Latin America: A Changing Environment?
Illustration credit: Alyssa Osben

As attention turns to what a post-COVID-19 world might look like, questions have arisen as to how countries can rebuild their economies in response to another mortal threat: climate change. Leaders in the west have spoken vaguely of a ‘green energy revolution,’ with the British Transport Minister praising the increase of cycling as a shift towards sustainable transport, and Germany and France agreeing that the EU’s recovery will integrate climate action into its economic plans. In Latin America, however, a region where the effects of agribusiness, monocultural plantations and deforestation are already keenly felt, this vision might seem almost utopic. Its fragile economies face a depression that has shifted the focus of many governments and companies to short-term survival, yet sustainability could be the key to a durable rebuilding. A green future must not necessarily be exclusionary.

Environmental protection is a fraught issue in many of the region’s countries, a tension exemplified by the fact that Latin America remains the most dangerous part of the world for those who campaign against environmental degradation. In 2018, over half of the recorded murders of environmental activists took place in Latin America. In spite of the current crisis, these numbers have only continued to rise: the number of environmentalists killed in the region has increased each month in 2020. As political unrest and economic anxieties heighten in response to the global lockdown, it seems that environmental protection is not only taking a backseat, but inciting an increasingly aggressive response from those who view it as an attack on their livelihoods.

The attitude that environmentalism prevents economic success is understandable, albeit flawed. Particularly in the case of the individuals who rely on the exploitation of natural resources to earn a wage, there is a clear sense of indignation towards those who seemingly wish to defend forests over human livelihoods. In Peru, most notably in the Madre de Dios Amazon region, illegal miners are driven further into indigenous lands and forested areas not by sheer antagonism, but by a lack of economic opportunity. This illegitimate business seems set to grow over the following months, with the combination of a weakened state presence in the area and rising poverty making gold mining an attractive means of survival. COICA (The Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon) has already registered a rise in the practice in both the Peruvian Amazon and in Columbia’s Putumayo province; as an economic contraction is experienced globally, short-term profit takes precedence over sustainability. Particularly for those individuals that rely on informal work, this survivalism is understandable, yet disturbingly, a similar mode of thought is also dictating government response to the crisis.

Despite promises to tackle deforestation, which is currently at a record-high in Brazil, Bolsanaro’s government is not only prioritising economic recovery over environmental protection, but is actively exploiting the COVID-19 crisis in order to distract both its own public and the media abroad. In May, the Environment Minister Ricardo Salles was recorded stating that the pandemic will allow the government to push through unpopular policy deregulation without facing quite so much criticism. The changes would allow the further expansion of agribusiness into protected areas, often indigenous land. These businesses tend towards monocultural growing, which erodes soil and greatly reduces biodiversity in areas rich in natural resources. This move is no surprise from one of Bolsanaro’s ministers – the President himself has previously expressed his belief that the development of the Amazon and the promotion of agribusiness is necessary in order to tackle poverty. If Bolsanaro’s strategy in dealing with the pandemic more generally is any indicator, then it is likely that this environmental deregulation will continue in favour of economic recovery, just as the government risked the health of its citizens in order to continue production.

That these governments approach economic and environmental crises as separate issues exposes a disconnect in Latin America, one that has its origins in colonialism, and has since been strengthened by the growth of global capitalism. As Eduardo Galeon writes, Latin America is the ‘region of open veins,’ where human and natural resources are similarly exploited for capital. Despite this link between human and environmental degradation, the latter is often viewed as a solution to the former, fostering a cycle of exhaustion. Recognising the connection between socio-political and environmental issues is the key to a sustainable future for Latin America, and the rupture of global capitalism threatened by COVID-19 provides an opportunity for the region to do so. Unfortunately, the majority of solutions so far have continued to work within the assumed nature/society dichotomy. In Brazil, for example, Bolsanaro’s deployment of the military to prevent further deforestation demonstrates a lack of engagement with the motivation behind illegal logging. Similarly, Operation Mercury, initiated last year by Peru’s government to crack down on illegal mining, aims to expel and persecute miners from the city of La Pampa without tackling the causes of the offence. The poverty that drives further environmental degradation emerges from the same system that transforms nature into capital. To escape this vicious cycle, Latin American governments must avoid such solely reactionary measures and establish a means of working with the environment.

Argentina has shown remarkable promise in this area over the last few years. Agroecology has been on the rise in the country, as a means of combating dominant agribusiness models, which despite increasing yields have led to extreme soil erosion and pesticidal pollution, largely due to monocultural growing. The recognition of the unsustainability of these models has prompted many producers to stop using pesticides, in a move which not only promotes greater biodiversity, but also has the potential to cut unnecessary costs. Pesticides are expensive, and ironically, the more a producer uses them, the more they must use to achieve the same results. Riva, a grain farming company switching to agroecological methods of production, have compared the process to drug rehabilitation: “el campo es un adicto,”[1] said its director in an interview with Diálogo China. Evidently, agroecology is no quick fix, and the long journey towards sustainable farming is one that few struggling companies are likely to be willing to start in the middle of an economic recession. Yet in saving them from this crisis, short-term solutions will reverse vital progress, and ultimately leave producers more vulnerable to economic and environmental crises in the future. Recognising now the way that these crises inform one another and are increasingly difficult to separate will allow companies operating in Latin America not only to survive this crisis, but to prepare better for others.

The threat that COVID-19 poses to globalisation could encourage such a rethinking of the relationship between economy and environment. A country known for its agricultural production, Argentina nonetheless struggles with food insecurity. It exports the vast majority of its produce, and commodity prices are therefore established abroad at rates unaffordable for many in a country where 32% of the population was living below the poverty line in 2019. Now, with COVID-19 interrupting trade and many producers holding back large surpluses of soy and grains, for once it is not Argentina’s population at risk of food scarcity, but those countries that it exports to. President Alberto Fernandez, in his announcement that the government plans to take over the severely indebted soy giant Vicentin, spoke simultaneously of ensuring food sovereignty and job security. This kind of approach, which combines ecological and economic strategies, represents a move away from the country’s extractivist model. Argentina could be set to re-establish a relationship with its own environment, which for years has been lending out its land and resources to the richer countries reliant on its exports.

The United Nations Environmental Programme has produced a plan for a sustainable rebuilding of Latin America, one that could see this tentative progress expanded and intensified across the region. This policy brief highlights the dangers of ignoring environmental considerations for the sake of a quick – and ultimately unsustainable – economic recovery. Noting that “las mismas condiciones que crearon la pandemia”[2] will only be exacerbated by short-term crisis management, UNEP outline how an eco-conscious rebuilding could strengthen the economy and environment simultaneously. Their plans include providing work by bolstering the recycling industry, decarbonising economies while simultaneously creating new jobs in a green transport sector, a change which alone could create 7.7 million jobs in the region by 2050, and stimulating localised food production. Indeed, the COVID-19 outbreak is a painful demonstration of the independence of human, plant and animal systems; to focus on only the human element of the global capitalist system would therefore constitute only a partial rebuilding. UNEP’s plan promises a new kind of crisis response, one that considers human and ecological needs in equal measure.

It is vital that, as Europe’s leaders speak of a green future, Latin America’s do so too. Sustainability cannot become another tool of global capitalism; it must necessarily work against a system which exhausts human and extra-human resources alike. For Latin America in particular, a connection must be made between poverty and deforestation, agribusiness and food insecurity, pollution and exportation. As the pandemic reshapes globalisation, a region used to looking – and shipping – outwards must now look inwards, and regain ownership of its environment.

[1] Translation: ‘the soil is an addict’

[2] Translation: ‘the same conditions which created the pandemic’