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Understanding environmental policy change in Latin America

Most countries have hard-to-abate “Achilles’ heel” sectors for domestic environmental action; in Latin America, these are large export-oriented primary industries like fossil-fuel extraction, mining, and industrial agriculture.

Publishing date
Key scientists

Benedicte Bull

Matias Franchini

Policy developments in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico

Focusing on actors and governmental institutions, the research project GREENLEAP (Greening Achilles’ heel sectors: Understanding environmental policy change in Latin American Primary industries), led by Solveig Aamodt at CICERO, will investigate environmental policy developments in Achilles’ heel sectors in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. These four countries have all been relatively ambitious in supporting global environmental governance processes, and in adopting domestic climate policies and targets.

“However, all these four countries also gain substantial parts of their GDPs from export-oriented primary industry sectors with large environment-related conflicts over pollution, emissions, and the use of land and freshwater. Especially if we focus on industrial agriculture in Brazil, copper and lithium mining in Chile, and oil extraction in Colombia and Mexico”, says Aamodt.

Solveig Aamodt is leading the project "Greening Achilles’ heel sectors: Understanding environmental policy change in Latin American Primary industries". Photo: CICERO

“We can say that these sectors represent the respective countries’ Achilles’ heels for ambitious environmental action. These sectors are characterized by being established economic sectors with strong ties between companies and governmental institutions, and where the adoption of environmental priorities over traditional sectorial goals is usually particularly difficult”, she explains.

The role of Latin America in the world's mineral industry

Latin America plays a prominent role in the world’s mineral industry. For example, Chile has 21% of global copper reserves and Brazil 16% of global nickel reserves.

“Environmental policies here are needed for real advances in the environmental agenda, yet environmental policies in these sectors could also harm the economy in the short run”, says Benedicte Bull, professor at the University of Oslo, and research partner in the project.

“In comparison to the Norwegian context, where we are dependent on the oil and gas industry, and policies are geared towards a continuous dependency, I think it is worth asking what lessons we can learn from Latin America to overcome vested interests? And how come some of the areas have managed to do this?” Bull asks.

Public opinion polls in Latin America show that people are concerned about climate issues, but they are much more concerned about violence and crime.

“The problem is that the diversification of organized crime we have seen the last decade, means ever more pressure on natural resources. For example, criminal organizations are involved in illegal logging, illegal mining, or cut forest to open routes for drug-trafficking, for example establishing clandestine air-stripes” explains Bull.

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Benedicte Bull, Professor at the University of Oslo. Photo: CICERO

Although people are aware and have climate concerns, it does not necessarily mean they vote for environmental profiles.

“As in Europe, the populist right is on the rise in many countries in Latin America", Bull says. "We observe that even if most people take climate issues seriously, they support populist right wing candidates for other reasons: for example to defend ‘family values’ or fight against crime. But since the same politicians reject accepting climate change as a serious issue, this trend brings ‘climate deniers’ into politics”. 

The continent has experienced several political changes the last decade with important impact on  environmental policies. In the beginning of June, Mexico held a presidential election.

“The newly elected President Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico raises hopes that climate change and the energy transition will enter Mexican political agenda. Sheinbaum is a former climate researcher, and part of the IPCC, and although she will face a lot of pressure to protect the oil sector, also from her ally, sitting President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, she may take Mexico in a new direction” says Bull.

The interplay between elites and institutions

GREENLEAP looks at the interplay between different elites and institutions and how this interplay can explain where progress is made and where it is not.

“Elites” is defined as a group of individuals who possess significant resources (economic, political, social, symbolic), allowing them to dominate decision-making processes in society. There may be different groups of elites in a society.

Matias Franchini, from the Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá has done research on the political economy of the environment in Latin America and underlines that the current situation in the region is complicated from the governance stance. There is a fragmentation of political preferences and several governance challenges in many of the countries on the continent.

“The last decade has had a lower averaged GDP growth than the lost decade of the 80s. Many countries in the region are struggling to build up their economies after the end of the commodity boom and the pandemic. In addition, the climate crisis is manifesting itself for example with flooding in Porto Alegre in Brazil and forest fires in Bogotá in Colombia which is a rainy area” says Franchini. In addition, he points out that some of the countries are very vulnerable to climate extremes.

Environmental leadership

Franchini continues: “The region has had some countries assuming environmental leadership at different points in the last two decades, like Brazil and Mexico in the 2000s under Lula and Calderon, respectively. Currently, both Colombia under Petro and Brazil under Lula are claiming to be leaders in terms of environmental protection, although with some differences: while both concur in protecting the Amazon Forest, Petro has also pledged to reduce Colombian dependence on fossil fuels, while Lula has incentivized production, even in the Amazon.”

“Mexico might also enter the leadership contest, depending on how deep the environmental background of President elect Sheinbaum might affect her presidential term. In any case, our research will also help to analyze the density of environmental leadership claims” says Franchini.

“It is interesting to note that the development of environmental policy – and leadership claims - in the region has happened under both right and left-wing governments, at least until the arrival of the new far right in Latin America, with administrations like Bolsonaro in Brazil and Milei in Argentina openly anti-environment". Franchini highlights that this trend of ideologization of environmental protection might become an obstacle to sustainability in Latin America.

Watch the webinar "Power and environmental action in Latin America"