Spotlight Rio+20: South American Governments in Rio: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Eduardo Gudynas, guest blogger

Part of the Triple Crisis Spotlight Rio+20 series.

South American governments will attend the Rio +20 conference in a very strained environment: while at the national level, almost every country has undergone a weakening of its environmental management systems, at the international level, countries do not coordinate their positions. Particularly since such contradictions seem to go unnoticed by international analysts, especially from the English language media, it is necessary to explicitly describe them. Five key issues are presented below.

Environmental weakening

In almost every country, the environmental management system, including its institutional framework, has been weakened. This is reflected in various ways:

  • By undermining initiatives that would strengthen environmental institutions, or by implementing changes which reduce their capacities. The consequence is a decline in enforcement of laws and regulations. Examples of this are the stasis in the new Peruvian Environment Ministry or, under Lula da Silva, the practice of replacing officials at the Brazilian Federal Environment Agency who were unwilling to  approve high-impact projects by others willing to give them the “go ahead.”
  • By implementing the called “flexibilization” of environmental requirements, such as weakened environmental impact assessments or the granting of waivers or exceptions to big investment projects. These practices are seen in Bolivia, Colombia and Uruguay. There are several types of legal exceptions, the most common of which affect access to information and citizen participation.

At Rio +20, South American governments must reduce their claims, since their own environment policies and practices suffer from such shortcomings. A recent statement from a significant group of Brazilian environment NGOs warns that, under the Dilma Rousseff administration, it is witnessing the “greatest reversal” in the socio-environmental agenda since the dictatorship.  This statement underscores the seriousness of this situation.

A brown left

Almost every country justifies the weakening of its environmental framework by the need to maintain high levels of exports and foreign investment, in order to ensure good economic growth rates in the region. We even hear this justification from progressive governments, or from the “new left”, including in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Venezuela. Under all these governments, a significant expansion of extractive projects – such as mining and oil, or monocultures for export – has taken place. Even countries without large-scale mining operations, such as Ecuador and Uruguay, are following this path by undermining their environmental frameworks.

Importantly, the new left justifies its environmentally reckless approach to extractive industries with a powerful political message – namely, that a strong appropriation of nature is essential to finance its social assistance and compensation programs. In that regard, these governments have been successful in reducing poverty but, on the other hand, environmental degradation has substantially worsened. Nevertheless, governments are able to gain electoral support for their social programs while dismissing the environmental agenda.

The resulting balance is a new left that is less “red” than expected, and its “green” agenda is increasingly limited, therefore it should be understood as a “brown left”.

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that there is an increase in social conflicts due to social and environmental impacts of projects. These conflicts have become the rule rather than the exception: there are currently mobilizations of differing levels of intensity against extractive projects throughout all South American countries. As a shocking example, over the last months there have been citizen mobilizations that travel huge distances to reach capital cities in Bolivia (August to October 2011), in Peru (February 2012), in Ecuador (March) and, recently, again in Bolivia (April to June). In all these cases, these were mobilizations against mega-mining and in the defense of the right to water.


For this “brown left” it is easier to submit environmental claims at the global level than to implement concrete measures within its borders. The most extreme examples occur in Bolivia and Ecuador.

To its credit, the Evo Morales Administration presents claims on climate change at several international events, but it lacks a strong national action plan and fails to decisively address deforestation and changes in the use of soil – the major sources of its emissions.

Rafael Correa, in turn, encourages an international campaign to refrain from extracting oil from the Amazonian national park of the Yasuní. Although the intent of moving into a post-oil era is very interesting, Correa demands international financial compensation for leaving the oil in the ground, which is surprising, since he is forced to ensure protection of national parks by Ecuador’s national law, including its new Constitution that recognizes the rights of nature. In other words, why should governments claim international compensation for fulfilling their own national laws on human or environmental rights?

Under these circumstances, there is a decoupling between international demands and rhetoric, on the one hand, and local environmental management, on the other. This dynamic increases the gap between “reality and rhetoric” – that is, between political principles espoused in international fora and domestic practice.

One of the consequences of this decoupling is that, at the negotiations of Rio +20, many governments blame the “green economy” concept promoted by UNEP and others for being too conservative. But, it is also true that some aspects of the concept would require environmental reforms, which these governments are not willing to undertake.  Nevertheless they appear to challenge the “green economy” concept in an underhand manner, as it would be too costly in political terms to admit that they are not willing to make economic-environmental reforms (this is the case, for example, of Argentina and Brazil).

It’s the economy, environmentalists

The advance of this “brown left,” with high economic growth in almost all countries, absolutely subjugates environmental policies to economic ones.

This results in a paradoxical situation: governments give their environment ministers some freedom to deliver florid speeches, including heart-wrenching pleas that are based on principles that are not binding on national decisions. The key decisions are economic and, given this priority, environmental issues are luxuries that can only be afforded in the future, not the present.

This paradox, for example, leads Colombia to present at the negotiations in Rio +20 the idea of an international commitment on sustainability, with elements which are probably not fulfilled by Colombia itself.  This contradiction does not seem to worry anyone.

Loose aggregation

Finally, South American countries arrive in Rio +20 without achieving a common platform on demands and proposals. There is not a common position on environment within the two major continental integration blocks: the Andean Community and MERCOSUR – Common Market of the South.

Although Brazil presents itself as the South American regional leader, it has not coordinated its positions on environmental issues with other countries for many years. Therefore, South American countries do not arrive in Rio+20 as a bloc but as a loose aggregation.

The trends summarized above show that the negotiations scenario in Rio+20 is much more complex and contradictory than usually assumed.

Eduardo Gudynas is senior analyst at the Latin American Center on Social Ecology (CLAES), based in Montevideo, Uruguay.

One Response to “Spotlight Rio+20: South American Governments in Rio: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

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