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Environmental governance in Latin America

Environmental Governance in Latin America
Governance in Latin
Edited by
Fábio de Castro
Barbara Hogenboom
Michiel Baud
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Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 2016
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Afterword © Eduardo Silva 2016
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Softcover reprint of the hardcover 1st edition 2016 978-1-137-57408-4
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DOI 10.1057/9781137505729
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List of Figures and Tables vii
Preface viii
List of Contributors xi
Introduction: Environment and Society in Contemporary
Latin America 1
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud
Part I Setting the Stage
1 Origins and Perspectives of Latin American
Environmentalism 29
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich
2 Social Metabolism and Conflicts over Extractivism 58
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter
3 Indigenous Knowledge in Mexico: Between
Environmentalism and Rural Development 86
Mina Kleiche-Dray and Roland Waast
Part II New Politics of Natural Resources
4 The Government of Nature: Post-Neoliberal
Environmental Governance in Bolivia and Ecuador 113
Pablo Andrade A.
5 Changing Elites, Institutions and Environmental
Governance 137
Benedicte Bull and Mariel Aguilar-Støen
6 Water-Energy-Mining and Sustainable Consumption:
Views of South American Strategic Actors 164
Cristián Parker, Gloria Baigorrotegui and Fernando Estenssoro
7 Overcoming Poverty Through Sustainable Development 186
Héctor Sejenovich
vi Contents
Part III New Projects of Environmental Governance
8 Forest Governance in Latin America: Strategies for
Implementing REDD 205
Mariel Aguilar-Støen, Fabiano Toni and Cecilie Hirsch
9 Rights, Pressures and Conservation in Forest Regions of
Mexico 234
Leticia Merino
10 Local Solutions for Environmental Justice 257
David Barkin and Blanca Lemus
11 Community Consultations: Local Responses to Large-Scale
Mining in Latin America 287
Mariana Walter and Leire Urkidi
Afterword: From Sustainable Development to Environmental
Governance 326
Eduardo Silva
Index 336
Figures and Tables
2.1 Latin America physical trade deficit in million tonnes,
1970–2008 62
2.2 Argentina’s physical and monetary external trade flows,
1970–2009 64
2.3 Physical trade balance of Colombia, 1990–2011 65
2.4 Domestic extraction in Argentina, 1970–2009 67
2.5 Domestic extraction in Latin America by major category
of material, 1970–2008 71
8.1 Latin American countries in relation to their
participation in REDD and the phased approach 210
9.1 National annual budget of CONAFOR according to
different forest-related projects in Mexico (in million
pesos), 2001–2008 241
Tab le s
2.1 General conversion factors of gross ore versus metal
content and ore concentrate 72
4.1 Income capture in Bolivia and Ecuador 124
4.2 Environmental administration in Bolivia and Ecuador 129
6.1 Reference cases 167
6.2 Overview of signifying content in the discourse models 171
9.1 Different uses of forest by community residents in
Mexico 242
9.2 Indices of forest communities’ performance 244
11.1 Mining consultations in the context of active mining
conflicts, 2002–2012 293
11.2 Guatemalan wave of preventative consultations against
mining activities, 2005–2012 297
This book is the result of the collaborative research project Environ-
mental Governance in Latin America (ENGOV) funded by the European
Union (EU). For four years, a team of experts from ten Latin American
and European academic institutions investigated how environmen-
tal governance is currently being shaped in Latin America. In this
joint effort, we were driven by our concerns about widespread eco-
logical degradation, poverty and injustice, as well as by our curiosity
about the ways in which the emergence of new political regimes and
elites, and innovative steps by communities and social organizations,
affects governance practices and nature–society relations. To under-
stand the possibilities and obstacles for sustainable and equitable natural
resource use, a range of case-studies were carried out in Argentina, Chile,
Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Costa
Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico. Although some of the research
topics and cases are not included in this volume, their findings have
contributed to the discussions and theoretical reflections in the overall
The ENGOV project has been simultaneously challenging and inspir-
ing. The theme of environmental governance is a huge academic enter-
prise because it addresses complex social relations, practices and views
influencing how societies perceive nature and use natural resources.
Combining methods and theories from different fields of the social
sciences is a prerequisite which in practice is fairly demanding. Further-
more, by encompassing political, economic, cultural and environmental
changes, formal as well as informal arrangements, and cross-scale con-
nections, the study of environmental governance can easily become a
‘mission impossible’. Arguably this is even more the case for contem-
porary Latin America, with its variety of local and national conditions
facing rapid-paced changes. Finally, collaborating in an international
research consortium of ten institutional partners and more than 25
researchers from different disciplines, schools of thought and genera-
tions has also proved to be both daring and rewarding. The fact that we
spoke in different academic languages and idiom accents was not only
a hurdle to tackle during our group discussions, but also forced us to
learn from each other’s approaches and convictions, and the founda-
tions on which these are based. As a typical governance process, next
Preface ix
to misunderstandings, dissonances and unbridgeable differences, the
exchange of different insights and perspectives proved to bring about
refreshing debates and new understandings, nuances and agreements.
Without the ambition to provide a full overview of the environmental
governance in Latin America, we have tried to identify key fields for
research, with an emphasis on new trends or structural problems that
deserve more academic attention. The new insights from each piece of
research contributed to the development of analytical frameworks to
analyse the multiple interconnected processes shaping environmental
governance in the region. This volume is the result of this intricate,
collaborative exercise.
For the realization of this book, several people and institutions
have been indispensable. It would not have been possible without
the extensive support of the EU. Financed under the Seventh Frame-
work Programme, ENGOV enabled the consortium to develop important
new research on environmental governance in Latin America and the
Caribbean, resulting in a long list of publications. We are particu-
larly thankful for the professional guidance of Philippe Keraudren and
Cristina Marcuzzo of the Social Sciences and Humanities division of the
Research and Innovation Directorate General.
We would also like to thank the institutions participating in ENGOV
for their financial and administrative support, including their direc-
tors and the employees who directly assisted the project: Consejo
Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO), Institut de Ciència
i Tecnología Ambientals, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-
UAB), Institute de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), Centre
for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo (SUM-
UiO), Centro de Desenvolvimento Sustentável, Universidade de Brasília
(CDS-UnB), Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco
(UAM-Xoc), Instituto de Estudios Avanzados, Universidad de Santiago
de Chile (IDEA-USACH), Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani
(IIGG) and Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Sede Quito (UASB-SQ).
We are grateful to our colleagues from CLACSO, and in particular to
Fernanda Saforcada and Guadalupe Rudy, for their continuous sup-
port during the project. We also thank the University of Amsterdam,
which hosts our own Centre for Latin American Research and Docu-
mentation (CEDLA) and was very supportive of ENGOV, in particular
Jan Jacob Sikkema and Bea Krenn. At CEDLA, the solid project sup-
port by Leontien Cremers requires a special mention. Her accurate and
cheerful involvement, including the preparation of the Index of this
volume, has made a difference both for CEDLA’s ENGOV coordination
team and for all the consortium members. We would also like to thank
María Barrachina for kindly granting permission to use her photo-
graph on the front cover. We are also most grateful to the members
of ENGOV’s international advisory board, who have offered insightful
comments on the draft chapters: Anthony Bebbington (Clark Univer-
sity and University of Manchester), Alberto Cimadamore (University of
Bergen), Edward F. Fischer (Vanderbilt University), Barbara Göbel (Ibero-
Amerikanisches Institut), Leticia Merino Pérez (Universidad Nacional
Autónoma de México), Pedro Roberto Jacobi (Universidade de São Paulo)
and Eduardo Silva (Tulane University). In addition, we are grateful to all
the scholars and students who have contributed to the discussions at
different ENGOV meetings.
Last but not least, we are very grateful to the key project researchers,
not only for the chapter they have contributed but also for their criti-
cal input to other draft chapters and their commitment to the ENGOV
project. With them, we hope this book will inspire both researchers
engaged in the environmental governance debate in Latin America and
young scholars and non-academic readers interested in understanding
the complex society–nature relations in the contemporary world.
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud
Except where otherwise noted, this work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view
a copy of this license, visit
Mariel Aguilar-Støen is a political ecologist and senior researcher at
SUM-UiO, Norway.
Pablo Andrade A. is a political scientist and professor at UASB-SQ,
Gloria Baigorrotegui is an industrial engineer and junior researcher at
David Barkin is an economist and professor at UAM-Xoc, Mexico.
Michiel Baud is a historian and director of CEDLA, and professor of
Latin American Studies at UvA, The Netherlands.
Benedicte Bull is a political scientist and professor at SUM-UiO,
Fábio de Castro is a political ecologist and assistant professor of
Brazilian Studies and Human Ecology at CEDLA, UvA, The Netherlands.
Fernando Estenssoro Saavedra is a historian and senior researcher at
Cecilie Hirsch is a human geographer and PhD candidate at SUM-UiO,
Barbara Hogenboom is a political scientist and Associate Professor of
Political Science at CEDLA, UvA, The Netherlands.
Mina Kleiche-Dray is a historian and senior researcher at IRD, France.
Blanca Lemus is a physician specialized in labour and environment,
and a visiting researcher at UAM-Xoc, Mexico.
Joan Martinez-Alier is an economic historian and professor of
Economic History and Institutions in the Department of Economics and
Economic History at UAB, Spain.
xii List of Contributors
Leticia Merino is an anthropologist and professor at the Instituto de
Investigaciones Sociales at UNAM, México.
Cristián Parker is a sociologist and director of IDEA-USACH, Chile.
Héctor Sejenovich is a political economist and senior researcher at IIGG
and professor of Social Sciences and Environment at UBA, Argentina.
Eduardo Silva is a political scientist and Lydian Chair professor in the
School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University, New Orleans, USA.
Fabiano Toni is a political scientist and associate professor at CDS-UnB,
Leire Urkidi is an environmental scientist and researcher at the EKOPOL
at EPV/EHU, Spain.
Roland Waast is a sociologist and engineer at the École Polytechnique
de Paris, France.
Mariana Walter is a political ecologist and postdoctoral researcher at
ICTA-UAB, Spain.
Introduction: Environment and
Society in Contemporary Latin
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud
Societal change in Latin America is intimately related to nature and
natural resources. In this resource-rich region, nature–society relations
provide both opportunities and challenges in achieving more fair, equi-
table and sustainable development. Nearly half of the world’s tropical
forests are found in the region, next to several other natural biomes,
which together carry a wealth of biodiversity. It holds one-third of the
world’s freshwater reserves and one-quarter of the potential arable land.
And despite five centuries of extractive activities to serve global mar-
kets, the region still holds large volumes of important mineral reserves,
including oil, gas, iron, copper and gold (Bovarnick, Alpizar and Schnell,
2010). On the other hand, this “biodiversity superpower” has seen a
fast rate of biodiversity loss, increasing ecosystem degradation and one-
third of the world’s carbon emissions, mostly a result of the expansion
of extractive activities and land-use change (UNEP, 2012). Together,
these economic and ecological developments affect a large number of
different social groups in all Latin American countries, primarily in
rural areas but also in cities. Next to mobilizations and conflicts that
attract national and international attention, there are numerous local
socioenvironmental tensions that lead to longstanding economic prob-
lems and social injustice. Although these tensions have been part of
the region’s history, the accelerated pace of change, the spatial scale of
impact, and the widening of social and conservation demands all point
to the urgency of Latin America’s current environmental challenges
(Baud, Castro and Hogenboom, 2011).
Since Latin America’s insertion into the world system, the extrac-
tion of natural resources has been central to its economic, social
2Environment and Society
and political development. This has led to continuous tensions and
antagonisms about access to natural resources, the distribution and
use of revenues, and the distribution, compensation and preven-
tion of environmental and social costs (Alimonda, 2011). In Latin
America, issues of poverty, inequality and environmental protection
are thus closely intertwined. Despite academic studies showing the
risks of being a global provider of foodstuffs, energy, metals and
environmental services without appropriate institutional arrangements,
not much progress has been made in successfully tackling problems
of underdevelopment (Bunker, 1988), impoverishment/marginalization
(Martinez-Alier, 2002), inequality (Therborn, 2011), accumulation by
dispossession (Harvey, 2003), and disempowerment and dependency in
rural communities (Painter and Durham, 1995).
After a long history of elite capture and foreign exploitation of
Latin American mines, agrarian lands and, later, oil and gas resources,
social and political forces started to push forward reforms such as the
nationalization of oil and metals, and the distribution of land in the
twentieth century. Nevertheless, access to resources, revenues and power
remained unequally distributed at local, national and international lev-
els. The neoliberal regimes of the late twentieth century went against
previous redistributive policies (Liverman and Vilas, 2006). This period
was marked by greater attention to both environmental protection
and decentralized decision-making (Larson, 2003). However, restricted
funding and liberalized markets limited the potential to break with
historically established patterns.
This new environmental, social and institutional context also
changed environmental governance in Latin America. Both in rural and
urban areas, poor citizens became more vulnerable due to environmen-
tal degradation and the increased intensity and frequency of climate
disasters, including droughts, flooding, hurricanes and glacier retreat
(Rios and Veiga, 2010). In many countries, especially in South America,
a new phase of widespread civic discontent and mobilization of groups
against exclusion, poverty, inequality and technocratic policies started
in the 1990s (Harris, 2003). While many groups only called for socioe-
conomic redistribution, indigenous movements, landless farmers and
environmental organizations also demanded different policies towards
land and nature (Carruthers, 2008; Urkidi and Walter, 2011; Latta and
Whitmann, 2012).
Since the turn of the twenty-first century, Latin America has expe-
rienced radical developments that have changed the dynamics of
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 3
environmental governance. As will be discussed in greater detail later
in this chapter, democratic elections resulted in a number of left-
ist governments that promised inclusionary development and more
participatory decision-making. Their reforms included a more promi-
nent role of the state in the extraction of non-renewable resources
and the redistribution of revenues. At least symbolically, attention to
the environment also increased. The new regimes and their policies
have thus attempted to combine measures geared towards the reduc-
tion of poverty and social exclusion with policies that enhance national
control over natural resources and improve environmental protection.
Simultaneously, the global commodity boom brought extra revenues
and foreign investments, thereby intensifying resource extraction and
leading to problems of environmental degradation and more intense
environmental conflicts (Fernández Jilberto and Hogenboom, 2010;
Hogenboom, 2012).
Institutional adaptations played an important role in these trans-
formations, as illustrated by the debate about the global sustainable
development model. The narrative of social justice and the plural devel-
opment model, established in the 1990s with strong participation by
civil society organizations, was gradually replaced by narratives of insti-
tutional fixes and technological innovations (Mol, 2003). This led to
a new model, framed as the Green Economy, which shifted the focus
from social and political questions about deepened environmental cit-
izenship and justice to a more technological and economic approach
focused on the commodification of nature.1As a result, the model of
participation through citizenship has gradually been reframed by partic-
ipation through compensation, as installed by the post-neoliberal state
in the context of an urbanized region.
This volume seeks to analyse the features, dynamics and direction of
contemporary environmental governance in Latin America. Building on
various local and national cases, it presents formal and informal prac-
tices of management concerning renewable and non-renewable natural
resources. It also shows how rights to nature are perceived, contested
and reshaped in the context of rapid social, institutional and envi-
ronmental changes on multiple scales. It combines elements of power
relations, diversity, complexity and dynamics in socioenvironmental
systems in order to tackle this process through a cross-scale, multiactor
and dialectical perspective (Robbins, 2012). One particular strength of
this political ecological approach is the explicit emphasis on the social
and institutional dynamics that shape social interactions and natural
4Environment and Society
resource use patterns (Zimmerer and Bassett, 2003). Moreover, it takes
into account the multiple conceptualizations of and claims over nature
as part of a contested sphere, which we denominate “environmental
The three parts of this book address the changing context, social inter-
actions and institutional adaptations in contemporary nature–society
relations in Latin America. Part I introduces the socioenvironmental
context through a focus on the historical legacy of Latin American
environmentalist thinking, the increasing pressure on the region’s envi-
ronment due to the global demand for its natural resources, and the
rich ecological knowledge within local communities. These chapters
set the stage to analyse the recent transformations of nature–society
relations in the region. Part II addresses the politics of nature, raising
issues related to the role of powerful actors – the state, elite and cor-
porations – and their interactions in shaping discourses and practices
regarding natural resource use. These processes are explored through
the analysis of new policy models deployed by post-neoliberal gov-
ernments, the role of new and old elites and their interactions, the
narratives around the water–energy–mining nexus by contesting actors,
and strategies for poverty alleviation. In Part III, new and emerging
forms of environmental governance that tackle issues of participation,
autonomy and environmental security are examined. The analysis of
the implementation of REDD+(reducing emissions from deforestation
and forest degradation), the controversial international compensatory
scheme to prevent climate change, addresses how participatory mecha-
nisms have become invited spaces of selected legitimized groups while
the bottom-up initiatives of community-based autonomous economies
and local consultations to mining projects that address the struggles
for effective inclusion, wellbeing and justice emerged from resistance
In general, this volume aims to understand environmental gover-
nance in Latin America by looking into the ways in which historical
legacies and current socioenvironmental contexts are driving new social
interactions and institutional adaptations among multiple actors. The
chapters cover a range of Latin American countries, mostly based on
empirical data from multiple contexts, actors and production systems,
and focus on transnational, national or subnational processes. Together
they provide an overview of current regionwide trends, and a variety
of themes and approaches to environmental governance, which feeds
lively and sometimes heated debates in academia as well as in civil
society and policy-making circles.
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 5
Environmental governance as a field of inquiry
Environmental governance offers an analytical perspective that com-
bines socioenvironmental research with development-oriented gov-
ernance research (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006). Socioenvironmental
research addresses the interplay between environmental and social
change. In this context, as in this introductory chapter, the social
dimension is broadly defined, also encompassing cultural, economic,
political and institutional relations. Governance research addresses the
way in which society organizes itself in order to solve its dilemmas
and create new opportunities. Until the 1980s, social scientists work-
ing in Latin American countries focused on concepts of governability as
the region faced unstable political conditions and structural challenges
such as inequality, violence, corruption and limited citizenship. How-
ever, the growing emphasis on formal institutions and market-driven
mechanisms of neoliberal governance quickly attracted the attention
of social scientists to a perspective of governance as a social process
that influences the level of governability (Kooiman, 2003). This per-
spective criticized the normative perspective of “good governance”
introduced by the World Bank in the seminal report Governance and
Development (1992). According to this document, the solution to over-
come underdevelopment should be self-governance. The World Bank
proposed a roadmap to achieve so-called good governance based on
three pillars: a “small state” through deregulation; “market incentives”
though privatization and liberalization; and “participation” through
decentralization and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Subse-
quent World Bank reports further elaborated this international agenda,
stressing in a rather technocratic approach, the need for effective state
institutions to achieve development in a global context of liberalized
markets (Demmers, Fernández Jilberto and Hogenboom, 2004). Alter-
natively, social science scholars use (environmental) governance to
emphasize social relations and, in particular, the tension between con-
servation and development goals in order to understand the interplay
among social, institutional and environmental change.
The environmental governance research builds on a range of theoreti-
cal schools, including new institutionalism (Ostrom, 1990; Young, 1999;
Biermann and Pattberg, 2008), sociopolitical studies (Kooiman et al.,
2005; Lemos and Agrawal, 2006) and sociocultural approaches (Cleaver,
2002; Alimonda and Gandásegui, 2006; Castro, 2008; Gudynas, 2011).
Despite their different theoretical and methodological stands (see
Castro, 2013), they all address social behaviour towards natural
6Environment and Society
resources as a complex arrangement of formal and informal interac-
tions among state and non-state actors across different scales, driven by
ecological and social factors. In this book we follow a similar approach
and define environmental governance as the process of formulating and
contesting images and designs, and implementing procedures and prac-
tices that shape the access, control and use of natural resources among
different actors.
In recent decades, environmental governance in Latin America has
undergone major transformations. We observe multiple layers of gover-
nance, mediated by formal and informal social interactions, which have
gradually evolved over time. Nevertheless, a particular arrangement has
typically dominated discourses and practices at the national level. As of
the 1940s, state-centred governance mode increasingly dominated most
of the region. Particularly during the period of military dictatorship,
decision-making processes were based on bureaucratic authoritarian
regimes and top-down procedures controlled by a technocratic elite and
grounded in a strong nationalist discourse of state sovereignty.
In the 1990s, most Latin American countries underwent a soci-
etal change through democratization, political decentralization and
neoliberal restructuring. Civil government and electoral democracy
were (re-)established and the former exclusionary governance gave way
to electoral forms of political representation. At the same time, the role
of the state was limited by far-reaching structural adjustment policies
imposed by international institutions, in particular the International
Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development
Bank (Liverman and Villas, 2006). Self-governance mode, as concep-
tualized by the World Bank, calls for a small role of national states,
and reliance mainly on market-based mechanisms such as privatization,
self-designed corporate conduct guides (e.g. corporate social responsibil-
ity (CSR)) and voluntary mechanisms (certification and compensation
schemes). While promising environmentally and socially sound initia-
tives, the market-based approach to self-governance primarily sought
to improve the image of transnationally operating companies vis-à-vis
their shareholders and to consequently ease their insertion into host
countries (Lyon, 2009).
At the same time, self-governance mode, as conceptualized by polit-
ical scientists (e.g. Ostrom, 1990), includes mostly local governance
systems shaped through collective action to regulate access to and use
of natural resources. This governance mode, long overlooked by policy-
makers, became visible through a large number of community-based
management studies (see McCay and Acheson, 1990; Berkes and Folke,
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 7
1998) and was brought to the attention of society at large by environ-
mental justice movements that built on socioenvironmental discourses
and political connections with transnational activism networks (Keck
and Sikkink, 1998). While self-governance through collective action
became important in more remote areas during this period (Schmink
and Jouve-Martín, 2011), in areas of large-scale economic production
a type of self-governance based on market-based mechanisms thrived,
leading to a wave of natural resource privatization in the region. As these
two governance systems collided, local social relations were disrupted
(Bebbington, 2012), and local elites and transnational corporations were
strengthened (Larson, 2003; Perreault, 2005). This led to an intensifica-
tion of local conflicts that often had national and global repercussions
(Walter and Martinez-Alier, 2012). Combined with other political and
social demands, environmental conflicts contributed to major political
transformations and may be considered to have been instrumental in
the election of left-leaning parties in many Latin American countries.
As part of this struggle for resources, participatory governance mode
emerged in the 2000s as an alternative to the previously proposed
monolithic governance modes. This was part of the project to deepen
democracy and citizenship by the new Latin American governments.
Grounded in discourses of social justice, equity and poverty allevia-
tion, participation of civil society organizations has become a central
element of environmental governance in the region. Instead of state-,
community- or market-based governance, participatory governance is
based on partnerships among relevant actors to set goals and to design
and implement initiatives. Participatory governance ranges from co-
management models, in which state and local communities develop
a sustainable plan for traditional territories (Castro, 2012), to more
complex arrangements that include multistakeholders and multiscale
institutions, such as that of climate governance. Here, governments,
transnational social movements and transnational corporations are
engaged in the shaping of an international institutional arrangement
that combines semilegal agreements to tackle climate change and
related environmental issues, such as emission targets, Agenda 21 and
the Convention on Biological Diversity (Biermann and Pattberg, 2008).
Participatory environmental governance therefore takes place in a
contested political space where different actors struggle to strengthen
their positions. More than a new governance mode, it represents a
new layer in hybrid governance models composed by state-centred,
market-based and local-based mechanisms. To what extent participation
can actually be fostered, inequalities diminished and the environment
8Environment and Society
protected in this complex arrangement depends on the way different
images of nature–society relations are negotiated, how problems are pri-
oritized, and how compatible the proposed solutions are with the social,
institutional and environmental context. In this respect, Latin America
has recently experienced some interesting new trends.
Recent trends in Latin American environmental
Environmental governance in Latin America is a contradictory process.
The dominating discourse of participatory governance in several Latin
American countries is accompanied by increasing socioenvironmental
conflicts.2In the centre of this contradiction are the changes to the
socioenvironmental context observed in the last decade. The impres-
sive economic and social progress of the 2000s and the new approaches
to poverty alleviation, redistribution and sovereignty were supported
by large segments of the population. However, social programmes
were usually based on increased public revenues from extractive activ-
ities, both through booming global commodity markets and through
higher national taxes and royalties (Hogenboom, 2012). As many
countries deepened their dependence on the extractive use of natural
resources, this prompted a “reprimarization” of the economy. As soon
as these tendencies became evident, the problems and contradictions
of (neo)extractivism and the possibilities for post-extractivist develop-
ment strategies became the subject of vivid debates in countries such
as Ecuador (Ecuador Debate, 2011), Bolivia (Radhuber, 2014), Argentina
(Giaracca and Teubal, 2013) and Peru (Alayza and Gudynas, 2011).
Critics of extractivism point to the new partnerships between the
national state and transnational corporations, which simultaneously
reinforced state-centred and market-based principles of governance.
Despite the increasing implementation of impact assessments and prior
consultations, the involvement of local stakeholders in decision-making
processes remains very limited (Schilling-Vacaflor, 2012). Grassroots
organizations, human rights activists and environmentalists accordingly
denounce the imposition of top-down arrangements. Next to the lim-
ited influence of civil society, and especially of marginalized groups,
they call attention to the increasing criminalization of social mobi-
lization against large-scale projects of mining, oil and gas extraction,
hydroelectricity or infrastructure.
These processes reinforced the longstanding tension between the
commodification of nature and the “safeguard of nature” (Silva, 2012).
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 9
On the one hand, governments and corporations are receiving support
from the urban population to further the expansion of extractive activ-
ities in order to fulfil urgent societal needs. On the other hand, rural
communities, indigenous organizations and environmentalists stress
the relevance of nature for ecological sustainability, social reproduc-
tion and cultural notions of belonging rooted in local cosmologies.
The implications for the safeguard of nature and local communities in
the region have been complex and contested. Facilitated by national
policies, large companies are attracted to resource-endowed areas to
supply the increasing global demand for commodities. The expansion
of extractive activities has deepened the pressure on the natural envi-
ronment and its local residents. This has become particularly clear
in the Amazon, where the rapid expansion of a range of large- and
small-scale activities (Dijck, 2014) threatens the livelihoods of indige-
nous and other communities, sparking numerous conflicts and violent
clashes (Alimonda, Hoetmer and Saavedra Celestino, 2009; Gavaldà i
Palacin, 2013; Vásquez, 2014). However, Maristella Svampa (2011) also
notes that due to a convergence between indigenous communitarian
views and environmental discourses, an interesting ecoterritorial turn
in socioenvironmental struggles has come about.
The frequency and intensity of socioenvironmental conflicts indi-
cate that, in the context of democracy and post-neoliberal develop-
ment models, major dilemmas between conservation and development
remain. For the solution of these dilemmas, a range of proposals and
actions have been brought forward that are meant to bring actors
together to find new forms of more consensual environmental gov-
ernance. The existing proposals can be categorized as one of two
contrasting models.
On the one hand we can distinguish a tendency that we call neode-
sarrollismo (new developmentalism). This refers to mainly business-like
proposals that rely on institutional engineering, technological mod-
ernization and market-based mechanisms to bring about efficient and
sustainable use of natural resources. This model tends to dominate pol-
icy circles in most Latin American governments. It is closely related to
the globally dominant environmental governance model known as the
Green Economy. Grounded in neoinstitutionalism, the model relies on
institutional fixes to fine-tune market-based incentives in order to drive
collaborative behaviour and sustainable practices (UNEP, 2011). The
Green Economy model assumes that shortcomings such as asymmet-
ric relationships, injustices and unsustainable behaviour can turn into
more equitable and sustainable outcomes through proper institutional
10 Environment and Society
design (Biermann, 2007). By relying on institutional engineering, solu-
tions are based on apolitical means such as innovation of technology
(de Mol, 2003) and “green” consumptive behaviour (Dobson, 2003).
The pragmatism of this approach finds fertile ground among elite
groups because it addresses the dilemmas around equity, sustainable
development and conservation from within the capitalist market-based
structure. Its advocates rely on market-based incentives and compensa-
tion schemes, such as REDD and payment for ecosystem services (PES),
as mechanisms to replace state regulation, minimize conflict-related
costs and improve corporate image. The model also fits well into the
institutional ethos of a technocratic state apparatus, which tends to
rely on blueprint institutional designs. Finally, it satisfies part of the
environmentalist agenda, including several international environmen-
tal NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation
International and the Nature Conservancy. These transnational orga-
nizations have gradually moved towards an agenda of compensation
schemes and market-based incentives in order to promote sustainable
behaviour among corporations, states and local communities (Hall,
On the opposite side, we find a number of proposals that envision
a radically different model of production and environmental gover-
nance, brought together under the label of Buen Vivir (“good living”).
This tendency includes a range of alternative conceptions of nature
and human–nature relations that depart from indigenous ideas about
the relationship between human production and the environment and
rights of nature (Gudynas, 2011). The proposals recommend a bottom-
up and unorthodox environmental governance perspective, which calls
for the transformation, or even the end, of the hegemonic capitalist
model that is considered to be the very source of environmental degra-
dation and injustice. Their advocates argue that neodesarrollismo and its
connection with the Green Economy only mean a repackaging of old
development models to maintain unequal power relations on multiple
scales. Instead of the technocratic belief in “institutional deficiencies”
that only need to be fixed, they consider these deficiencies to be the
very foundation of asymmetric relationships and environmental degra-
dation (Alimonda, 2011). They argue that institutional fixes will hardly
be effective in solving socioenvironmental problems unless the unequal
power relations between different social groups and the basic founda-
tions of the market-based economy are properly addressed (Gudynas,
2009). Grounded in discourses of wellbeing, civil rights and a plural
state, advocates leaning towards this narrative argue that capitalism is
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 11
limited to tackling issues of justice, equity and sustainability, and they
call for alternative models of heterodox economy, such as degrowth
(Russi et al., 2008) and the solidarity economy (Barkin and Lemus,
2011), or local practices such as agroforestry (Altieri and Toledo, 2011)
and community-based management systems (Bray, Merino and Barry,
The Buen Vivir model has provoked two kinds of criticism. On the
one hand, some observers consider the anti-market basis of these ideas
to be unfeasible and unrealistic. In their view it is impossible in today’s
world not to participate in the market economy. Other observers focus
on the governments that want to implement these ideas, such as those
of Bolivia and Ecuador. They criticize the lack of clarity in the concept of
Buen Vivir and highlight the contradictions that its supposed implemen-
tation engenders (Bretón Solo de Zaldívar, 2013). They argue that, in
practice, these ideas serve as an excuse for continuing developmentalist
and extractive models.
It is clear that both neodesarrollismo and Buen Vivir have their flaws
and contradictions. In practice, we can see that most governments in
Latin America today combine elements of both models. Indeed, we can
speak of a mixed governance model, in which governments and other
actors eclectically use different models to implement their practices or
to formulate their demands. In this way multilayered and flexible insti-
tutional arrangements are continuously constructed and reconstructed
through a process of hybridization and bricolage (Cleaver, 2002).
To understand projects of environmental governance in Latin America
today, we need to start from the fact that they emanate from different
actors who have particular historical experiences and use a variety of
local, national and global discourses. These projects at the same time
present a number of often contradictory goals and proposals. In the last
instance they aim to find solutions or create new opportunities for this
predicament of a balance between productive activities, societal equality
and environmental policies. In the remainder of this introduction, we
will try to shed light on the consequences of these complex proposals
for environmental governance.
Environmental governance as a social process
Environmental governance is thus embedded within a historical, envi-
ronmental and social context that is continuously shaped by political
struggles, environmental change and contested values of nature over
time (Miller, 2007). Environmental attributes, such as availability and
12 Environment and Society
distribution of renewable and non-renewable natural resources, influ-
ence access to production territories by different stakeholders (see
Haarstad, 2012). Social attributes – such as consumption patterns,
poverty and inequality levels, democracy and citizenship, cultural diver-
sity, and economic growth – are some of the driving factors underlying
the actions of Latin American societies to shape multiple patterns of the
exploitation and protection of nature (Latta and Wittman, 2012). In par-
ticular, institutional arrangements that define the “rules of the game” –
which include both formal and informal practices and mechanisms
mediating social-environment relations on multiple scales – are based
on different sets of principles, values and images of nature, conservation
and development.
To understand how environmental governance takes place in the
region, we have to look at the intricate and heterogeneous environ-
mental, social and institutional arrangements in Latin America (see
Helmke and Levitsky, 2006). Changes in the social, institutional and
environmental context continuously reshape the set of opportunities
and constraints for different actors, triggering new social interactions
and institutional adaptations.
In these highly complex and dynamic processes, multiple actors make
use of elements of different, often contrasting, discourses to legitimate
their proposals or projects. To disentangle and unpack the practical and
discursive contradictions of today’s environmental governance in Latin
America, we identify three analytical lines that are reflected through-
out this book. First, perceptions, values and discourses are important
because they show the variety of images of nature, environmental prob-
lems and possible solutions among different social groups. Second,
social interactions further give shape to people’s actions and relations
towards decision-making processes. And third, institutional change and
adaptations are the result of concrete efforts to deal with these different
and often conflicting images and a multitude of social interactions.
Perceptions, values and discourses
Perceptions and values are fiercely contested by different actors accord-
ing to their representations of nature. The contestation over values,
principles and knowledge sources guiding the way nature is concep-
tualized is one of the key elements of environmental governance. The
way nature conservation is framed directly influences how environmen-
tal dilemmas are problematized, how solutions are designed and how
priorities and trade-offs between conflicting goals are set. The more
actors are engaged in environmental governance, the more complex and
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 13
heterogeneous the images become. The central question is how these
complex dynamics lead to specific forms of environmental governance,
and maybe even more importantly, how these forms can be directed
towards social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
As argued by Martinez-Alier, Baud and Sejenovich (Chapter 1), Latin
America has a long epistemological and political tradition in relation
to the balance between human production, natural resources and the
environment. This academic perspective goes in the same direction
as indigenous cosmologies, in which nature is an integrated part of
their lives. By using a range of illustrative examples, Kleiche-Dray and
Waast (Chapter 3) describe in detail how cultural practices are intimately
related to production and food systems. Similarly, Barker and Lemus
(Chapter 10) explain how cultural perspectives of nature form the core
concept of indigenous peasant communality.
While indigenous and peasant communities tend to perceive nature
as important for symbolic meanings and for sustaining their livelihoods,
extraction-oriented images connect nature to the interests of exploiting
its resources and generating revenues. The latter images have been espe-
cially advocated by national governments and large companies. Inter-
estingly, although Andean governments today also use the symbolic
indigenous images of Pachamama and Buen Vivir in their discourses,
their meaning has been reframed (see Teijlingen and Hogenboom,
2014). The governments have adapted such images to a political agenda
in which nature mainly serves to support national development. This
leads to the coexistence of seemingly competing images and discourses,
such as Buen Vivir with the idea of the so-called país minero (mining
country), as explained in detail by Andrade (Chapter 4).
Parker, Baigorrotegui and Estenssoro (Chapter 6) demonstrate how
the discourses of private companies resemble those of the national
Latin American governments. Through multiple – and often contrast-
ing – discourses, large private companies strive to defend their inter-
ests, to confront contested political contexts and to legitimate their
projects. However, while national governments define the control of
natural resources as an element of national sovereignty, corporate actors
interpret the dilemmas of environmental governance as transcending
national boundaries, such as in the case of the fictitious United Repub-
lic of Soybeans, the agricultural area covering parts of Argentina, Brazil,
Paraguay and Bolivia that is controlled by the world’s largest food
companies (see Grain, 2013).
Environmentalists’ images of nature also transcend national inter-
ests and boundaries, and often pit them against national governments
14 Environment and Society
and interest groups. However, their views contrast with indigenous
communities or companies by defining nature as a biophysical entity,
characterized by its ecological function of biodiversity repository and
carbon sink with direct implications in regulating the global climate.
By using metaphors such as “Earth’s lung” or “carbon sink”, or superla-
tives such as megabiodiversity spots, biomes such as the Amazon are
usually emphasized over other ecosystems, as shown by the REDD+case
described by Aguilar-Støen, Toni and Hirsch (Chapter 8).
In sum, whether a lifestyle, a commodity or a biological stock,
nature’s multiple images and values create dissonance among stake-
holders’ perceptions of nature-related problems and possible solutions.
At the core of this dilemma is the struggle over meanings of nature, con-
servation, development and participation. The consequences of these
different perceptions and the contradictions within existing discourses
become apparent in concrete social interactions.
Social interactions
Social interactions are the propeller of environmental governance.
Through their ambitions to deepen democracy and foment popular
participation, often in response to social demands and mobilization,
Latin American governments have expanded the range of actors and
interests involved in environmental governance. Even though these
ambitions may have often been confined to discourse and rhetoric,
they have opened political spaces for more varied and dynamic social
interactions. As a result, decisions regarding environmental dilemmas
in Latin America today involve a range of actors that may hold multi-
ple political and identity positions. These positions may be strategically
shifted according to new opportunities and constraints that emerge
from changes in the socioenvironmental context. Because they con-
cern concrete decisions that present technical, economic and political
choices and ambiguities, social interactions are dynamic and constantly
swing between the opposites of cooperative or accommodating to con-
flictive and resisting relations. In this intricate social interaction, the
struggle to participate and control the decision-making process is a
central element of environmental governance.
It is interesting to note that the relevance of participation for effec-
tive solutions to economic, social and conservation challenges is no
longer questioned by the elite groups. As Chapter 6 shows, even the
most conservative and market-oriented stakeholders acknowledge the
importance of the inclusion of local or marginalized groups. In fact,
participation has become a central element in official documents drafted
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 15
by government agencies, corporations, donors and multigovernmen-
tal agreements. However, the participation of local communities has
been framed in terms of them being recipients of compensatory benefits
decided by other legitimated actors.
In the case of mining consultations, Walter and Urkidi (Chapter 11)
argue that companies try to demobilize local participation with tech-
nological solutions and false promises. Through top-down procedures,
they only give local populations the opportunity to be informed in order
to legitimize their activity. In the case of REDD+,Chapter8arguesthat
projects are dominated by “invited” actors who decide which knowl-
edge tools, goals and models are legitimized. What remains for the local
populations is some compensation in the form of money or material
facilities. Despite the different territorial and political contexts, both of
these chapters demonstrate the dangers of framing participation as a
distribution of compensatory measures.
The reframing of participation through compensation has emerged
from coalitions between the state and other elite groups. Chapter 4 and
Bull and Aguilar-Støen’s Chapter 5 focus on state-business coalitions for
the expansion of extractive industries. The former focuses on the politi-
cal and economic agenda of the state based on natural resources, while
the latter describes how this process has driven new forms of political
interactions between the state and the new and old elite. Chapter 8
focuses on the NGOs, experts and state coalition for the expansion of
protected areas.
The unfulfilled promises of participatory policies combined with the
increased exploitation of natural resources in many Latin American
regions have fuelled socioenvironmental conflicts almost at the same
pace as the implementation of participatory initiatives. According to
Martinez-Alier and Walter (Chapter 2), these conflicts concentrate on
the distribution of the ecological debt and basically emerge from the
unequal exchange of material between different parts of the world.
In addition, as Sejenovich (Chapter 7) shows, dominant production
processes have high social and environmental costs. To end poverty
and realize sustainable development, social rights as well as ecological
limits need to be fully integrated into governance processes. In recent
years, some progress has been made in this direction. To regain their
protagonism in environmental governance, various local communities
have developed and designed bottom-up decision-making processes to
defend their local interests and to keep their autonomy in shaping their
livelihood strategies (see chapters 9, 10 and 11).
16 Environment and Society
These bottom-up solutions are built on environmental justice net-
works and peasant and indigenous movements, an instrumental strat-
egy in the struggle for access and control over natural resources in
Latin America (Carruthers, 2008). They struggle to empower themselves
through a discourse of human–nature interdependency and territorial
autonomy. In this process, local actors try to scale down the decision-
making process. Chapter 10 argues that locally developed economic
models are the only way to liberate subalterns from their marginalized
position in the capitalist structure. Chapter 2 shows how local com-
munities organize themselves around glocal (global–local) networks in
order to reclaim their political position within the capitalist structure.
At the implementation level, a myriad of initiatives have been observed
on the ground. Local communities draw on their local knowledge and
institutions in order to develop new strategies to tackle new challenges.
In some cases they have actively designed their own decision-making
systems to counter the manipulative consultations carried out by pri-
vate companies, as described in detail in Chapter 11. In other cases,
communities have engaged in commercial activities by building on their
social capital to develop their technical and entrepreneurial capacity (see
Merino’s Chapter 9).
In sum, the increasing tension between environmental justice and
post-neoliberal policies is characterized by a dynamic reshaping of
strategies among contesting actors. This central element of environmen-
tal governance drives new institutional adaptations based on discourse,
relationships and practices on the ground.
Institutional change and adaptation
Institutional adaptations involve strategies developed by different actors
to increase their ability to be included or to define the “rules of the
game” in environmental governance. These adaptations comprise for-
mal and informal mechanisms, and range from discourse reshaping
and new communication strategies to innovative initiatives, technolo-
gies and knowledge integration. Latin America has been the stage for
two key forms of institutional adaptation among different contesting
actors: the reshaping of environmental discourse and the rescaling of
environmental governance.
Generally, dominant actors have reframed their discourses in order to
fit their interests and objectives into a “green growth” agenda. Corpo-
rations favour models based on technological innovation while leftist
governments argue for the expansion of extractive activities in order
to reach social objectives. The ideologies and discourses of the new
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 17
so-called post-neoliberal governments in Latin America have greatly
influenced the adaptations of environmental governance. By fram-
ing natural resources as a national wealth to solve inequality prob-
lems, they have strengthened the state’s political position vis-à-vis the
transnational corporate sector. This has allowed them to acquire a
more central position in the governance of natural resources and to
impose stronger conditions for the exploitation of natural resources.
The increased income from taxes and royalties on natural resource use
have allowed for a redistribution of benefits among different stakeholder
groups, resulting in decreasing poverty and income inequality in the
region, even though the problem of structural poverty still needs to be
resolved (see Chapter 7).
Among several actors, gradual shifts may be observed in environmen-
tal attitudes, mechanisms and practices. The state has been instrumental
in reformulating procedures for the socioenvironmental assessment of
extractive industries and infrastructure expansion, decision-making pro-
cesses and control over environmental conflicts. To prevent further
legislative restrictions, and in response to social pressures, corporations
have become proactive in the development of a discourse in which they
hold a key role in solving societal problems. This discourse has materi-
alized through the CSR framework, which promises to reconcile their
productive activities with social and environmental demands. Many
researchers and environmentalists, on the other hand, have adapted to
the new context by claiming their “expert” role as knowledge-holder of
the technical information that is necessary to design better policies.
These different discursive strategies mediate the institutional changes
promoted by contesting actors. At the national level, Chapter 4’s anal-
ysis of the state in Andean countries reveals the strong role of the
recentralization of environmental governance as a key strategy of post-
neoliberal states in order to subsidize the accomplishment of their social
policies. Chapter 5 offers several examples in which elite groups try
to ensure their access to land and natural resources through different
means (see also Otero, 2010; Borras et al., 2012; Harstaad, 2012). In some
other cases, however, different governmental levels may compete for
control of the decision-making process. The REDD+implementation
process provides an illustrative example of tensions between differ-
ent governmental levels in the attempt to recentralize or decentralize
the funding scheme to compensate forest-protection initiatives. In the
current “race” for the implementation of REDD+in Brazil, state gov-
ernments have built state-level coalitions in order to bypass national
18 Environment and Society
governments and reach out to different international funding schemes
(Chapter 8).
Politically less powerful actors also strive to rescale decision-making
processes in order to overcome undesirable policies and develop-
ments, structural constraints or environmental degradation. Chapter 11
describes the efforts of local communities to build up both glocal con-
nections and coalitions with local governments in order to have control
over consultations and decide about the implementation of mining
projects in Latin America. According to Chapter 10, the scaling down
of environmental governance to the local level is fundamental in safe-
guarding the self-determination of local communities. Chapter 9 argues
that social capital and institutional strength in communities are key fac-
tors for the protection of forest commons and for local capacities to face
traditional and emergent pressures on forest ecosystems.
The extent to which local communities and social movements suc-
ceed in bringing about institutional change partly depends on their
interactions with other actors. In this respect it is also important to
point out that social actors (the state, corporations, communities, etc.)
are not homogeneous entities. They may consist of various groups
with different power, interests and positions, which may shift over
time. Local governments, for example, occasionally confront central
governments by developing alliances with local communities or other
state agencies. Also, experts from corporations, governments and envi-
ronmental organizations may take very different stances on energy
efficiency, production technologies and social responsibilities, despite
the fact that they work in the same sector or country (see the analysis
of views and discourses of strategic actors in Chapter 6). In some cases,
environmentalists support local communities against development poli-
cies that promote the expansion of infrastructure and extractive indus-
tries in fragile ecosystems (Chapter 11). In other cases, they may
favour compensatory schemes in conservation policies, regardless of the
criticism raised by environmental justice movements (Chapter 8).
In sum, while the central state has repositioned itself in processes of
environmental governance of Latin America, institutional adaptation to
the new contexts, discourses and demands has come from a range of
(contesting) actors, and the interactions among them, across multiple
scales. Overall, elite groups have tried to adjust some of their dis-
courses and practices in order to partly comply with new demands and
regulations, without having to give up their prominent position. Simul-
taneously, various marginalized groups have attempted to strike back by
(re-)establishing and (re)appropriating local decision-making processes
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 19
in order to regain their autonomy. To what extent these institutional
adaptations may lead to structural transformations in environmental
governance remains to be seen.
Environmental governance in the making
Environmental governance is a social arena of multiple demands, goals
and images of nature, in which priorities and trade-offs are negoti-
ated according to the interests of those who are able to influence
decision-making. In Latin America, several social and institutional
arrangements through which environmental governance takes place are
currently changing. Trends such as the repositioning of the national
state (Chapter 4), the emergence of new elite groups (Chapter 5) and the
development of new mining technologies (Chapter 6) are largely sup-
portive of the increasing resource extraction for global markets, which is
a cause for numerous environmental conflicts in the region (Chapter 2).
At the same time, however, new communication means (Chapter 11),
knowledge exchanges (chapters 3 and 9), increased attention for social
rights (Chapter 7) and strengthened bottom-up organizations (chapters
9, 10 and 11) create opportunities for marginalized groups to counter
top-down political and economic processes that greatly affect the lives
of people who have limited voice.
Whether new trends in Latin America’s environmental governance
will prove to have transformative implications depends on how rel-
evant actors are involved in the process. In this respect, the contri-
butions to this book reveal profound tensions between the compen-
satory approaches favoured by governments and corporations (chapters
4, 5, 6, 7 and 8), and the participatory proposals and practices of
socioenvironmental analysis, political decision-making and economic
production that are championed by local communities and activists
(chapters 2, 3, 9, 10 and 11). Although compensation can be a means
for dealing with social and environmental debts and injustices, an
overly strong emphasis on local “damage control”, financial repara-
tion and social projects not only legitimizes practices that threaten
the integrity of fragile ecosystems but also jeopardizes a protagonist
role of local communities in environmental governance. While a sec-
ond generation of environmental justice movements is taking a lead
in struggles over resource-related meanings and rights (Chapter 2),
compensatory policies gain space in Latin America in the context of
resource-based economic growth and poverty reduction (chapters 4
and 7).
20 Environment and Society
The tension between participatory and compensatory approaches is
in practice often not so evident or clear-cut. Take, for instance, the
political visibility of injustices and the institutionalization of rights
granted to marginalized groups, especially indigenous peoples, since
the 1990s. While meaningful progress has undoubtedly been made,
this is partly overshadowed by neoliberal and post-neoliberal insti-
tutional adaptations that give greater power to corporations and the
state, and more room to expansionary large-scale production and infras-
tructure projects that tend to threaten the livelihoods of some of the
same marginalized groups. By the same token, participation, formerly
defined as full involvement of local groups in decision-making over
socioenvironmental change, has been reframed to include marginal-
ized groups mainly as co-beneficiaries through compensation schemes.
Paradoxically, as state agencies more actively promote participatory
initiatives, local populations may in fact be less actively involved in
decision-making. And especially when coalitions between the state
and corporations foster the expansion of natural resource exploitation
(chapters 2, 4 and 5), the genuine participation and empowerment of
local communities has been limited, and in some cases protests have
even been criminalized in the name of progress and national security
(Chapter 11; see also Taylor, 2011; Saguier, 2012; Zibechi, 2012).
In addition to economic and social compensation, the fast transfor-
mation of rural areas reveals a trend towards territorial compensation,
in which some protected areas are supposed to make up for the vast
areas where large-scale productive or extractive activities are basically
given a free hand (Castro, 2014; see also Zimmerer, 2011). The expan-
sion of protected areas (e.g. parks, reserves and ethnic communities)
by national governments is primarily aimed at protecting forests, coin-
ciding with national and international climate change and biodiversity
policies (Chapter 8; see also Castro, 2013). In many cases, the expan-
sion of these activities and infrastructure takes place in environmentally
and socially sensitive areas, and forces peasants and traditional commu-
nities to fight for their autonomy, food and land security. Meanwhile,
from this ongoing territorial reconfiguration, new inequalities, injus-
tices and vulnerabilities emerge. While productive territories become
gradually more concentrated in the hands of elite groups, secluded pro-
tected areas where land-use activities are limited by market constraints
and restrictive rules are allocated to the rural poor.
Finally, this book’s collection of studies shows that in order to
tackle the current and emerging socioenvironmental problems in Latin
America, three main challenges must be urgently addressed: first, the
Fábio de Castro, Barbara Hogenboom and Michiel Baud 21
political challenge of promoting democracy and citizenship in a public
space that is safeguarded for effective participation in the agenda-setting
and negotiation of conflicting interests; second, the social challenge of
ensuring the improvement of wellbeing through food and land security,
social reproduction and self-determination of marginalized groups; and
third, the environmental challenge of protecting ecological integrity,
carbon emission mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
1. See, for example, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEBB) –
2. See
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Part I
Setting the Stage
Origins and Perspectives of Latin
American Environmentalism
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich
The debate on the socioenvironmental challenges faced by Latin
America has a long history. This history is crucial to understanding Latin
American perspectives on environmental governance and, above all, to
understanding the specific characteristics which determine these per-
spectives. Traditional debates on environmental governance tend to see
the Western debates on nature and environment as determining views
and perspectives on a global scale. The suggestion is that Latin American
environmental debates were directed by the changing views in the
industrialized world. This chapter, however, suggests that Latin America
has developed its own strands and perspectives on environmental issues
which were emerging from its peculiar historical position. A focus on the
specific, and to a large extent autonomous, knowledge development on
nature and environment allow us to understand the determining roots
of Latin American ideas on environmental governance.
Latin American environmental ideas are closely connected to an envi-
ronmental history since the Spanish Conquest, which was characterized
by a dramatic drop in population and a series of export booms driven
by one commodity after another. An early case in point may be the
exportation of guano from Peru that amounted to about 11 million tons
over 40 years, from 1840 to 1880, and was based on the exploitation of
indentured Chinese workers (Gootenberg, 1993). In the last decades of
the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth century,
the entire Latin American region experienced a dramatic boom in agri-
culture for exportation. New crops such as coffee, cacao and banana,
along with more traditional goods such as sugar, changed the economic
and ecological context of much of Latin America as well as the lives of
30 Latin American Environmentalism
large sectors of its population. The agrarian frontier expanded, and large
territories, often in the interior of the new republics, were deforested
and occupied by new forms of agriculture. The expansion of coffee cul-
tivation in Antioquia, Colombia, and of cacao in the interior of Ilhéus
in the north-east of Brazil have been iconic examples, just like rubber
and henequen in southern and south-eastern Mexico, the banana belt
in Central America, Colombia and Ecuador, and the occupation of the
Pampas in Argentina and southern Brazil (for a number of examples, see
Topic, Marichal and Frank, 2006). Cuban sugar export increased from
1 million tons per year around 1900 to 3 million tons by 1920, causing
dramatic deforestation on the island (Funes Monzote, 2004a, 2004b).
This sacrifice was unaccounted for in the modernizing ideology of the
time, epitomized by Arango Parreño’s slogan of 1770, “sin azúcar no hay
país” (“without sugar, no country”) (Moreno Fraginals, 1978).
This expansion of the agrarian frontier was accompanied by ideolo-
gies of progress, the incorporation of new business elites, and a strong
dependence on the international market. With the Chilean triumph in
the Pacific War (1879–1883) and the incorporation of Antofagasta and
Tarapacá, Chile became the world’s principal producer of the mineral
saltpetre. The exportation of this sodium nitrate increased until 1914
and remained constant until the crisis of 1929, oscillating between 1.5
and 3 million tons per year (Miller and Greenhill, 2006). This provoked
an economic boom like the country had not experienced before.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, the oil industry in
Venezuela and Mexico began to grow, causing ecological and social dis-
asters at a scale unknown at the time (Santiago, 2006). This process
continues today: the calculation (in tons) of primary materials that are
exported (West and Schandl, 2013) reveals a multiplication of four, from
1970 to 2010.1As an example, Venezuela exports roughly 120 million
tons of oil per year.
Recently, with the expansion of the Chinese economy, the extraction
of natural resources (not only minerals and oil but also agrarian prod-
ucts, such as soy) has grown at an extraordinary rate. The Government
of Uruguay is considering exporting 18 million tons of iron ore per year
under the Aratirí project. Meanwhile, Chile exports 5 million tons of
copper per year, which requires the removal of land, enormous pro-
duction of slag and a large input of energy. Colombia exports almost
100 million tons of coal per year; Brazil annually exports 400 million
tons of soy and iron ore. There are signs that the recent economic
bonanza from primary exports is coming to a halt in 2015, reinforcing
the critiques from the “post-extractivist” school. However, this might be
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 31
only a temporary situation. New supplies of energy and materials from
Latin America will find markets, and domestic and foreign demand.
The beginning
The population of the American continent suffered an enormous drop
during the Spanish colonization. The population was drastically reduced
by the exploitation to which it was subjected, but the “Great Dying”, as
it was called by Eric Wolf (1982: 133ff), was primarily due to the spread
of infectious diseases. From an estimated 140 million people in the year
1500, only 40 million were registered 60 years later (Tudela, 1990; also
Sánchez-Albornoz, 1984). The American population, which had a size
comparable to that of Europe at the time, dropped some 80%. This his-
torical process is unparalleled in other continents with the exception of
Australia and a few other places in the world (e.g. the Canary Islands,
Hawaii) that have experienced a similar phenomenon. The decrease in
the native population – and its slow substitution by an immigrant pop-
ulation in the neo-European (as they were called by Crosby, 2004) and
also later in the humid tropics – should be understood as a biological as
well as a military process. The conquistadores arrived in new territories
in search of riches. They had little mercy for the native population and,
unwittingly but also relentlessly, they contaminated it with new fatal
However, the depopulation in the first century after the colonization
can not only be attributed to the arrival of Hernán Cortés and Francisco
Pizarro and their troops in the former Mexican and Andean empires
(or even before they arrived, as death travelled fast). The archaeology
of the Amazon today confirms the existence of population densities
much greater than those during several centuries following the con-
quest. There had already been collapses of empires, and perhaps also
of populations before the Spanish Conquest, such as in the Mayan
territory, but what happened in the American demography after 1492
had no precedent on a continental scale and throughout the history of
Today’s low population density in Latin America (with local excep-
tions such as El Salvador and Haiti) negates one of the principle
arguments in ecological thinking, namely, that population density is the
key problem of environmental degradation. Nowhere in Latin America
is there an issue of overpopulation as in Europe (with densities of up
to 300 people per square kilometre in Germany, Italy and England) or
in India and Bangladesh. In Latin America, population increase later
32 Latin American Environmentalism
became an explicit policy of modernist governments. In this sense, the
famous remark by Argentinian Juan Bautista Alberdi in 1852, “to govern
is to populate”, is symbolic of the mindset of the Latin American elites
of that time. Much later, during the time of the military dictatorship
(1964–1986), the Brazilian state – in its geopolitical delirium – called for
an increase in birth rate in order to populate the Amazon against foreign
Ecology and demographics thus changed rapidly in the context
of early colonization. Under the rule of one single dynasty – the
Habsburgs – for the first 200 years, the Spanish American territories saw
enormous ecological and demographic changes. Invasive species arrived
(Melville, 1999), whereas the expansion of modern mining methods
(modern in technology and scale) in regions such as Potosí, Zacatecas
and also Minas Gerais led to a great decrease in population and enor-
mous pollution by mercury (Machado Araoz, 2014). In a later stage, the
frontiers of silver and gold extraction and – almost always at the same
time – of deforestation moved to those of sugarcane in the Caribbean
and the north-east of Brazil, and later the regions that produced and
exported coffee, rubber, wood such as mahogany and quebracho, meat,
banana, soy, copper, oil and coal, iron ore and bauxite (Brannstrom,
Conservationist environmentalism
Despite the anthropogenic changes that happened before and after
1492, Latin America managed to conserve immense biological diver-
sity in many of its diverse ecosystems. The Amazon had scarcely been
touched before the rubber whirlwind at the end of the nineteenth
century. This enormous biological richness attracted the attention of
European explorers such as Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the
renowned Prussian scientist. Without his explorations of this part of
the world that came to be known as the “Neotropics”, biogeography,
the study of the geographical distribution of plants and other life
forms, would not have been developed in the same way. His inten-
tion, which he never accomplished, was to return to Latin America once
it had become independent and to direct an academy with scientific
correspondents from Mexico to Patagonia.
On 29 July 1822, when he was in Paris, Humboldt wrote a let-
ter to Simon Bolívar introducing him to the young mining experts,
Jean Baptiste Boussingault and Mariano de Rivero. Some years later,
in his Memoria sobre el Guano de los Pájaros (1827), Mariano de Rivero
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 33
remembered how Humboldt had given samples of guano to Fourcroy
and Vauquelin who analysed the chemical elements of this fertilizer. Still
later, Mariano de Rivero regretted that Peru had not durably invested
the revenues from guano exports in a policy that we now call “weak
sustainability” (Alcalde Mongrut, 1966). This renewable product was
exported at such a rate that it led to its depletion. It should have been
invested in businesses that could have generated permanent income.
This proposal is similar to that which was later proposed by Uslar Pietri
in Venezuela in 1936, baptized as the “sowing of the oil” (sembrar el
petróleo) (Martínez-Alier and Roca, 2013: 116–117).
Humboldt described the geology, volcanoes, biogeography and the
richness of species of the American territories that he visited between
1799 and 1805. Later – and largely due to Darwin – Latin America
came to hold a privileged role in the science of biological evolution.
Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species owes much to his trip to
America during the Beagle mission (from 1831 to 1836) to collect mate-
rials. He came up with ideas that eventually, after his crucial stay in
the Galápagos, led him to express his astonishment at the number of
endemic species, given that the islands had only come to exist in a geo-
logically recent period. By observing finches and variations in the size
and form of their beaks (which ecotourists continue to discuss today),
he concluded that only one race of such birds had arrived and estab-
lished itself on the archipelago, and that new species had arisen through
adaptation to specific food sources.
South America was therefore crucial to the history and evolution of
biology as well as the history of agrarian chemistry and the develop-
ment of the idea of “social metabolism”. By 1840, Liebig, Boussingault
and other scientists, based on the analysis of Peruvian guano and other
fertilizers, determined that plants need three principal nutrients – phos-
phor, potassium and nitrogen – and that agriculture should evolve from
a system of plundering to one of restitution (McCosh, 1984: 81–82). The
fertilizing properties of guano were known by the historic inhabitants of
Peru but had not been described or analysed in chemical terms. Guano
had global importance – it was exported as a fertilizer but also served and
strongly influenced the minds of the agrarian chemists (Gootenberg,
1993; Cushman, 2013).
In the course of the nineteenth century, conservationist environ-
mentalism increased. Most intellectuals and politicians lived in parts
of Latin American cities which were somewhat removed from the envi-
ronmental destruction caused by mining and by the agro-export model.
Gradually, however, urban populations also started to be confronted by
34 Latin American Environmentalism
issues of pollution and environmental destruction in their own habitat.
This was most directly the case with dirty water, sanitation and infec-
tious diseases, which alarmed urban elites. The growth of cities also led
to environmental destruction and deforestation to which they could
not close their eyes. Warren Dean presented some impressive estimates
about urban-led deforestation in Brazil. He calculated that a city such as
Rio de Janeiro consumed at least 270,000 tons of firewood every year in
the 1880s (almost 20% provided by mangroves). For the construction of
a small brick house, 37 tons of firewood may have been needed. This
would mean that the buildings of the city of Rio de Janeiro by 1890 cost
the deforestation of 200 square kilometres (Dean, 1995: 196–197). He
may have overstated his case and exaggerated the importance of wood
as the principal source of energy for Brazil’s urban growth (Brannstrom,
2005), but there is no doubt that the relentless progress promoted by
Latin American elites came at the cost of rapid deforestation.
These developments led to a plethora of environmental research. The
distinct biomes of the Americas have all had their iconic researchers.
The dry tropical forest of the Chaco was studied by the great ecologist
Jorge Morello (1932–2013). He sponsored excellent collective research at
the University of Buenos Aires, on the Pampas and the Chaco, and also
on the coastal areas and the conurbation of Buenos Aires (e.g. Morello
and Matteucci, 2000). He occupied the post of director of National Parks
for a short time under the government of Raúl Alfonsín. In the eco-
logical and political history of Argentina, the logging of red quebracho
for railroad ties and the export of tannin for tanneries (by the British
company La Forestal) in Santa Fe and in the Chaco during the first
40 years of the twentieth century played a notable role. In Argentina
there has been active conservationism since the end of the nineteenth
century, responsible for the creation of various national parks in differ-
ent ecosystems. The dedication of Maximina Monasterio to the study
of the Andean páramo has been similar to that of Jorge Morello in the
Chaco. Born of a Galician refugee family in Argentina, educated and
graduated with a doctorate in ecology in France, with long sojourns in
Bolivia and exiled to Venezuela in 1966, she has been a crucial figure in
research on and education about the Andean highlands from Venezuela
to Ecuador. Monasterio studied, in her own words, “from the frailejones
to the potatoes” (i.e. both the “wild” and the agricultural biodiversity
of the highlands) (Monasterio, 2003). Today the ecosystemic services
provided by the páramos are common knowledge – as sources of water
for the people in the lowlands and their livestock. Thus in Colombia
the biodiversity research institute (Instituto de Investigación de Recursos
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 35
Biológicos) “Alexander von Humboldt” is currently in charge of delimit-
ing and protecting the páramo ecosystems, and in this way of preventing
coal mining in such areas.
In Mexico, Arturo Gómez Pompa, a biologist at the National
Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México (UNAM)) and of the same generation as Morello and
Monasterio, studied the ecology of tropical forests and ethnobotany
(see He was one of the most promi-
nent voices in denouncing deforestation in south-east Mexico. He is
also known for having discovered the chocolate tree in the Mayan
jungle. The idea of the cultivated jungle (or the “cultured jungle”, as
Philippe Descola (1986) called the Amazonian Achuar forest) became
very important in Latin American conservationism.
Conservationism in Latin American is a consequence of foreign influ-
ence but it also has its own local tradition. It uses universal and more
or less strict instruments, such as the Constitution of the National
Parks, the inclusion of wetlands and marshes in the list of the inter-
national Ramsar Convention, and the Biosphere Reserves sponsored
by UNESCO. The natural reserves have sometimes been protected by
the support of international conservationism. However, many countries
rightly stress the importance of their own national scientists and public
policy-makers in the designing of conservationist policies. In Peru, the
forest engineer Marc Dourojeanni played an important role in establish-
ing protected areas – around 1970 during the administration of Velasco
Alvarado – to save both the vicuña in the Andean highlands and the
Amazonian forests (Dourojeanni, 1988, 1990). In Mexico the conser-
vation efforts of figures such as Enrique Beltrán and Miguel Angel de
Quevedo (Simonian, 1995) are still well remembered 100 years later.
In Ecuador, Nicolás Cuví has highlighted the figure of Acosta Solís,
botanist and conservationist, with one foot in his country and the
other in the USA (Cuví, 2005). The latter’s research on the remnants
of the quinine tree (the tree that is on the shield of the Republic of
Peru) became suddenly relevant by the Second World War when the
US troops were fighting in the Pacific tropics and were threatened by
More than a century ago, part of the Amazon suffered from the
onslaught of the rubber boom, which had a significant negative impact
on indigenous populations. Another principal threat is perhaps the
global climate change that could convert the rainforest into savannah.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, the forests of southern Mexico
and Central America, like the forests of southern Chile and Argentina,
36 Latin American Environmentalism
were largely destroyed in the twentieth century by grazing, agricul-
tural crops and monocultures of trees such as pine and eucalyptus. José
Augusto Pádua has explained how the statesman José Bonifacio pre-
dicted the destruction of the coastal forests as early as the moment of
Brazilian independence. Conservationists such as Alberto Torres (born
in 1865 on a plantation in Rio de Janeiro that was already in decline
because of soil erosion) also publicly deplored the forest destruction in
the march of extractivist civilization towards the interior (Pádua, 2002,
2010; see also Drummond, 1997).
It is noteworthy to mention that, in the conservation movement of
80 years ago, there was already a major controversy. Ciriacy-Wantrup
suggested that “conservationism itself may not mean non-use”. This
Berkeley economist anticipated an economic approach to sustainability.
His major book was published in 1952 and its translation (by Edmundo
Flores, an agricultural economist), published in Mexico in 1957, had an
important impact on the region (Ciriacy-Wantrup, 1957).
In summary, there is a Latin American conservationist tradition with
deep historic roots. It found scientific support in the sciences of bio-
geography and conservation biology, and also, later, in the economics
of natural resources and the study of watersheds. Different from the
popular environmentalism and the agroecology and post-development
movements that we shall analyse below, this conservationist trend has
had powerful support in the North, among organizations such as the
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the WWF and
other international institutions, such as the US Resources for the Future,
and the Smithsonian.
Agroecology and post-developmentalism
The agroecological pride of the Andean and Mesoamerican regions
(with authors such as Chilean Miguel Altieri and Mexican Victor
Toledo) (Altieri and Toledo, 2011) has roots that are even older than
conservationism, but it did not manifest itself significantly until the
1970s and 1980s. A good example of this new visibility was the Andean
Project for Peasant Technologies (PRATEC) in Peru, which was estab-
lished by dissident agronomists from the school of La Molina. In this
school they had learned the technological simplification as the result of
the focus on the main export crops, sugar and cotton, that included the
elimination of native varieties of coloured cotton. They reacted against
this teaching (Proyecto SEINPA, 1990) and were critical of the notion of
uniform “development”. They were responsible for the first edition in
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 37
Spanish in 1996 of The Development Dictionary edited by Wolfgang Sachs,
a post-developmentalist classic (Sachs, 1981). They began to research
and apply the agrarian epistemologies of the indigenous inhabitants of
the Sierra, expressed in the conservation and use of many varieties and
species of seeds.
Latin American environmentalism is different from that of the
USA as it has drawn significantly from ancestral agricultural prac-
tices and respect for indigenous knowledge. There is a line from
the agroecological studies and practices of the influential agronomist
from Chapingo, Efrain Hernández Xolocotzi (1913–1991), whose career
(in the USA and in Mexico) culminated in a substantial and competent
school of Mexican ethnoecologists, to the peasant movement in Mexico
which manifests itself in the twenty-first century under the motto “with-
out maize, no country” (sin maíz no hay país) (Esteva and Marielle,
2003). Victor Toledo (La Jornada, 5 August 2014) asserts that the indige-
nous agrarian Mesoamerican civilization survives and persists: “These
indigenous populations are the principle opponents to the industrial
civilization model.” Indigenous agriculture and agroforestry are major
sources of Latin America environmentalism.
In order to understand traditional Latin American agricultural sys-
tems, it is necessary to enter into a “dialogue of knowledges”, if not
a rejection of Western thought. The communities whose situation and
practices have been studied by anthropologists and agronomists bring to
the table their own perspectives and knowledge to guide the research,
an idea that Robert Chambers of Sussex University (Chambers, 1983)
developed from Paulo Freire and Orlando Fals Borda, important Latin
American intellectuals. This dialogue of knowledges is also shared by
environmentalists in other contexts, such as in Funtowicz and Ravetz’s
doctrine of “post-normal science”, which supports and even requires an
“extended peer review” in situations of technological uncertainty and
of urgent decisions (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 2000).
Even more radically, political ecologist Héctor Alimonda explains
that environmental degradation is caused by “persistent colonialism”.
He writes: “Over five centuries, entire ecosystems were destroyed
by the implementation of monoculture export crops” (2011: 22).
“Colonialism” is also useful for interpreting the environmental crisis
in terms of the loss of indigenous knowledge and cultures, true “epis-
temicides” (Sousa Santos’ word) that cannot be compensated by either
Western science or by a dialogue of knowledges.
Patterns of economic and environmental sustainability in pre-
Hispanic societies, which we know from archaeology or which have
38 Latin American Environmentalism
survived with many changes, express the social values of these societies.
They are more useful for the period in which we live because they ques-
tion the illusion of universal, uniformizing development. Arturo Escobar
(1995, 2010) and Gustavo Esteva (who met with Ivan Illich in 1983)
have been outstanding thinkers in the field of post-developmentalism,
previous or parallel to the discussion of degrowth, décroissance or “pros-
perity without growth” in Europe.2They have deep roots in the Latin
American mindset (or Abya-Yala, as it is sometimes called) but they also
find inspiration in Ivan Illich, Cornelius Castoriadis and André Gorz,
political ecologists of the 1970s, and in authors from India, such as
Ashish Nandy and Shiv Visvanathan.
In Ecuador, the political debate after 2007 has introduced the concept
of Sumak Kawsay, Buen Vivir, possibly after many hundreds or thou-
sands of years of verbal usage. Since the year 2000, the concept has
been revisited in articles and theses by Quechua intellectuals such as
Carlos Eloy Viteri. Viteri comes from the Amazonian village of Sarayaku,
which prevented a local oil-extraction project, and his ideas have been
heavily influenced by this situation. Sumak Kawsay was converted into
a national objective included in the Ecuadorian constitution of 2008,
introduced under the presidency of Alberto Acosta in the constituent
assembly (Hidalgo-Capitán et al., 2014).
Beyond disputes over the merits of these constitutional developments,
the fact is that putting Sumak Kawsay central is very different from say-
ing that the main objective being pursued is economic growth or even
sustainable development. Sumak Kawsay is something similar to a sol-
idary and ecological economy, which had already existed and needed to
be recovered. It is a concept related to “post-developmentalism”.
Governments and international organizations: “Our own
Since the last decades of the nineteenth century, there have been voices
of scientists as well as writers criticizing the indiscriminate use of nat-
ural resources, but they were never heard amid the obsession with the
modernity of the time (Baud, 2013). In the second half of the twentieth
century, the critique became more coherent and politically articulate.
Although it occurred in the context of a global debate, it showed a
markedly Latin American perspective and influenced the creation of
what is now called an “environmental institutionalism” with new min-
istries, laws and regulations. Since Rachel Carson published The Silent
Spring in 1962, and especially since the Meadows Report to the Club of
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 39
Rome in 1972, international environmentalism has taken off. At first
this debate was scarcely considered by Latin American governments
or by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
(Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (ECLAC/CEPAL)).
For them the problem of underdevelopment and poverty was the bigger
issue, and their main objective was to augment the productive capacity
of the region and to consolidate its economic expansion. Nevertheless,
in those decades, all national governments created legal and administra-
tive structures for natural resource management. It is important to note
the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at a
worldwide level and furthermore the active participation of the Regional
Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, which from 1975 onwards
promoted courses and debates in all Latin American countries, effec-
tively training university professors, NGOs, and personnel from natural
resources and environment administrations.
With the support of UNEP, the Spanish Iniciativa de Copenhague
para Centroamérica y México (CIFCA) was created and a multitude
of courses and seminars were organized in Latin America and Europe.
In 1980 the Latin American governments and universities decided to
create their own Environmental Education Network. The Argentinian
economist Héctor Sejenovich and the Colombian philosopher Augusto
Angel Maya elaborated a plan for training and research. All countries
had an office from the Environmental Education Network (Red de
Formación Ambiental), in large part with governmental organizations
but also with NGOs. In Europe a debate was initiated by Sicco Mansholt,
president of the European Commission, who converted to the “growth
below zero” doctrine upon reading the Meadows Report. This European
debate, which involved the participation of André Gorz, Edgar Morin,
Herbert Marcuse and other early ecological thinkers, was published in
Santiago de Chile in 1972 and in Buenos Aires in 1975 with the spectac-
ular title Ecology and Revolution (Marcuse, 1975). However, the book does
not seem to have been influential, perhaps because of Latin America’s
military-led neoliberal backlash at the time.
In fact, the first articulated response to the environmental problems
in Latin America came in the 1970s from the Bariloche Foundation in
Argentina which in 1976 published the report Catastrophe or New Society?
Latin American World Model (Herrera et al., 1976). In this report, various
specialists such as Gilberto Gallopin developed a new environmental
model for Latin America, in which the idea of the scarcity of natu-
ral resources was basically rejected. Gudynas (1999: 110) observes that
these ideas were considered a direct attack on the idea of development
40 Latin American Environmentalism
and progress for Latin America. As a logical consequence, the reaction
to the Meadows Report was negative, as is evident in the writings of
Amilcar Herrera and Helio Jaguaribe (1973; see also Estenssoro Saavedra,
2014, cap. 7). The general conviction was that Latin American natu-
ral resources were abundant and that it was necessary to exploit them
in order to develop the region. The Bariloche group emphasized two
issues: the low population density of Latin America and its enormous
and unknown ecological potentials. Latin American diplomats started
to reject notions of “limits to growth” and believed that Latin America
could resolve its problems of poverty and development, and at the same
time achieve a more sustainable model, drawing also on the world’s sol-
idarity. This line of thought was very clear in Brazil, where the national
ideology focused on the Amazon (Garfield, 2013). Before the Stockholm
Conference of 1972, João Augusto de Araujo Castro, Brazilian diplo-
mat of the United Nations, had asked for “a worldwide compromise on
development” from and towards the poor countries. He talked of “a con-
tamination of opulence and a contamination of poverty” (Estenssoro
Saavedra, 2014: 129).
Since the mid-1970s, under the influence of Ignacy Sachs (who was
a university professor in Paris and travelled to Mexico and Brazil),
the notion of “ecodevelopment” spread (e.g. Sachs, 1981, 2008), long
before sustainable development would triumph in the rhetoric of the
Brundtland Report of 1987. Various Latin American authors, from
within official organisms or as consultants or university professors, and
people involved in activism – including Enrique Leff, Vicente Sánchez,
Victor Toledo and Augusto Angel Maya – were inspired by the idea
of ecodevelopment. As part of the actions of UNEP, and along with
the participation of the University of Tehran (under the direction of
Mohammad Taghi Fharyar), a network of ecodevelopment projects
was established. In 1976 the first Symposium on Ecodevelopment was
hosted at UNAM, organized by Enrique Leff.
In October 1974, UNEP organized a famous conference in Cocoyoc,
Mexico. It was here that the so-called Charter of Obligations and Rights
of the States was proclaimed. Above all else, Article 30 about environ-
mental governance was important: “The protection, the preservation
and the betterment of the environment for current and future genera-
tions is the responsibility of all States. They should try to establish their
own environmental and development policies in accordance with this
responsibility. The environmental policies of all States should promote
and not adversely affect the current and future potential of development
of developing countries.”
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 41
In the 1970s and 1980s, ministries of the environment were created in
various countries. The influence of UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB)
programme was evident, generating new interdisciplinary activity.
An example is the reference to urban ecology and human settlements by
Martha Schteingart at the Colegio de México (Schteingart y Graizbord,
1998). In economic management, Héctor Sejenovich proposed that to
minimize degradation and waste it is necessary to take all costs into
account, including those of the reproduction of nature (research, regen-
eration, control and management), and also all the potential benefits,
for an integrated management of resources or, rather, an integrated man-
agement of the natural patrimony. The Latin American Council of Social
Sciences (El Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales (CLACSO))
formed a working group on environment and development in 1978,
led by Sejenovich (Estenssoro Saavedra, 2014, cap. 8). In Colombia, in
the National Institute of Renewable Natural Resources and Environ-
ment (Instituto Nacional de los Recursos Naturales Renovables y del
Ambiente (INDERENA)), Julio Carrizosa and Margarita Merino de Botero
(who would later represent South America in the Brundtland Commis-
sion) began to take action. No less important was Anibal Patiño, whose
early work addressed environmental problems in the Cauca Valley in
Colombia (Patiño, 1991).
Environmental issues arrived at CEPAL in the form of a book edited by
Osvaldo Sunkel and Nicolo Gligo, Estilos de desarrollo y medio ambiente
en la América Latina (1981), published after developing activities for
more than one year along with the UNEP Regional Office. They empha-
sized the notion of the ecosystem, the understanding that all of us
are part of the same ecosystem and that there is a direct relation-
ship between that which happens in society and in nature (Sunkel
and Gligo, 1981). In his contribution to the book, Raúl Prebisch (who,
as an economist, had been oblivious to environmental issues during
his long and brilliant career) observed from the periphery that “the
environmental crisis was generated by the centre’s irrational capitalist
development model”. He also mentioned the danger of excessive car-
bon dioxide emissions from rich countries. However, the book found
little response within CEPAL, despite the efforts of Axel Dourojeanni
and Nicolo Gligo himself. CEPAL has not been a leader of environ-
mental thought in Latin America. Nowadays the economic crisis of
“extractivism” (the rapidly deteriorating terms of trade in 2014–2015,
partly because of excessive global investment in the extractive indus-
tries) has caught CEPAL by surprise, just as both the neoliberal and the
national-popular governments.
42 Latin American Environmentalism
Back in the 1980s, the UNEP Regional Office discussed several other
issues around the binary development and environment. One of the
questions addressed the roles that the small producers and large busi-
ness owners play in the deterioration of nature. Some sustained that, as
peasants were obliged to occupy lands of lesser quality at the agricultural
frontier, they generated soil degradation. However, other indicators exist
that support the view that the processes of degradation and dilapidation
were caused by large landowners.
Later, in response to the Brundtland Report of 1987, another study
called Our Own Agenda was elaborated by UNEP and Inter-American
Development Bank (IDB), and coordinated by the hydraulic engi-
neer Arnaldo Gabaldón (the Venezuelan minister of the environment)
(Gabaldón, 1994).3Gilberto Gallopin, Vicente Sánchez and other expert
authors participated, proposing to the governments, to the NGOs and
to society at large that the agenda be incorporated into the Rio meeting
of 1992. Part of this work was published in more accessible language
by Sejenovich and Panario (1996). All of this contributed, on the one
hand, to the United Nations’ Agenda 21 and, on the other hand –
within civil society – to the various alternative Treaties of NGOs in Rio
1992. At the official conference, the Convention on Climate Change
and the Biodiversity Convention were signed by all countries (with the
sole exception of the USA). At that time, a prominent Latin American
representative was Jose Lutzenberger, who had published the ecological
manifest, End of the Future? (Fim do Futuro?) in 1976. As Brazilian minis-
ter of the environment, Lutzenberger asked in 1992 that the World Bank
not lent any more money to Brazil (Hochstetler and Keck, 2007: 74ff).
He was forced to resign.
In parallel meetings to Rio 1992, popular environmentalism emerged
in a very public and urgent fashion. In fact, 1,500 organizations from
all over the world met to debate the treaties that the governments were
discussing, and effectively drafted alternative treaties that were much
more exigent, including one about “ecological debt” (Alternative Treaty,
n. 13). Despite all of this, the anti-environmentalist prejudice in Latin
American official circles continued for decades, until today. Instead
of using Chico Mendes (assassinated in December 1988) as a symbol
of popular Latin American environmentalism, an international official
conflict evolved over the interpretation of the struggle of rubber tappers
against deforestation. Fearing initiatives that would internationalize the
Amazon, so as to not passively let Brazil destroy it, the president of Brazil
conspicuously left a public meeting.
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 43
In conclusion, from Stockholm in 1972 until Rio+20 in 2012, Latin
American governments have emphasized that the solution to the envi-
ronmental problem does not consist of halting economic growth, but
rather that the main and ultimate solution resides in changing the
unequal distribution of power and wealth in the world, and by stimu-
lating distinct styles of development in accordance with each ecolog-
ical and social reality at national and continental levels (Estenssoro
Saavedra, 2014: 155). At the governmental level there was, and is
still, a lack of a sense of urgency about the continuing destruction of
biodiversity and about climate change (the concentration of carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere rose from 360 ppm to 400 ppm between
1992 and 2012). Empathy for popular ecology has also been missing.
Neither peasant agroecology nor post-developmentalism nor popu-
lar environmentalism – as discussed below – has been part of Latin
America’s official “own agenda”.
Popular environmentalism
Governmental and international debates over new environmental poli-
cies occurred at the same time that a debate emerged in civil society
which quickly grew stronger. Influenced by the new ideas of Liberation
Theology and different social movements in the region, a widely shared
critique of the economic growth models in Latin America would give
voice to a popular environmentalism, or the environmentalism of the
poor. It drew from the ideas of two important Latin American thinkers.
Paulo Freire emphasized social and environmental justice, local knowl-
edge, the morality of political decisions, and respect for the planet and
its diverse habitats. These ideas led some to adopt a fundamental rejec-
tion of capitalism; others regarded it as an agenda that was more cultural
and moral, and which could present an alternative to materialist devel-
opmentalism. The other thinker with great influence in the debate was
the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. In his 1971 book Open Veins
of Latin America (Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina), he presented
a ferocious critique of the extractivist logic throughout all of Latin
America’s history. The book became an iconic text in the debates over
the consequences of extractive capitalism and the social and ecological
destruction in the region. In recent years another Uruguayan, Eduardo
Gudynas (2009), attracted many followers for his elaboration of “post-
extractivism”. Meanwhile, Maristella Svampa leads a flourishing group
of Argentinean authors doing excellent political ecology research with
44 Latin American Environmentalism
an “anti-extractivist” agenda (Svampa, 2011, 2013, 2015), as do Gian
Carlo Delgado in Mexico (Delgado Ramos, 2000) and Mario A. Pérez
Rincón in Colombia (Pérez-Rincón, 2006, 2014).
In the 1970s and 1980s, nationalist-popular political parties (in the
style of Peronismo in Argentina and the American Popular Revolution-
ary Alliance (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) in Peru,
before their incongruent neoliberal moments with presidents Menem
and Alan García) had protested against the insertion of Latin America
in the world economy as provider of raw materials and with episodes of
terrible indebtedness. And they were joined by other political currents.
For example, the influential Argentinian economist Aldo Ferrer of the
Radical Party presented a well-argued plea for “living within our means”
in 1983 (Ferrer, 1983). This has been replaced in recent times by a “com-
modity consensus” (or a new “Beijing consensus”) at an official level.
Beyond the government and international debates directed towards
new public environmental policies and beyond university research, a
popular environmentalism developed with greater force encompassing
movements that are sometimes purely reactive and that, in general, do
not aspire to achieve political influence per se. Instead they emerged as
a reaction to specific environmental problems, which are often local but
have worldwide importance. In this sense, one can see Latin American
agroenvironmentalism as an international movement that is not only
defensive but one that also makes propositions that show the “pro-
ductive ecological rationality” about which Enrique Leff speaks (Leff,
Much of the resistance manifested in popular environmentalism did
not create permanent alternatives but was rather linked at one point or
another to specific places of mineral extraction or investment projects.
The protests in Mexico in the 1980s against the nuclear plant in Laguna
Verde present a now distant example. There have been many instances
of resistance to dams, which lasted for decades and eventually led to
nothing. The local movement in Ecuador against copper mining in Intag
is a current example. They resisted and succeeded against Mitsubishi in
1995 and against Ascendant Copper (of Canada) in 2006, and devel-
oped productive alternatives such as the trade of organic coffee and
ecotourism. After these victories, in 2014 it suffered the ravages of Presi-
dent Correa’s policies (“we shall leave extractivism behind through more
extractivism”) in alliance with the state-owned company Codelco of
Popular environmentalism, otherwise known as the environmentalism
of the poor and indigenous, is above all the expression of a “moral
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 45
economy” that confronts commodification and manifests itself in the
commodity-extraction frontiers (Martínez-Alier, 1992, 2005). The peas-
ant and indigenous populations protest against the extractive industries
of minerals and biomass, using distinct languages of valuation. They
succeed in halting conflictive projects in perhaps 20% of the cases,
according to the inventories of the EJOLT (Environmental Justice Orga-
nizations, Liabilities and Trade) Project ( Sometimes
they demand monetary compensation for the damage inflicted or for
that which they are going to suffer; other times they argue in terms
of inalienable territorial rights, they appeal to Convention 169 of the
International Labour Organization (ILO), or they argue that landmarks
that are going to be destroyed (hills, rivers, lakes) are sacred. They
oppose the loss of common goods and natural resources that they
need to live and survive. Not only in the countryside but also in the
city there are groups of relatively poor citizens who, without being
“card-carrying” environmentalists, protest when they lose green areas of
public use, demand space for pedestrians or cyclists, and practise urban
Today, this Latin American popular environmentalism congregates
in (virtual) networks of information and agitation such as those of
the Observatory of Mining Conflicts in Latin America (Observatório de
Conflitos Mineiros da América Latina (OCMAL)) and the Latin American
Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (Observatorio Latinoamericano
de Conflictos Ambientales (OLCA)), both based in Chile. There are
parallels and connections (through international networks such as
Oilwatch, the World Rainforest Movement (WRM), the Vía Campesina
and Latin American Coordination of Rural Organizations (Coordinadora
Latinoamericana de Organizaciones del Campo (CLOC)) with resistance
movements in India and Africa, and there are also similarities with
the movement for environmental justice in the USA. Networks such
as the MAB (Movement of People Affected by Dams/Movimento dos
Atingidos por Barragens) in Brazil and MAPDER (Movement of those
Affected by Dams and in Defence of Rivers/Movimiento Mexicano de
Afectados por las Presas y en Defensa de los Rios) in Mexico (which
oppose dams) are also connected with international movements. This
popular environmentalism has made itself visible in a great number
of local conflicts that have arisen in recent decades. In Latin America,
in almost half of the cases collected in the Environmental Justice Atlas
(, the indigenous or African-American populations par-
ticipate as actors in such ecological-distributive conflicts. There are also
new networks of statistical political ecology (Pérez Rincón, 2014).
46 Latin American Environmentalism
Popular environmentalism does not only have indigenous roots; reli-
gion was also important. The book by Brazilian theologian Leonardo
Boff, Ecology: Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor (1996), stands out along
with the leadership of former priest Marco Arana in Peru in the move-
ment and political party Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty), founded
after several years of resistance in Cajamarca against the Yanacocha
Mine. Previously there was a movement called Movement of Priests for
the Third World, which played an important role in the slums (villas
miserias) in Argentina and in general with the poor. It was harshly
repressed and obliged to dissolve itself, but it reappeared 20 years later in
the agrarian leagues of north-eastern Argentina, forming environmen-
tal movements in the fight against the soy production that invades the
Chaco forest. Alongside this process emerged a non-governmental net-
work called Doctors of the Fumigated Towns (Médicos de los Pueblos
Fumigados por Glifosato), which supports the substantial movement
called Let’s Stop Fumigating (Paremos de Fumigar), with emblematic
activists such as Sofia Gatica in Córdoba (Goldman Prize) of the Moth-
ers of Ituzangó (Madres de Ituzangó) movement.5In Brazil, the active
presence of the Pastoral da Terra is noted in land conflicts in the north
of the country (Porto et al., 2013).
The term “ecological debt” was first used in 1991 by Latin American
organizations that were opposed to the loss of the ozone layer and to cli-
mate change (Robleto and Marcelo, 1992), and it was applied a little later
to the results of ecologically unequal trade and instances of “biopiracy”.
There are other slogans or expressions, such as “water is worth more
than gold” (el agua vale más que el oro), “water justice” (justicia hídrica),
“living rivers” (ríos vivos), “climate justice” (justicia climática), “tree plan-
tations are not forests” (las plantaciones no son bosques) (Carrere and
Lohman, 1996), “food sovereignty” (soberanía alimentaria,fromVía
Campesina) and, more recently, “energy sovereignty”, which were born
in or have been spread across the continent. Environmental justice asso-
ciations also ask for an international criminal court for environmental
damages and an international convention about “ecocide”. This is truly
very distant from the rhetoric of the “green economy” deployed by the
United Nations in the Rio+20 conference of June 2012, not to mention
the super-oxymoron of “green growth”.
One of the important elements of the environmental justice move-
ment is the word “biopiracy”, introduced in 1993 by Pat Mooney (of the
Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), which is today
Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC)), and
spread on a worldwide scale by Vandana Shiva, frequent visitor to
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 47
Latin American countries. In Latin America, Carlos Vicente, author of
numerous books on the subject, coordinates the Action for Biodiversity
Network. What started as allegations by environmental justice activist
organizations against biopiracy has now been converted into legal
actions of some governments or court cases in megadiverse countries.
In Peru, as in Brazil, the state authorities now speak of “biopiracy”.
Even the Brazilian minister of the environment, Izabella Teixeira, said
in March 2012 – after having fined some companies – that opportuni-
ties to advance in the economic valorization of biodiversity should be
avoided so as not to “disguise biopiracy actions”.6
In the regulation of investment projects, advances have been made in
imposing a process of public audience for environmental impact assess-
ments (EIAs), which are crucial moments in many socioenvironmental
conflicts (Wagner, 2014). The EIAs sometimes provide a setting of par-
ticipation or of struggle, and allow advancement towards participatory
environmental governance. In Tambogrande, Peru, the refusal of the
population to participate in a rigged EIA public audience was a step
towards a referendum or popular consultation in 2002.7
Environmental conflicts do not only consist of local populations on
one side and corporations on the other. Local and international NGOs
participate, along with state representatives, in a multitude of conflicts
not only over the administrative management of the EIAs or granting of
mining or oil concessions, but also through other legal channels (with
spectacular cases, such as the recent suspension of the Barrick Gold
Pascua Lama project in Chile, after investments of thousands of millions
of dollars), including court cases. Legislative authorities also sometimes
intervene in favour of environmentalism, such as in the prohibition of
open-pit mining by various provincial legislatures in Argentina (Wagner,
2014). Mediation bodies can also intervene, such as the ombudsman
(Defensoría del Pueblo) in Peru and Bolivia. However, in other instances,
quite often the police, military and private security forces protected by
the state intervene against popular environmentalists. Although there
is a consensus between neoliberal and national-popular governments
in attributing environmentalism to foreign influences and interpret-
ing it as a phenomenon of “full bellies”, it is impossible to ignore the
numerous outbreaks of bottom-up environmental mobilizations all over
Latin America and the hundreds of victims killed in environmental con-
flicts in Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and other
countries documented by Global Witness, by the OCMAL inventories,
the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (FIOCRUZ))
map of Brazil (Porto et al., 2013), and the EJ Atlas (
48 Latin American Environmentalism
A Latin American ecosocialism?
In the 1980s, new ideas about socioecological politics in Latin America
emerged. Authors such as Victor Toledo, Enrique Leff, José Augusto
Pádua and Ivan Restrepo formulated more radical ideas about the politi-
cal context of environmental governance. Augusto Angel Maya’s explicit
message (1996, 2002) was to avoid interpreting environmental problems
as exclusively ecological or technological. He understood the environ-
ment as an object of study in all the scientific disciplines, from the nat-
ural sciences and technologies to sciences that study human behaviour.
Beginning in the 1980s, activist groups such as the Political Ecology
Institute (Instituto de Ecología Política) in Chile, Censat in Colombia,
Ecological Action (Acción Ecologica) in Ecuador (composed of young
female biologists), REDES (Amigos de la Tierra Uruguay/Friends of the
Earth) in Uruguay, FASE (Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social
e Educacional/ Federation of Organizations for Social and Educational
Assistance) in Brazil with Julianna Malerba, and others have emerged.
There is a strong Latin American environmental thinking that enumer-
ates, and denounces the multitude of environmental conflicts that the
growth of the social metabolism brings with it. Some 20 years later,
these views have not only been expressed in writings and manifestos
of social actors and alternative thinkers of post-developmentalism,
of agroecology and of popular environmentalism, but also in some
national constitutions, in the discourses of government officials and
even by some ministers.
After the defeat in 2005 of the US plans to promote the Free Trade Area
of the Americas (FTAA), new leftwing, progressive governments emerged
with the electoral victories of Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005) and Rafael
Correa in Ecuador (2006). In the following years it even seemed that an
international “official” environmental leadership could arise from South
America. The Ecuadorian Constitution of 2008, for example, has been
a very important symbol of environmental thinking in Latin America,
with the presence of Alberto Acosta – ex-president of the Constituent
Assembly – in a multitude of forums. Another example was the radical
speech of Ecuador representative Fánder Falconí, at the failed climate
change conference in Copenhagen in 2009, when he made reference
to the ecological debt or climate debt of the North with the South. He
compared the poor countries with “passive smokers” and he defended
the Yasuni Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini (ITT) initiative to “leave the
oil below ground” in front of more than 150 presidents of state and
leaders of government.8
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 49
The contradictions of the new leftwing governments, which had
to choose between environmental protection and economic growth,
became clear when only a few weeks later Falconí resigned as minis-
ter of foreign affairs because of President Correa’s refusal to take the
Yasuni ITT initiative forward. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April of 2010,
a large meeting was held after the failure of the United Nations meeting
in Copenhagen, attempting to position Evo Morales as an environmen-
tal leader of the South, but neither he nor his vice president, García
Linera (who believes that environmentalism is a luxury for the rich),
was in favour of concrete measures regarding environmental protec-
tion. They went rather for the exploitation of the Amazon as in the
plan for the TIPNIS (Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Ter-
ritory/Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure) highway.
The Bolivian ambassador to the UN, Pablo Solón, was alone in the
insistence on the responsibility of the developed countries for climate
change in December of 2010 in Cancún in one more ineffectual climate
The inability of Latin American governments to take on environment-
alism as a main issue, and even more the repression and “criminaliza-
tion” of popular environmentalism, is opening up space for a political
environmentalism that is opposed to neoliberal as much as it is to
the national-popular governments. Both share the “commodities con-
sensus” (Svampa, 2013). This is leading to a mature Latin American
environmentalist political thinking, albeit incipient, proposing new
principles of international environmental governance, and also criti-
cizing extractivism and environmentally unequal trade in the defence
of the rights of nature, the human right to water, and the integral and
sustainable management of resources for the benefit of local livelihoods.
In support of ecosocialism, Enrique Leff in Ecology and Capital (1986)
and James O’Connor (in the first issue of the journal Capitalism, Nature,
Socialism (1988)) explained that the growing social and environmental
costs caused by economic growth are also the catalysts for an explosion
of environmental protest (Leff, 1986, 2012). Currently we see a major
global process of dispossessing indigenous and peasant lands by private
or state enterprises: expropriating mangroves by the shrimp industry,
and land-grabbing for tree plantations and agrofuels, for megamining
and dams, and for the extraction of gas and oil. These are neocolonial
processes of appropriating natural resources and territories where new
actors, such as Chinese companies, appear. There is also much resis-
tance in urban areas, including recycling cooperatives of “scavengers”
of urban waste, who play a very important and under-recognized role.
50 Latin American Environmentalism
The Latin American Network of Recyclers and Urban Reclaimers has
come into existence which has attained notable success in places such
as Bogotá under the leadership of Nohra Padilla, who won the 2014
Goldman Prize for grassroots environmentalism.
A common element of Latin American environmentalist thought
(absent in Europe and also in India, for example) is the awareness of
the demographic disaster brought about by the European Conquest.
This led to a perhaps justified disdain for Malthusian approaches in
the region. The environmentalism of Paul Ehrlich with his focus on
the “population bomb” was never successful in Latin America, where
the population density is generally low (in comparison with Europe,
East Asia and South Asia). Since the beginning of the 1970s, there has
been a profound discussion among Latin American governments and
on the part of the UNEP Regional Office to establish a shared envi-
ronmental position. The 1972 Meadows Report, The Limits of Growth,
garnered a general rejection in official circles in Latin America. It was
emphasized that the problem was not the finite supply of resources but
rather their distribution. However, 40 years after this debate, we have
indeed found that today there are “planetary boundaries” of resources
and sinks. Current world trends are negative in regard to the loss of
biodiversity and climate change. Above and beyond this initial neg-
ative reaction in the 1970s and 1980s from official circles, and the
search for a “Latin America agenda” of its own, we have identified a
set of environmental ideas and practices that have emerged in Latin
America and which in part coincide and in part diverge from other
awareness of the demographic disaster after the conquest and a
widespread rejection of the Malthusian approach to the problem of
an agroenvironmental pride, especially present in Mesoamerica and
the Andes (and absent in the USA);
a shared admiration by European and Latin American science (since
1800, with Alexander von Humboldt) for the great biological richness
of the continent in its diverse ecosystems, together with conservation
programmes implemented since the nineteenth century;
a keen awareness of global political and economic inequality, and
the consequent plundering of natural resources in the region; this
Joan Martinez-Alier, Michiel Baud and Héctor Sejenovich 51
awareness runs from the time of colonial exploitation through to
the rejection by Latin American governments – since Stockholm in
1972 – of the idea of limits to growth, defining an agenda that pro-
posed distinct “styles of development” but eventually accepting a
confusing notion of “sustainable development”;
from the 1980s onwards, a growing number of socioenvironmental
conflicts that gave way to “popular environmentalism” with net-
works of activists that denounce the extraction of natural resources
and the destruction of the commons;
the validity of ancient indigenous worldviews, the celebration of
Pachamama that is recognized in the constitutions of Bolivia and
Ecuador, the respect for nature in Afro-American communities, and
the contributions of liberation theology; also, on a cultural level, the
presence of ecology in twentieth-century literature.
There is clearly a Latin American conservationist environmentalism that
is common with other continents: a shared admiration of European
science (which is also American science) since Humboldt because of
the enormous biodiversity of Latin America’s many diverse ecosystems,
which were only partially explored. The extraordinary biological rich-
ness of not only the Amazonian rainforest but also of other ecosystems
(such as the Atlantic forest in Brazil, mangroves and coral reefs, the
Andean highlands, the tropical dry forests, the Pantanal, and other wet-
lands and marshes) are seen as a promise of the economic potential
that is not yet confirmed and, on the other hand, periodically leads to
protests against “biopiracy”.
Conflicts around the extraction and export of natural resources are
increasing in Latin America. The resistance against the exploitation
of nature has led to the growth of popular environmentalism, to
environmental justice movements, to protests against climate injus-
tice and water injustice, and to the defence of the commons. Latin
American politicians and public administrators have basically ignored
this movement of the environmentalism of the poor, but they have not
suppressed it.
Recently, however, there have been signs of an emerging post-
extractivist and post-developmentalist environmentalism that attack
impartially both the neoliberal and the national-popular governments.
Some would call it ecosocialism. This political environmentalism is very
distinct from that of European green parties that focus on “ecoeffi-
ciency”. Post-extractivism is intellectually powerful but still politically
52 Latin American Environmentalism
weak, although it seems much reinforced by the declining terms of
trade of 2014–2015. This movement attempts to include new concrete
proposals for continental and international governance, such as oil
and open-pit mining moratoria, campaigns against dams and against
the “green deserts” of pine and eucalyptus trees, and the defence of
peasant seeds. Rather than the objective of economic growth or devel-
opment, it proposes an objective of Buen Vivir and also to give rights
to nature (as in the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador). The Latin American
concept of “ecological debt” has been very fruitful and has provoked
important debates, as has the emphasis on the human right to water,
supported by Bolivia on the experience of the Cochabamba “water wars”
of 2000. Latin America is at a crossroads where various critical polit-
ical and economic theories are seeking a point of convergence with
environmentalism, which will give it the opportunity to present a real
alternative to extractivism. One of the crucial challenges will be to trans-
fer these debates to the new circles of politicians and policy-makers.
This has been a permanent challenge in Latin American environmental
history, but today it has a renewed intensity.
1. Chapter 2 gives statistics on the social metabolism.
2. For Esteva’s analysis of the meanings of “development”, see https://
3. See Garcia-Guadilla (2013) for an interesting account of “neoextractivism”
and its conflicts in today’s Venezuela.
4. www. and Rafael Correa, Discurso para la
XIV Cumbre Iberoamericana, Veracruz, Mexico, 8 December 2014: “Debemos
hacer uso del extractivismo para salir de él”.
5. See, for instance,
6. See
7. See Chapter 11 about local referenda or popular consultations against mining
8. See,
taken from the webpage of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Ecuador.
9. Chapter 4 compares post-neoliberal environmental governance in Ecuador
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Social Metabolism and Conflicts
over Extractivism
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter
The natural resource conflict dimension of environmental governance
is usually centred on the social and political aspects of production
systems and has hardly addressed the biophysical features of the nat-
ural resources themselves. Here we aim to address renewable and
non-renewable resource-extraction conflicts in Latin America in the con-
text of a changing global social metabolism and increasing demands
for environmental justice (M’Gonigle, 1999; Sneddon, Howarth and
Norgaard, 2006; Gerber, Veuthey and Martínez-Alier, 2009; Martinez-
Alier et al., 2010). “Social metabolism” refers to the manner in which
human societies organize their growing exchanges of energy and mate-
rials with the environment (Fischer-Kowalski, 1997; Martinez-Alier,
2009). In this chapter we use a sociometabolic approach to exam-
ine the material flows (extraction, exports, imports) of Latin American
economies and furthermore look into the socioenvironmental pressures
and conflicts that they cause. Sociometabolic trends can be appraised
using different and complementary indicators. For instance, the Human
Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP) measures to what
extent human activities appropriate the biomass available each year
for ecosystems (Haberl et al., 2007). Other examples are indicators that
study virtual water flows, the energy return on investment (EROI) or
a product life cycle. Each indicator provides information on different
aspects of our economic performance.
In this chapter we will address the economy-wide material flow anal-
ysis (MFA) in more detail. The MFA is “a consistent compilation of the
overall material inputs into national economies, the material accumu-
lation within the economic system and the material outputs to other
economies or to the environment” (EUROSTAT, 2001: 17). MFA aims
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 59
to complement the system of national accounting with a compatible
system of biophysical national accounts, using tonnes per year as the
key unit of measurement. Such methodology provides a picture of the
physical dimension of the economy, where the total turnover of energy
and materials of the socioeconomic system can be analysed histori-
cally or cross-sectioned through the accounting of input flows (tonnes
of biomass, fossil fuels, construction minerals, etc.) or output flows
(tonnes of materials exported, waste or pollutant generated). Focusing
on the input side by taking into account all materials that enter into
the national economy allows for an acknowledgment of the physical
dimension of foreign trade and can determine the amount of all out-
puts transferred to the environment (Gonzalez-Martinez and Schandl,
2008). While MFA presents some limitations regarding, for instance, the
qualitative differences between materials (i.e. toxicity, environmental
or social context of extraction), it offers a picture of the overall evo-
lution of the pressures exerted by an economy to extract renewable and
non-renewable resources.
A social metabolic approach acknowledges that inputs into the econ-
omy ultimately become outputs from the economy in the form of waste
(except for the part that accumulates as a stock, as in buildings). The
main output in volume from rich economies (apart from wastewater) is
carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, the excessive produc-
tion of which is a main source of climate change. Solid wastes produced
by the economy are disposed of locally (in landfills or incinerators),
or sometimes exported to distant regions or countries. All goods cir-
culate through “commodity chains” (Raikes, Friis Jensen and Ponte,
2000) – that is, from cradle to grave or from point of extraction to waste
disposal. Ecological distribution conflicts occur at different stages as
peasant or tribal groups, national or multinational companies, national
governments, local or international NGOs, and consumer groups are all
Economic change generally occurs for the benefit of some groups and
at the expense of other existing or future groups (Hornborg, 2009).
Externalities can be positive (like the free environmental services pro-
vided by a forest) or negative. Negative externalities are not seen here
as market failures but rather as (provisional) cost-shifting successes
(Kapp, 1950). Optimistic views regarding ecological modernization, the
“dematerialization” of the economy (Stern, 2004), are confronted with
the reality of increased inputs of energy and materials into the world
economy, thereby increasing the production of waste and ecological
distribution conflicts.
60 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
Ecological distribution conflicts are struggles over the burdens of pol-
lution or over the sacrifices made to extract resources, and they arise
from inequalities of income and power (Martinez-Alier and O’Connor,
1996; Douguet, O’Connor and Noel, 2008). The concept of ecological
distributive conflicts is born of the intersection between the fields of
ecological economics and political ecology, which links the emergence
of environmental conflicts in the global South with the growth of the
metabolism of societies in the global North (which includes parts of
China). Political ecology focuses on the exercise of power in environ-
mental conflicts. In other words, the question is: Who has the power
to impose decisions on resource extraction, land use, pollution levels,
biodiversity loss, and more importantly, who has the power to deter-
mine the procedures to impose such decisions (Martinez-Alier, 2001,
2002; Robbins, 2004)?
Ecological distribution conflicts emerge from the structural asymme-
tries in the burdens of pollution and in the access to natural resources
that are grounded in unequal distributions of power and income, and in
social inequalities of ethnicity, caste, social class and gender (Martínez-
Alier, 1997; Martinez-Alier et al., 2011). As processes of valuation surpass
economic rationality in attempts to assign market prices and chrema-
tistic costs to the environment, social actors mobilize for material and
symbolic interests (of survival, identity, autonomy and quality of life),
beyond strictly economic demands of property, means of production,
employment, income distribution and development (Leff, 2003). Some-
times the local actors claim redistribution, leading to conflicts that are
often part of, or lead to, larger struggles of gender, class, caste and
ethnicity (Agarwal, 1994; Robbins, 2004). Hence the concept of “envi-
ronmental justice” is important. It was born in the USA (Bullard, 1990)
and it has gained growing acceptance in extractive industries, water use
and waste-disposal conflicts all over the word (Urkidi and Walter, 2011).
Not all conflicts are born from immediate metabolic needs. Demand for
certain commodities such as gold arises in part from the search to have
an investment outlet that furthermore allows for speculation. Other
metals, such as copper, can also be stored and used as guarantees for
speculative loans. The fact remains that both energy-carriers (coal, gas,
oil) and metallic minerals are inputs for the industrial economy and that
their use, in total, grows more or less in proportion to the growth of the
In this chapter, we analyse the material flows of Latin American
countries and their implications in terms of socioenvironmental con-
flict. First, we present an overview of recent material-flow studies
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 61
conducted in this region. Second, we examine in further detail the
socioenvironmental pressures exerted by the extraction of renewable
and non-renewable materials. We propose a classification of extractive
conflicts based on the commodity at stake. With this double approach
we address the process of growing primarization of Latin American
economies, its trends and some of its drivers, while simultaneously
exploring the local pressures and conflicts that this process is foster-
ing. At the macroeconomic level, we point to the paradox that the large
physical exports are unable, or scarcely able, to finance the imports so
that many countries are falling into commercial deficits.
Latin American sociometabolic trends
Different indicators can be used to analyse Latin American sociometa-
bolic features and trends. Here we consider recent MFA studies con-
ducted on Latin American economies and discuss their implications
in terms of socioenvironmental pressures and injustices. MFAs have
been conducted in most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) countries, but only recently has research been
conducted in the Latin American region and some of its countries in
particular, such as Argentina (Perez-Manrique et al., 2013), Colombia
and Ecuador (Russi et al., 2008; Vallejo, Pérez Rincón and Martinez-Alier,
2011; West and Schandl, 2013; Samaniego, Vallejo and Martinez-Alier,
2014). MFAs conducted on the overall region indicate that there was a
four-fold increase in material flows between 1970 and 2008 for domes-
tic consumption and also for exports. The Latin American economy
has certainly not become “dematerialized” – one could compare such
trends with other geographical regions, such as Europe, where the rate
of increase in material extraction has been much lower, or with India,
which has a lower rate of material extraction per capita than Latin
America and which is not a net exporter in physical terms (Singh
et al., 2012). Such physical indicators are useful for characterizing the
economic structure of countries and regions.
Latin American economies, and particularly South American
economies, have a persistent and increasing physical trade deficit (West
and Schandl, 2013). The physical trade balance (PTB) is the difference
between the number of tonnes of materials that are imported by an
economy and the number of tonnes that are exported. The monetary
trade balance (MTB) is the difference between how much is paid for
the imports and how much is earned by exports in monetary terms.
Exports in tonnes are larger than imports in tonnes, resulting in a
62 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
01970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
Million tonnes
Fossil fuels
Construction minerals Biomass
Metal ores and industrial minerals
Figure 2.1 Latin America physical trade deficit in million tonnes, 1970–2008
Source: UNEP and CSIRO, 2013.
“deficit” in the same sense that would be applied to a tree plantation
that grows less than the harvest rate. Figure 2.1 presents a yearly PTB of
the Latin America region (including Mexico) per type of material from
1970 and 2008. Note in Figure 2.1 the increased physical trade deficit
for metal ores and industrial minerals, which reflects the growing pres-
sure to extract and export these materials. While one tonne of uranium
is, of course, environmentally very different from one tonne of sand
and gravel, or one tonne of cellulose from one tonne of shrimp, our
aim here is to show trends within broad material categories, where the
shift in the composition by commodities is not that important. Later we
take a closer look at the different commodities within the categories of
biomass and metal ores.
There are internal and external pressures to increase the extraction
of materials, for domestic use and for export. Such increasing pressures
to extract materials displace the commodity frontiers (Moore, 2000) to
new territories often inhabited by peasant and indigenous groups, who
complain accordingly as we signal in further detail in the next section
(Conde and Walter, 2014). In regard to external trade, trends point
to a structural persistence of an “ecologically unequal exchange”. This
concept challenges the argument that exports from developing nations
foster economic growth and development, and points to the physical
and socioenvironmental trade-offs at play (Hornborg, 1998; Muradian
and Martinez-Alier, 2001; Bunker, 2007). Studies in this field highlight
how poor countries are exporting goods at prices that do not take into
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 63
account local externalities or depletion of natural resources, in exchange
for the purchase of expensive goods and services from richer regions.
One can measure ecologically unequal trade in terms of the inequality of
various dimensions, such as hours of labour, hectares of land, tonnes of
materials, water footprints, and joules or calories. When all or most indi-
cators point in a similar direction, then we can state that there has been
an unequal exchange (Hornborg, 2006). Ecologically unequal exchange
arises from the structural fact that the metropolitan regions or countries
require increasing amounts of energy and materials at cheap prices for
their metabolism.
The terms of trade are persistently negative for South America as a
whole and for most countries individually (one tonne of imports is
always more expensive than one tonne of exports, from two to five
times) in the very long term. However, the terms of trade improved
somewhat in the first decade of the twenty-first century, fuelling a wave
of optimism regarding economic growth but later deteriorating again
(Samaniego, Vallejo and Martinez-Alier, 2014). Currently, the large phys-
ical exports can scarcely pay for the imports in most South American
countries. A large physical trade deficit does not imply a positive MTB,
and, on the contrary, recent LA trends point to simultaneous physi-
cal and monetary deficits. Either in 2013 or 2014, or in both years,
there were commercial deficits in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and
other countries. While Argentina’s commercial surplus has been much
reduced, there is now a need to finance commercial deficits (Samaniego,
Vallejo and Martinez-Alier, 2014). For Argentina, our analysis of the
external trade over a long period (1970–2009) shows (Figure 2.2) small
monetary surpluses since the end of the 1990s (in 2001–2002 the sur-
plus increased because the economic crisis violently reduced imports).
Such small monetary surpluses almost disappeared in 2013–2014. From
a physical point of view, Argentina has exported increasing amounts
(in tonnes) since the early 1990s (between three and four times its
imports in tonnes), thus demonstrating structurally negative terms of
We do not enter into a detailed study here of the physical structure
of external trade in the sense of looking at its biomass, mineral and
fossil-fuel components (Perez-Manrique et al., 2013; West and Schandl,
2013). We point out, however, that Argentina exports – like Brazil –
large amounts of biomass. In comparison, another large South American
country, Colombia, does not export large amounts of biomass products
but it does export large amounts of coal. The PTB of Colombia shows
long-term trends that are not very different from those of Argentina,
64 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
1,000 million US$ (base 2,000)
Million tonnes
Imports (tonnes) Exports (tonnes)
Imports (US$) Exports (US$)
Figure 2.2 Argentina’s physical and monetary external trade flows, 1970–2009
Source: Walter et al. (2013).
namely, physical exports exceed physical imports by a factor of no
less than three (Figure 2.3). It must be noted that Colombia’s large
physical exports (which entail large unpaid socioenvironmental liabil-
ities) are now unable to pay for the imports. As Figure 2.3 shows, in
2011, Colombia exported about 120 million tonnes and imported about
30 million tonnes, leaving a physical trade deficit of more than 90 mil-
lion tonnes. This is for a country of more than 45 million inhabitants.
Argentina, with a population of about 40 million, has reached exports
of about 100 million tonnes and imports of about 30 million tonnes
(Perez-Manrique et al., 2013). Similar trends, with slight differences, are
identified in Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. Growing exports in tonnes (of dif-
ferent commodities) are not succeeding in improving the MTBs due to
the negative terms of trade (Vallejo, Pérez Rincón and Martinez-Alier,
2011; Pérez-Rincón, 2014; Samaniego, Vallejo and Martinez-Alier, 2014).
To conclude this section, the critiques against extractivism have a
double economic foundation. Domestic extraction and exports increase
as they are driven by internal and external demand. Raw materials-
based economies incur disproportionate environmental costs, which
are not factored into the price of commodities (Rice, 2007; Jorgenson,
2009; Roberts and Parks, 2009). Moreover, exhaustion of resources is
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 65
Exports Imports
Million tonnes
Biomass Fossil fuels Mineral ores
Other products Physical trade balance
Figure 2.3 Physical trade balance of Colombia, 1990–2011
Source: Samaniego et al. (2014) based on COMTRADE, DANE.
renamed as “production” and it sustains periodic periods of bonanza.
Outside demand does increase because of the metabolic needs of the
world industrial economy. The recent growth of Asian economies, and
China in particular, is exacerbating the primarization of Latin American
economies by boosting the pressure to extract environmentally sensi-
tive resources (Muradian, Walter and Martinez-Alier, 2012). Recently,
an absurd situation has been reached: not only are the environmental
costs of the booming extractive activities not accounted for, and the
exhausted resources not replenished, but, moreover, the great excess
of physical exports over imports is not able to pay for the imports.
The commercial deficits will have to be compensated for by foreign
investments or other forms of debt, which in due course will produce
repayments to foreign countries. These are becoming key drivers that
strengthen extraction trends, thereby expanding the commodity fron-
tiers and reaching areas of high biodiversity and cultural value – the land
of indigenous and peasant communities.
Extractive conflicts in Latin America
As pointed out in the previous section, there is an ongoing boom in
the extraction of commodities in Latin America, and a large share of
66 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
these materials is exported. This boom has been related to an increase
in the number of extractive conflicts, which we frame as “ecological
distribution conflicts”. In order to elucidate the connections between
sociometabolic trends and extractive conflicts, we propose a typology
based on the commodity at stake. For each commodity type we will
briefly explain some key features and illustrate with examples. Each
commodity has its particularities and, as a result, different typologies
could be proposed. We don’t claim that the one used here is the best
or the only possible one, but we use it as a guiding tool to distinguish
key trends and features. We propose a classification that distinguishes
between biomass (crops, plantations, fisheries) and minerals (metal ores,
fuels, industrial, construction materials).
Within this typology, other subclassifications could be considered. For
instance, from a social metabolism point of view, another distinction
can be made between precious materials and bulk commodities when
considering metallic minerals or biomass products (Wallerstein, 1974).
Precious materials, such as diamonds, gold or shrimp, have a high eco-
nomic value per unit of weight but are physically not necessary as inputs
for the metabolism of the importing countries, compared with “bulk
commodities”, such as oil, gas, copper, iron, wood or soyabeans. This
distinction does not mean that gold does not play an important social
and economic role in the world of jewellery-making, in the world of love
and marriage (as in India) or in the world of financial investments (Ali,
2006), but the difference stands in the point of view of the metabolism
of the importing economies. Moreover, this difference is also related
to different drivers for extraction and the related socioenvironmental
pressure exerted.
Extractive conflicts related to biomass involve a range of activities,
including soy, oil palm and timber production, plantations, fisheries,
and mangrove destruction and other deforestation. We could also
include related conflicts such as those over the use of glyphosate (for the
production of genetically modified organisms, such as soy) and over the
implementation of projects for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation
and Forest Degradation (REDD).
Let us consider here the case of Argentina (Perez-Manrique et al.,
2013). As shown in Figure 2.4, biomass is the predominant mate-
rial flow of this economy. On average, biomass represents 70% of all
materials extracted in the country from 1970 to 2009, of which 71%
comprise fodder for livestock (forage, silage, grazing and by-products),
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 67
Million tonnes
Biomass Metals Minerals industrials Construction minerals Fossil fuels
Figure 2.4 Domestic extraction in Argentina, 1970–2009
Source: Walter et al. (2013).
2% fishing and forestry biomass, and 27% crops. From 1997 to 2009,
biomass extraction from primary crops increased from 50 megatonnes
(Mt (1 million tonnes)) to 137 Mt, mainly for export. Soyabeans con-
stitute the predominant flow within the primary crops. According to
Pengue (2001), soyabeans (mostly genetically modified) have displaced
other domestically produced crops such as cereals, roots, tubers, vegeta-
bles and melons. Indeed, during the period studied, these crops have
decreased their participation in the primary crop extraction from 44%
to 25% for cereals, from 6% to 2% for roots and tubers, and from 5%
to 2% for vegetables and melons. From 1970 to 2009, Argentina’s soy-
abean production jumped from 26,000 tonnes to 30.9 Mt. This growth
was driven by high international prices for this commodity from the
1990s onwards, and by technological factors such as the mechaniza-
tion of agriculture, and the introduction of transgenic soyabeans and
chemical weeding with glyphosate (Teubal, 2006). Since the introduc-
tion of genetically modified soyabeans in Argentina in 1996, this crop
represents an average of 26% of all primary crops.
The rise in crop production led to the expansion of the agricultural
frontier, thereby clearing land and forest as well as displacing indigenous
and rural communities. Since the 1990s, Argentina has been experienc-
ing one of the largest processes of deforestation in the history of the
country (UMSEF, 2007). This entails new issues, such as the weakening
of food security, as crops are mainly exported and the production of
locally consumed crops is decreasing. The growing use of agrochemicals
68 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
produces water, air and soil pollution, and causes health impacts on
the surrounding populations (Binimelis, Pengue and Monterroso, 2009).
The harvested area of soyabeans multiplied from 38,000 hectares (Ha)
in 1970 to 18 million Ha in 2009, accounting for more than half of
the total agricultural land (MAGyP, 2011). The predominant biomass
flow in the economy of Argentina is still grazing, foraging, silage and
by-products. Nevertheless, the expansion of soyabean crops diminished
the amount of land available for cattle-grazing. Millions of hectares
that were in agricultural-cattle rotation have been allocated to perma-
nent agriculture, while livestock increasingly depends on feed crops (i.e.
cereal, soymeal) (Santarcángelo and Fal, 2009; PEA, 2010).
These trends have contributed to an increased number of conflicts
over land in Argentina, as peasants and indigenous groups are con-
fronted with the expansion of the soy-extraction frontier into their
lands (Aranda, 2010). The expansion of the agricultural frontier has led
to the clearing of lands and forest, as well as the displacement of many
indigenous and rural populations (Teubal, 2006). This has resulted in
various conflicts over access to land. This is the case for the inhabitants
of La Primavera (Formosa, Argentina), who have been displaced by the
expansion of soy production ever since 2008. Indigenous communities
have been dispossessed of their lands, and the Qom people are struggling
to recover 5,000 Ha (Asociación Civil Nodo Tau, 2010; García-López and
Arizpe, 2010).
The increased use of chemicals in genetically modified (GM) crops
has also triggered an increasing number of conflicts related to the health
impacts. This is the case for the “mothers of Ituzaingó” of Cordoba, who
lead a movement that is mainly composed of women who since 2001
have been demanding that the provincial government stop the air fumi-
gation of soy fields. The spraying of large amounts of glyphosate near
urban areas was causing cases of cancer (mostly in children) and birth
defects induced by contamination. In 2009 the movement succeeded in
forbidding the spraying of this product in urban areas (GRR, 2009). Inci-
dentally, some invasive species such as Aleppo sorghum (or Johnsson
grass) acquired resistance to glyphosate spraying, and as a result agricul-
ture steps not only into a pesticide treadmill but also into a “transgenic
treadmill” (Binimelis, Pengue and Monterroso, 2009).
Tree plantations have similarly been the subject of socioenvironmental
conflicts. As analysed by Gerber (2011), industrial tree plantations for
wood, palm oil and rubber production are among the fastest-growing
monocultures and are currently being promoted as carbon sinks and
energy producers. Such plantations are causing a large number of
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 69
conflicts between companies and local populations, mostly in the trop-
ics and subtropics. Relying on the most comprehensive literature review
to date, corresponding to 58 worldwide conflict cases (drawing on
the WRM database), Gerber (2011) finds that the prominent cause of
resistance is related to corporate control over land that results in dis-
placements and the end of local uses of ecosystems as they are replaced
by monocultures.
Biomass conflicts related to fisheries and shrimp aquaculture are also
relevant in Latin America. Let us briefly consider here the environmental
injustices related to the promotion of the shrimp aquaculture indus-
try in Central America, in the Gulf of Fonseca region of Nicaragua and
Honduras on the Pacific Coast. This is one of the most densely popu-
lated areas in Central America and also one of the poorest. This regional
economy depends, to a large extent, on artisanal fishing, specifically
shellfish harvesting. Industrial aquaculture activities began in Honduras
at the start of the 1970s and in Nicaragua in the second half of the
1980s with small-scale projects. Nowadays this activity has sharply
increased. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of
the United Nations, in 2008 production had reached 26,584 tonnes, and
14,690 tonnes in Honduras and Nicaragua, respectively. This implies an
increase in total production of more than 200% in both countries over
ten years (1998–2008). Most of the production is for export, mainly
to the USA and to European markets. Where there were once estuar-
ies and natural lagoons, nowadays there are large ponds for producing
shrimp. In Nicaragua the surface area under production expanded from
771 Ha in 1989 to 10,396 Ha in 2009, and in Honduras from 750 Ha in
1985 to 14,954 Ha in 2000 (Mestre Montserrat and Ortega Cerdà, 2012).
What was supposed to become a source of wealth for the regional
economy has disempowered local fishing communities, which have
seen their access to natural resources enclosed and limited. This has
triggered serious social conflicts in the region. The industrial sites
are located in areas populated by poor communities that rely on the
communal use of coastal resources. The main response of the shrimp
industry to the theft of their product has been the armed surveillance of
their lands, both private and public. This has been a common practice
in Nicaragua since 2008, when an agreement was established between
the Association of Aquaculturalists of Nicaragua and the armed forces.
These measures have further limited the access of local communities to
coastal resources, fostering conflict and further impoverishing the pop-
ulation, thereby increasing social marginalization and unrest. As Mestre
Montserrat and Ortega Cerdà (2012) indicate, successive conflicts
70 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
between security forces protecting aquaculture farms and local fisher-
men have caused various injuries and at least one death in Nicaragua,
and twelve deaths in Honduras. Fishermen have reported cases in which
navigation to their fishing grounds through the estuarine channels has
been restricted, along with cases of detention and harassment – in the
form of constant demands for documentation to be shown – at sea. In
Honduras, people engaged in campaigns to resist the expansion of the
shrimp industry into protected areas have also been detained.
In Latin America, as elsewhere, the views of social groups involved
in such conflicts over biomass are expressed in different “languages”,
using, for example, discourses about land and territorial dispossession,
territorial rights, biopiracy, consultation rights, health impacts (due to
chemical use), food sovereignty, human rights (given criminalization
and militarization of extractive activities) and democracy. Unsustainable
biomass extraction is also linked with conflicts over the rights of nature
and of future generations, as biodiversity and nature’s genetic pool are
affected (by reducing the diversity of crops or advancing towards high-
diversity areas). Potential future conflicts could also arise as intensive
agricultural practices affect the long-term quality of soils (Pengue, 2001,
2004; Binimelis, Pengue and Monterroso, 2009).
Mineral mining includes a range of commodities that can be grouped as
metals (e.g. copper, gold, silver, iron, bauxite, uranium, nickel), mineral
fuels (e.g. oil, gas, coal, shale oil), industrial minerals (e.g. phosphates,
asbestos, salt) and construction minerals (e.g. sand, gravel, stones). The
general stages of the mining process are shared: exploration to locate
and characterize the mineral deposits, exploitation to mine the ores,
mineral processing to refine the mineral, and transport to the consum-
ing economies. However, the features and impacts of each commodity
vary. Here we present some key features of the different minerals, and
analyse in more detail metal and fuel minerals whose extraction is
currently triggering significant debates in Latin America.
Metal ores
The extraction boom of raw materials in Latin American has been par-
ticularly significant for metal ores (see Figure 2.5). While in 1970 the
weight of industrial and metal ores accounted for 10% of the total
material flows of Latin America, in 2009 it reached 25%. In fact, in
2009, industrial and metals ores were, after biomass, the second greatest
material extracted and, in part, exported from the region, accounting
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 71
1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000 2005
Million tonnes
Fossil fuels
Construction minerals Biomass
Metal ores and industrial minerals
Figure 2.5 Domestic extraction in Latin America by major category of material,
Source: UNEP and CSIRO (2013).
for 2,100 million tonnes of ores (West and Schandl, 2013). In 2012,
Latin America provided 45% of the global copper output, as well as
50% of silver, 26% of molybdenum, 21% of zinc and 20% of gold
(Henriquez, 2012), attracting a third of global metal-mining investments
(US$210 billion) (Ericsson and Larsson, 2013). We will address with
some detail metal ore extraction features and trends that are currently
related to a boom of conflicts in Latin America.
One of the particularities of the metal-mining production chain is that
its initial stages are characterized by low value but high environmental
cost: resource extraction and then processing/refining have the highest
impact. Later stages, such as assembling, are estimated to have less envi-
ronmental impact but generate the majority of the economic value. This
relationship represents a general trend of the impact/value curve that
also applies more generally to other products that use metal ores (Giurco
et al., 2010). Moreover, the socioenvironmental impacts of resource
extraction increase when ore grades decline, as more waste is gener-
ated. As pressure to extract ores increases and the extraction frontier
expands, reaching lower quality deposits, the environmental pressures
in the stages of extraction and processing become greater (Giurco et al.,
72 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
Table 2.1 General conversion factors of gross ore versus metal content and ore
Metal Gross ore/metal content Gross ore/concentrate
Iron 43.32 81.93
Copper 1.04 3.33
Nickel 1.83 23.45
Lead 11.86 16.52
Zinc 8.34 14.50
Tin 0.24 0.33
Gold 0.00021 0.06630
Aluminium 18.98 67.55
Silver 0.034 2.552
Uranium 0.0015 0.3744
Source: Based on Schoer et al. (2012).
2010). Table 2.1 presents general conversion factors for the relationship
between metal ores or concentrates and the gross ore that is mined. This
factor is derived from the average of the annual business reports of about
160 metal mines in the world (Schoer et al., 2012).
Precious materials, such as gold, have the highest generation of over-
burden. As indicated in Table 2.1, to obtain 2 grams of gold, an average
of 1 tonne of gross ore has to be mined. As the price per unit of pre-
cious metals is higher than for bulk metals, it becomes economically
feasible to extract ore of decreasing quality or grade, entailing the pro-
cessing of larger amounts of ore in open-cast mining and, as a result,
generating increasing amounts of waste rock and tailings. This has also
been made possible with the development of (more intensive) process-
ing techniques that allow miners to obtain metals from decreasing ore
concentrations (i.e. cyanide leaching for gold) (Bridge, 2004).
Moreover, other studies point to a worldwide decline in the quality
of ore.1As the high-grade ores have been depleted, the mining fron-
tier moves to lower-grade ores, with increasing environmental costs.
The decline in the quality of ores has direct implications in terms of
land intervention of mining activities, as larger mines (open-pit min-
ing) have to be built and larger quantities of waste rock – especially
sensitive in the case of sulphidic material that has the potential to gen-
erate acid drainages2– are generated (Bridge, 2004; Giurco et al., 2010;
Mudd, 2010). For instance, recent studies conducted in the gold-mining
sector in Australia indicate that, as ore quality decreases, the amount
of water and energy used in the mining process increases significantly.
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 73
This trend overlaps with other environmental pressures, such as larger
requirements of chemical inputs and larger amounts of waste (Mudd,
2007a, 2007b; Giurco et al., 2010; Prior et al., 2012).
The significance of these trends grows as we consider the expansion of
the mining frontier to sensitive and critical ecosystems, such as tropical
and cloud forests, or the very high mountains next to pasturelands and
glaciers. These are also the homes of indigenous people. As pointed out
by Bridge (2004), an increasing proportion of mineral exploration and
investment expenditures during the 1990s targeted the tropical areas
around the globe, reaching ecologically sensitive and/or high-value con-
servation areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature
(IUCN) has raised concerns related to the expansion of the mining, gas
and oil frontier in World Heritage Sites, demanding protection for them
(IUCN, 2011). Furthermore, recent studies led by scholars and activists
are pointing to the large overlap of mining concessions with the land of
peasants and indigenous people in Latin America (Bebbington, 2012b).
For instance, de Echave (2009, quoted in Bebbington, 2012b) estimates
that over half of Peruvian peasant communities are affected by mining
projects or concessions. According to the EJOLT database (see below),
in Latin America, indigenous peoples are present in over 50% of the
environmental conflicts recorded to date in this registry (Pérez-Rincón,
2014). Chapter 11 on community consultations analyses in more detail
some aspects of metal-mining conflicts in Latin America.
Moreover, it is important to stress that in the case of mining activities,
ecoefficiency and technological approaches are limited. As the environ-
mental impacts of mineral extraction can be reduced but not eliminated
(Bridge, 2004), inputs to the mining process – such as water, energy
or chemical compounds – can be reduced (per unit of production), the
management of waste can be improved (e.g. better membranes to isolate
waste from soil), and mining sites can be rehabilitated (e.g. revegeta-
tion). However, mineral mining necessarily modifies the environment
to some degree. Moreover, operationalizing ecoefficiency in the mining
sector is complicated by the fact that mining (unlike other industrial
processes) is a segregative process that cannot avoid the production of
large volumes of waste. This is increasingly significant considering the
wider trends of declining ore qualities. Along the same vein, Giurco et al.
(2010) maintain that mineral resource depletion is as much about falling
resource quality (decreasing ores) and accessibility (distant and difficult
to extract, with higher social and environmental costs and related con-
flicts) as it is about a reduction in resource quantity and availability.
As follows, Prior and colleagues (2012) suggest that the “peak metal”
74 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
(the time when extraction can no longer rise to meet the demand)
has more to do with a carefully weighed decision that considers the
social and environmental implications of continuing to extract than a
question of existing metal quantities available.
In early 2014, OCMAL, a network of organizations that records large-
scale metal-mining conflicts, listed 203 active conflicts affecting 308
communities. According to OCMAL (2014), the largest number of min-
ing conflicts are found in Peru (35), Chile (35), Argentina (26), Mexico
(32), Brazil (20), Colombia (12), Bolivia (9) and Ecuador (7). Central
America as a whole also has many mining conflicts. The impact of
large-scale metal-mining activities on water, land, health, livelihoods
and rights raises concerns among communities that feel disempow-
ered by official decision-making procedures that place a premium on
ecoefficiency and pecuniary criteria. Governments and mining compa-
nies frame complaints as being politically motivated and misinformed
(Walter, 2014), but such a widespread wave of complaints (and so much
violence against the protestors, at least in some countries) is evidence of
a vigorous grassroots social movement.
Mineral fuels
This category includes a diversity of commodities, such as oil, natu-
ral gas and shale-gas fracking. We could also consider energy-related
conflicts related to thermoelectricity plants. Oil is the main source
of energy of modern societies; it is an essential input for the exoso-
matic energy metabolism of contemporary rich economies (transport,
industry, etc.). The growth of the world economy has relied on fossil
fuels over the last century, and the oil demand and consumption have
increased steadily throughout the twentieth century. However, since the
1960s, there has been a decrease in the number of new discoveries of
conventional oil reservoirs. Moreover, recent discoveries reveal decreas-
ing quality, thus implying larger economic and environmental costs
(Tsoskounoglou, Ayerides and Tritopoulou, 2008). As the pressure to find
and extract conventional and unconventional fossil fuels augments, the
frontiers of exploration and extraction expand, reaching environmental
and socially sensitive locations.
One area in Latin America where the expansion of the oil-mining
frontier has strongly impacted one of the culturally and biologically
most diverse regions on Earth is in the Peruvian Amazon. Orta-Martínez
and Finer (2010) indicate that since the 1920s, oil exploration and
extraction in this region have threatened both biodiversity and indige-
nous peoples, particularly those living in voluntary isolation. They argue
Joan Martinez-Alier and Mariana Walter 75
that the phenomenon of peak oil, combined with rising demand and
consumption, is pushing oil extraction into the most remote corners
of the world. As modern patterns of production and consumption, and
high oil prices, are forcing a new oil exploratory boom in the Peruvian
Amazon, conflicts are spreading across indigenous territories, new forms
of resistance appear, and indigenous political organizations are born.
The expanding oil and gas frontiers are overlapping with the lands of
indigenous peoples, some of whom were previously uncontacted, which
fosters conflict, disease and unrest among these communities (Finer and
Orta-Martínez, 2010; Orta-Martínez and Finer, 2010; Gavaldà, 2013).
An important case of struggle over the environmental injustices of oil
extraction is in Lago Agrio, in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Between 1964
and 1992, Texaco’s oil operations polluted the northern region of the
Amazon forest in Ecuador, spanning 1 million Ha inhabited by vari-
ous indigenous communities and resulting in environmental and health
damage. Texaco was bought by Chevron in 2001. In 1993, local residents
and indigenous communities filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco
in the District Court in New York for damages caused to their health and
to the environment. For ten years the case was stalled in the US Courts,
until 2003, when eventually the trial was moved to the Ecuadorian
Amazon town of Lago Agrio. In 2011, in a landmark judgement, the
local Sucumbios court sentenced Chevron Texaco to pay US$9.5 billion
to the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia, which would be doubled if the
company did not publicly apologize. The court decision was upheld in
2012. Chevron has refused to pay and activists have tried to seize the
company assets in third-party countries, such as Canada and Argentina.
Industrial and construction minerals
Industrial minerals include those used in industrial and agricultural
processes. These minerals have different levels of toxicity and the pres-
sures to extract them depend on their industrial uses. There are, for
instance, conflicts related to the asbestos-mining in different places in
Latin America. An example is the conflict of Sao Felix do Amianto in the
state of Bahia (Brazil), which was open between 1939 and 1967 in the
towns of Bom Jesus da Serra and Poçoes. There are many claims asking
for compensation for health impacts, from workers both in the mine
and in the factory.
There are also conflicts related to industrial minerals that are less
toxic, such as phosphates. For instance, the Bayovar mine that is located
in the north of Peru and is owned by Vale produces 5 million tonnes of
phosphates per year (EJOLT, 2014).
76 Social Metabolism and Conflicts
Construction minerals are materials such as sand and gravel that are
related to urbanization processes and infrastructure construction. These
materials travel less than other materials because of their relatively low
price per unit of weight, and for this reason they tend to be near the
sites of processing and final use. As follows, conflicts over quarries are
usually related to conflicts over processing plants (e.g. cement factories).
An example of conflicts related to sand and gravel extraction is in Rio
Tunjuelo (Bogotá, Colombia), one of the main sources of construction
minerals in Bogotá. Some 50 years of extraction of sands and gravels
have changed the urban landscape, shaping large holes in the ground.
These holes are 30, 50 or 70 m deep and have diameters that reach sev-
eral hundreds of metres. In 2002, in order to avoid the impact of a
serious flood, old mining holes were used as water reservoirs to divert
overflowing water from the Tunjuelo River. Flooded quarries became
a source of infections and bad odours, as abandoned quarries became
water oxidation ponds. Social unrest was born from the impact of aban-
doned quarries on water, and the environmental impacts related to the
nearby processing plants. Another example is the conflict in San Juan
Sacatepequez in Guatemala, where indigenous communities fostered a
local consultation to stop the opening of a quarry and its processing
plant on their lands. These activities were promoted by the national
government without the consent of local inhabitants (EJOLT, 2014).
Conflicts at different points in the commodity chain
The classification presented here focuses on extractive activities, but
conflicts can emerge at other stages of the life cycle of a commodity.
In such a way, material extraction is connected to environmental and
social pressures at different localities and to social groups that exceed the
specific place where extraction is occurring. We point to four key stages
related to the life cycle of a (raw material) commodity where conflicts
emerge: extraction, transport, processing and final disposal.
First, conflicts can arise at the site of extraction. We have previously
pointed out some of the socioenvironmental pressures and conflicts
directly related to extraction.
Second, the transport of raw materials to processing plants is also
related to noise, dust and air pollution. This stage also includes the
impacts and conflicts related to the construction of transport infras-
tructures, such as pipelines and ports. An example of the tensions
related to these activities is the Initiative for the Integration of the
Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), led by a group of Latin