Eduardo Gudynas is the executive secretary of CLAES, the Latin American Centre for Social Ecology in Uruguay. He also teaches at several Latin American, European and US universities. He has written ten books, many academic articles and chapters of books. In 2010 he was asked to take part in the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change. He is involved in the work of many citizens’ organizations, and known as one of the main exponents of eco-social themes. In this interview he bases his analysis in the extractive industries leading to alternative models of development. He was interviewed by Nurio del Viso for the Spanish journal ECOS (FUHEM Ecosocial). The translation, for LAB, is by Sara Harcourt.
NdelV: You have analysed in depth those industries involved in extracting resources and the way they may be counter productive. Could you share your analysis and explain why we may need to move beyond these activities. Or put another way, if we do not change emphasis, where do you think this will lead us?
EG: We use this concept of extracting in a limited way which relates to our history. We must remember that in recent decades we have spoken of extractive industries with special reference to mining. We start with the experience of exploiting great volumes of natural resources, which have had a social and environmental impact, and which feed in to global markets. So not all these extracted resources have been part of global trading. We have exploited mineral wealth and oil, but also developed monocultures such as soya beans, and also the factory farming of prawns. In certain circumstances tourism has developed in this damaging way.
It is our relationship to the global market which defines our economic activity as being destructive. When we extract resources on a massive scale outside the meeting of our needs in Latin America, just to sell them to other continents, this becomes an aspect of contemporary globalization. Latin America’s extractive industries become more intense, touching new regions of the continent, with negative results both social and environmental. This trend cannot be sustainable. In carrying on like this we shall use up some resources altogether and have to deal with the resulting environmental damage way into the future. Any economic benefit will long since have been dissipated. For this reason we must consider models of development alongside alternatives to the extraction industries.
NdelV: The exploitation of natural resources, or the extractive industries, is fuelling rapid economic growth in Latin America. This is not a new phenomenon in this continent, but it is a fact that more left wing LA governments have gone in for it, giving it a certain legitimacy by using the funds so derived to support social programmes. These tend to lock them in to more of the same. What would you say these governments are losing by taking this path?
EG: You’re quite right. Unlike Europe, South America is experiencing an economic boom. Brazil has experienced the least growth, but other countries enjoy impressive statistics. Exports increase, investment is high, and some countries, including Uruguay, enjoy full employment, and in some areas could do with more availability of people to employ. We do not have the kind of crises experienced in Europe where a struggling economy and financial institutions oblige them to follow adjustment policies. The high price of natural resources and high global demand for them fuels extractive industries. Some countries, such as Colombia, have continued to supply big international corporations. Others, with new left governments are seeking greater state control over the exploitation of their national resources, so that the benefits are enjoyed by state enterprises. But they are just as guilty of the same intense exploitation as the other countries. As our citizens become aware of what is happening, there is opposition and protest. So support for our governments is being undermined. And it is very hard for them to buck their dependency on exploitation and the global markets, and to use their enormous financial resources for other development options.
NdelV: What would be the implications if these governments considered the equity and justice of social and ecological questions?
EG: All extractive activities create social and environmental tensions. The contamination of any community or the displacement of a population in favour of mining is clearly unjust, whether or not leftist governments are behind it. These governments try to justify such consequences on the grounds of needing funding for anti poverty programmes. But this in fact causes a vicious circle of the need for more funds to solve the injustices created by extracting industries.
NdelV: How do you see the conflicts generated by the response of the environmental movement to the iniquities of extractive industries?
EG: Such social and environmental opposition is on the increase, both in those countries which have traditionally experienced it, and also there have been protests in countries which have not recently seen such events. In a study of all South American countries from Chile and Argentina in the south to Guyana and Surinam in the north such unrest has been noted. The contributory factors are varied and complex. Opposition is mobilised against the extractive industries, as well as support for investment in mining and other forms of extraction. Political manoeuvring has to be handled with great delicacy, as democracy can itself be under threat. Sometimes a policy can be simple, such as when it is clear that biodiversity is at risk, or communities are threatened with displacement. Other situations are more complex, where the interests of one region are set against national interests. This can lead to an impasse of the state or political parties; protest is ignored and social or environmental demands are brushed aside or even attacked through legal actions against their leadership or criminalising them.
NdelV: Several ideas have been put forward to avoid dependence on the extractive industries. For instance, a cultural change, by looking again at belief systems. Or a change of focus, moving away from putting man as the central concern. A widening of focus, by recognising the inescapable link between society and the environment. And an ethical change, putting the intrinsic value of the resources above its monetary value. What would you say is the key to achieving a change?
EG: All those ideas and aspirations have to be considered in the course of post-extractivism. But it will be an emergency solution. This will happen at two levels; an immediate short term response, as in the use of social and environmental measures within each country, and on the other hand, changes of greater consequence. Both measures are necessary. CLAES sees a series of successive changes to be expected, starting with emergency measures but reaching further horizons when looking at types of development.
NdelV: Can you briefly explain the kind of political changes you envisage for there to be a smooth transition to the post extractive period?
EG: Much of South American society has demonstrated its capacity for substantial political change. We have some left wing governments today which were not even dreamed of ten years ago. Many come under severe criticism, but all of them, including the most moderate, are to the left of administrations they have in Europe. Our governments have a wide support base, and some have been returned to power for a second term to great electoral acclaim. Voters have seen changes, and more political change is likely to be limited. The left has encouraged the electorate to hope for increased economic growth, so opting for a greater consumer society. Consumerism is exploding throughout the continent. Many more people can hope to possess things they only used to dream of, like having their own car, big television, enormous sound equipment. People in big cities cannot see the link between this and environmental problems. We cannot forget the idea of an enormous Latin American continent with great ecological riches waiting to be exploited. So people are reluctant to reduce their material consumption, by agreeing to go easy on the use of natural resources. A new awareness will take time.
The essence of the Good Life rests in a respect for a range of values and perceptions about nature, society and how to live well. There has to be slow, democratic steps towards change without authoritarian impositions.
NdelV: We’ve been seeing the relationship between new and old ideas; traditional indigenous concepts such as those of the sumak kawsay, or the very rights of nature herself as explained by Alberto Acosta, against those of Latouche who supports a declining economy, or the ideas of Jorge Riechmann and Joaquim Sempere. Both in Latin America and Europe these concepts are being debated. Which ideas do you find the most promising? Is there a dialogue taking place between thinkers on each side of the ocean?
EG: These questions are a bit more complex than we might think at first sight. What we call the Good Life takes its ideology from indigenous wisdom and also from the West. But we must make some things clear: Good Living certainly derives some of its traditions from indigenous peoples, especially with regard to their form of community living and their appreciation of nature. But critical ideas from marginal communities in the West are also important sources of inspiration. In particular feminism and deep ecology are very important. The way these different influences meet, mix and hybridize are peculiarly South American, and in particular Andean. There we see the work of Riechmann, the critique of development as expounded by Jose Maria Tortosa, and the questions of Carlos Talbo, all being read in the south. But I don’t see an easy meeting of the Good Life and a global decline in economic activity, especially in the work of Serge Latouche.
NdelV: Why not?
EG: Decline is seen as a reaction to growth, and Good Living cannot be linked to either. The ideas of Latouche of decline do not make sense in the Latin American context. They are weakest in connection with questions of the environment, do not take into account the rights of the natural world. They are most occupied with movements towards recycling, redistributing and reducing consumption etc. They ignore the need for intercultural concerns. They accept that the South has to reduce its exploitation of resources, but without the need for dialogue between different cultures. As I see it, industrialized and wealthy nations have an understandable need to move towards downward growth, but this cannot be an objective of an alternative to development. For us this decline is a consequence of other profound changes. In South America those populations indulging in conspicuous consumption will have to accept a decline, but at the same time there needs to be growth in the investment in infrastructure, such as education and health.
NdelV: Could the extractive industries be partially reformed as suggested by thinkers around ‘sustainable development’ and the ‘green economy’? Could these be authentic ways forward from extraction?
EG: It depends on what we mean by improvement. If improvement boils down to a publicity campaign which allows the continuation of contamination, then this is indefensible. But if improvement involves, for instance, the use of filters to prevent contamination of water, then this is necessary and urgent. I know there would be opposition to this in Europe and in several South American capital cities; but there are many local communities who urgently need these steps to be taken. This would be a more conscientious extractivism, not a definitive answer, but would go some way towards meeting social demands to save ecosystems under threat, and be the start of important economic changes.
We need to be clear that interim improvements are just that and not the long-term solution. We have to accept the urgency of those reforms which are the base of more thorough changes. As I see it, any reforms which improve the environment are useful, but other activities like the income derived from manipulation of monetary services are both negative and to be avoided. We can support the urgent need for the former measures, but the latter can get stuck in using natural resources for monetary benefits. This is where the ‘ green economy’ no longer looks green, but works towards fuelling economic growth.
NdelV: Do you feel there are alarming signals in the economic crisis and consequent reduction in social spending of Europe on the one hand and serious social and environmental dangers experienced in our countries which provide natural resources? Would our withdrawal of resources, or significant reduction be a threat to capitalism?
EG: Do not doubt that we have reached a crisis stage. But capitalism is finding its way through the crises it faces. More than that, it is learning from problems and adapting itself to new experiences. We must not assume that it is about to collapse, but the cost of adjustment has enormous social and environmental consequences, and at times the changes lead to strengthening of the system.
From our South American viewpoint and the ongoing discussions, it is becoming clearer that the process of our development must be based on foundations which are neither capitalist nor socialist. Now we appreciate the strength of indigenous wisdom about the Good Life, because it can push us past the attractions of western consumer living. It becomes very clear that the massive exploitation of our natural resources which feeds globalization must stop. This does not imply ignoring our natural wealth, as we ourselves should receive its benefits, and judiciously support a good standard of living. Without doubt the future will be more austere.