Latin America: Heading to the UN Climate Change Conference: Climate Change and Extractivism

Document approved at the first conference held by the Ecology Commission of Latin America of the Fourth International in June 2021.


This article first appeared on the Fourth International website and can be found here.

Latin American Ecology Commission of the Fourth International

Document approved at the first conference held by the Ecology Commission of Latin America of the Fourth International in June 2021.

Capitalism, through its exploitation of waged work on a worldwide level, has made increases in the production of goods and services possible but at an immeasurable environmental cost. This destructive tendency has been reinforced in particular by the expansion of processes such as agricultural productivity, technological development and the carcinogenic growth of extractivism. The material benefits obtained from this historic process are today outweighed by the negative consequences for life as a whole, not only for human beings but for all living things. At the same time, the exponential expansion of capitalism produces a new wave of inequalities in energy, income and access to basic goods worldwide.

In this context, to have a position on environmental deterioration in Latin America is important for two reasons. On the one hand, climate change in such a vulnerable and politically turbulent region becomes a priority from a socialist perspective. On the other hand, due to the ravages of increasing extractivism we are forced to rethink the continental emancipatory project which we want to build.


Climate change is unequivocally acknowledged by the scientific community as a global process. The principal cause of climate change is the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. These pollutants are an essential component of the world economy, therefore, stabilising or reducing greenhouse gas emissions is one of the greatest challenges at this time – it demands a change in the so-called economic matrix. In this sense, the model of growth and development upon which the ecocidal capitalist system is based is the main obstacle to limiting carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In Latin America we are confronted by a series of specific problems that arise from the following indicators, facts and tendencies:

  • In 2016, world emissions of greenhouse gases reached 50 gigatonnes (Gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent) and Latin America and the Caribbean emitted 4.2 Gt of CO2 that year. That is, Latin America contributed 8.3% of the total atmospheric CO2 emissions according to data from Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL/Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.)
  • Each year, owing to the economic growth of Latin America, emissions increase by 1%.
  • Regional emissions differ from those of the rest of the world. 70% of world emissions come from the energy sector, whilst within the region, this sector accounts for 45% whilst agriculture and livestock are 23%. The fact that 19% of Latin America and the Caribbeans emissions originate in the changing use of land highlights the importance of stopping deforestation.
  • In Latin America and the Caribbean, emissions from all sectors continue to grow, and as in the rest of the world, the largest increases are in the energy sector, particularly within transportation.

In this same sense, the region has been included in international agreements that aim to stop, in an insufficient manner, the climate crisis: The Paris Agreement, the Green Climate Fund and donor funds which aim to provide resources for the mitigation of and adaptation to the crisis and which are destined for international conversion credits (carbon credits). Finally, in terms of its nationally determined contributions (NDC), each country defines the level of emissions reductions that it will try to achieve in the next five years.


At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), held in Madrid, 2019, the main points dealt with were the following:

  • Greater ambition when reviewing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC)
  • Incorporating the oceans and sectors such as electrical mobility or the circular economy into negotiations.
  • The agreement on carbon markets and its accounting rules (Article 6 of the Paris Agreement)
  • Review of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage related to Climate Change Impacts.
  • An action plan on gender.
  • Response measures.
  • Regulations for strengthening capacities for adaptation and resilience.
  • Strengthened framework of transparency regarding support for actions and the reporting formats established at COP21.

In the seminar on energy, the ministers of Chile and Colombia established the regional goal for Latin America and the Caribbean of achieving 70% use of energy from renewable sources by 2030. At Chile’s initiative, the issues of oceans and of land use were raised.

Given the effects that can be expected at a social and environmental level in the region, these sorts of considerations are worrisome. We have seen that the efforts taken within the framework of the market economy to stop these consequences are not having any result. It is also highly unlikely that the logic of agreements from above — between governments and corporations — will be able to improve the situation. To give us an idea, it is enough to compare the state of the negotiations with the following forecasts:

  • An increase of between 1.6 ° C and 4 ° C is expected in Central and South America around 2100 compared to the period 1986-2005.
  • Climate projections suggest, with a medium level of confidence, that the level of precipitation in Central America will change between -22% and 7% towards the end of the 21st century. The projections for South America are varied and are made with a lower level of confidence. They show, for example, that rainfall will decrease by 22% in the northeast of Brazil and increase by 25% in the southeastern part of South America.
  • In addition, climatic phenomena such as the intertropical convergence zone, the North and South American monsoon system, El Niño-Southern Oscillation, oscillations in the Atlantic Ocean and tropical cyclones occur in Latin America and the Caribbean (IPCC, 2013a, 2013b).
  • In this context, annual rainfall has increased in southeastern South America, parts of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, and northeastern Peru and Ecuador, and decreased in south-central Chile, northeastern Brazil, southern of Peru and part of Central America and Mexico (IPCC, 2012, 2013a, Magrin and others, 2007, 2014).

• Likewise, during the second half of the 20th century, there was a significant retreat of glaciers (IPCC, 2012, 2013a, Magrin and others, 2007, 2014).

• Deterioration of coastal conditions, for example, beach erosion and coral bleaching would negatively affect local resources, such as fishing, and reduce the value of beaches as a tourist destination.

• Floods, storm surges, erosion and other coastal hazards, exacerbated by rising sea levels and threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of local communities.

• Increased invasion of non-native species, such as sargassum in the Caribbean.

• Economic losses due to lower agricultural yield.

• Loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs due to rising sea levels.

• Bleaching and acidification of the ocean.

• Damage to forests caused by extreme events.

• Reduction in the availability of fresh water due to the decrease in rainfall and the intrusion of saltwater.

• Flooding of coastal settlements and farmland.

• Decrease in tourism due to the greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events.

• Recurrence of external indebtedness to offset losses due to the incidence of extreme weather events

The policies of the major powers have not stopped posing the need for continual economic growth, especially in a situation where the pandemic has led to the deactivation of some important sectors. It is alarming that neo-liberalism and its free-market orthodoxy are not capable of even minimal self restructure.

Neither is stronger state intervention into the economy to stop the catastrophe part of the economic policy of any country. Do developing economies really need to grow more in order to solve their economic and social problems, and to reduce the gaps in income, technology and infrastructure with respect to developed economies?

This dead-end appears in the countries of Latin America in relation to an extractivism which, while generating economic windfalls in some periods, has developmental consequences in the long run which worsen the environment and the living conditions of the population.


Faced with this situation, the Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 26) scheduled for Glasgow at the end of the year, already establishes an unavoidable, if predictable, disappointing world media and political pattern. This is due to the fact that the climate crisis is a socio-political issue on a planetary scale. The new element of Global Climate strikes, with millions of participants in dozens of countries, which have been, since 2019, at the centre of international discussion, allows and requires of us a change to our propaganda.

Our agitation should start from trying to orient the current struggles that are developing in Latin America towards the global vision that is expressed in Europe, Asia and North America; to connect such a global vision with the concrete struggles that take place in our region.

Our proposals, as the Fourth International, for dealing with the climate issue in Latin America must start from connecting with the indigenous peasant resistance, which reaffirms its origins, practices, identity and nationality as objectively confronted by massive deforestation, arson, and transgenics and extensive monocultures, that is to say, by capitalist plans and actions.


In addition to the delicate situation climate change leaves us in the region, we have a profound problem that goes back to the process of colonization and subordination of our economies to the interests of the imperialist countries: the extraction by hand of raw materials ripped out in the use of intensive agricultural, livestock and fish production.  For this reason, the importance of having a deep, thorough analysis of the primary economy in Latin America is, in essence,  primarily political, since socio-environmental conflicts arise from the development of all these activities that have become central in practically all the countries of the region.

For critical thinkers of the continent, five types of extractivism are usually considered present and exacerbated in Latin America:

  1. Extractivism of minerals, energy, forest and water. It consists of the extraction of large volumes of raw material by means of a fast and intensive form of production. More than 75% of the materials extracted in Latin America are exported, with minimal processing which reduces its cost. This type of extraction is “allowed” by concessions, exploitation permits and international treaties that tolerate looting with the promise of economic growth.
  2. Theft and dispossession of land for production. This consists of controlling the territory and the resources within it. It is not just about extracting, it is about controlling. For example: monoculture plantations and forest plantations. 70% of water utilisation is associated with this type of agricultural, forestry and livestock production.
  3. Urbanization (urban extractivism). Urbanization is not a natural process of expansion, but a process determined by the logic of the market. Most Latin American cities are not decent places in which to live due to the lack of basic services such as water, electricity and safe housing.  Cities are built which do not allow for a dignified life. City peripheries have worsening problems of inequality, poverty and violence.
  4. Mega Infrastructure. Roads, dams, trains, hydroelectric plants, wind farms, etc. This is an example of projects that are justified in the name of economic growth along with claims that they will bring us closer to the developed economies. These megaprojects are ecocidal and do not contribute to more dignified lives.
  5. Biomarkets. This is the appropriation of the economic benefit obtained from an ecosystem, in which nature and its elements are turned into commodities, for example, natural areas or forests are protected in payment for environmental services such as carbon markets – an ecosystem is fenced in order to put it to work; an ecosystem is protected in order to extract economic value from it.

These 5 types, while problematic because as they are extremely broad, are useful for understanding trends in our economies and their relationship to each other. However, it is important that we firstly concentrate on the initial concept since it is strictly the economic form that extracts natural goods without greater added value.

Primary economic activities in Latin America (including extractive ones) have the highest portion in the world, representing 37% of the economy of the entire region in 2017. One of the fundamental points is that exports of these raw products to the world market have grown enormously, prompted in recent years by China’s massive demand for raw materials.

Revenues from the export of natural resources have sustained the economic growth of many countries in the region in recent years.  In particular, mining and oil have financed the growth of various Latin American economies which have become dependent on extractive industries to ensure their levels of growth, as well as their ability to finance wealth redistribution programs, without needing to encroach on big business.  It is important to mention that the governments of the left, as well as those of the right, have benefitted from raw materials prices (In Mexico, oil prices strengthened conservative governments).  Some progressive governments in Latin America deserve special mention:  Brazil and Bolivia took their dependence on local extractivism to absurd levels.

This was possible because the extraction of materials on a global level has tripled in the last four decades and raw materials prices stayed at a high level in the market.  This situation, while reinforcing the dependence of our countries on the world division of labour also strongly exacerbated air pollution and climate change. This situation of dependency translates to a worsening situation in the dependent countries alongside an increase in consumption in the world’s richest countries, which today consume on average 10 times more materials than the poorest. We must point out that in social terms the result is the multiplication of environmental conflicts. The case of Colombia is alarming, with 41% of social conflicts up to 2017 recognized in the Climate Justice atlas, being related to mining conflicts.

Finally, we must point out that due to the course of the pandemic the crisis has strengthened some trends (although in a context of weakened world trade) in which the reprimarisation of exports deepens but with greater environmental deterioration, fewer jobs and increased inequality (ECLAC).



It is clear that extractivism and privatisation are not antagonistic visions of two types of governments that appear in the region.  The first is an economic framework that promotes the free market at a global level and the second is, basically a branch of the primary economy that has taken on carcinogenic dimensions.

Both moments are not contradictory at all, because when the extractivist boom appears, neoliberalism continues to operate worldwide; neither has it been replaced even after Trump’s supposedly protectionist policies.  In fact, we could say that the growth in the price of raw materials was possible because of the dynamics generated by neoliberalism in the economy in recent decades. In political terms, the difference is that poverty was reduced by progressive governments through redistribution mechanisms of both commodity price gains and specific taxes on certain economic activities.

What is fundamental is to identify and denounce the relationships that exist between neoliberalism and processes of environmental devastation such as the legalisation of the privatization of common natural areas and other mechanisms that permit the extraction of raw materials to feed the world market.

We must take into account the fact that the raw materials market is directly linked to the more advanced economy of the Silicon Valley-based capitalist system. In other words, the pressure on our territories will continue to exist as long as the most technically advanced branches of the economy such as digital platforms, transportation or pharmaceuticals continue to grow without limits. Unfortunately, these same branches are the ones that will be utilised to reactivate capitalism after the recession and the pandemic.

These would be some of the reasons why, despite the fact that states in Latin America have moved between neoliberal and progressive governments, extractivist policies have become ever more acute.

Even though the high dependence of the region’s economies on the extraction of raw materials is the basis for much of the devastation that we have already described, we must be aware that it is not only our role in the world market that pushes us into this situation — the active role of the State has also reinforced our dependence.

During the recent period of progressive Latin American governments, where state intervention grew, no measures were taken by these governments to question or stop the capitalist system, a system sustained by the extraction, dispossession, contamination and destruction of nature.


Latin America, along with countries of other continents that have experienced colonisation and violent subordination by the dominant countries, occupies a distinct place on the world stage against climate change. The process of global warming is stronger and with greater state violence, while environmental devastation directly affects broader sectors of the population.

In this sense, an important part of a specifically ecosocialist perspective today is the commitment to mobilize and articulate the sectors that fight against climate change, in favour of our lands and for a just transition using an approach of breaking with the logic of capitalism and its crises, that is to say, for an openly ecosocialist project.

Linking the strength of the movements and sectors that respond today to the environmental crisis we propose a radical vision which is a necessity—as there are no half -solutions to the problem posed by climate change; in turn, we cannot disconnect the utopian horizon from the actual or potential processes, from the consolidation of that force that would make it effective.

In this sense, we must call for the mobilisation of youth, indigenous peoples, small farmers, the workers and urban popular sectors to fight against climate change and defend our lands against unbridled extractivism, to defend public services: health, transport, access to water etc. In Latin America and the rest of the global South, it is essential to push forward the resistance processes in the city and the country, understanding that the climate crisis will strongly effect the impoverished sectors of both populations.

Linking environmental demands with the women’s movement on a continental and global level is key because these are the most mobilized in the world and because criticism of patriarchal capitalism must highlight the violence that is exercised against the bodies of women as well as land.

In the last two years, we have seen that the mobilisations for the climate put out by Gretha Thunberg, that in reality, did not have much effect in Latin America, although like all international movements today they are replicated in even the most remote places of the planet. In Latin America it was in Chile, Brazil and Mexico that the largest number of young people were organised around these demands, however, it must be noted that these were youth from the middle and higher sectors.

On the other hand, the logic of this movement, although generally “progressive” or on the left, has initiatives that, due to the influence of the NGOs of green capitalism, are easily co-opted. The youth movement has had serious difficulties in proposing a third way between “green” business and government.                                                                   

However, these movements are still in dispute and our comrades in Europe have taken important steps in promoting an anticapitalist perspective within them; the character of the youth movement is not pre-determined above all because Gretha Thunberg’s leadership is unpredictable and much more radical than some of the movements national components.

On the other hand, we have the indigenous movement in the vanguard of many struggles on the continent: the Mapuches in Chile and in the Amazon in Brazil, CONAIE in Ecuador and indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela in resistance, whilst in Mexico, they maintain local self-government formations and seek diplomatic representation in Europe.

The role of indigenous peoples, peasants and urban sectors organized for the eco-socialist struggle is based on radical self-emancipation, the power of their way of life and the outrage against the colonial and racist system that this implies.  Although a minority in relation to the whole of the social movement, it is the starting point of many of the radical approaches that ecosocialism proposes.


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