Political borders and nature without boundaries - Latin America in the face of climate change
by Camilo Arango Duque (he/him)
2015 was, no doubt, an important year for Humanity in its fight against climate change. 23 years after the Rio de Janeiro Second Earth Summit (Rio 92) and its Framework Convention on Climate Change, virtually all States internationally recognized, (standing apart only Syria and Nicaragua) attended the meeting that gave place to the Paris Agreement. This revealed at least from the political perspective, that gone were the days of disagreement on the reality of climate change, its causes and consequences. And in the face of the frustrations of the Kyoto Protocol and the Copenhagen Summit, the new scope of the agreement caused a wave of hope.
Notwithstanding, the ink of the signatures of the agreement had not dried when the most profound differences with respect to the liabilities scheme were evident. The international principle of common responsibilities but differentiated, in theory so harmonious, posed important challenges in its practical application. That developing countries, in general terms and from the historical point of view, have not been great generators of greenhouse gases (GG), is a fact. Indeed, since the Industrial Revolution a direct proportion relationship exists between industrialization and the generation of emissions. Not by accident Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French politician who visited Manchester in 1835 wrote: “From this foul drain, the greatest stream of human industry flows to fertilise de whole world. From this filthy sewer, pure gold flows. Here Humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish”. (Touqueville, 27:58). Not only precariousness of life drew his attention, but also environment dirt in the industrial city. A clear historic argument exists that affirms that power states were able to progress based on the disproportionate use of their natural resources, ignoring external facts of the industrial process, and are now intending to place restrictions that limit the development and growth of those who have not reached a high level of social wellbeing, and developing countries often point it out.
Another argument that is set up as a common point indicates that for developing States, although some of them are increasing the generation of emissions, their emissions are always closely related to survival activities, while developed countries produce them linked to a certain lifestyle. Developed countries consider that certain developing countries are dramatically increasing their emissions and the GG curve in the framework of the business as usual is increasingly steeper.
With respect to the situation in Latin America, these differences in the perspective may result very harmful for Humanity. South America produces nearly 3.2% of global CO2 emissions (is the primary contaminant). Here are 12 countries that all together represent a percentage smaller than the percentage of one only State as China (27%), United States (15%), India (6.8%), Russia (4.7%) or Japan (3.3%). Latin American contribution, even adding Mexico (1.4%) and the other Central American countries to the production of CO2 emissions is not determining. But especially Latin America will suffer the negative consequences product of climate change. The South of the Continent has vast areas that are especially vulnerable to climate change for different reasons: geographical, social, economic and ecological, among others. Besides having ecosystems of vital importance for Humanity. Only in South America there are 30% of the tropical forests that have survived in the Planet, as the Amazon Forest. Around 10% of the Earth´s biodiversity lives in this ecosystem (in accordance with our limited knowledge). The Amazon, located in the territory of 9 Nation States is under serious risk. Richard Evan Schultez, who undertook a deep study of the Amazon Forest, expressed his concern: “in many regions of the Amazon Basin, native plants and animal species are being destroyed faster that can be recorded, classified and studied… Why not regard the Indians in the Amazon Basin as a kind of phytochemical rapid-assessment team already on the ground, which could help locate the most promising plants for chemical and pharmacological evaluation?... The Indian´s botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves” (Schultes, 37: 1994).
Back to the debate that rekindled the Paris Agreement, the above-mentioned circumstances have led some Latin American countries to be sceptical with respect to the Agreement (in fact, Nicaragua had initially refused to participate in the agreement, arguing its scarce contribution to the emissions, being sceptical on this instrument and claiming an unequal treatment). As for Brazil, the president claims sovereignty of the Nation on its natural resources, so far as refusing to receive international support to stop the fires present for months in the Amazon region. This mechanism of aggravated claim of the Nation State is a barrier for international cooperation and for Nature that does not recognize political boundaries. Nationalism and the defense of an orthodox vision of sovereignty jeopardizes huge and important ecosystems.
Professor Jacques Chevalier (2014) believed that globalization has transformed the State forever, that common problems to Humanity, i.e. the environmental problem, terrorism, nuclear weapons and famine, would lead the Nation State, the Westphalian State to collapse. From its ashes the Post-Modern State would arise. A European thinker as Chevalier would find, out of his own experience, examples of this process: blurred boundaries between the European Union countries, a common Parliament, uniform economic policies, one same currency, one same visa. And in any event, it seemed a clear destination by the end of the Twentieth Century. Nevertheless, the Twenty-First Century surprises us with spectres of the past: new nationalist movements.
In the soft law framework, the States in many cases decide to what extent they will be responsible. And when sovereignty is understood from a more orthodox perspective, even radical – as in nationalisms – cooperation is much more difficult and establishment of responsibilities is impossible. When sovereignty gets tougher and radicalizes, when the Nation State is claimed or pursued, international law becomes softer, more flexible. It is a directly proportional relationship. Consequently, international cooperation that is so important for dealing with global problems, faces a great challenge. Clearly, international cooperation to face climate change has been limited and can not be understood as if this is an only and exclusive obstacle, but part of a more complex problem; international support has been insufficient, but when they have offered help, not always this help has been accepted.
That said, the recent Escazu Agreement (came into effect on April 2021) perhaps offers an alternative way. The possibility to act jointly in the regional scenario, the agreement is for Latin American and Caribbean countries. Among other, the agreement fosters protection to environmentalists and offer citizen participation instruments to the different social and cultural groups in their environmental concerns. In the words of Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), in many regions of the Amazon Basin, native plants and animal species are being destroyed faster that can be recorded, classified and studied… Why not regard the Indians in the Amazon Basin as a kind of phytochemical rapid-assessment team already on the ground, which could help locate the most promising plants for chemical and pharmacological evaluation?... The Indian´s botanical knowledge is disappearing even faster than the plants themselves””. (Escazú, 8:2018). The agreement, at least in theory, is aimed to offer effective democratic instruments so citizens may be informed of state decisions and be a part of them safely. Paradoxically, the agreement seeks in part to move the leading role of the State in making decisions towards a communitarian scale. It is an international agreement from which the State should give full reassurance to the citizens so they fully assume the protection of the environment.
The Escazú Agreement was not the result of spontaneous generation. The agreement is a regional effort for developing Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on the Environment and the 1992 Development that establishes the following: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to Effective Access to participate in decision-making processes. States will facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided” (Rio Declaration 1992). This is then nothing else than the adoption of this international principle in order that it is binding and the creation of a regional commitment for its development. Until now, countries like Brazil, Guatemala, Colombia, Honduras or Venezuela remain outside the agreement although they still have a long way to go with regard to protection to environmentalists and effective citizen participation instruments in environmental issues. Perhaps, and only perhaps, the States begin to transfer some of their decision-making powers, to the actors they represent in a democracy.
In conclusion, countries that generate greater quantities of GG emissions have a greater responsibility for restoring the damage. This must not mean that all other states are not responsible, inasmuch as, for better or worse, they will suffer in some places the worst consequences of climate change, as in the case of Latin America. Tensions present with Developed States should not take us to nationalist positions; perhaps the 9 states that inhabit the Amazon region are not its owners, but Humanity. (foreign States should reflect such idea in significant support for developing countries, owners of that and other territories). The Escazú Agreement now exists and promises the development of the aforementioned principle 10. We only have to wait to see how the association of important Latin States evolves and if such provisions will result in effective and executed prescriptions. Or perhaps, by contrast, if the jealous guardians of the Nation State will understand it as dead words dragged downstream the Amazon River.
(1) A trend that begins to change with new energy generation forms.
(2) China with 27% and India with 6.8% of global CO2 emissions are a good example of this group. Data from OurWorld in Data 2017. Available at http//ourworlddate.org/co2-emissions
(3) Data from: Our World in data, (RITCHIE AND ROSER 2020) Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions
CHEVALIER. Jacques. (2014). Estado Posmoderno. Universidad Externado: Bogotá
ESCAZÚ. (2018). Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean.
DE TOCQUEVILLE, Alexis (1958) Journeys to England and Ireland. ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence and K.P. Mayer. Yale University Press. New Heaven.
RITCHIE AND ROSER, Hannah and Max. (2020) CO2 and Greenhouse Emissiones. Oxford Martin school. Oxford.
RÍO DECLARATION ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT (1992). Principles. Río.
SHCULTEZ, Richard Evans (1994) Amazonian ethnobotany and the search for new drugs. Ciba Found Symp.
Articles from across the globe through a climate change lens.