeri are fiercely independent and refuse contact with the outside world. They have mounted violent resistance to attempts to destroy the Amazon or evangelize their people.

In Ecuador, environmentalists and indigenous people are wary of President Rafael Correa and are concerned that his government will continue to allow the exploitation of traditional territories by mining and petroleum companies, whether state or private. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), a powerful nation-wide movement representing indigenous peoples in Ecuador’s coastal, highland and Amazon regions is the country’s most powerful social movement. As the Constituent Assembly works on re-writing Ecuador’s constitution in the coastal city of Montecristi, Ecuador’s indigenous people and environmental organizations have a historic opportunity to radically change the nation’s political and economic structure.

In an interview, CONAIE Communications Director Janeth Cuji stated that indigenous communities have always fought against extractive activities in their territories and collaborate extensively with the grassroots environmental organization Acción Ecológica to defend Ecuador’s biodiverse ecosystems. While indigenous communities have long recognized the threat posed by natural resource exploitation to their cultures and livelihoods, according to Cuji, the CONAIE is also beginning an internal education campaign to connect the dots between local environmental problems and global warming. In the CONAIE’s December 2007 proposal for the new constitution—a 194-page book detailing every aspect of Ecuador’s political and economic structure, entitled "Our Constitution for a Plurinational State"—extensively addresses land use and natural resources under the rubric of plurinationality and collective rights. Plurinationality has been the central demand of the Ecuadorian social movement for almost two decades. It involves concrete recognition of Ecuador’s many indigenous peoples, including control over territory, education, healthcare, collective cultural rights and direct representation in Ecuador’s political structure.


[Map of oil exploration concession blocks, Yasuní National Park, and Huaorani Territory. Note position of Block 31, Petrobras concession. Credit to Save America’s Forests,]

The fact that environmental issues are integrated into a broader legal framework dealing with collective land management and ownership, control of natural resources, cultural practices, economic development, biodiversity, and traditional medicine demonstrates the fundamental interconnection between nature, territory and culture in Ecuadorian indigenous communities. Indigenous cultures cannot survive in the face of extractive development projects that damage the ecosystems in which they live. At the same time, the ecosystems of the Coastal, Andean and Amazonian regions cannot survive without the indigenous people whose hunting, gathering, farming, and cultural practices are integral to preserving biodiversity. The native flora and fauna have evolved over millennia in relation to indigenous human activity.

The CONAIE constitutional proposal recognizes this fundamental fact, stating that the state must guarantee the inalienable collective right of indigenous peoples to the territories and lands they have historically occupied (Article 34, Part 3). This right encompasses the totality of the natural habitats that indigenous communities inhabit, and including the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The state is obligated to assist indigenous peoples to ensure said conservation. In addition, the proposal states that indigenous communities have a right to use and administer all renewable resources in their territory and a right to full consultation and consent before the exploration or extraction of any nonrenewable resources in their territory (Article 34, Part 6 and 7).

On March 11th, the CONAIE mobilized over 20,000 indigenous activists in Quito to demand plurinationality. This mobilizing power, along with the close relationship between Acción Ecológica and some of the more radical Alianza País (Correa’s party) assembly-members, signals that there is a growing possibility that Ecuador’s new constitution will lay the legal groundwork for a more sustainable national economy.

A "Green Economy"? Tree Plantations and the Carbon Offset Market

Despite the strength of indigenous and environmental organizations, economist and advisor to the CONAIE Pablo Davalos argues that Correa maintains a development model that "treats nature as an object to be intervened in, commodified and brought to market. The government is continuing policies that base economic progress on the extraction of minerals and petroleum, biofuels such as ethanol and the privatization of biodiversity." Acción Ecológica—which has focused on the detrimental effects of large-scale industrialization on both ecosystems and local populations since 1986—argues that this extractive economic model is part of an international division of ecological labor that reproduces unequal North-South power relations. In this division of labor, countries such as Ecuador—one of the 12 "megadiverse" nations on the planet—depend on primary resource exploitation. One ironic outcome of this model is that oil-rich Ecuador actually imports gasoline for domestic consumption. As the issues of tree plantations and the emerging market for carbon offsets makes clear, President Correa’s environmental policies do not represent a departure from the dominant extractive, export-oriented economic paradigm.

President Correa’s plan for an "Alliance for a Nation of Forestry" will plant 550,000 trees over the next four years. At first glance, planting trees may seem like a positive step towards improving Ecuador’s environment. But as Acción Ecológica President Ivonne Ramos pointed out in a recent interview, there is no such thing as empty land just waiting to be planted. Large-scale tree plantations increase the rate of deforestation as wild forestland is cleared to make way for tree crops. Tree plantations also contribute to the growing competition for arable land and thus drive up food prices, which threatens food sovereignty. Second, the tree plantations are part of the agro-export economy and produce little in the way of economic benefit for local communities. The lumber will be shipped to countries such as Japan to make products like toilet paper.

Possibly the most detrimental aspect of the plantations is the introduction of non-native tree species into complex ecosystems. According to Ramos, these plantations are often grown on the rich soil of the Ecuadorian páramos (wet, high altitude tropical grasslands), which are delicate ecosystems with abundant underground freshwater supplies. The plantations will consist of monoculture pine trees—since they grow quickly and provide the most bang for the buck—that damage these biodiverse ecosystems and destroy local aquifers, the underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials. Tree plantations in the province of Esmeraldas—an area on the northern coast of Ecuador with a primarily Afro-descendent population—are an obvious example of these negative environmental effects. Since 1999, the plantations—owned by Japanese company Mitsubishi Mills Ltd.—have resulted in high levels of deforestation and have monopolized some of the richest soil in the region. Lastly, the displacement of indigenous and Afro-descendent peoples from the lands they have traditionally occupied threatens the very existence of their cultures, which are strongly tied to the territories where they live, hunt, gather, farm and practice sacred rituals.

The relatively recent history of the fast-growing carbon offset market—where consumers pay to "compensate" for their production of greenhouse gases—in Ecuador exemplifies the ecologically and culturally damaging effects of seemingly benign tree plantations. According to Ramos, the fast-growing carbon offset industry is part of an emerging economic logic in which the very functions of nature—in this case, the ability of plants to absorb carbon, i.e. photosynthesis—are commercialized. A joint report by Friends of the Earth International and Acción Ecológica reveals that carbon offsets, dressed up as a method of reducing carbon emissions in the Global North, can have disastrous environmental implications for the South. This is yet another manifestation of the global ecological division of labor.

In 1993, a consortium of Dutch electricity companies decided to plant 75,000 hectares of pine and eucalyptus trees in the Andean region of Ecuador, via the FACE (Forest Absorbing Carbon-Dioxide Emissions) Foundation. At the time of the report’s publication in 2000, 22,000 hectares trees had been planted. 75,000 hectares of trees would supposedly absorb 35 million tons of CO2, but since there have been no experiments with pine and eucalyptus trees in the high-altitude Andes, it is unclear whether they could actually absorb this much carbon outside of their native habitat. At the same time, the vulnerable páramo ecosystems that have been destroyed to make way for plantations are actually much more efficient carbon-absorbers, while the destruction of the páramo releases more than 10 times as much carbon per hour than the newly planted trees can absorb. Furthermore, páramos are one of the principal sources of freshwater in the country, and disrupting these complex ecosystems threatens local communities’ access to water.

To carry out the project, local indigenous communities have been contracted to plant the trees for $250 per hectare. According to Ramos, this sum not only grossly underpays those who labor to plant the trees, but also contributes to displacing indigenous peoples from their land to make room for the plantations, limits the time available for traditional activities and threatens food sovereignty by reducing the availability of arable land. And of course, the introduction of monocultures has negative impacts on the surrounding ecosystem. As Ramos puts it, in the new "green" economy the "poor of the world are subsidizing the mega-corporations." It seems that industrial capitalism, no matter how modern, cannot escape its roots. More than five hundred years after Europeans first "discovered" and colonized Latin America, large corporations are finding new ways to (re)colonize the South.

Correa has also expanded the production of agrofuels, part of the ecological division of labor, which, in this case, requires the people of the Global South to sacrifice their food for the automobiles and factories of the North. He claims, however, that there will be increased attention to the environmental impact of agrofuel plantations and that only idle land will be used. Bleeding the Amazon: The Politics of Oil in Ecuador

Deep in the Ecuadorian Amazon there are still indigenous communities, such as the Tageari, that exist in voluntary economic and social isolation, living in the rainforest much the same way their ancestors did before the Spanish Conquest. Since their first contact with the outside world a half-century ago, they have resisted missionaries, oilmen, and conservationist NGOs attempting to "protect" the land from the people who have lived there thousands of years, perhaps since the last ice age. The Yasuní National Park, 9,820 square kilometers of lush rainforest, is the most biodiverse region in the world. Conflict over oil in the Yasuní has long been at the center of Ecuadorian politics.

Over the past 20 years, the Huaorani, Amazonian Kichwa and Cofan indigenous peoples have joined with poor mestizo migrant oil workers and environmentalists to demand that the Yasuní be totally closed to all natural resource exploitation. The Federation of Ecuadorian Oil Workers (FETRAPEC), the main Ecuadorian oil workers union, has also called for an end to oil extraction in the region. But it is not so easy for a country like Ecuador to stop exploiting its natural resources, as the state depends on oil for revenue. Correa is proposing that wealthy countries pay Ecuador $350 million a year for ten years to not drill for oil in the park, arguing that the Global North has an "ecological debt" to the Global South. This is half of the projected revenues that drilling would generate. This debt is the product of 500 years of colonialism and resource extractive capitalism, in which raw materials from Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America have subsidized and fueled the industrial development of Europe and the United States.

Acción Ecológica also supports repayment of the ecological debt. At the same time, Ramos views Correa’s oil policy in the Yasuní as "schizophrenic." In December of 2007, his administration granted a license to Brazilian state oil company Petrobras to explore Block 31, a 1,000-km2 tract of land that lies almost entirely within the Yasuní and overlaps with Huaorani territory. Ramos insists that it is hypocritical to separate out Block 31 from the Yasuní and then claim that the rainforest is being preserved. The Petrobras concession is a key link in the construction of the new East-West trade axis.

Is there a possibility that Correa will transform Ecuador’s economy, reducing its dependence on the export of primary resources and developing viable local economies? Both Davalos and Ramos maintain that Correa is in every respect continuing the extractive model. But at the same time, as a result of organizing and pressure on the part of the indigenous and environmental movements, voices from within his own party Alianza País—such as Constituent Assembly President Alberto Acosta and Monica Chuji, head of the Natural Resources table in the Assembly—are emerging to challenge the extractive development model. Esperanza Martinez, the Executive Director of Ecuador’s Acción Ecologica, now works as an assistant to Constituent Assembly President Alberto Acosta. Correa himself has incorporated an ecological critique into his rhetoric (such as the concept of an ecological debt discussed above) and advocates regaining national sovereignty over natural resources.

Venezuela’s experience demonstrates that the nationalization of natural resources does not automatically lead to environmental protection. According to Professor Maria Pilar García-Guadilla, since "social ownership of the means of production does not prevent environmental degradation," many social movements in Latin America critique the entire model of industrial civilization and developmentalism. Yet the Ecuadorian Left believes that state control is a necessary, if not sufficient, first step. According to Fernando Villacencio, a former oil workers union leader, "All political conflicts over the past 15 years have been focused on oil: increased gas prices, attempts to privatize pipelines, to build pipelines, to privatize Petroecuador."

Transnational companies, with the complicity of neoliberal governments, have pillaged the Amazon. Companies like Occidental Oil and Chevron-Texaco have reaped massive profits from oil exploitation and have left the land severely contaminated. Over the twenty-five years that Chevron-Texaco operated in Ecuador, almost twice as much oil was spilled in the western Amazonian region than in the notorious 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. The Amazon Defense Coalition represents 30,000 plaintiffs representing five different indigenous peoples in a class action lawsuit against Chevron-Texaco in what could be the largest environmental lawsuit in history, potentially resulting in over $10 billion dollars in damages. Environmental and health problems include cancer, birth defects, skin and respiratory diseases, childhood leukemia, and soil and water contamination, among others. The lawsuit began in a U.S. federal court in1993 but has been delayed by hundreds of motions filed by the corporation. Last month, the oil company was accused of committing "extra-judicial attacks" against the court-appointed specialist investigating the environmental damages.The Amazon Defense Coalition is an example of ecuador’s ecologismo popular (popular ecology), which ties environmental activism to struggles for economic and social justice. Ecologismo popular is often contrasted to the "conservationism" espoused by many mainstream (and internationally funded) NGOs.

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.


Chavez and Kirchner Plan Pipeline Through Amazon

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.

Damming the Amazon: Mega-Development and Geo-politics in Bolivia

In response to recent heavy flooding in Bolivia, President Evo Morales asserted that the disaster is a direct consequence of the environmentally unsound industrial practices of the Global North. South American countries themselves, however, extract non-renewable resources at an ecologically unsustainable rate. According to Nick Buxton, a British activist working on trade issues in Bolivia, in the context of an economy "highly dependent on fossil fuels," Morales’ environmentally friendly rhetoric "leads to a whole a series of contradictions between discourse and reality."

Bolivian environmental organization LIDEMA (Environmental Defense League) considers mining, the exploitation of hydrocarbon reserves, and large-scale industrialized agriculture to be the principal threats to Bolivian ecosystems. Looking to the future, the group views mega-development projects as the main environmental challenge of the next few years.

In Bolivia—a small, primary resource-dependent country and the poorest nation in South America—the tension between the implementation of a sustainable economic model and the continuation of an extractive development model are increasingly apparent. This tension is a product of both internal politics, namely the complex relationship between the Morales administration and indigenous social movements, and the international political economy. A landlocked country in the heart of South America with three distinct climactic zones and substantial hydrocarbon reserves—second only to Venezuela on the continent—Bolivia occupies a strategic position in the regional natural resource economy. As the case of the Madeira River Dam makes clear, this strategic position does not necessarily benefit Bolivia’s indigenous population, and acts to intensify pressures to remain in the trap of an unsustainable economy.


[Aerial view of the Madeira River. Credit to Wilson Dias, AgEncia Brasil.]

The Madeira Dam is a component of the Integration of South American Regional Infrastructure (IIRSA), a series of coordinated mega-development projects aimed at facilitating regional and international trade. The plan—launched in August-September 2000 at the South American Presidential Summit in Brasilia—is financed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the Andean Promotional Corporation (CAF), the Financial Fund for the Development of the Rio de la Plata Basin (FONPLATA), and the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES). According to Uruguayan analyst and professor Raúl Zibechi, IIRSA proposes to "reorganize the continent’s landscape" along twelve integration axes to more efficiently extract resources in the "heartland" (the Andes, the Amazon, the Pantanal Wetlands and the Chaco), transport them to major metropolitan centers, and export them across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Bolivia sits right in the middle of all twelve of IIRSA’s integration axes. Through the construction of multimodal transport systems, dams, energy production facilities, and the homogenization of regional economic policy, IIRSA will eliminate the "natural barriers" that stand in the way of free trade. Although the aim of IIRSA is international integration under a neoliberal economic model, Glenn Switkes of the International Rivers Network pointed out that this objective is disguised behind rhetoric of "sustainable development" that benefits "the people."

The Madeira River begins its descent in the foothills of the Bolivian Andes and eventually connects with the Amazonian River in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. The Madeira River Dam project, located on the Southern Amazon Axis (Peru-Brazil-Bolivia), includes two hydroelectric dams in Brazil (San Antonio and Jirau), one on the Beni River in Bolivia, several ports and a series of floodgates. On December 10th, a consortium of Brazilian companies won the bid to build the San Antonio Dam; bidding for the Jirau Dam is slated for May 2008.

The environmental impact of the project will be huge. The Madeira River contains one of the most biodiverse fish populations on the planet. One concern is that the construction of the dam will disturb mercury deposits (a product of a long history of mining in the region) in the riverbed, polluting the groundwater and entering the food chain. This contamination could prove deadly for river-dwelling communities who subsist on fish in the Madeira. In addition, in association with the hydroelectric project, an estimated 80,000 sq. km. of forestland will be converted to farmland—mainly monoculture soybean plantations—another direct threat to the biodiversity of the region. It is estimated that the dam will displace at least 16,000 people in Brazil alone.


[Map of the proposed Madeira River Dam Complex. Credit to Odebrecht and Furnas. Two of the members of the consortium that won the bid to construct the San Antonio dam.]

The ecological effects, however, reach beyond Brazil into Bolivia’s northern Amazon region. The Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), along with regional campesino and indigenous organizations, argue that these effects include: flooding, the increase of communicable diseases, and the displacement of river-dwelling populations. Indigenous and campesino communities assert that constructing the dam without consulting those directly affected is a violation of Convention 169 of International Labor Organization (ILO). These communities, along with the Movement of Those Affected by Dams in Brazil (MAB), demand that the Brazilian government halt construction of the dams. According to Glenn Switkes, Brazil has consistently argued that the San Antonio and Jirau dams will have "no impact" on Bolivia.

Caught in the Middle: Social Movements, Morales, and Brazil

As inhabitants of the northern Amazon organize against the Madeira River project, the Bolivian government finds itself trapped in regional power relations and the pressure to adhere to an extractive model of development. When the Brazilian government announced its plans to go ahead with the project, after receiving conditional approval by the country’s environmental regulation agency (the Brazilian Environmental Institute, IBAMA), Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca immediately attacked the plan, voicing similar concerns to those of FOBOMADE. However, between the January 2007 launch of the dam project and Lula’s visit on December 17th, 2007—during which several protesters from Bolivian environmental and animal rights groups were arrested—the position of the Bolivian government has evolved from criticism to tacit acceptance.

Both Buxton and Switkes explain that this change of heart must be seen in the context of conflict between Brazil and Bolivia over Morale’s gas nationalization, which was not so much an expropriation as a renegotiation of contracts. The Brazilian state petroleum company, Petrobas, is one of the largest buyers of Bolivian gas. The key components were: an increase in taxes and royalties on foreign companies operating in Bolivia’s two largest gas fields from 50% to 82%, state ownership of 51% of shares in the five oil and gas companies capitalized (a form of privatization) in the 1990s, and an expanded role for the state in all aspects of gas production for both internal consumption and export.

After a series of negotiations, Petrobras ultimately agreed to continue to invest in Bolivian gas to avoid energy shortages. Bolivia, dependent on natural gas reserves for its national revenue, does not want to risk losing Brazilian investment. In addition, Bolivia wants to leave open the possibility of the National Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) financing other projects. To avoid ruffling Brazilian feathers, the Morales administration has toned down its criticism of the Madeira River project. Bolivia exists in a geo-political landscape dominated by regional development institutions financed by the continent’s larger economies, namely Brazil.

The contradictory official Bolivian stance on the dams is not so much an inconsistency but a direct result of two sets of political relations. On the one hand, as the first indigenous president of a party based in part in Bolivia’s popular movements against privatization and for the decriminalization of coca, President Morales pays attention to the indigenous and campesino organizations demanding an end to mega-development projects. At the same time, the government is dependent on hydrocarbon reserves to finance some of the social services that many social movements demand. Given the nation’s political and economic instability—due to a protracted conflict between the national government, social movements, and an elite autonomy movement based in Santa Cruz—President Morales is working to maintain the political and economic support of neighboring countries. In the quid-pro-quo between Brazil and Bolivia, Nick Buxton asserts that Lula’s support for the national government against the Santa Cruz autonomy movement is yet another component of Bolivia’s hesitance to criticize the Madeira River dam project.

Alternatives to Desarrollismo

Are small, primary-resource dependent countries trapped in an extractive development model? While events in Bolivia demonstrate the difficulty of transforming the dominant paradigm, there are reasons to be hopeful that change is on the horizon. As Morales navigates the complex terrain of the regional natural resource economy, he is also beginning to incorporate a conception of ecological justice into his political discourse. Connecting the recent floods in Bolivia to global warming—caused by unsustainable levels of industrialization, especially in the Global North—is one example of an emergent critique of the ideology of desarrollismo (developmentalism) that has for so long prevailed over the Global South.

According to Nick Buxton, this critique is embodied in the new constitution, which goes up for popular referendum this May 4th. One of the Magna Carta’s foundational principles—the aim of Bolivian state and society—is a deceptively simple phrase: vivir bien, or live well.

For Bolivians, vivir bien implies a wholesale critique of the main assumption of neoliberal development: growth is good. The aim of society should not be to produce more, or to out-do neighbouring countries, but rather to live well in relationships of mutual reciprocity and harmony with pachamama (mother earth). In response to the demands of local communities adversely effected by the extractive economy, the proposed constitution states that renewable resources be controlled by local indigenous populations and those same populations be consulted prior to the extraction of non-renewable resources or the construction of large projects such as dams.

While vivir bien could be perceived as more rhetoric than concrete policy, the proposed constitution takes steps towards making the axiom a reality, especially in the area of agricultural production. Seeking to transform the ecologically unsustainable, large-scale, petroleum-dependent form of agriculture, there are articles banning land ownership of over 10,0000 hectares and prohibiting GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds. The Bolivian agricultural system is based in an incredibly unequal distribution of land rooted in the colonial latifunda system of large plots worked by nearly enslaved campesino laborers. Following LIDEMA’s figures, as of 2000, 20% of agricultural companies owned 97% of arable land and the other 80% only own 3% of the land. Like in Venezuela, land redistribution is part of Morales’ project to decolonize the Bolivian state.

As per the November 2006 "Law of the Regulation and Promotion of Organic Farming and Non Timber Forestry Products," a preference for organic agriculture became state policy. According to Luis Vildozo of the Institute for Organic Farming in Vienna, Austria, the policy—directed at small farmers and producers—involves research and promotion of both indigenous farming techniques and external technologies, the facilitation of farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange. In addition, government procurement agencies must prioritize purchasing organic products.

But challenges still remain. Bolivia lacks a local market for organic products, most of which are exported to Europe, the United States and Japan, and shipping produce and grains such long distances surely cancels out some of the ecological benefits of going organic.

In addition, according to LIDEMA, the use of GMO soy is still permitted and, while the Bolivian government has made some critical statements, the status of future of biofuels is unclear. And in spite of articles banning the use of GMO seeds in the yet-to-be-approved constitution, there is currently widespread and unregulated cultivation of GMO seeds soy and maize. Furthermore, organic farmers are skeptical of the Morales government’s purported support. As reported by journalist Teo Ballvé in NACLA, farmers who belong to the National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) are beginning to switch to organic quinoa production, both for environmental and economic reasons—organic quinoa fetches a much higher price in American and European markets. But as they begin to transform their agricultural practices, the farmers are unsure of how much support they will get from either the Morales administration or new regional integration agreements such as the Venezuela-initiated Bolivarian Alternative for Latin American and the Caribbean (ALBA).

To ensure that the Morales administration takes concrete steps towards a sustainable economy that values vivir bien and sheds the colonial roots of the extractive economy, Bolivia needs a vibrant and coordinated environmental movement that works in direct collaboration with the communities most affected by environmental degradation. LIDEMA asserts that Bolivia presently lacks such a movement, but that a long history of powerful indigenous and urban mobilizations for land and local control of natural resources, for the decriminalization of coca and against the privatization of water point to the possibility of a more explicitly environmental movement grounded in a critique of colonialism and neoliberalism. Nick Buxton asserts that the grassroots organizations that once mainly focused on gas nationalization are beginning to demonstrate a greater ecological awareness.

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 (