Ask many people what they think about the Amazon and they will describe a vast natural landscape facing multiple risks from frontier capitalism.
Yet this picture is an oversimplification that highlights how the environment – and the challenges of achieving sustainable development – are often misunderstood.
In fact, research points to human agency in shaping the “natural” Amazonian landscape on a huge scale over millennia: the image of a pristine wilderness is outdated and imported.
Nonetheless, this perspective distorted the environmental agenda of multilateral agencies working in Latin America and of the region’s policymakers in favour of nature conservation. This was to the detriment of sustainable living in the urban areas in which most south Americans actually live.
Debates about the Amazon also highlight other aspects of how perspectives on sustainable development in the region have evolved.
They have, for example, influenced attitudes towards indigenous peoples, whose relationship with nature revives longstanding notions of the “noble savage” that in recent years have encouraged multilateral agencies to see them as a crucial resource in the sustainable development agenda.
Narratives of these kinds can be instructive, representing the legacy of a perspective stretching back to the colonial era that saw human development as urban and as somehow outside, detached from, or above the realm of nature.
Yet the notion of the rainforest as a space of nature independent of human society can make it difficult for local activists to draw attention to social issues there. When you look at the Amazon’s ecological history, it shows that large, complex societies can thrive sustainably within it without destroying it.
How is sustainable behaviour influenced in South America?
It is also important to note that Amazon narratives have changed considerably over time – in the 1970s they were about how best to open up the region, by the 1990s they were about deforestation.
This shift reflects how the emergence of green movements in Latin America and the Caribbean mirror the development elsewhere of diverse urban-rural alliances that drew upon similar international influences. Indeed, attitudes in the region towards issues such as conservation, sustainability, consumption and production are determined by the same factors of class, location, occupation and politics as they are anywhere – as well as a consumer culture modelled on the US lifestyle that is, similarly, the dominant norm.
This explains why the environment has soared up the political agenda in Latin America as it has everywhere, and a growing majority of its people believe climate change is already affecting their lives.
If there are discernible differences in how environmental priorities are expressed by the region’s green movement itself, it is the frequent coincidence with the main priorities of the left – the alleviation of poverty and inequality – giving rise to a distinctive “socio-environmentalism”.
Moreover, a consensus has formed since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 around the notion of sustainable development, and this has contributed to a reassessment of ideas about nature.
Alongside a re-evaluation of indigenous culture, it has fostered circumstances in which Latin America finds itself pioneering new concepts such as Earth jurisprudence.
Sustainable development offers policymakers an obvious tool with which to confront the region’s huge environmental challenges – which differ from those of other countries only in terms of scale.
What are the environmental challenges facing South America?
Latin American and Caribbean countries are affected by significant levels of land degradation; the loss of forest cover and biodiversity are major issues; some countries face huge challenges guaranteeing equal access to safe water; coastal and marine resources are being profoundly affected by human development; and poverty, rapid growth, weak institutions and poor policymaking make the quality of life in cities a key theme in politics. Today, Latin America is the most urbanised part of the developing world.
Inevitably, climate change has risen up the agenda – not least because although the region is not a main contributor of the emissions causing global warming, it is likely to be a disproportionately affected by them. Estimates suggest the region has so far generated only about 4-6% of global emissions, yet it could suffer annual damage in the order of $100bn by the year 2050 due to declines in agricultural yields, the disappearance of glaciers, floods, droughts, and other problems caused by global warming.
The main challenges policymakers face in the effort to change behaviour derive from the compromise that lies at the heart of sustainable development: how to balance rapid growth that promises a way out of poverty with environmental protection.
Nonetheless, Latin America is today viewed by multilateral agencies with hope as a fertile laboratory of sustainable living.
It is considered one of the regions most actively implementing projects that promote sustainable consumption and production. Its policymakers have undertaken bold experiments in urban planning, recycling and water management; environmental education has extended across the curriculum; its countries have developed innovative ways of making environmental services pay; and Latin Americans have greatly widened participation in green policymaking.
The role of the private sector has also been a key theme in policy discussions, and Latin America has an active network of business councils for sustainable development such as Mexico’s Comisión de Estudios del Sector Privado para el Desarollo Sustentable (CESPEDES) and Consejo Empresario para el Desarollo Sostenible (CEADS) in Argentina.
And while foreign corporations may once have been complicit in exploiting lax environmental standards, there is much evidence today that they can play a positive role nurturing sustainability through the transfer of technology, ideas, practices – and investment in the region’s growing green economy.
Gavin O’Toole is a journalist and academic. He has published three books on Latin America and the Caribbean and has recently completed a textbook on environmental politics in the region.
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