Latin America in the face of the global ecological crisis

Latin America in the face of the global ecological crisis

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By Ignacio Sabbatella

Latin America faces a huge environmental challenge. To understand not only the capital-labor contradictory relationship but also the capital-nature contradiction: the provider and recipient capacity of nature is limited and, therefore, incompatible with the unlimited accumulation of capital.

In this article we will try to briefly expose some of the environmental challenges facing Latin America. To this end, we will begin by analyzing the structural factors of the global ecological crisis. Then, we will expose what we have called environmental inequalities, the forms they take and the conflicts they can harbor. Lastly, we will refer to the behavior and political strategies that Latin American governments carry out and can carry out.

Humanity faces an ecological crisis of great magnitude and with a tendency to worsen. Its manifestations can be grouped into two major problems, closely related. In the first place, environmental degradation, which involves pollution of the air, water courses (surface and underground) and soil. The so-called climate change has become its most visible face today. And secondly, the progressive depletion of natural assets, essential for human life: fresh water, minerals, fertile land, sources of energy. Statistics from the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) indicate that the global demand on the planet's biological resources exceeds the regenerative capacity of nature by 30 percent.

It is possible to temporarily locate the accelerated ecological degradation in the last four decades, a period that coincides with the implementation of neoliberal policies. Assigning responsibility to man's action in an abstract way, as is usually done in light or deliberate analysis, hides the historical form in which that action is inserted.

Nor does it conform us to assign it to the set of ideas typical of modernity, that is, faith in the indefinite progress of material forces. The dominant regime of material production and reproduction does not tell us anything about the way in which man appropriates nature at a given moment.

It is necessary to rediscuss the foundations of the capitalist system to understand ecological problems. To understand not only the capital-labor contradictory relationship but also the capital-nature contradiction: the provider and recipient capacity of nature is limited and, therefore, incompatible with the unlimited accumulation of capital.

Capital vs. nature

Given the atomized and chaotic structure of capitalism, the predominant way in which man connects with nature is through private appropriation and commodification. Man is alienated from the natural world and capital fetishizes nature.

The State appears mediating between capital and nature, regulating their access and exploitation. However, the policies of privatization of public companies, deregulation of markets and economic opening of neoliberalism disarmed the state mechanisms that largely protected nature.

Capital therefore accelerated its dominance over the natural world as a function of the production of surplus value. It is a simultaneously extensive and intensive process. Extensive because capital takes over each portion of nature, expanding the borders of extraction as a continuity of original accumulation. And intensive because every time it requires a greater quantity of natural goods and a greater subjection of natural forces.

Likewise, we can observe that the weakening of state regulations also accelerates pollution processes since it leaves individual capitals free to dispose of solid, liquid and gaseous waste without any treatment. The logic of profit maximization indicates that the care of the environment does not enter into the productive expenses of capital.

Environmental inequalities

Having analyzed the specific characteristics of the capitalist mode of production in relation to nature, we will now see what its socio-political impacts are. Just as we are used to talking about social or economic inequality, we consider it pertinent to introduce the concept of environmental inequality to account for the power relations that are also reproduced in the ecological sphere.

There are two ways in which environmental inequality manifests itself: inequality in access to and control of natural assets and inequality in access to a healthy environment. The first form refers to the existing asymmetries of power to dispose, take advantage, and use essential goods for life, such as water, land and energy. The second form is related to environmental protection and power asymmetries in the distribution of environmental degradation derived from productive activities.

In the case of the extractive activity of mining and hydrocarbons, both forms of inequality are combined, since throughout the world they are appropriated by powerful transnational capital to the detriment of access by local populations, who also suffer territorial displacement, and it is carried out with low economic costs and very high ecological costs, given the use of large amounts of water, contamination with chemicals, burning of gases, etc. These activities are also dangerous in their transport, be it due to the rupture of mineraloducts, oil and gas pipelines or losses in oil tankers.

The persistence or magnitude of environmental inequalities are generally a condition for the possibility of socio-environmental conflicts: these are disputes over the appropriation and / or maintenance of natural assets and for access to a healthy environment or for the protection of the environment, to local, national or international scale. At the same time they go through different types of social inequality that generate new conflicts or disputes in old unequal relationships, such as the classic unequal exchange between countries of the North and countries of the South. In the former are located the large centers of demand, consumption and pollution, while the poorest countries are relegated to mere providers of natural goods. A fact that illustrates: 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change belong to 20 percent of the world's population, concentrated in the United States, Europe and Japan.

The international division of labor is reissued, where regions with great natural wealth that are scarce in other parts of the world become desirable for capitalist appropriation. The riches of Latin America make it once again a supplier of raw materials, food and energy for industrialized economies. In turn, the richest countries try to pass on the environmental cost of the dirtiest industries. The closest example is the pulp mills, being the UPM (former Botnia) pulp mill that generated the most conflicts and gained the greatest notoriety.

At the national level, there are also environmental inequalities that overlap with inequalities of another kind. Under normal conditions of accumulation, capitalist appropriation progressively restricts access to natural assets and generates a distribution of the effects of environmental degradation to a greater extent on the poor, blacks, indigenous people, peasants, etc. In times of crisis, be it economic or ecological, the gap of environmental inequality also widens because capital is willing to save its own skin at any cost, transferring costs to other social sectors.

From extractivism to neo-extractivism

In the context of the inequalities analyzed, Latin America faces a huge environmental challenge. Despite the profound political changes that have taken place in the region in the last decade, progressive governments have not been able to shed their assigned role in the international division of labor, and in some cases have deepened it.

Countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia have had an outstanding role at the international level, as happened in Copenhagen last December, holding the capitalist system itself responsible in relation to climate change. Likewise, it is worth emphasizing the importance of the World People's Conference on Climate Change promoted by Bolivian President Evo Morales and that took place in Cochabamba last April.

However, there are many pending tasks in the internal framework. If an extractivist policy with respect to nature prevailed in the neoliberal stage, the last decade is characterized by the Uruguayan researcher Eduardo Gudynas under the label of neo-extractivism.

The term extractivism refers to the predominance of economic activities based on the removal of large volumes of natural assets, which are not industrialized or are done in a limited way, with the priority objective of allocating them to international markets. In the history of Latin America it is not a novelty since we could go back to the beginnings of the colony itself. But it is interesting to observe how the neoliberal policies of the 1990s deepened the primary export profile of Latin American economies based on legislation favorable to transnational capital.

Despite a critical rhetoric of neoliberalism, in the policies of progressive governments, a good part of the components of that extractivism, combined with new characteristics, persist. Neo-extractivism promotes a style of development based on the intensive and extensive exploitation of nature, which feeds a poorly diversified productive network that is highly dependent on international insertion as providers of natural goods. High international prices redouble oil, mining and monoculture exports. The most novel component is that the State acquires a more active role in these sectors, fundamentally seeking to capture a higher income that allows it to redistribute income through social policies. In many cases, governments achieve significant legitimacy towards the population as a whole, but it is seen as a policy with very defined limits. In addition to the negative impacts on nature, environmental inequalities are widening in regions where wealth is abundant. Not coincidentally but causally, environmental conflicts multiply where it is common to find local, peasant and indigenous populations facing oil and mining transnational companies or resisting the displacement imposed by monocultures.

It is difficult for Latin American governments to change course in the short term and everything suggests that social tensions will continue to be present in the coming years. Although Gudynas notes the differences between countries according to the type of State intervention and the development of extractive economies, we believe it is necessary to emphasize these differences even more.

In some cases, private control of those sectors is maintained, as we can clearly see in Argentina. The exploitation of hydrocarbons remains in the hands of capital despite the sharp fall in reserves and the energy crisis that has haunted the economy for a few years. Open-pit mining mega-enterprises are multiplying by the dozens despite the negative consequences for the environment and the health of the surrounding populations. Transgenic soy continues to expand its border, at the cost of putting national food sovereignty at risk and at the cost of contamination with agrochemicals.

On the other hand, there are countries that are advancing in state control of extractive economies, as is the case of Venezuela. Through a profound reform of the legislation and the renegotiation of contracts, the State managed to gain majority control of the oil wells. Certainly the environmental impacts of hydrocarbon exploitation do not disappear simply by a change in the way control is assumed. But we are interested in highlighting state control as a necessary step to subsequently move towards social control of the activity and its impacts.

Political and social transformation is an unavoidable condition for democratic planning for the exploitation of natural assets and care for the environment. This also requires a cultural transformation that encourages an increasingly participatory democracy. Finally, even with good intentions, the transition to an ecological society is a utopia if the foundations of capitalist production and reproduction are not questioned and upset.

Ignacio Sabbatella, Conicet Scholar, Instituto Gino Germani (UBA)

Voices in the Phoenix Magazine

Southern Petroleum Observatory | OPSur

Video: Latin America economy: IMF forecasts strong regional recession (June 2022).


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  4. Kihn

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  5. Jarett

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  6. Tosh

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  8. Tojall

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