Copenhagen Climate Summit: Hugo Chávez is an Inappropriate Environmental Messenger

Commentary By Nikolas Kozloff, special to mongabay.com
December 17, 2009

Like him or not, one thing is for sure: the flamboyant Hugo Chávez has never shied away from the limelight. I was therefore somewhat surprised to read some initial press accounts suggesting that the Venezuelan leader might stay away from the United Nations climate summit being held in Copenhagen, Denmark. “If it’s to go and waste time, it’s better I don’t go,” he said. “If everything is already cooked up by the big [nations], then forget it.”

Chávez however hinted that he might change his mind if ALBA nations could reach some type of common position towards the Copenhagen summit. ALBA, an initiative designed to facilitate trade and reciprocity amongst like minded progressive regimes in Latin America, has taken up the issue of climate justice as of late. Two months ago Bolivian President and ALBA ally Evo Morales called for the creation of an actual climate justice tribunal. The Global North, Morales said, should indemnify poor nations for the ravages of climate change.

During an ALBA conference in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba, civil society groups brought environmental climate justice cases against a diverse group of targets ranging from corporations to actual governments. The Cochabamba tribunal managed to score some polemical points, with symbolic jurists making harsh remarks against the Global North which in their words shared “historic responsibility” for emitting most of the word’s greenhouse gases over the past 250 years. The capitalist system, the group continued, contributed to climate change while impeding a rapid and effective environmental response.

Oil pipeline in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador

Following deliberations in Cochabamba, the jurists handed over their findings to Morales who in turn spoke with his ALBA counterparts. Taking up Morales’ call, ALBA leaders said they would support the creation of an international tribunal on climate justice which would presumably seek to oblige affluent nations to pay “damages” for their high consumption of fossil fuels.

Cochabamba set the stage in turn for another ALBA summit, this time held in Havana. Speaking to his colleagues, Chávez remarked that at long last he had changed his mind and would fly to Copenhagen after all. According to Chávez ALBA leaders now speak “with one voice” and will hold a parallel environmental summit in Copenhagen which will take place on Thursday and Friday.

Chávez and ALBA countries have adopted a combative position on climate change and declare that the Global North should pay a “climate debt” to poor countries. In Copenhagen, Chávez will reportedly argue that the world should scrap the capitalist model in favor of socialism in order to save the environment.

In calling for greater action on climate change, Chávez echoes the sentiments of many in his country. The President’s own party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, is worried about lack of water in the country’s reservoirs, particularly those which serve to generate electricity. Officials add that drought has negatively impacted Venezuela’s electrical needs and has damaged the farming and livestock sector.

Digging in, Venezuela says that the industrialized North is historically most responsible for climate change so it must be the first to take action. “We are operating on the basis of shared but differentiated responsibilities,” says Venezuelan deputy minister for environmental regulation and administration Sergio Rodríguez. “If I am a big emitter of greenhouse gases, my responsibility is different from someone who doesn't emit or is just beginning to,” adds the official. “The United States is the country that has historically emitted the greatest quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere. How can it bail out its banks and car-makers and then turn around and say it doesn't have the resources to deal with climate change?” he remarks.

Claudia Salerno, director of the Venezuelan Environment Ministry’s Office of International Cooperation, has criticized certain structural limitations of the Copenhagen summit. She points out that the meetings are closed and international observers and the press lack access. “They are getting away with it without letting the world know…the world has its eyes on us. Let the discussions become more open and let the press into the discussions to make the world know what is happening here,” she declares.

ALBA leaders and Chávez are right on target with their criticisms of the Global North. Because they lack economic and political power on the world stage, Latin American countries have sought to turn climate change into a moral issue and thereby shame wealthy countries into doing the right thing. It’s the only card left to Third World leaders, and they are playing it well.

Look behind the headlines however and the picture is a lot more complicated than Chávez has suggested. To begin with it is rather perverse, and that is putting it mildly, that a major world oil producer like Venezuela should be leading the rhetorical charge against global warming. Moreoever, in an effort to cultivate strategic alliances with his political allies in South America, Chávez has pursued boondoggle development projects which will only worsen our climate change conundrum.

Take for example Chávez’s support for the South America Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (known by its Spanish acronym IIRSA), which has been promoted by the Inter American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, amongst other financial entities. A continental-wide initiative, IIRSA aims to integrate and synchronize strategic infrastructure works that will facilitate the development of natural resources. The project is all encompassing and seeks to bind together diverse economic sectors such as transportation, ports, communications and energy.

From a social and environmental standpoint IIRSA is a nightmare. A scheme which responds to the logic of the extractive model of development, IIRSA is not designed to facilitate the integration of people but the merging of transnational capital and South American economies into the global market. Unfortunately, far from repudiating IIRSA many so-called progressive regimes throughout the region have rushed to embrace the plan [for more on this, read my recent online columns about Ecuador and Brazil in the context of the Copenhagen climate summit].

If Chávez is concerned about climate change, he should cease his support for IIRSA as it’s presently conceived. As I point out in my upcoming book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, April 2010), tropical deforestation has now become a major component of our global warming dilemma. But IIRSA, according to the environmental group Conservation International, could destroy much of the Amazon rainforest.

According to the outfit’s researcher IIRSA roads and infrastructure could lead to the intensification of agriculture, logging and climate change which in turn could devastate the jungle by 2050. Unless policy-makers undertake steps to develop the region's resources in a more sustainable manner, IIRSA could give rise to “a perfect storm of environmental destruction.”

In light of recent developments it is ironic that Chávez should rail against capitalism and its environmental effects. In the westernmost Venezuelan state of Zulia, the government is seeking to build up its port and coal infrastructure. It’s a region where indigenous peoples have long resisted the encroachment of logging, ranching and mining interests.

Corpozulia, the state development agency, has promoted coal mining in the area in conjunction with private mining companies. The coal mining has displaced thousands and has led to the production of a heavy metal laden dust associated with lung cancer. Chávez has been a big booster of increased coal production. If this is socialism designed to save the planet from the ravages of capitalism it is not working.

Needless to say, the coal mining projects have been negotiated behind closed doors without the participation of local communities. Even worse, indigenous people say that armed thugs linked to the Venezuelan armed forces and local ranchers killed an elderly Yukpa Indian. The thugs descended on the village of Chaktapa where they knocked the man to the ground and brutally beat him.

Inter Press Service, hardly a conservative news agency, broke the story. According to reporter Humberto Márquez, “Underlying the conflict is the systematic theft of the ancestral territories of the Yukpa, Barí and Wayuu peoples, by cattle ranchers for their present use, and for future extraction of coal, phosphates and other minerals.” Lusbi Portillo, who heads the Zulia environmental group Homo et Natura, has been at the forefront of the Yukpa struggle to defend indigenous ancestral rights against Corpozulia and megalomaniac projects linked to IIRSA. Portillo and the Indians want the government to permanently cancel mining concessions on indigenous land.

On his television show Aló, Presidente! Chávez decried the death of the elderly man and pledged to stand with the Indians against the landowners. Yet, the security forces then threw up a security cordon around Yukpa communities in an attempt to regulate access. When students tried to break through the cordon and bring much needed food, supplies and medicine to the Indians, troops fired shots into the air and dispersed the crowd with tear gas. Speaking to Inter Press Service, Portillo remarked that one faction within the army was sympathetic towards Chávez while the other was colluding with paramilitary thugs.

Whatever the case, the Chávez government does not emerge from this story untarnished. According to Portillo local authorities working with the National Land Institute are allied to Corpozulia, ranchers and the repressive wing of the military. In exchange for his outspoken criticisms of IIRSA, Portillo has been rewarded with death threats. Just recently, he was forced to go into hiding when he learned that the police were going to issue an arrest warrant against him on “drug possession” charges.

For far too long, wealthy countries have been evading their responsibilities and delaying on climate change action. At Copenhagen, Latin America needs a spokesperson to speak for its demands. Chávez however, who is far too enmeshed in the extractive model of development and IIRSA, is not the appropriate messenger to convey the Global South’s environmental grievances.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the forthcoming No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010) and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Visit his website, senorchichero.

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Commentary By Nikolas Kozloff, special to mongabay.com (December 17, 2009).

Copenhagen Climate Summit: Hugo Chávez is an Inappropriate Environmental Messenger.