Friday, November 2, 2012

Don't Blame 'Imperialist America' For Destroying Latin America's Environment

Environmental Politics

It was a long-held assumption among many thinkers of the Left that many of the historical problems in Latin America stemmed from the policies of "Imperialist America," including its rapacious environmental policies that viewed short-term gain as normative and necessary. Yet, it seems that Latin America, despite its turn Left, has a "Business As Usual" approach, where profits supersede policy. Lorna Salzman writes: "Without hesitation or conditions they are moving aggressively ahead to exploit, develop and export their natural resources, agricultural products, and energy infrastructure in the same direction originally charted by the WTO, IMF and World Bank, with a new entity called Mercosur and other consortiums involving European industries."


by Lorna Salzman

A powerful film, "Even the Rain", based on real events in Bolivia, is now showing in American movie theaters and it is a stark reminder of the ongoing struggles of indigenous communities in Latin America against the egregious socio-environmental crimes of their own governments. This film-within-a-film concerns the making in Bolivia of a film about the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, but as the film-in-the-making highlights the exploitation of the first conquerors, a contemporary battle is simultaneously taking place: an attempted privatization of the country's water resources by foreign corporations, with the support of the local and national governments. The leader of the protests declaims: they want to take the vapor of our breath, the sweat of our brow, and even the rain. It's a great moment in a truly great film that is showing under the radar unfortunately and needs wider distribution.

This battle is based on a true story, in which the Bolivian peasants succeeded in expelling the corporations from their country, and eventually helped elect a new president, Evo Morales, himself of indigenous origin. While this particular story had a happy ending, similar stories in other Latin American countries have not had had such endings, where the poor and the peasants still face the exploitation and control of their natural resources and rightful lands by foreign interests or by powerful well-connected sectors of their own country with the aid of their own governments. Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador are the leading examples of how ready and willing such countries are to promote destructive development whatever the cost to democracy, the rights of indigenous communities and Nature.

Morales does deserve credit for taking a strong position on curbing greenhouse gases and climate change; Bolivia sponsored the Cochabamba declaration promoting, among other things, a reduction of CO2 concentrations down to 300 ppm, in contrast to the IPCC, the industrial countries and the USA's leading climate group,, headed by Bill McKibben, which refused to support the declaration, mostly because using the 300 ppm figure would undercut the name and "brand" of its organization.

Despite the ascendance of a populist dedicated to social justice to the presidency, social conflicts over land and resources continue to escalate in Bolivia due to the country's dependence on natural resources such as oil, gas and mining for revenue, jobs and development. Worse, global warming presents possibly unsuperable threats. Because of accelerated glacial melting, 35% of its drinking water could disappear within 20-30 years. Natural resource management and development are at the center of its National Development Plan, which envisions large scale industrial projects and an increase in the development of its oil, gas and mining resources. Powerful groups are already challenging land reforms, which themselves could lead to increased deforestation, one of the country's major problems. A report on Bolivia from the Environmental Economics Unit at the University of Goteborg says:
There are clear indications that key ecosystem services, such as water purification and the regulation of climate, floods and disease, are being undermined by the current development trends. This has significant effects on poverty and economic development today and if negative trends are not reversed future impacts may be even more profound. The links between environmental degradation and poverty are complex and location specific. The poorest people are particularly vulnerable to environmental degradation since they have least capacity to cope with health problems, food insecurity or economic shocks following natural disasters. In rural areas, especially in the highlands and valleys where land plots are small, the degradation of land and water catchments constitutes important constraints to agricultural productivity. The high prevalence of water carried diseases, closely linked to the very low access to improved water and sanitation, cause income losses and further aggravates poverty. Deep and widespread rural poverty has resulted in a rapid process of rural-urban migration (see fig.2.2). While this may have partly alleviated some of the environmental pressure in rural areas, it has also resulted in mounting environmental problems in urban areas. The cumulative effect of poor sanitation, water and air pollution and inadequate waste management are detrimental for the increasing number of people living in urban slums."
Noam Chomsky celebrated the arrival of supposedly leftist governments in Latin America as a "promising sign of deliverance from the (American corporate) demons of the past." But this is turning out to be a "Business As Usual" policy of full speed ahead on resource exploitation and economic growth regardless of the ecological consequences. The IMF and World Bank may be ancient history now in South America but their objectives have been quickly adopted and adapted by Latino governments in the interests of promoting the same unsustainable inequitable development models, moving in the same direction as the detested neo-liberals from abroad urged on them.

Without hesitation or conditions they are moving aggressively ahead to exploit, develop and export their natural resources, agricultural products, and energy infrastructure in the same direction originally charted by the WTO, IMF and World Bank, with a new entity called Mercosur and other consortiums involving European industries. Chile, on the other hand, has committed itself to following the old IMF/World Bank guidelines, but with a "compassionate capitalism" face that will emphasize social justice within the same old expansive capitalist growth model.

Brazil, for whom environmentalists once had high hopes, is still experiencing rampant deforestation in the Amazon, slash and burn agriculture and cattle ranching, offshore oil drilling, nuclear power plant construction, and once-banned (but never suppressed) genetically modified soybean (GMO) cultivation. Former President Lula Inacio da Silva abandoned his campaign opposition to GMOs, additional nuclear power plants, and Amazon deforestation, and accepted a World Bank multi-year loan of up to $1.2 billion to purportedly balance economic growth with social development. Still on the books is the cross-Pantanal waterway which would create a thousand-mile canal and destroy the world's most important and biodiverse inland wetland in order to promote trade between Brazil and Japan.

Brazil is now the leading beef exporter in the world, thanks to its ranches on Amazonian land, and the second largest exporter of soybeans (all genetically modified), after the U.S. Also on the books is another trans-Amazon superhighway, a giant hydroelectric dam to provide cheap power for the Brazilian and foreign aluminum industries, a third nuclear power plant at Angra dos Reis, and a proposed 5,000-mile natural gas pipeline from Venezuela south, smack across the state of Amazonas. 2004 showed the highest economic growth ever in Brazil, mostly from agribusiness, the largest contributor to Amazon destruction. Those who oppose the anarchic ranchers and farmers in the region are murdered as were Chico Mendes, Dorothy Stang and others. It remains to be seen whether frontier vigilantism will be curbed in the remote states of Brazil where gold, rubber and soybean interests still rule.

Brazil's most recent execration is the licensing of the giant Belo Monte dam on the Xingu River in the state of Para, home to the Juruna and Arada tribes. This $18-billion monstrosity poses a huge threat to biodiversity, to indigenous tribes and to the whole region; the dam's construction will attract at least 100,000 migrants and cause illegal and uncontrolled occupation of ecologically valuable land and forests, while displacing over 20,000 people. It is meeting widespread opposition by the local tribes and Brazilian environmentalists and has the potential to be one of the most destructive projects in South America's history. To date, Lula's successor to the presidency, Dilma Rousseff, has not indicated any change in direction for these disastrous policies.

Chile's ancient forests of Araucaria and southern beech (Alerce and Nothofagus), have gotten more protection recently but mainly because of large purchases by foreigners like Doug Tompkins, of Esprit clothing fame, conservation organizations and others. The country remains the fourth-largest exporter of wood, cellulose and wood chips in the hemisphere and is likely to become the second largest soon. While there are 30 million acres of protected national parks, preserves and monuments, many of these are "paper" preserves with little actual protection, and forest agreements have loopholes that will allow mining. Meanwhile, plans are afoot for extensive gold mining in Argentina on the Chile border.

In Ecuador, the "leftist" president Rafael Correa resists heeding the tragic lesson of oil exploration in Ecuador's Oriente province in the Amazon basin. While the government bought out Occidental Oil, which represents 20% of Ecuador's oil output, the government will not acknowledge its role in the catastrophe wreaked on the indigenous lands and peoples in the Oriente by criminal polluting oil exploration which has destroyed human health, the forests, water supplies, and utterly degraded national parks like the Cuyabeno preserve. Despite an early legal victory by the tribal peoples in the Oriente, the government has not provided them with reparations, clean water or any other compensation for the devastation in which the government oil company Petroecuador itself participated for years.

Ecuador has the highest deforestation rate in South America, thanks to the building of roads to facilitate oil exploration, which then open up the forests to illegal loggers and settlers. Ecuador still has plans on the books for such roads for a new pipeline, Oleoducto de Crudo Pesado, funded by a consortium that includes JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and oil companies from the US, Canada, Italy, Argentina and Spain, as well as a proposal for another east-west land-sea pipeline crossing the Amazon basin and the Andes. A consortium of indigenous and conservation groups strongly opposed any expansion of the oil industry and demanded a 15-year moratorium on all oil exploration. When they filed a complaint with the Organization of American States (OAS), the Ecuadoran Minister of Energy and Mines replied: "OAS doesn't give orders here".

The 300-mile Oleoducto pipeline threatens the remarkable Nambillo cloud forest preserve near Mindo, the first preserve declared an Important Bird Area (IBA) in South America, and eleven other protected areas. If built, this pipeline would double Ecuador's oil production, require hundreds of new oil wells and flow lines, as well as processing and refining facilities that would accelerate oil exploration. Despite the huge financial reserves reaped from oil exploration, little of the wealth has trickled down to the poor. Ecuador hasn't yet been able to provide a regular source of drinking water for its cities despite the presence of the Andes.In any case, little is changing in the Ecuador oil scene, since the president announced that while Petroecuador might take charge, oil exploration and production would remain in foreign hands. Given the disastrous environmental legacy of Texaco and Conoco, the future looks as grimy as ever.

In Peru, a new cross-Andes road is nearing completion that will link the Pacific coast with the inland Amazon basin,the boom town of Puerto Maldonado, and eventually with Brazil. The clearing of the road over the Andes is rapidly bringing social devastation of the usual kind: deforestation, prostitution, uncontrolled immigration and settlements. In the tropics, one small road inevitably brings social and environmental devastation on a regional scale. This road, like many of its kind across the tropics, serves no real purpose or actual need beyond creation of a few jobs for work crews. Outside of Lima and for miles up and down the bleak devegetated coast lie endless tracts of plastic and wood shacks housing millions of people. Like its cousins in Rio, Calcutta, Caracas, Johannesburg and elsewhere, these people lack minimal amenities like sanitation, electricity and running water. No matter how much investment or currency enters these countries, the money runs off quickly before reaching the poor, like the irregular rains in deserts that disappear almost as soon as they reach the ground.

In Venezuela, American leftists celebrate Hugo Chavez' social welfare programs but never mention his iron-fisted clamp-down on independent press and television stations, many of which he has closed permanently in order to prevent public criticism of his regime. Environmental organizations are extremely anxious about the ongoing lack of wastewater treatment, the oil industry and plans for huge superhighways. Less than 25% of used water in the country is treated before being released back into the ground or coastal waters, where 80% of Venezuelans live; as a result all coastal waters are highly polluted. No wastewater-treatment plants exist in the entire country, with collected waste merely dumped into open pits. These wastes are from the entire population of 25 million people across the country. I can personally attest to the repulsive sight throughout northern Venezuela of mounds of garbage everywhere there is an open space or park. No garbage collection services exist in the populated north, not even landfills. On a birding trip there some years ago, I complained to a Venezuelan about how people just threw their garbage everywhere. He replied, in all seriousness: "Yes, it's much better if you put it in a bag before you throw it away."

In the western province of Zulia, uncontrolled coal mining is taking place, and in the south there is a huge expansion of electric lines through the famed Gran Sabana, the region of the magnificent unique tepuis as well as indigenous peoples. On the books are expanded oil and gas concessions, mining and logging in the Imataca forest preserve south of Caracas, and what the group Amigransa calls "megalomaniac plans" linking the Orinoco River in Venezuela with the Amazon in Brazil and the Rio Plata in Argentina, accompanied by a disastrous permissiveness of the government to illegal squatters and miners who are responsible for deforestation and illegal gold mining.

So just what does it mean to declare independence from the old 'imperialist" institutions? How long will it take before these countries diverge from the economic growth models and agendas of capitalist economies everywhere? Where are the radical differences that American investors and industry, as well as leftist commentators like Chomsky, were anticipating with the so-called left turn in Latin America? And what is the future of democracy, with dictators like Chavez determined to thwart an independent press and all dissent?

Judging from the public statements of these new leaders, capitalism has little to fear from Latin America so-called leftists. They may reject the IMF and World Bank now and then, but their hearts remain in the same place, dedicated to untrammelled resource exploitation just like their capitalist neighbors to the north but with a few more crumbs allotted to the poor. Just read their lips: "No worries, mate." Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The author, a graduate of Cornell University, has been an environmental writer, lecturer and activist since the 1970s. Her articles on environment, energy, biodiversity and natural history have appeared in leading journals here and abroad, including The Ecologist, Index on Censorship, Resurgence, New Politics, and Business & Society Review. Her professional career began when David Brower, the leading conservationist of the 20th century in the USA, hired her as mid-Atlantic representative for Friends of the Earth, where she worked on wetlands, coastal zone and nuclear power issues for over a decade. In this period she was instrumental in the preservation of two key wildlife habitats (Swan Pond and Maple Swamp) in Suffolk County, NY.

Later she became an editor at the National Audubon Society's journal, 
American Birds, followed by directorship of the anti-food irradiation group, Food and Water. In the mid 1980s she co-founded the New York Greens, later the New York Green Party, on whose state committee she served for several years, and became active in the national green movement.

She worked for three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection, focusing on wetlands and coastal zone protection. In 2002 she was the Suffolk County Green Party candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1st CD on eastern Long Island, and in 2004 she was a candidate for the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. Her hobbies are mushroom hunting, classical music and birding around the world with her composer-husband Eric. They have twin daughters, one a pop composer and lyricist in NYC and the other a poet and writer based in England. They live in Brooklyn Heights, NY, and East Quogue, NY, and have lived for extended periods in Italy and France.

Copyright ©2012. Lorna Salzman. All Rights Reserved. It is published here with the author's permission. More of her writing can be found at