Under Left- and Right-Wing Leaders, the Amazon Has Burned. Can Latin America Reject Oil, Ranching, and Mining?

The social gains of the pink tide were real, and striking. But they were ephemeral, and the cost to the environment was high.

Dust and leaves blow in the wind as a fire burns near Charagua in Bolivia, on the border with Paraguay, south of the Amazon basin, on August 29, 2019. - Fires have destroyed 1.2 million hectares of forest and grasslands in Bolivia this year, the government said on Wednesday, although environmentalists claim the true figure is much greater. (Photo by Aizar RALDES / AFP)        (Photo credit should read AIZAR RALDES/AFP via Getty Images)
Dust and leaves blow in the wind as a fire burns near Charagua in Bolivia, on the border with Paraguay, on Aug. 29, 2019. Photo: Aizar Raldes/AFP via Getty Images

The chapter in Latin American history that opened in 1998 with celebrations in Venezuela has ended with a coup and violence in Bolivia. As with all tidal waves, the “pink tide” recedes to reveal a terrain transformed. The left movement landscape that produced variously striped socialist governments in a dozen countries is fractured and disillusioned. Central and South America face a resurgent right and the return of austerity, often through a scrim of tear gas. This state of disarray also marks the continent’s literal terrain: the forests and mountains cleared and ripped open, their minerals and hydrocarbons sent to port and shipped abroad in the name of a socialist project whose achievements have proven fragile, temporary, and superficial.

Global concern about the future of the Amazon has understandably focused of late on Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has accelerated the destruction of the rainforest with fascistic glee. But beneath that regime’s chilling contempt for nature as anything but a store of resources to be harvested lies an unsettling truth: Its agenda of unrestrained extraction represents a difference of degree and style, rather than kind, from the one embraced by every major Amazonian country of the past two decades. This includes the pink-tide governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil, which promoted mining, oil, and industrial agriculture as earnestly as their neoliberal counterparts in Peru and Colombia.

To scrutinize this legacy is not to dismiss the social gains it made possible, however briefly. These gains were real and in some cases striking. New state spending on health, education, and block grant programs improved the lives of many millions of people in a region defined by gross inequality and deep endemic poverty. And yet, as many observed from the beginning, these gains could only be ephemeral, based as they were on the budgetary sugar highs of a unique, decadelong commodities boom driven by China and, to a lesser degree, India. Even before mineral and oil prices began declining in 2012, the coalitions behind many pink-tide governments began to crack under the contradictions and trade-offs of what the Uruguayan social scientist Eduardo Gudynas, an early and influential pink-tide critic on the left, called “neo-extractivism.” This version of extractivism, it turned out, though defended from palace balconies under the banners of socialism and anti-imperialism, was not so different from the model practiced by centuries of colonial, military, and neoliberal rule. Its main innovation was to negotiate bigger cuts on growing exports of primary resources.

Aerial view the Esperanca IV informal gold mining camp, near the Menkragnoti indigenous territory, in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 28, 2019. (Photo by Joao LAET / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOAO LAET/AFP via Getty Images)

The Esperanca IV informal gold mining camp, near the Menkragnoti Indigenous territory, in Para state, Brazil, on Aug. 28, 2019.

Photo: Joao Laet/AFP via Getty Images

The proceeds of the extra percentage points accomplished much good while they lasted. They also obscured the failure to advance a democratic left project to challenge five centuries of systemic despoilment, dispossession, and dependence. Neo-extractivism “enabled important forms of socio-economic inclusion and political empowerment for the masses while simultaneously undermining more radical transformations,” concludes Thea Riofrancos in “Resource Radicals,” her forthcoming study of the politics of pink-tide extractivism.

“In both Bolivia and Brazil, the forests are in flames.”

In place of these more radical transformations, neo-extractivism accelerated the cycle of destruction required of the region’s historical role in the global economy. The political and ecological consequences of this were starkest in the rainforests, dry forests, and the western cordilleras that are the fountains of the Amazon system. As mining and oil auctions multiplied, the pink-tide coalitions of urban workers, small farmers, and Indigenous people broke apart.

“Left or right, the ideology is the same: Steal our land and destroy the environment,” said José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, the Venezuelan coordinator for the federation of Amazonian indigenous organizations, or COICA. “In both Bolivia and Brazil, the forests are in flames.”

Reckoning with this history takes place, as does everything now, in the light of the climate crisis. Because extractivism dooms the Amazon rainforest, a biome central to any conceivable resolution to this crisis, a new Latin American left will have to reject it.

This idea isn’t new. Debates over how Latin America might stitch its veins and build alternatives to a Western “development” model based on commodity exports were central to the firmament of social movements that pink-tide parties rode to power. During the 1990s, activists, scholars, and political figures from the region engaged in searching critiques of globalization and the extractivist trap. Before Hugo Chávez heralded the arrival of “anti-imperialist” resource nationalism, securing Venezuela’s stature and funding anti-poverty programs with oil receipts and mining projects in the country’s south, the most inspirational figures on the Latin and global left were the Zapatistas in southern Mexico, who demanded a “world where many worlds fit.” In hundreds of gatherings in villages and capital cities — of which the World Social Forum was only the largest — the rainbow flags of newly politicized Indigenous groups mixed with socialist and Bolivarian symbols in debates over how to build a new Latin America, one that would be socially just and ecologically wise.

Some 30,000 people gather in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002 for a march to officially inaugurate the five-day World Social Forum of some 40,000 participants.(AP Photo/Douglas Engle)

About 30,000 people gather in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Jan. 31, 2002 for a march to officially inaugurate the five-day World Social Forum.

Photo: Douglas Engle/AP

The new thinking found its fullest expression in the concept of buen vivir. As an organizing political principle or ideology, “living well” is a kind of fusion of Indigenous and Western ideas about limits, solidarity, the sources of human happiness, and the balance of nature. It connotes a strong critique of the market, short-term thinking, materialism, and exploitation of people and the environment. It has been promoted and embraced by governments in Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Peru, but is most closely associated with Bolivia and Ecuador. Former presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa campaigned on buen vivir platforms and enshrined the concept in their respective pink-tide constitutions.

The use of Indigenous symbols and ideas had become cheap when I met Alberto Acosta at a protest march in the southern Ecuadorean city of Zamora in late 2012. A tall economist with a somewhat severe bearing, Acosta served as Correa’s first minister of energy and mining and chaired the convention that made global headlines for its inclusion of buen vivir and its kin, “the rights of nature,” in the 2008 constitution. Three years later, Acosta had left the government and since been chairing different kinds of conferences, such as “Social Movements for Democracy and Life,” convened to organize left opposition to Correa and pink tide neo-extractivism.

On the morning I interviewed him, he spoke while marching behind the banner of seven allied left parties that had quit or been founded in opposition to Correa’s “Unity” coalition. “There is nothing new in Correa’s development plan,” he told me. “He cites the dependency school theorists, but his idea is the same center-periphery economic model of exporting raw materials. He has replaced Uncle Sam with Uncle Chen” — China — “to sustain his social programs and political position at the expense of real development. We resist this model just as we resisted neoliberalism.”

Because extractivism dooms the Amazon rainforest, a new Latin American left will have to reject it.

I was in Ecuador at the time reporting a story that illustrated the critique. Correa’s government had approved plans for an open-pit copper and gold mega-mine in the Cordillera del Cóndor, an important biological hotspot, species corridor, and watershed in the northwestern Amazon that was home to thousands of Indigenous people, mostly Shuar, and mestizo farmers. The mine, then in the early stages of construction by a Chinese conglomerate called ECSA, was already displacing communities; when completed, it would displace many more and pollute the land and water of anyone who remained. Correa criminalized opposition to the project and attacked his critics as imperialist stooges and agents. In Quito, a campaigner with the NGO Clínica Ambiental showed me the names of hundreds of activists who were in prison or facing jail time. “Because Correa represents the left, opposing him opens you up to the charge of supporting the old regime that bankrupted everyone. But he’s proven himself a neoliberal with redistributive touches. He’s avoided pacts with the U.S. but sold the country to China.”

In Bolivia, a softer version of the same dynamic had begun to play out by 2012. The Morales government’s expansion of mining and industrial agriculture had caused early defections from key figures in the social movements forged during the so-called water and gas wars of the early 2000s before propelling Morales to power. The big break came in 2011, when Morales announced plans to build a 185-mile highway through the primary rainforests of the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory. The government claimed that its purpose was to provide better social services to remote villages, but Bolivia’s Indigenous groups correctly understood the highway as part of a longer-term project to industrialize the lowland forests, eventually connecting them to the Amazon-wide transport grid found in the planning documents of a Brazil-led super-project called the Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure of South America, or IIRSA. (The highway is funded by the Brazilian Development Bank and tracks closely to land where the Brazilian oil giant Petrobras holds exploration rights.) As resistance spread, Morales raided the offices of Indigenous groups that opposed the highway and forcefully replaced the leaders with loyalists. He publicly accused his critics, including the longtime president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia, Adolfo Chávez, of being “agents of USAID” — the U.S. Agency for International Development — and charged them with serious crimes. They went into hiding until the country’s Supreme Court reversed the charges.

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, left, Bolivia's President Evo Morales, center, and Ecuador's President Rafael Correa arrive for a military parade commemorating the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Bolivia's independence movement in La Paz, Thursday, July 16, 2009. Bolivia became independent from Spain in 1825. (AP Photo/Patricio Crooker)

From left, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa arrive for a military parade commemorating the 200th anniversary of the beginning of Bolivia’s independence movement in La Paz on July 16, 2009.

Photo: Patricio Crooker/AP

“We supported Morales and Correa because the left parties promised to respect our rights, but they broke the promises and weakened our organizations,” Chávez told me recently. “We had a coherent plan to help the government build sustainable industries that would protect the forests and rivers. The patterns never changed. We’re still subject to transnationals that have relationships with the left and right parties equally.”

It wasn’t just the self-declared Bolivarian pink-tide countries that embraced neo-extractivism. In Brazil, the Workers’ Party governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff strengthened protections on large areas of the Amazon while also embracing the long-term vision of IIRSA: a region dotted with dams to power mining operations and connected by roads and railways to facilitate the widening flow of raw materials to ports on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Under both administrations, mining expanded throughout the country, including in the Amazon. But it was another, more quiet expansion that likely had the biggest climate impact: The “green desert” of industrial agriculture continued to consume the remaining dry forests and savannas of the Cerrado, a once-massive but rapidly disappearing carbon sink that sprawls across a half-dozen states in Brazil’s central plateau.

The challenge facing a transformational post-extractivist left is daunting. To take and maintain power, it will have to answer Correa’s charge that proponents of post-extractivism want the continent’s poor to live like “beggars on a sack of gold.” It will need a vision and plan to solve the riddle posed by the left academic and Correa critic Pablo Ospina Peralta: “How do you revolutionize the economy when the government depends on the health of the economy that it seeks to revolutionize?”

Whatever the specifics of the answer, the case will benefit from the failures of centuries of extractivism. Latin America, where the gated community was conceived, is the most unequal region in the world, with deep structural poverty increasingly compounded by pollution and the effects of the climate crisis. That these issues can be potently paired was visible last month on the streets of Quito, Ecuador. Following an 11-day strike in protest of an announced austerity package, President Lenin Moreno, who succeeded Correa in 2017, relented to meeting with Indigenous leaders who led street protests in opposition to proposed social cuts and labor reforms — and an end to oil drilling and mining in the Amazon. In Chile, where the devastation caused by decades of wanton mining has become impossible to ignore, urban protesters are waving Mapuche flags, whose colorful buen vivir symbolism depicts Indigenous blood, the earth, the sun, snow-capped mountains, and hope.

Latin America holds nearly half of the world’s copper and silver, a quarter of its nickel and bauxite, and stores of the rare earths and metals used in computers, solar panels, and next-gen fuel cells.

“Something is stirring up,” said Arturo Escobar, the Colombian-American scholar whose 1995 book, “Encountering Development,” gave shape to emerging debates about development and growth. “There are visibly growing fissures in the ruling political, economic, and development model consensus, including the ‘commodities consensus’ of the 2000s and 2010s that caused massive ecological devastation. People are again talking about a civilizational crisis, which in the best cases leads to the possibility of a new epoch that questions the old assumptions and moves towards a politics of buen vivir — more communitarian, ecological, and spiritual in orientation.”

That a movement could emerge to build a new social order that satisfies human needs, while protecting and regenerating the rivers and forests, may seem far-fetched. But it is no more unrealistic than believing that an economy based on consumption and growth can ever achieve ecological equilibrium.

View of dredgers at the Madre de Dios River in Tacana indigenous territory, near Las Mercedes, La Paz department, Bolivia on August 31, 2019. - The Tacana indigenous community is worried about mining activities taking place in their reserve, but even more about an exploitation project launched by the government, which seeks to extract 50 million barrels of oil and 125 billion cubic feet of gas from their subsoil. (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES / AFP) (Photo by ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images)

Dredgers on the Madre de Dios River in Tacana Indigenous territory, near La Paz, Bolivia, on Aug. 31, 2019.

Photo: Ernesto Benavides/AFP via Getty Images

The chances of such a movement succeeding will depend on the success of allied movements elsewhere. Commodity markets have written much of Latin American history, and global demand for raw materials will continue to exert a powerful influence. This will be true even in a “greened” version of the current system. A global shift away from fossil fuels would spare the Amazon further devastation from oil and gas development, but not from being cleared for monocrops or ripped apart in search of rare earth metals to build solar-charged, annually updated iPhones and the latest all-electric performance SUV from Jaguar. A growth-based system running on a decarbonized grid will still require massive inputs of the primary materials found in the soils and rock of the nine Amazonian countries. Latin America holds nearly half of the world’s copper and silver, a quarter of its nickel and bauxite (aluminum), and dispersed stores of the rare earths and “technology” metals used in computers, solar panels, and next-gen fuel cells. In a recent article on Bolivia’s lithium industry for the New Republic, Intercept contributor Kate Aronoff notes that powering the current economy with renewables would consume the world’s lithium reserves in a very short amount of time. Trying to maintain a “green” version of global consumer society could lead to a scramble for rare metals to make previous waves of extractivism look gentle by comparison.

If Latin America refused to open its veins for these resources, it would end its role as global resource bank, which began nonconsensually with the 16th-century slave economies that loaded European ships with gold, silver, and sugar. There are small precedents for such a refusal. El Salvador banned all metal mining in 2017 to protect its water. Costa Rica has long enforced a limited mining ban. In every country where mining is rampant, movements are organizing behind post-extractivist agendas guided by the ecosocialist values of buen vivir.

Indigenous groups are only part of this project, but they are at the front and play a unique role. They bring a living knowledge of alternatives and are the ones threatened most directly with extinction. One of the most prominent Indigenous voices for a different course is Juan Carlos Jintiach, COICA’s coordinator for economic planning and often the only Indigenous voice in the room at settings such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations, and the World Bank. He is neither naive nor resigned, but focused on the pregnancies of the moment’s overlapping emergencies.

“This is a confusing and risky time,” said Jintiach. “It requires social mobilizations that transcend left and right and connect us to each other and the land. Buen vivir contains the concepts, but it’s a language the other society doesn’t always understand. We’re building alliances to show there is another way. It’s not our fight, it’s everyone’s. Right now, there is a storm, a bad storm. But the moment we wake up, we’ll see the sky.”

Join The Conversation