Politics of the Amazon

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Does pink-green work elsewhere in Latin America?

In the last 2-3 years Latin American countries have had mixed political results in their attempts to balance economic recovery and environmental protection. Chile is not an Amazon region country, but President Gabriel Boric, who took office in March 2022, leads a left-wing coalition which includes a small green party, the Federación Regionalista Verde Social (FREVS), which is committed to decarbonisation.

However, in political terms Chile’s ‘green tide’ may have peaked. During the course of 2022, an elected Constitutional Council prepared a new draft constitution which recognised nature as an entity in its own right requiring special protection. The draft also expanded indigenous rights to ancestral lands, protected glaciers, reformed water rights, and limited extractive mining. The text if approved would have been considered one of the greenest constitutions in the world, but its supporters over-reached and fell out of step with public opinion. The draft was convincingly rejected in a referendum in September 2022. A new constitutional reform process is underway this year: the text however is likely to be significantly less green and less radical. More generally, the political pendulum has swung back towards the right in Chile. While green issues remain important, public opinion is now more focused on the Mapuche indigenous conflict in the south of the country, on immigration in the north, and on rising crime rates.

Peru’s green agenda on the other hand, has been basically put on hold by a grinding political crisis that has undermined policymaking since 2016. The country has had five presidents in the last six years as the legislature and executive power struggle through a deep political deadlock. The last stage of that ongoing crisis came in December 2022 when left-wing President Pedro Castillo, who was facing multiple accusations of corruption, tried to close down the legislature but was instead impeached, imprisoned, and replaced by his vice president, Dina Boluarte, who formed a de fact alliance with conservative parties.

The absence of clear policies to protect the Peruvian Amazon and to pursue a rapid energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is particularly damaging since Peru is the second largest Amazon country after Brazil. The Peruvian Amazon, stretching from the Andes mountain range to tropical forested plains in the east, is about the size of Ukraine. Despite over-ambitious government promises to stop deforestation by 2021, research by Monitoreo de la Amazonía Andina (MAAP) published in 2023 showed that deforestation records had been broken in six of the last ten years.

At least three major protagonists are driving the process in Peru. They are, first, big commercial companies involved in agriculture including palm oil; second, criminal cartels involved in logging and drug cultivation and trafficking; and, third, impoverished settlers who try to earn a living cutting down trees and tending coca plantations. Unlike Brazil, Peru also has significant oil and gas production in parts of the Amazon; oil spills have also had negative impacts on indigenous communities. According to a MAAP report: “The Peruvian government continues prioritising economic development as more important than protecting the rainforest.”

A key issue in Venezuela is that an authoritarian and nominally left-wing government which pays occasional lip service to environmental issues is in reality seeking to maximise revenues from illegal, forest-destroying, mining activities. Around 60% of Venezuelan territory lies within the Amazon biome. The country also includes around one fifth of a unique and ancient geological formation known as the Guiana Shield which is heavily forested and intensely biodiverse.  Although less covered by the international media, Venezuela has at times experienced the fastest rates of deforestation in the tropical regions of the Western Hemisphere. According to lobby group Global Forest Watch (GFW), between 2002 and 2022 the country lost 576,000 ha of humid primary forest, or 26% of its total tree cover.

The economic environment makes Venezuela a unique case. The country has traditionally been almost totally dependent on oil and gas exports, accounting for over 90% of total revenues. Under the leftist Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) since 1999, a combination of catastrophic economic mismanagement, oil price volatility, and (from 2019) tightened US sanctions has destroyed large parts of the oil industry and pulled the economy into deep recession. From 2014-2022 the economy shrank by over 75%, a period which also saw some 7m Venezuelans emigrate. As a survival strategy the government has turned to illicit activities such as drug trafficking and gold, diamond, coltan, and rare-earth mining. In 2016, without the required legislative approval, the government of President Nicolás Maduro introduced a decree creating the Orinoco Mining Arc (AMO), an area equivalent to 12% of national territory where mining is given free reign and regulation is minimal. According to Vollmer Burelli of lobby group SOSOrinoco, in this area “illegal armed groups allied with the government continue to run especially destructive mining operations, kicking back much of the wealth they extract to senior leaders in the military and government.”

By way of conclusion, it is worth highlighting four main points. The first is that, despite some continuing climate-change denialism and developmentalist thinking, there are reasons to suggest there is a real political appetite among Brazilian and other Latin American voters for green policies and for effective action to reverse the destructive process of deforestation. The recent Ipec survey in Brazil shows that a significant majority of respondents believe the environment should be protected even if that might mean lower growth and employment. In second place, it looks unlikely that voters will look exclusively to green parties to solve the problem of deforestation in the Amazon. Realism and fragmented political systems mean the way forward will require multi-party coalitions. At the moment the focus is on what could be called pink-green coalitions such as those currently in office in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Chile. But it is not inconceivable that in future there may also be conservative-green alliances in office.

In third place, coalitions may be necessary to make but they are complex to manage. Governments seeking to pursue a green agenda have found themselves frustrated by congressional opposition. There is a need for dialogue and deal-making with lobby groups that currently benefit from Amazon deforestation including farmers, ranchers, loggers, and extractive miners. Finally, in fourth place, political instability is the enemy of effective climate-change mitigation, and time is running out. Between now and 2030 – the date fixed by the Brazilian government to reach zero deforestation in the Amazon - there are only seven years and one general election.

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