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Being Green in the Americas: The Evolution of Environmentalist Parties in Latin America

Updated on September 16, 2014

Latin America, along with its counterparts in Africa and parts of Asia, to this day remains as one of the regions of the world where the ecological/environmental movement has yet to make significant gains in the participatory framework of electoral democracy. Western Europe, where representation of Green parties in national parliaments and the European Parliament remains to this day frontrunners in terms of representation for the greens, have grown progressively throughout the years, enjoying a relatively high degree of representation with 50 members of the European Green Party in the European Parliament as of 2014, including ecological parties in national governing coalitions in France, Finland, Denmark, Latvia, and more recently, Sweden. Meanwhile, Brazil remains to this day the only country in Latin America where an environmental party (Partido Verde) is part of a ruling coalition; coincidentally making the South American giant the leading investor in clean energy in the region, with a total of $5,171.1 million according to the American Council on Renewable Energy. The Federation of Green Parties of the Americas, which serves as a regional organization representing green parties in all of the western hemisphere, only has 11 member parties from 11 countries, in which are also included parties from all countries in North America. This lack of representation in the region has had detrimental effects not just for countries in Latin America, as it remains a region in development dependent on commodity resources, particularly within the energy sector, but also for the future of proponents of sustainable development throughout the world. Its vast amount of energy resources in oil and natural gas for now, also remains as the only logical course of development for most countries benefiting from high international commodity prices in the most recent decade. The outcome of this pessimistic overview in the region has not, nevertheless, overshadowed the rise of personalistic figures in presidential politics in recent years, particularly within Colombia and Brazil, as the Global Green movement attempts to actively immerge itself into the global south to exploit the great potential the region has to diversify its energy markets and mobilize national grassroots movements that go beyond the local level.

Extractive policies in Latin America trump any form of development in the region

Perhaps the leading reason behind the weak and lack of social support for underrepresented environmental movements in Latin America, lies in the strong dependence on fossil fuels for industrial development and revenue collection, deepening the risk of pushing developing western hemispheric nations into rentier state status. This is despite serious attempts at reforming revenue collection in countries such as Chile and Ecuador, and the globalizing effect of expanding markets aimed at diversifying national economies. The most important and dependent oil-rich state in the region, Venezuela currently has no representation in any level of government for environmental parties, despite containing two green parties MOVEV (Ecological Movement of Venezuela) and MOVERSE (Movement for a Responsible, Entrepreneurial, and Sustainable Venezuela) inside the opposition coalition of parties. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, despite strong conservation movements seen throughout civil society, and an important and significant indigenous population, particularly within Bolivia, have yet still to move away from their strong dependency on mineral and fossil fuel commodities and push for an alternative form of development that preserves environmental rights.

Was Ecuador's discontinuation of the Yasuni ITT Initiative in late 2013 the right policy move?

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Even Bolivia's president Evo Morales, the leading indigenous regional leader in the continent, who has consistently given special rhetorical importance to the rights of Pachamama - Mother Earth - has made the exploitation of its vast natural gas reserves directed towards socioeconomic rents and distributions via its export sales to neighboring Argentina and Brazil, the center piece of his economic policy. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa's 2007 Yasuni-ITT Initiative, which sought to create an international fund asking wealthier countries to donate funds to the south American nation not to exploit its oil reserves in the Yasuni National Park, where an important indigenous population resides, was forced to discontinue the policy initiative in late 2013 after reports showed not enough money had been donated through the fund in order to compensate for the loss of potential oil revenues. The trend follows a similar trajectory in Chile and Peru, where mineral exports, particularly that of copper, have not been able to push ruling progressive coalition forces to either introduce significant labor or environmental regulations in this economic sector. It seems that the prevalence and influence of industry in the field of political rents remains the main engine behind virtually all of Latin America's developmental strategies. Indigenous parties aside, only Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, three countries with enormous energy resources and fairly diversified markets, currently have, though small and limited, representation of Green parties inside their respective national parliaments and congresses.

Mexico's PVEM has come under scrutiny by Greenpeace and Global Greens for their lack of commitment towards ecological values

Chief among the reasons for the inability of Green parties in the Latin American region to expand a competent and competitive framework for ecological movements, has to do with the ideological split seen in many of these parties across the region in different countries. Despite the consistent trait of environmental parties favoring market policies that might push clean energy investments as a way of promoting future job growth and industry, it appears a more reformist market-friendly approach to development is what environmental parties have formulated as a means of attracting voters from all constituencies and backgrounds. The Ecological Green Party of Mexico (PVEM) currently remains split in its endorsement of the ruling PRI party. Their endorsement of the death penalty in Mexico, its conservative values on social policy issues topped with top party officials accused of corruption scandals, have hampered the credibility of the PVEM as a committed ecological party, prompting organizations of the likes of Greenpeace and Global Greens to distance themselves from the Mexican brand of environmentalism. The Green Party of Brazil has likewise adopted social democracy as their main economic doctrine, as has the Alianza Verde Party in Colombia with its "Opcion Centro" - Center Option - economic criteria; a sharp contrast with the more progressive Ecological Party of Chile.

At the close of the last decade, it would be Colombia's electoral landscape that would perhaps for the first time in the continent, come very close to shaking the Colombian establishment by having former Bogota mayor and controversial mathematician/philosopher Antanas Mockus, run for the presidency in 2010 for the Colombian Green Party (now known as the Green Alliance). Throughout his tenure as mayor, Mockus' unorthodox and pedagogical methods sought to ensure citizen participation through a cultural transformation of how the citizenry interacts with each other within the city of Bogota, and thus redefine what it means to be a citizen. Along with the continuity of incoming mayors Enrique Peñalosa (later to become the Green Alliance's 2014 presidential candidate) and Luis Eduardo Garzon, Mockus helped further the construction of the famous 'ciclovia' - the 120 Km bicycle route open only to pedestrians and cyclists, and closed to cars in a biweekly basis. Beginning with Mayor Peñalosa and furthered by Mockus, the introduction of the cross-city Transmilenio public bus system that runs through Bogota on a separate line from cars, adds to Mockus' credentials as a believer of pedestrian rights, where the once heavily congested streets of Bogota went on to become a global reference model for urban development.

Cities on Speed presents Bogota Change

His 2010 campaign for the presidency representing the Green Party, was centered around his persona and tenure as the controversial mayor of Bogota. Populist at times, pragmatic in his government plans, unpredictable throughout the whole election cycle, and quick to climb in the polls threatening the establishment candidates, his candidacy resonated strongly among social media and young educated voters. It was however a surprise when he finished at a distant second in both rounds of the election, as his campaign was unable to reach all parts of the country and lacked the organizational and institutional resources of the state, as it is often the case for big parties in developing nations. The impact of his campaign marked the first time an environmental party came close to winning the presidency in Latin America. The party made significant gains in the 2014 congressional elections, paving its way to potentially becoming the institutional equivalent of the Green Party of Germany. Its momentum was however lost in the 2014 election when Enrique Peñalosa's Green Alliance presidential candidacy finished at a disappointing fourth at the polls.

Ideological Conformation of Green Parties in the Americas

Progressive
Social Democracy/Centrist
Neoliberal
Partido Ecologista (Chile)
Partido Verde (Brazil)
Partido Verde Ecologico (Mexico)
MOVERSE (Venezuela)
Alianza Verde (Colombia)
Partido Verde Eto-Ecologista (Uruguay)

Before 2014 ends, one leading figure in the geopolitical composition of Latin America's political establishment has emerged as one that from the moment of this writing, appears destined to become the next face of presidential politics for the green movement, as it once was the case for Antanas Mockus, should Brazil's Marina Silva succeed in her presidential ambitions to shake her country's establishment, or merely go down the same path as Mr. Mockus as a one-hit wonder limited only to the outreach of social media and young educated voters. The daughter of impoverished rubber tappers from Acre, the state residing within the Brazilian Amazon, and profoundly evangelical, Silva served as environment minister for former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio 'Lula' Da Silva, where her outspoken differences with the political establishment's extractive policies towards the Amazon first gained her public momentum that resulted in her renouncing the ruling Workers' Party. As a presidential candidate in 2010 for the Brazilian Green Party, she finished at a surprising third place with 19% of the vote. Fast forward to 2014, when four out of five Brazilians desire political change from the two-party political machine, and the country now just entering a recession in the mists of a presidential election year, Silva has reemerged after the death of her running mate for the Brazilian Socialist Party, Eduardo Campos, as the clear option within those seeking to end the two party rule of recent decades.

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Just like her green counterparts in Colombia and other environmental parties in the region, her economic policy is centered around pragmatic market policies, such that would give more flexibility and autonomy to the Central Bank to free the exchange rate. Silva aims at curbing excessive wasteful spending thorough fiscally-conservative macroeconomic policies, while investing more in education and institutionalizing the social programs created over the past decade by the ruling Workers' Party; a clear moderate approach that has attracted both prominent business executives and a newly formed middle class looking for more efficient public services and more accountability from government institutions. The latter has struck Brazilians with a demand for ethical execution of governance, from the widespread rejection of the controversial and massive public expenditures for the 2014 World Cup infrastructure that benefitted enormously private construction industries, to the most recent scandal connecting the state-owned oil company Petrobras with the personal enrichment of top government officials over the billing of contracts for oil projects. Petrobras under the Workers' Party 12-year rule has consistently been stained with corruption allegations, some of which have resulted in the imprisonment of government officials from the current and previous government, complicating an already tough reelection bid for incumbent president Dilma Rousseff, and prompting Silva to capitalize on the scandal's momentum by emphasizing both her previous disagreements with the party she once was part of, and the need to transition towards other sources of renewable energy to diversify a stagnant economy.

Marina Silva presents herself as a very approachable candidate, yet her chances at winning the presidency could very well exemplify the general weaknesses of overall environmentalist movements in the region, as it was the case for Colombia. Governing political institutions in Latin America to this day, remain largely paternalistic and hierarchical in relation to how the state interacts with different sectors of society through rents and privileges, and Brazil is no exception to this rule despite significant democratic credentials in relation to the rest of the region.

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Environmental political leaders must come to understand that long-lasting participatory democracy, just like long-lasting sustainable development, has to reach all segments and actors present in civil society in order to incorporate and institutionalize the citizenry into a culture of conservation and social awareness that transcends the political climate of the time, as Silva correctly points out "personalities cannot replace institutions". This means reaching all territories in the electoral map, not merely for political rents and favors as is the case in today's developing world, but in order to push a cultural effort promoting ethical civil norms and practices; from eradicating the littlest act of civil apathy such as throwing trash on the street, to pushing the biggest industrial sectors to adopt efficient and clean ways of disposing waste. So far, these environmentalist figures in presidential politics in Latin America have made headlines through their charisma and ability to approach the average citizen, yet their 'social media sensation' status has not succeeded in transcending their ecological message to the most economically and politically isolated members of society, particularly within rural areas where internet and media access is heavily limited. Partly due to their more educated populace, European liberal social democracies such as Germany and Norway have been able to create a more widespread consensus on these issues, particularly within recycling policies such as importing recyclable waste from other countries, and long term investments in clean and renewable energies. A similar level of social conscience is possible in Latin America if their leaders are able to communicate efficiently to the population with the truth, so that all citizens understand of the necessary sacrifices that the citizenry, industry, and political institutions must commit to in order to begin to leave behind extractive tendencies that limit the country's economic potential to that of a rentier state. There is no reason to think that this burden can't be limited by diversifying national economies by investing in future industries that are not only efficient in terms of generating profits, but more importantly, in terms of efficiently being able to limit waste and save energy fees that are all too reliant on extractive, nonrenewable fossil fuels. Should the Green movement in Latin America understand and incorporate this as an organizational political platform, soon will the ideological needle move in the most synergetic fashion towards a social platform that agglutinates society into a culture of conservation and consciousness.

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