Politics of the Amazon

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Pink and green – the colours of the future?

In Latin America the future does seem to be one of coalitions in which green parties are represented, most likely as junior partners. A number of political analysts have sought to place the handling of green issues within the context of a region that is seen swinging periodically between the political right and left. Many analysts described the spread of left-wing governments in the period between 2003 and 2014 as the continent’s first ‘pink tide’. Its leaders were Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Néstor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil. During that period, helped by an extended commodities boom, many leftist governments were able to redistribute income and reduce poverty, enjoying as a result significant electoral popularity.

However, tougher times came with the end of the commodities and export boom. At that point many of these left-wing governments faced economic recession, rising crime rates, and significant allegations of corruption. As a result, the tide ebbed: the political pendulum swung back again to the right during the latter part of the 2010s and into the early 2020s. By last year, however, as left-wing political leaders began a comeback in countries like Chile, Colombia, and Brazil, commentators began to talk of a second pink wave. This time they highlighted an important novelty: they believed the second wave would actually be pink, but with streaks of green. The regional mood music, they argued, was now putting environmental issues much closer to the centre of the political debate. In the first pink wave, governments had been less interested in the environment. This was because the commodities boom, including ‘dirty’ activities such as oil and gas extraction, coal and metals mining, and commercial farming and livestock seemed to be successfully funding a vote-winning formula for growth, poverty alleviation, and new job creation.

It is worth looking at the claim that that left wing governments tend to be greener in some detail. Matías Franchini, an academic at Universidad del Rosario in Colombia, says “the first question we must ask ourselves is whether it is correct to correlate progressive governments with the regional struggle against climate change”. He goes on to point out a number of exceptions to the rule. The recent conservative governments of Ivan Duque in Colombia and Sebastían Piñera in Chile (both in office from 2018-2022) made considerable progress in promoting renewable energy and on adopting Paris Agreement de-carbonisation pledges.  

Another conservative, Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), was also something of an activist on climate change issues, promoting a major tree-planting programme and encouraging the adoption of green technology. After stepping down from the presidency he went on to serve as chair of the Global Commission for the Economy and Climate. By direct contrast however, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO – in office since 2018) represents a form of traditional left-wing resource nationalism, dating back to the 1970s, which is decidedly non-green as it prioritises fossil fuels. This political school of thinking remains largely unenthusiastic about renewable energy sources. The long-standing tradition of developmentalist economic policies has clearly valued economic growth above environmental protection.

Where Green Parties Hold Power

Source: CFR Research

Tatiana Roque of Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro says AMLO’s approach is outdated. “We must be careful not to reproduce the same old vision, a sharply developmentalist outlook which fails to engage with the future and with the need for an urgent dialogue on climate change”, she says. The problem in her view is that Latin America has become too dependent on commodity exports, which get in the way of a necessary energy transition to renewables.

Somewhat paradoxically, Mathias Alencastro of CEBRAP (Centro Brasileiro de Análise e Planejamento) says the absence of a massive commodity boom during the second pink wave may turn out to be a good thing. He argues that in the first wave the surge in growth helped consolidate the move away from military rule towards democracy, as well as reducing economic dependence on the United States (since China was then emerging as a major new trading partner). Now, with a second and extended commodities boom looking unlikely, he says “the left will be forced to become more daring”. Others who share that optimism say there is an opportunity to develop new, more sustainable, economic activities, such as expanding the bioeconomy in the Amazon. This includes supporting small-scale sustainable farming and forestry, eco-tourism, and the production of nuts, medicines, cosmetics, and oils.

The environmental critique of the old left has come from a number of sources. Speaking in May 2022, before she took office as vice president alongside Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro, Afro-Colombian environmental activist Francia Márquez said: “The problem is that both the right and the left are fomenting a policy of extractivism when humanity faces the challenge today of transitioning from this extractivist economy to a sustainable economy. Life isn’t possible without our planet.”

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