North & South, Ecology and Justice, Part 3




by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero  (Last of 3 parts)

New beacons

Fortunately, there are a fair number of beacons in the quest to form and inform a reconciliation of “progresismo” with ecology and thus carry out the unfulfilled mandates of 20th century “tercermundismo”- these include eco-socialism, social ecology, the global climate justice movement, and “décroissance”, which translates roughly to English as post-growth economics. Of particular importance is the concept of food sovereignty, whose standard bearer, the global Via Campesina movement which unites small farmers from both North and South, is quite possibly the most important and influential civil society organization in the world. Organizations and movements that advance sustainability and justice while transcending the narrow confines of sustainable development and Third World developmentalism regularly converge in the Social Fora, which have been taking place in diverse locations around the world since the first World Social Forum in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 2001.

Latin America is the place of origin of a particularly promising proposal known as post-extractivism, which calls on Southern countries to abandon the dependent capitalist model of resource extraction and export, and give first priority to the local use of these resources in order to add value and bring about locally-based “endogenous” development. This concept is not confined to small groups of intellectuals- it is gaining strength and popularity among progressive and alternative movements, and non-governmental organizations all over Latin America, and is even gaining mainstream acceptance. The new progressive constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia are explicitly post-extractivist.

It is not possible to talk about Third World militancy with an ecologically conscious and post-extractivist bent without referring to the influential figure of Bolivian president Evo Morales. He has put ecology in the center of his political discourse, and is a pioneer among heads of state in combining an explicitly anti-capitalist posture with advanced concepts of ecology.

At the failed 2009 UN Climate Change Summit in Denmark, Morales led the charge in defense of the interests of poor countries, which are simultaneously the least guilty of climate change and the ones that will be most directly harmed by it, against what environmentalists and progressives of both North and South saw as the hypocrisy and inaction of major polluting countries, in particular the United States. In response to the summit’s failure, he convened a World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth to face the climate crisis and formulate an action plan. The conference, which took place in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba on April 2010 and had the attendance of thousands of civil society activists from all over the world, established Morales as an undisputed world leader in environmental policymaking and in the construction of a progressive environmentalism. On April 2011 the Group of 77 Countries and China announced they will support Bolivia’s negotiating positions in future international climate negotiations.

Bolivia is currently set to pass the world’s first laws granting to nature rights equal to those of humans. “The Law of Mother Earth, now agreed by politicians and grassroots social groups, redefines the country’s rich mineral deposits as ‘blessings’ and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry”, according to the UK Guardian. Eleven new rights for nature will be established, among these: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. It will also recognize as well the right of nature “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

Ecuador is not to be outdone. The country’s 2008 constitution is one of the world’s most progressive. It establishes water as a human right, a public good and a national patrimony; it acknowledges nature has rights; and elevates food sovereignty to the level of official government policy. In August 2010 Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa signed on to the Yasuni Initiative, an innovative undertaking- the first of its kind- in which the government will leave 850 million barrels of oil under the biodiverse Yasuni National Park untouched and unexploited for perpetuity in exchange for donations from the international community, which will be administered by a trust fund set up by the UN Development Program. This deal will prevent over 400 million tons of carbon from being emitted to the atmosphere. It is hoped that this initiative will inspire similar deals in other countries.

We should not be naive, however. The progressive governments of South America have a long way to go before putting post-extractivism into practice. Under Evo Morales Bolivia’s economy is more dependent on exports of oil and natural gas than under his neoliberal predecessor, and Morales is bent on going ahead with large scale development projects that contradict his environmental rhetoric, including highways and mega-hydro dams. And in Ecuador, president Correa’s support for the Yasuni initiative has been erratic at best, and he supports strip mining and further oil exploration outside Yasuni.

In spite of the shortcomings and contradictions of Latin American progressive governments, novel proposals such as post-extractivism represent the best hope for the advancement of ecology and justice and for upgrading advocacy for the global South in light of new global realities.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an author, journalist and environmental educator based in Puerto Rico. His articles have been published by, among others, Corporate Watch, Grist, Counterpunch, Alternet, Earth Island Journal, CIP Americas Policy Program, and the Organic Consumers Association. He directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety and runs a bilingual blog devoted to global environment and development issues. Carmelo is an alumnus of the ISE’s MA program and has served as an ISE Research Associate.