Politics of the Amazon

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Looking for a Green Party solution

In theory at least there is a simple solution. The last decades have seen the growth of green parties and environmental movements across Europe and the Americas. If saving the Amazon is acknowledged as one of the world’s top challenges, then why not look to a green party or coalition to win power in democratic elections, achieve a mandate for radical change, and begin rapidly implementing environmentally responsible policies? Answering that question will require a small detour to look at the history of the green movement.

Green parties emerged mainly in Europe in the early 1970s, initially as single-issue organisations focused on the environment. They have since moved from the political fringes into the mainstream. This was evident when the Green Party won parliamentary representation in Germany the 1980s. In the late 1990s they became junior partners in the ‘red-green’ ruling coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD). Their leader at the time, Joschka Fischer, played a key role in phasing out nuclear power and opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq. The party became divided, however, between the ‘fundis’ (radicals) and the ‘realos’ (moderates). Traditionally green parties were pacifist in outlook and opposed to nuclear power as well as critical of the militarism represented by the defence industry. However, as current members of the German government, and in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Greens have supported increasing German military spending and sending heavy weaponry (including Leopard tanks) to assist the Ukrainian armed forces.

It is estimated that globally there are around 80 functioning green parties. Most of them say they seek ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice, and non-violence. They are seen as organisations of the left (although some conservative parties have developed their own pro-environmental policies).  Amid economic uncertainty following the 2008 financial crisis there has been a rise in authoritarian populism in the US and parts of Europe. In that context the greens have profited from dissatisfaction with traditional parties. To attract more voters they have in some cases moved towards the political centre and even towards the right. In a surprising move the Austrian greens formed a coalition with the right-wing Peoples’ Party combining anti-immigration and tax cutting policies with the pursuit of ambitious environmental protection targets.

In policy terms the greens have a long-standing opposition to nuclear power, but this is beginning to be questioned. The Green Party in Finland has been reconsidering its policy on nuclear power, given the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. On the economy, some parties support ‘green growth’ – which relies on technology to reduce carbon intensity, while other are more radical, calling for degrowth – a sharp reduction in output down to sustainable levels.

Green parties have had a mixed performance in the Americas. In the United States their electoral high point came in the year 2000 when veteran consumer rights activist Ralf Nader, leading the Association of State Green Parties, came third in the presidential elections with 2.7% of the popular vote. Despite this lack of top-level success, green movements have however exerted considerable political influence, helping for example to shape proposals for a Democratic Party Green New Deal – a series of major climate change and clean energy investment initiatives.

In Latin America the pattern has been similar with green parties lacking the necessary strength to win presidential and congressional elections under their own steam, but nevertheless playing an important role as influencers and coalition partners. Green parties have achieved congressional representation in a number of countries. In Mexico, the Partido Verde Ecologista de Mexico (PVEM) is a junior partner in the ruling Movimiento Nacional de Renovación (Morena) government, holding 42 out of 500 seats in the lower house, and six out of 128 in the Senate. However, some critics question whether the PVEM is really a green party at all, accusing it of being no more than opportunistically pro-government. The PVEM has failed to challenge the government’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels, while aligning itself with conservative social policies such as supporting the death penalty and opposing same-sex marriage.

In Brazil the main green party is Rede Sustentabilidade (REDE) which is led by high-profile environmental activist Marina Silva (currently minister for the environment as part of the ruling coalition led by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva). However, rather like Mexico there is also a conservative green presence in the country though the Partido Ecológico Nacional, recently renamed as ‘Patriota’ which is in fact a far-right religious party that has supported privatisations and pro-market economic policies. Colombia also has a long history of green political parties, which have gained seats in Congress. Mayors of important cities including Bogotá and Medellín have identified with the green cause to varying degrees.

It does, however, appear that prospects of a single green party winning elections, gaining a comfortable majority in congress, and implementing unambiguous policies to save the Amazon in any of the nine Amazon countries are low, certainly for the next 5-10 years. In part, this reflects the global reality of green parties. As we have seen, in Europe and elsewhere the greens have lacked the strength to go it alone and instead have advanced through coalition-building. It was not until 2004 that any national government was led by a green party member (Indulsis Emsis, who became prime minister of Latvia). A future wave of majority green governments looks unlikely, although it cannot be entirely ruled out.

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