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How the new Latin America left is seeking a greener future

Colombia’s presidential front-runner Gustavo Petro wants, if he wins later this month, to stop all new oil exploration and move his country to a greener future.

That lines him up with Chile’s recently-elected President Gabriel Boric, a Millennial who has also pledged to take a firm stance on tackling climate change.

As Latin America sees a resurgent ‘pink tide’ – with most of the region set to be headed by leftists by the end of the year – the greener hue of these newer leaders contrasts with the old guard “resource nationalists,” who have typically seen tight state control of energy and metals as the best path to economic progress and self-determination.

The wild card? Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. The former president and front-runner in his country’s October election has long been identified with support of oil development – but he is also eager to contrast himself with far-right incumbent and climate skeptic President Jair Bolsonaro.

Colombian voters will vote on May 29 in a first-round presidential election where Petro, 62, aims to catapult the left to its first victory in decades. The ex-guerrilla turned politician has tapped environmental activist and rising progressive star Francia Marquez to be his running mate.

Marquez, who would be Colombia’s first Afro-Colombian vice president, stressed in an interview that she and Petro would break not only with the country’s conservatives, who have long embraced oil and coal, but also with fellow regional leftists like Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an unapologetic backer of fossil fuels.

“The point is that both the left and the right are fomenting a policy of extractivism when humanity faces the challenge today of transitioning from this extractivist economy to a sustainable economy,” Marquez, 40, told Reuters. “Life isn’t possible without our planet.”

Petro has vowed to freeze new oil and gas exploration, protect water resources, and provide more security for environmental defenders in Colombia, the world’s most dangerous country for such activists.

In Chile, meanwhile, a new law is set to bind the country to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Companies will have to adapt to new “borders” put in place to limit emissions and pollution, Boric’s environment minister told Reuters on Friday.

LULA 2.0

In Brazil, the region’s largest economy, Lula often hearkens back to the prosperity that defined his previous 2003-2011 stint in power. Back then, a commodities super-cycle fueled by surging Chinese demand for steel, soybeans and other goods filled government coffers.

Lula also presided over state-run Petrobras’ discovery of some 50 billion barrels of crude in offshore deposits, a tantalizing find that was seen as a potential gamechanger for alleviating poverty.

In recent interviews, the 76-year-old has brushed off suggestions he follow Petro’s lead and shun potentially lucrative oil projects.

Even so, Senator Humberto Costa, a close Lula ally, sees a faster green energy transition in Brazil if the left regains power, including more solar, wind and biomass generation.

“I think the newest thing would be environmental and energy concerns,” he told Reuters, dubbing them “more urgent” than during Lula’s earlier government.

The lawmaker also said Lula would permit only “self-sustaining development” in the Amazon rainforest, unlike Bolsonaro.

For traditional Latin American leftist leaders, control and use of resources is bound up with a legacy of exploitation dating back to colonial times – and their policies center on keeping profit-maximizing foreign and private hands away from their natural riches.

Lopez Obrador last month won congressional support to nationalize the exploitation of lithium, a crucial battery metal that Mexico does not yet produce. The Mexican leader has since said he wants to join Chile, Argentina and Bolivia to advance likeminded development.

He has also sought to strengthen state oil firm Pemex and national electricity company CFE’s dominance in their respective sectors, canceling competitive oil and renewable power auctions, and prioritizing the dispatch of power from CFE plants, even though they overwhelmingly burn fossil fuels.

In Bolivia, one of the region’s poorest countries, the need to spur development by exploiting gas fields has long clashed with environmental concerns. Current socialist President Luis Arce is also keen to make the most of his country’s natural resources – including gas and lithium – but in a break from the resource nationalists he has indicated he is open to bringing in outside help.
In the campaign homestretch in Colombia, Marquez is keen to avoid unrealistic expectations for Petro’s green agenda.
“Will this change happen overnight? No, it won’t happen in four years,” she said. “But we need the political will to say, ‘Yes, we must begin the transition.”
Source: Reuters (Reporting by David Alire Garcia in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Gabriel Araujo in Sao Paulo; Editing by Christian Plumb and Rosalba O’Brien)

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