Natural Rights: People and Environment in Latin America

September 25, 2007

In this NACLA Report we look at both growing cooperation and continuing conflict in the name of protecting Latin America’s tropical forests and wetlands. In the 1970s and 1980s, during the first flush of international interest in “saving the rainforest,” many environmentalists focused on creating protected natural areas like parks that could be fenced off, literally or figuratively, from use by local people, especially poor people who had previously survived by exploiting park land and resources.

But in a 1995 NACLA Report article on “Parks, People and Power,” political scientist Margaret Keck wrote that environmentalists were beginning to change their view: “poor people have gone from being part of the problem to being potential carriers of the solution.” This change, Keck said, “coincided with a growing recognition on the part of conservation organizations that a ‘parks without people’ policy was at the very least unrealistic if not undesirable and that effective conservation required attention to the needs and concerns of local populations.”

In this issue, Barbara Fraser reports that environmentalists are, in fact, working together with some of the indigenous communities of Peru’s lowland forest against environmental threats from oil companies and loggers. And Wendy Call recounts how one Mexican and one Guatemalan coastal community have united with environmentalists to fight threats from commercial shrimp farmers.

But in Mexico’s Lacandon jungle, Bill Weinberg tells us, international environmental groups are still coming into conflict with poor settlers who claim the environmentalists are aiding government counterinsurgency and development plans.

Indeed, over the last decade it has become clearer than ever that most environmental conflicts are as much about control of territory and resources as they are about preservation of “nature” in an untouched state.

The central question is: Who—local communities, national governments, or the international community—will make final decisions about appropriate use of the environment? In many parts of Latin America, as in the rest of the world, indigenous peoples are claiming the right to determine how, or even if, natural resources found in territory they claim as theirs will be exploited. These resources include oil, timber, natural features like wetlands and, increasingly, the very genetic code of local plants.

National government claims concerning these same resources often come into conflict with indigenous claims: This is certainly the case in the Lacandon dispute described by Weinberg; Kenny Bruno updates us on the ongoing Ecuadoran conflict between indigenous peoples who oppose oil drilling on their lands and a government that has come to rely on oil revenues to pay the national debt.

In Brazil, the government has recently unveiled an expensive high-tech surveillance system that will allow it to keep a close watch on the vast reaches of its Amazon region. Marcelo Ballvé reports that the system can be used to monitor illegal logging and mining as well as to spy on drug traffickers and insurgents who have slipped across the border from neighboring countries. Critics charge that military uses will supersede environmental needs, but supporters hope that President Lula da Silva’s new government will turn away from the old perspective that saw continued settlement and development of the Amazon as Brazil’s “manifest destiny.”

Many Brazilians, however, remain suspicious of ecologists’ rhetoric about the Amazon rainforest as the property of “humanity”—these Brazilians view Amazon protection and determination of its proper use as their own national concern, even as they show themselves willing (certainly more willing than the United States) to take part in regional and international environmental pacts and projects.

Since the 1980s, “ecotourism” has come to be seen as one possible means of balancing the protection of fragile “jungle” environments with local and national income generation—and, not incidentally, satisfying international curiosity about the much-fabled rainforest. Costa Rica has been one of the prime beneficiaries of the “green” tourism boom, and Martha Honey reports that while the trend is not without pitfalls and problems, it has helped bring “parks and people” together in that country to the benefit of both.


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