Green Shoots In Latin America: An Environmental Vote Of Confidence


Looking at the earth from space, Brazil is a great green physical presence. It could soon become a great green political presence. Recent polling suggests Marina Silva will come second in the first-round vote for Brazil’s presidential elections on 5 October and then beat the incumbent, Dilma Rousseff, in the runoff three weeks later.

Clearly, if this occurs it would be a huge moment in Brazil’s history, but it would also prove politically momentous across Latin America and may even influence politics around the globe.

Silva only recently emerged as a candidate after taking over from her predecessor and running mate, Eduardo Campos, who was killed in a plane crash in August. 56-year-old Marina Silva is not your classic Brazilian politician.

She grew up in the Amazon with an ancestry that includes African slaves, native Indians and Portuguese settlers. Her family were illiterate, making a living from rubber-tapping. She learnt to read at 16 years of age. But since then, she has served as Environment Minister under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is often credited with Brazil’s recent economic development.

Silva herself is generally credited with the significant slowing of the rate of deforestation in Brazil under Lula da Silva’s administration.

As the lead up to the World Cup made so evident to the world, there is popular discontent with the political status quo in Brazil – the gulf between aspiration and reality remains stark for the vast majority.

Unlike most of Brazil’s political class, but like Marina Silva: most Brazilians haven’t had a wealthy upbringing; most Brazilians are not white; and most Brazilians are not over 60-years-old. One can almost imagine a room full of marketing gurus trying to create the perfect character, the perfect mix of qualities to tap into the current discontent in Brazil, and creating Marina Silva.

Jonothan Watts described the launch of Silva's platform for government as a “sometimes bizarre mix of tradition and modernity, conservatism and radicalism, doubt and hope.”

Perhaps, such breadth, or being difficult to categorise politically will prove to be part of her potency.

Why Latin American countries will follow Brazil

Brazil is home to one third of Latin America’s people and is the region’s economic power house. It shares frontiers with Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.

Brazil’s scale and its economic growth in recent years make it tempting for smaller Latin American countries to look up to Brazil and to follow her lead. But it is more than this.

The region’s dictatorships and wars have largely become memories. There is a certain solidarity – perhaps stronger than ever before – across Latin America due to shared histories and a family of cultures, and Brazil has demonstrated in recent years that despite now having a global voice, it will stand up for the region and its smaller nations on the international stage.

Old beliefs dovetail with green philosophies

When the Spanish and Portuguese colonised Latin America, Catholicism was rapidly moulded in order to house traditional beliefs. For example, the Virgin Mary became conflated with Pachamama (Mother Nature) to fit with the Incan, and indeed pre-Incan beliefs throughout much of today’s Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, southern Colombia and northern Argentina.

Old and indigenous beliefs still shape much of today’s rituals and understanding of the world. This can be observed from Bolivian miners spilling the first drops of every drink of chichi to the earth as an offering to Pachamama, right up to the constitutions of both Ecuador and Bolivia, which recognise the rights of nature.

These indigenous beliefs structured by a sound relationship with our environment are the world over, but unlike in North America, Australia or Europe they have not been so successfully suppressed in many parts of Latin America. Indeed, in some places they are making a resurgence.

These beliefs still play a big part in structuring many cultures, particularly those with large indigenous populations, such as within Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. An argument can be made that many traditional or ‘underlying’ Latin American cultures are inherently a good fit with the core green philosophies.

More recent history could play a part too. Some would argue that Latin America is too religiously conservative to embrace green politics, but it was Latin America that created Archbishop Romero and managed to flip Catholic teachings from the conservative Right to the radical Left throughout the 1970s and 80s. And in any case their dominant religious views may well shape their own ‘brand’ of green politics, but it needn’t impact the core green values.

In most Latin American countries, there has traditionally been a wide gap between Right and Left – they are ripe for a new party to emerge that is not so easily categorised. Movements that are not conveniently pigeon-holed are not so easily dismissed.

It is interesting to note that the other country in the region where green politics has become a significant force is Colombia, which is traditionally one of the most Right-leaning in Latin America.

Green policies equal social policies

The green movement in the United Kingdom grew out of the anti-nuclear movement, in Australia it emerged out of battles to preserve wilderness, in Latin America it appears to be growing predominantly out of growing respect for indigenous beliefs and pressure to address social inequality.

In 2011, I had a coffee with Enrique Peñalosa, after he had delivered a keynote speech at an urban planning conference in Hobart, Tasmania.

Few have achieved an urban transformation like Peñalosa managed as mayor of Bogotá.

Earlier this year, he ran for president of Colombia, representing the Green Alliance Party. Peñalosa argued that green politics is as much, in his view more, about social and economic equality as it is about environmental sustainability. This is fundamental to Marina Silva, as it seems to be this inequality that is feeding the current wave of discontent.

Brazil has had high economic growth for several years and much has been made of its economic achievements, yet many millions feel they haven’t shared in this wealth.

During his time as mayor of Bogotá, Peñalosa developed land banks for housing, a huge system of parks that include cycle ways and link to a co-developed system of libraries, the TransMilenio mass transit system (now the model for many large cities) and other smaller projects that seamlessly combine social, environmental and economic improvement.

In just 10 years, Bogotá has transformed from one of the world´s most dangerous and corrupt cities into a relatively peaceful city that many others are now trying to emulate.

Whilst Peñalosa is a firm believer in capitalism and private investment, he also believes that the free market does not work when it comes to land around cities. Supply and demand excludes those with less financial resources, pushing them to city outskirts that are disconnected from important needs.

A huge amount of energy is wasted getting services in and waste out, not to mention getting people in and out. Most residential urban land should be government owned in a land banking system, according to Peñalosa, which makes it much easier to have well-planned, connected housing in appropriate areas, with access to parks and services.

There are clearly huge potential infrastructure and energy savings, not to mention environmental benefits, by implementing this approach.

Peñalosa explained that he realised the policies he was applying to construct social equality were often the same as green policies. He claimed the protected cycle network he began in the late nineties, which has now expanded to over five hundred kilometers, was more social policy than environmental policy. In addition to saving thousands of low income citizens 10 to 20 percent of their wage due to riding to work, it also makes a powerful statement: “Someone on a $30 bicycle is as important as someone in a $30,000 car.”

The same goes for footpaths and public transport. It is a powerful symbol of democracy and respect for human dignity, particularly in the parts of the world where most people can’t afford to own a car, to restrict car use and give priority to public transport and pedestrians.

The process helps to even up the political attention paid to high income and low income citizens, something thousands of Brazilians have been protesting about.

Peñalosa made another claim, over the second coffee, relevant to the Marina Silva campaign: most people think we achieve knowledge through reason, but that in fact we are much simpler than this and actually learn via symbols, rituals and ceremonies.

This is why, argued Peñalosa, it’s such a powerful symbol when affluent people are sitting in a traffic jam and a public bus zooms past them in an exclusive lane. Perhaps this is also why Silva’s election could be so widely influential.

She is profoundly outside the traditional political mold on a number of levels, giving her the potential to become a powerful symbol – bringing with her fresh and engaging changes to entrenched ‘rituals and ceremonies’.

Not long after meeting Peñalosa, I interviewed Ingrid Betancourt. She was a presidential candidate for Colombia’s Green Party in 2002 when she was captured by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

She spent the next six and a half years as a prisoner in various parts of the Amazon, sometimes marching through the jungle for months at a time to keep ahead of the Colombian Army, at other times, chained by her neck to a tree.

Betancourt agreed with Peñalosa that green policy has a strong relationship with social and economic equality, making the point that “whenever you improve the environment you improve things for those who are more dependent on nature, which are normally poor people, or those at the bottom of the social ladder.” This is particularly true in ‘developing countries’ and countries with large rural areas.

I asked Betancourt if she could see green politics spreading across Latin America from Colombia and Brazil. She believed it soon would, but also expressed her belief that it must embody a philosophy that is bigger than politics – something that Silva may need to grapple with if she gains power.

“Of course it’s politics too, but it’s also what we want to make of this world and it has to do with how we make the difference to it. It’s not only getting there, it’s how we get there, and I would just like to hope that those who are embracing the green banner understand that it is a commitment of ethic, of moral.”


A global impact?

It is not just Latin American countries that look up to or have strong political and trading ties with Brazil – it is ‘developing nations’ across the globe, it is other large developing powers like China and India, it is Europe and the United States. It wasn’t always the case, but today, when Brazil speaks, the world listens. 

The election of a ‘green’ president will have global ramifications. Firstly, others in the region, and perhaps beyond, will follow, adapting green policies to suit their circumstances.

Secondly, Latin America’s journey toward green politics will broaden its relevance globally – that is to say, there will be the potential to demonstrate that green policies have the underpinning values to deal with all responsibilities of government, rather being narrowly, or solely, ecologically focused.

Thirdly, Silva’s election would prove that green politics is not just a phenomenon of wealthy states that have the luxury of considering such values, that it actually represents a legitimate approach to addressing the most pressing issues of poorer states.

The challenge, in some ways, is to show that green politics is not actually radical, it is indeed sensible, and in many ways, even conservative.

Making green values  ‘normal’ within government will bring them one step closer to the critical mass needed to break entrenched ‘habits and rituals’.

This is where the synergies with many traditional Latin American cultures and the inherent issues of social and economic inequality often tackled so directly by green politics may prove to be so powerful in Latin America, and may even reinvigorate the green movement globally.

Latin American politics is dynamic, volatile, and important. Whilst I have learnt not to try to pick an election result in Latin America more than a day out from the election, I will predict that if Marina Silva does win the election we will witness a large and rapid rise in the existence and influence of green politics across Latin America.

And if this happens, each country will develop its own version of what ‘green politics’ actually is, shaped by their history, cultures, environment and political structures.

This can only help to infuse the core underlying green values more broadly throughout society and its decision-making environments, potentially helping to revitalise the identity, mission and effectiveness of green movements around the world.

* James Dryburgh’s book Essays from Near and Far can be found here.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.