Latin Leftist Governments: Red on the Inside and Outside

by Lorna Salzman

The pursuit of social justice doesn't always benefit the environment. Indeed, it often does just the opposite.

What Noam Chomsky, referring to the new leftist governments in Latin America, in an article in the International Herald Tribune, described as a "promising sign of deliverance from the (American corporate) demons of the past" 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.

In response to the cliche that "You can't stop progress", someone once said: Progress is, when you are standing on the edge of the cliff, taking one step backward...or turning around 180 degrees and moving forward. The new leftist governments in Latin America - Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia, and to a lesser extent Chile - are taking a new tack; standing at the edge of the cliff, they have decided to construct their own ladder down the cliff and move forward in the same direction as the detested neo-liberals have urged them.

Accordingly,they are moving full speed ahead to exploit, develop and export their natural resources, agricultural products, and energy infrastructure in the same unsustainable direction 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, and once-banned (but never suppressed) genetically modified soybean (GMO) cultivation. President Lula Inacio da Silva has abandoned his campaign opposition to GMOs, additional nuclear power plants, and Amazon deforestation, and instead has accepted a World Bank multi-year loan of up to $1.2 billion to purportedly balance economic growth with social development. The environment doesn't seem to enter into it at any stage.

As a result, 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. Frontier vigilantism still reigns.

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 5000- mile natural gas pipeline from Venezuela south, smack across the state of Amazonas.

Chile's ancient forests of Araucaria and southern beech (Alerce and Nothofagus), have gotten more protection than formerly but mainly because of large purchases by foreigners like Doug Tompkins, of Esprit clothing fame, conservation organizations and others. The country remains the 4th 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.

Chile's president Michelle Bachelet is constrained by the coalition that elected her, which includes Christian Democrats and two smaller leftist parties. As a consequence, she has announced a continuation of the old neo-liberal policies of her predecessor, Ricardo Lagos and has thrown in her lot with the same financial institutions of yore. She has shown no inclination to question the development objectives of the funding institutions, industry, corporations or previous administrations and plans to keep the incredibly low rate of 3% royalties imposed on foreign mining companies.

In Ecuador, the new leftist president, Rafael Correa, seems not to have heeded the tragic lesson of oil exploration in Ecuador's Oriente province in the Amazon basin. While the government recently bought out Occidental Oil, which represents 20% of Ecuador's oil output, the government seems intent on repeating 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.

While this destruction was mainly committed by foreign oil companies like Conoco and Texaco, the national oil company Petroecuador was a partner in this, and in any case the government turned a blind eye to the pollution and destruction, which are the subject of a multibillion dollar law suit still pending.

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. Despite this, Ecuador has more plans 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 oppose any expansion of the oil industry and are asking for 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.

Clearly, radical economic policies declaring independence from the US do not include more deference to the environment. So just what does it mean to declare independence from the old 'imperialist" institutions? Just where are these countries diverging 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?

Judging from the public statements of these new leaders, capitalism has little to fear from Latin America so-called leftists. They may reject IMF and World Bank now and then, but their hearts remain in the same place, dedicated to untrammelled unsustainable resource exploitation and economic growth 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 ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.