Latin America Faces the Global Ecological Crisis

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Because of Latin America’s natural wealth, the region is a great supplier of commodities, food and energy to industrialized economies; and, at the same time, the wealthier countries try to transfer the environmental costs of the dirtiest industries to it

by Ignacio Sabbatella, University of Buenos Aires

Ignacio Sabbatella is a frequent contributor to Marxismo Ecologico. This article was first published in Voces en el Fenix. Translation by Laura Mattas.

In this article, we will try to outline briefly some of the challenges facing Latin America in relation to the environment. To this end, we will begin by analysing the structural factors underlying the global ecological crisis.

We will continue by exposing what we have called environmental inequalities, the forms they assume and the conflicts they may provoke.

Finally, we will refer to the conduct of Latin American governments, and the political strategies they employ together with those they might implement.

Capital vs. nature appropriation

Humankind is facing an escalating ecological crisis of great magnitude. Its manifestations can be grouped in two major and interrelated problems. On the one hand, we can mention the environmental damage, which includes air, water and soil pollution. So-called climate change has become its clear expression. On the other hand, the progressive depletion of natural assets, essential to human life such as fresh water, minerals, fertile lands and energy sources. Statistics from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) indicate that world’s demand on biological resources exceeds the regenerative capacity of the planet by 30%. It is possible to situate this accelerating environmental degradation in the last four decades, a period which coincides with the implementation of neoliberal policies.

Some analyses, either superficial or profound, lay the responsibility of environmental degradation on humans’ actions in the abstract. These analyses conceal the historical aspects of human actions. Apart from this, we believe it is not desirable to lay the responsibility on Modern ideas, i.e.: a faith in the endless progress of material forces; for these ideas do not unveil the way men use and transform nature at a given moment under the dominant production and reproduction system.

It is necessary to reconsider the foundations of the capitalist system of production to understand environmental problems. Not only is it important to discuss the antagonistic relation capital-work, but also the contradiction present in the pair capital-nature: nature’s capacity to supply and assimilate is limited and, therefore, incompatible with the unlimited accumulative characteristic of capitalism. Given the atomized and anarchist structure of capitalism, human beings relate to nature through private ownership and commodification. Human beings are alienated from the natural world, and Capitalism fetishizes nature.

The State professes to be the mediator between Capital and nature by regulating access and exploitation. However, policies aiming at privatizing State owned companies, market deregulation and open economic policies jammed State mechanisms which safeguarded nature. Therefore, capitalism accelerated its dominion over nature in order to produce surplus value. This is both an extensive and an intensive process. It is extensive because Capital ownership keeps expanding, capturing more and more parts of nature and advancing its frontiers of extraction. And it is intensive because of its growing need for greater amounts of natural assets and a greater subjugation of natural forces.

In the same way, relaxation of government regulations also accelerates contamination processes given that the responsibility of the disposal of solid, liquid, and gaseous waste depends on individual capitals, which tend not to treat them properly. The logic of maximization of profits exposes the fact that the protection of the environment is not part of the productive expense of capital.

Environmental inequalities

Having analysed the specific characteristics of the capitalist way of production in terms of its relation to nature, we will now focus on the socio-political impacts. Whereas concepts such as social or economic inequalities are widespread, we believe it is necessary to coin the term environmental inequalities in order to evince the power relations that are also reproduced in the ecological field.

There are two ways in which this environmental inequality is manifested: inequality in the access to and control of natural assets, and inequality in the access to a healthy environment.

The first one indicates the existent asymmetries of power to dispose, benefit, and utilize assets that are essential to human life, such as water, soil and energy.

And the second way in which inequality is manifested is related to the protection of the environment and the asymmetries of power in the distribution of environmental damage resulting from productive activities.

In the case of mining and hydrocarbon extraction, both ways of inequality are involved. All around the world, transnational capitals capture these activities and prevent local communities from accessing. As a result, they are forced to relocate. Moreover, extraction is made through low-cost methods which result in serious damage to the environment: the use of great amounts of water, contamination with chemicals, gas burning, etc. Transportation is also dangerous either for the breakage of slurry, gas and oil pipelines, or the leakage of oil tankers.

The persistence and magnitude of environmental inequalities are generally a key factor for socio-environmental conflicts: i.e. disputes over the appropriation or maintenance of natural assets locally, nationally and internationally. At the same time, these environmental inequalities coexist with other types of social inequalities, generating new conflicts based on old unequal relations, just like the well-known unequal exchange between “northern “and “southern” countries.

The big demand centres, together with the major rates of consumption and contamination are in the “northern” countries, whereas poorest countries are given the role of mere suppliers of natural assets A fact that illustrates this is the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions: 80% is produced by 20% of the world population, concentrated in USA, Europe and Japan.

The international division of labour is re edited and the regions where natural wealth abounds are coveted for capitalist appropriation. Because of Latin America’s natural wealth, the region is a great supplier of commodities, food and energy to industrialized economies; and, at the same time, the wealthier countries try to transfer the environmental costs of the dirtiest industries to it. A familiar example is that of the pulp mills in Argentina: UPM (former Botnia), generated the greatest and best-known conflicts.

At a national level, environmental inequalities also interact with other kinds of inequalities. Under normal conditions of accumulation, capital appropriation progressively curtails the access to natural assets and distributes environmental degradation among the poor, black, native peoples, farmers, etc. In times of crisis, either economic or ecological, inequality becomes even more marked given that capital will try survive at all costs by transferring the losses of its activities to other social sectors.

From extractivism to neoextractivism

Having analysed the inequalities mentioned above, the challenge Latin America faces as regards the environment becomes evident. Despite considerable political changes in the region during the last decade, progressive governments have not been able to change the role assigned to their countries in the international division of labour, and at times, this role has been accented. Venezuela and Bolivia, for example, have had a remarkable role at international level, as it was seen during the Copenhagen summit last December by placing the responsibility for climatic change on the capitalist system.

At the same time, it is necessary to emphasize the importance of the Peoples’ World Conference promoted by the Bolivian president Evo Morales, which took place in Cochabamba last April. However, the pending tasks at national spheres are numerous. Whereas extractivist policies were predominant during the neoliberal stage, this last decade is characterized by what the Uruguayan investigator Eduardo Gudynas called neoextractivism.

The term extractivism refers to a preponderance of economic activities based on the removal of great amounts of natural assets. These assets are limitedly or not at all industrialized and are destined to international markets. For Latin America, this is not new; it has been the same since colonial times. However, it is important to point out the significant function of the neoliberal policies implemented during the nineties as facilitators of the agro export model. At that time, legislation was passed favourable for capitals.

Despite having a critical rhetoric about neoliberalism, progressive governments still introduce policies which incorporate parts of the existing extactivism combined with new characteristics. Neoextractivism promotes a developing model based on intensive and extensive nature exploitation, which sustains a weakly diversified production network and depends on international markets. High international prices intensify oil, mineral and monoculture exportations. In this context, the State takes up a more active role in these sectors of the economy. It seeks to capture higher incomes from these transactions so as to redistribute it through social-aid policies.

Many times, these policies are legitimized by the peoples, although the limits they present are clear. Apart form the negative impact on nature, environmental inequalities increase in regions where natural wealth abounds. Far from being a coincidence, environmental conflicts directly result from this new way of extraction: local farmers and natives facing transnational oil and mining companies, or resisting being expelled from their lands as a consequence of monoculture.

It is hard to believe that Latin American governments will change the approach of their policies in the short run, and social tensions are thought to continue during the next years. Even though Gudynas perceives the difference existing between countries according to their State intervention and the way they assume the extractive economic model, we believe it is necessary to emphasize these differences.

In some cases, these sectors are kept in private hands, as can be seen in Argentina. Hydrocarbon exploitation is still Capital’s privilege, despite the abrupt decrease of reserves and the energetic crisis that has hit the world economy for the last years. Large-scale entrepreneurship of open air mining companies spreads despite the negative consequences on the environment and people’s health. Transgenic soy plantations keep expanding, leading to two harmful consequences: national food sovereignty is put at risk, and more contamination is produced by the wider use of agrochemicals.

On the other hand, there are countries that tighten State control over extractive economies such as Venezuela. The State managed to seize control of most oil wells through significant reforms in legislations and renegotiation of contracts. Of course, the environment impacts of hydrocarbon exploitation do not disappear only through a change in the way control is assumed. Nevertheless, it is important to point out State control as a stepping stone for social management of both the activities and their impact.

Political and social transformation is indispensable for a democratic planning of natural assets exploitation and the protection of the environment. This also requires a cultural transformation, which would stimulate a participatory democracy. Last but not least, advancing towards an ecological society is a utopia if capitalist fundaments of production and reproduction are not questioned.


  • I strongly agree with your analysis, but I think it could be strengthened. For instance, you say, “The State professes to be the mediator between Capital and nature by regulating access and exploitation.” Professions aside, the role of the state is provide a legal framework within which exploitation can reach its maximum profit potential. The state plays an easily identifiable role in the promotion of corporate enterprise and ecological pretensions must be examined within this context. The neoliberal policies of the past 40 years are not an aberration from the regulatory norm, but part of the fundamental thrust of the capitalist/state alliance.

    Indeed, it seems correct to say that “Last but not least, advancing towards an ecological society is a utopia if capitalist fundaments of production and reproduction are not questioned.” Unfortunately, I don’t see that questioning going on here at the level it needs to achieve in order to establish an alternative foundation. Captalism must be condemned not only in its mutant form of neoliberalism but in its “benevolent” form based on a brief interlude during the 60s and 70s. Capitalism is inherently based on the domination and exploitation of nature. It cannot be tamed or regulated into neutrality toward nature. Only the elimination of capitalist social and natural relations can defeat the current trajectory toward catastrophe.

  • Great – if rather dense – article. The last sentence captures ‘the bottom line’. But just ‘questioned’? Surely, ‘radically altered’ or ‘dispensed with’ is what’s needed?