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Latin America’s New Radical Environmentalism

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Sep 11, 2013, 9:13 am

In the last few years, we have grown accustomed to seeing groups of farmers or rural dwellers setting up roadblocks and demonstrations, and even carrying out acts of aggression against private firms in several Latin-American countries. However, the reasons for this behavior are not those that sparked rural mobilization during the better part of the 20th century: gone are the demands for land, timeless and universal, and the acts carried out by armed groups, which — with few exceptions — no longer disturb our nations’ peace. Demonstrations are now held against the construction of roads or hydroelectric plants, mining or oil projects — infrastructure works which used to be celebrated by all, both the far left and the most stubborn right.

The argument now wielded, with surprising intensity, is that of the environment. Mining projects ought to be rejected because, many claim, they poison water sources and lead to deforestation. Oil must not be extracted from forested zones, because it affects protected areas and brings about a loss in biodiversity — as has been claimed in Ecuador and Guatemala. Hydroelectric power plants face violent opposition because they can produce harmful floods. Even roads, as was recently seen in Bolivia, are deemed evil incursions into areas that should be protected. Everywhere, from Mexico to Argentina, furious activists demand that governments paralyze projects, revise concessions, and annul contracts to protect our sacred Mother Earth.

I should point out as soon as possible that there is nothing wrong with taking care of the environment, protecting endangered species, or attempting to preserve ecological balances threatened by human activity. However, awareness of these issues is not new, but at least half a century old. We no longer see the neglect that, in days past, led to haphazard contamination with cities and fields strewn with waste of all kinds.

There is now a striking problem with the way many individuals apply their concern for the environment: the goal is no longer to develop technologies capable of solving pollution partially or totally, but to bring productive activities to a complete halt. It is no longer to put forward measures to take care of our natural heritage, but to block roads, burn facilities and even attack the employees of private companies, whose work is authorized by legal contracts.

I find most intriguing the opposition to all kinds of hydroelectric projects, which could provide consumers with a clean energy source, and reduce the burden of power bills to boot, something which would make life much easier for rural inhabitants. Barring this alternative energy source, or mining, or the construction of bridges and roads, is equal to barring the economic development of areas which are normally quite neglected, and to deliberately hampering the creation of wealth, which — as all will surely understand — is the most effective and lasting way to fight poverty.

What is the source of all this stubbornness, of all this indiscriminate violence, which is often tolerated by governments in an attempt to avoid paying political costs? What leads rural populations — which in general are not technologically well-versed — to rise up against projects which could bring material improvements to their standard of living? I lack the answer, unfortunately, but I take the liberty of putting forward some hypotheses which could explain some extreme conducts we are gradually growing used to.

It is possible that a far leftist or Marxist, which in days past has embraced the struggle for totalitarian socialism, has changed his agenda to focus on mobilizing neglected populations in order to create a situation of discontent. This tactic could, theoretically, help it regain some supporters. It is also possible for environmentalists from developed countries to recklessly try to protect the planet from pollution by means of forcing us to abandon the very activities that enabled our own nations to prosper. It could also be that social leaders, especially from rural areas, see these conflicts as a means to give voice to their communities, long forgotten by governments primarily interested in urban voters.

There could be some truth, or a lot of it, to some or all of these explanations. Regardless, the important thing is to remember that we must not put off the development of countries with the excuse of returning to an agricultural and backward society. Such an economic model, due to its very lack of resources, would make the effective protection of the environment impossible.

We also cannot put the welfare of future generations at stake by taking measures that would only paralyze economic activity. Governments exist to enforce the law — at least they should — and not to appease the interest groups with the loudest demands.

Translated by Mariano Filippini.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324