Building a post-extractivist future for Latin America

The choice is between top-down "Green growth" and bottom-up efforts to transform economies.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a new initiative emerged in Latin America to address economic inequality, social injustice, and environmental destruction. Established in early June 2020, the Ecosocial Pact of the SouthPacto Ecosocial del Sur—is a response to an upsurge in protests throughout the region: in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile in the final months of 2019 followed by another wave of protests in 2020 in Argentina, Brazil, Panama, and elsewhere.

The protests have had different targets. Some people have come out into the streets to demonstrate against the authoritarian policies of national governments. Other mobilizations have focused on the pandemic and the state’s failure to address the ensuing health crisis. There have been demonstrations against higher food prices, a surcharge on public transportation, and corruption. Carrying over from earlier eras, communities have also fought back against corporate efforts to secure access to energy and other resources.

“People are fed up,” notes Breno Bringel, a professor of sociology at the Institute of Social and Political Studies at the State University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. “There’s an urgency during this time of pandemic: people can’t take it anymore.”

Although it is responding to these urgent protests, the Pact “is not a list of demands addressed to the governments of the day,” according to the Ecosocial Pact’s initial 2020 statement. “Instead, it is an invitation to build collective ideas, agree on a shared path to social change, and provide a basis for shared struggles in all the different sectors of our societies.”

Some of the initial recommendations from 2020 include tax reform, debt cancellation, a prioritization of care and food sovereignty, and an end to an economy based on the extraction of natural resources. In its first months of existence, the Pact has launched different national chapters, produced reports and dialogues, sponsored campaigns and public events and issued statements of solidarity, for example with the Mapuche community and condemning environmental violence against women.

On the issue of charting a clean energy future for Latin America, the Pact looks to alternatives emerging from local experiences rather than, for instance, “Green growth” schemes imposed from the top down or from outside the region. It rejects both “old” and “new” forms of extractivism: the traditional drilling for fossil fuels as well as the mining of materials like lithium necessary for “clean” technologies like solar panels and electric vehicles.

“We need to base our energy transition on resistance,” argues Pablo Bertinat, coordinator of the Observatory of Energy and Sustainability at the National Technological University in Argentina. “A lot of experiences we see today in terms of community-managed energy alternatives have come out of resistance, especially against extractive projects and protests against dams in Colombia, Brazil, and elsewhere.”

This reliance on energy alternatives also draws more generally on local knowledge which, in Latin America, includes the experiences of peasants and agricultural production. “Peasant movements have really understood energy from a broader view than us,” notes Tatiana Roa, an engineer and environmentalist with Censat Agua Viva in Colombia. “When we think about energy, we think cables, towers, engines, and different devices. We’re not thinking from the broad point of view of peasant movements, which are pushing cleaner options that promote food sovereignty.”

The pandemic has complicated this transition and also further highlighted the gap between the top-down efforts of the governments and the lived reality of especially the poorer members of society. “The government in Bolivia said that people have to wash their hands all the time and eat healthy to avoid infection,” reports Carmen Aliaga of the Latin American Network of Women Defenders in Bolivia. “But a lot of communities don’t have any water, or the water is not clean. These are places where children are already sick with kidney problems because of the heavy metals in the water. These communities have had to take care of themselves, to find food and to secure health care for women. It’s a highly precarious existence, especially for indigenous people working in rural areas.”

At a recent Zoom seminar—which can be viewed in English and Spanish—these four activists with the Ecosocial Pact discussed what a just transition for Latin America looks like from a bottom-up, grassroots perspective of “feet on the ground, heart on the left.”

The political backdrop

During this pandemic period, a number of Latin American countries have gone through significant political transitions. In 2021, leftist parties regained power in Chile, Peru, and Honduras, while the right retook power in Ecuador.

These political upheavals reflect even more significant turmoil at the grassroots. An economic crisis and worsening inequality prompted tens of thousands of Colombians to take to the street in April 2021. Food shortages and the government’s COVID response produced widespread protests in Cuba in July 2021. Anti-government protesters in Brazil called for the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro in the spring and fall last year, while Ortega cracked down harshly on protestors and critics in Nicaragua.

Latin American analysts have likened this outpouring of protests on the street to a flood, un desborde.

“This is a new time of struggle in the region, different from what we’ve seen in the past,” reflects Breno Bringel. “We can’t understand it from a traditional right- or left-wing point of view. These uprisings function as a social thermometer.”

That thermometer offers a measurement not just of the frustrations of living in a pandemic era. “We are seeing the destruction of ecosystems, the overuse of nature, and socio-environmental devastations,” Bringel continues. “There has been the increase of hunger, inequality, and poverty. The lack of access to basic rights has gone hand in hand with militarization, violence, repression, and forced migration.”

At the national level, right-wing leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have surged to the forefront in the past few years. But Bolsonaro’s popularity has cratered during the COVID period, with his approval rating dropping below 20 percent in November 2021. “The radical right wing is trying to gain space,” Bringel notes, “but it is more difficult following Trump’s loss in November 2020. We hope that Bolsonaro will be defeated too this year but let’s be clear: Bolsonarism won’t die. The right wing of society will continue, causing a lot of destruction, even as it tries to present itself as moderate, as central right.”

Another challenge at the state level has been corruption, like the enormous Odebrecht scandal that involved a number of leaders in the region receiving payoffs from the Brazil-based construction company in exchange for preferential contracts. “There have been corrupt administrations and corrupt companies around the region, as in other regions,” Pablo Bertinat explains. “The problem is not just the corruption but the policies pushed forward by governments in the region. Even without corruption, a lot of Odebrecht projects like big dams would still have done great damage.”

Progressive forces in the region, meanwhile, come in at least three different flavors. The first are conservative progressives who were a political force 20 years ago. “They say they’re coming back in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia,” Breno Bringel notes. “But they don’t come out of social movements or have a territorial basis. The way they talk about socio-environmental issues is similar to more right-wing groups. For instance, in Argentina, they talk about oil as the only option for overcoming poverty.”

The second group consists of authoritarian progressives, like Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, who claim to be leftist but don’t have any respect for democratic process.

The third group are second-generation progressives in places like Chile and Colombia. “These forces come out of recent social movements,” Bringel continues. “They’re more anti-neoliberal, are more open to political experimentation. But they could go either way: toward more conservative progressivism or toward more transformative leftism.”

The Ecosocial Pact aligns itself with this new transformative leftism. Cutting across issue areas, it is critical of both the conservative and the authoritarian progressives, resistant to the notion of separating the environmental from the social, and committed to the idea that a just transition in Latin America will come from the margins. “We want to put together new instruments, new organizations, new ways of thinking and acting that are anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, antiracist, environmental, and feminist,” he adds. “The changes we need come from community-based struggles involving youth, Blacks, indigenous communities.”

The left in Latin America has frequently focused either on social justice or on environmental justice, as if they were contradictory and mutually exclusive. But the maps of environmental destruction and poverty overlap, Bringel points out, which motivates the Ecosocial Pact to coordinate among different forces on the left “to try to be a proactive actor on just transitions in Latin America.”

Community-based energy transition

Most climate proposals for Latin America coming from government or multilateral institutions are focused on decarbonization driven by high-tech changes in the energy sector and business and/or consumers as the agents of transformation. This patriarchal corporate view, Pablo Bertinat explains, sees decarbonization as a golden opportunity for more intensive capital accumulation. The energy transition, rather than saving the planet, is a way to save their bottom lines.

This corporate-led transition relies on such fixes as increased mining of lithium, increased production of copper, or new pilot projects to produce “green hydrogen” from the electrolysis of water. The lack of environmental enforcement, also encouraged by corporations, also produces side effects like wildcat mining in the Amazon and the illegal logging of balsa wood plantations in indigenous communities in Ecuador. “All of these processes are clearly associated with a transition that sees only decarbonization as the problem,” Bertinat continues. “This is the main problem we face as we look at these major extractivist projects and a ‘Green transition’ coming from the Global North.”

The Ecosocial Pact flips this perspective on its head. It looks at transition from the point of view of the grassroots. “What we are proposing is a different model,” Bertinat explains, “based on social-environmental justice, which puts energy in the area of rights and takes energy out of the market. It understands the need to transform the entire energy system—understood as a set of social relations that connect humans to nature—and not just change the source of energy.”

The transition is grounded in the experiences of groups working on the ground. In Guatemala, for instance, the Madreselva cooperative has been working for two decades on community-based alternatives such as small-scale community hydroelectric facilities and local ecological food production. In Colombia, a network of communities has been using the appropriate technology of biomass digesters to produce energy for homes and farm equipment as well as natural fertilizer for the fields.

“In most cases, the first experience on the community level has to do with resistance,” Bertinat explains. “Alternatives have emerged in places where the state is not present, where it is not satisfying community needs. Experiences like the urban movements for the right to energy and against an increase in energy fees go against the dominant energy logic and point toward an energy transformation.”

Looking at the energy situation from a local point of view also raises some important questions about the path of decarbonization. The transport sector, for instance, is responsible for 35 percent of the region’s carbon emissions, which compares to 23 percent on average in the rest of the world. “Why do we spend so much energy on transportation?” Bertinat asks. “Why do we move things around so much? Could we move things around less? Could we produce more things locally?”

“We’re not talking about theories but experiences in different cooperatives and communities at different levels in society,” he adds. “Just because it’s local, there’s no guarantee that it’s better. But there’s an opportunity at the local level to discuss and dispute and to find a new relationship between community and energy. We believe that we can strengthen these local alternatives and move toward demarketization, deprivatization, and a strengthening of public goods. This can be the basis of community management of the energy system.”

Rural alternatives

Less than 20 percent of the population of Latin America live in the countryside, but the number varies widely from country to country. One third of the Ecuadoran population is rural, for instance, compared to less than 8 percent of the Argentinian population. Moreover, economic inequality is particularly intense along the rural-urban divide. Although they represent 18 percent of the region’s population, the rural population accounts for 29 percent of the poor (and 41 percent of those suffering extreme poverty).

But the rural population of Latin America is very diverse, from peasants to the landless to fisherfolk. What unites them, Tatiana Roa points out, is a view of the energy transition centered around food sovereignty. “For several decades now in Latin America, the movement of peasant organizations and the networks of ecological farmworkers have developed so many different experiences around how to produce for local markets, how to incorporate new farming techniques.”

Rural inhabitants understand the critical relationship between food and energy in a way that city dwellers who don’t grow or kill their own food no longer appreciate. “Food is the main source of energy that we humans need,” she adds. “During most of our life, that’s been our main source of energy, alongside biomass. Food takes up most of the energy on the planet. But generating food creates a whole chain of problems.” As in the energy field, top-down approaches to boosting agricultural yields have created a number of problems. The Green Revolution, for instance, relies on unsustainably large inputs of energy and water.

“When we transform those forms of agriculture so that we depend less on fossil fuel and consume less water, we not only contribute to cooling down the planet but we also conserve the seeds that will make it possible to address the climate crisis,” Roa says. “These seeds will allow us to grow crops through dry periods or excessive rain. All of this knowledge, research and practice, and technology developed by peasants through the millennia will be important to surviving this current crisis.”

Looking at the energy transition from a peasant perspective raises questions about what energy is needed for, how much is needed, and in what form it should take. “We have this idea that everything has to be electricity, or engines, and that we have to have it 24 hours a day so that we can manage computers and cell phones,” she continues. “People in the countryside need different things. They need to grind grain, pump water, dehydrate produce. So, solar energy becomes important in other ways, for instance as a solar dehydrator. Small-scale hydraulic energy is necessary to mill grain in mills that have been recovered after being abandoned.”

But there are also ways of generating energy from animals or even children, like bicycle generators or swings that kids use and simultaneously pump water. “These are easier, more economical, and also provide important community experiences,” Roa adds.

CENSAT, Roa’s organization, puts together an annual exhibition of local initiatives throughout Latin America that combine energy generation with other community needs: a solar panel project for dehydrating fruits and vegetables, a tilapia-breeding initiative that generates hydropower, sustainable energy for an agroforestry project.

Feminist perspectives

Women in Latin America, particularly those in indigenous communities, have been at the forefront of the struggles against mining and other extractive industries as well as the land appropriation that precedes the establishment of such operations. A disproportionate number of the environmental activists who have been threatened, injured, or killed have been women.

The pandemic has only underscored the precariousness of women and indigenous communities. But it has also reinforced the importance of “putting life first, putting care first, and putting our bodies first as part of defending our territory and defending ourselves,” Carmen Aliaga points out. “It’s not just a slogan, rather it’s a priority and a policy. This crisis of care has overcome us, but this is also an opportunity to see what can be done in the communities, how to build alternatives as we try to create autonomy.”

The alternatives derive not only from locales but from local knowledge. “To survive, communities try to do what they can to recover their old knowledge and to restore territories where they used to grow medicinal plants,” she continues. “It’s what their grandparents did to take care of themselves without hospitals and modern drugs.” In addition, after a heavy reliance on processed food, “women are looking for ways to recover food sovereignty, to restore our collective bodies that have suffered so much violence from mining and colonialism.”

Machismo is embedded in the extractivist framework. “We’ve seen how mining, in damaging the environment, encourages the return of patriarchy by overworking women,” she adds. “Where there’s mining and oil production, there’s human trafficking, forced prostitution, and increased violence because of increased consumption of alcohol.”

An anti-patriarchal transition, meanwhile, would highlight the political role of women “with all the different caretaking tasks made invisible over time: taking care of seeds, taking care of children, taking care of families, taking care of water, taking care of territories and collective memory,” she concludes. “A just transition would revitalize all these different actions and roles that women have historically taken on.”

Breno Bringel agrees. “The agenda of practical experiences at the local level is much broader than what we have talked about here,” he relates. “During the last century, we talked about transformation mainly through states or revolutions, something radical and fast. But here is a new concept of transition that is enriched and gets different feedback from experiences at the local level. These experiences are localized but not specific to only one place. Many of them go beyond their location—to Latin America as a whole and to the global level as well.”

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