Protests of the Movimiento Nacional en Defensa del Petroleo

Protests of the Movimiento Nacional en Defensa del Petroleo

“Yesterday here in Davos I heard three heads of state from Latin America seize leadership on “green” issues.” Nancy Birdsall’s (former vice-president of the Inter-American Development Bank) blog was full positive surprise. Apart from economic factors she attributes this leadership to “two decades of democracy, rising educational levels and civic activism” Funnily (or worringly), in Latin America, democracy and civic activism are double-edged swords: pushing the climate and environmental agenda on the one hand, stalling implementation on the other.

Climate change mitigation implies legal and economic reforms and often large infrastructure projects. Some Mexican examples are the energy reform, which although not ended state monopoly slightly loosened the State’s grip on the electricity and oil sector; the introduction of Bus Rapid Transit Projects (BRTs) in Mexico’s Metropolitan areas to replace inefficient Microbuses; or wind generation projects in Oaxaca.

All these projects are generally considered to be “social goods” mitigating climate change and its negative implications. In fact, some of these are even classified as “sustainable development projects” as they create not just an environmentally friendly outcome but also positive development externalities: the BRT for example not only decreases GHG gases but provides a faster and safer transport mode; renewable sources of energy are not only cleaner but contribute to rural electrification programmes.

Yet, in all these cases, there are people who consider these projects anything but a “social good”: in the case of the BRT, the former Microbus drivers protested heftily against the change (even though they were all employed by the BRT); Manuel Lopez Obrador who considers himself the legitimate president of Mexico after he lost what he (and many others) considered rigged presidential elections in 2006, organised the Movement in Defence of National Oil (Movimiento Nacional en Defensa del Petroleo) against the energy reform; local people staged a vehement protest against expropriation for the Oaxaca wind projects – the list is long…

Even if all of these projects were in the end implemented, their effectiveness is hampered because contents are watered down, or implementation and replication are significantly delayed. And the possibility that the next project may be discarded altogether is high, especially when protest turns violent.

But why do some groups oppose something that is a “social good”? First, because that “social good” provides a “social cost” to the populations directly affected: expropriation at an unfair compensation is one of the more obvious ones; the “cost” to switch from a relatively free daily work schedule to rigid working hours in the case of former Microbus drivers who now work for the BRT is less obvious but together with other reasons and the always underlying threat of an escalating conflict powerful enough to obstruct the expansion of this urgently needed public transport mode.

But, as Carlos Dominguez, Mexican PhD from Oxford and currently researcher at the Instituto Mora in Mexico City, argues a critical problem is the inability of public policy makers to incorporate these often incommensurable social, anthropological and political values beyond financial and technical norms into decision making processes.

At the bottom line, democratic change and the rise of civil action in Latin America have not only given a voice to environmental and other activists but have created a highly complex space of at best, constructive debate, at worst, destructive even violent conflict, where relatively small groups have the power to bring projects beneficial from a utilitarian point of view to a halt.

Not just in Mexico but in many other countries in Latin America, will policy makers need to adjust their policy evaluation and negotiation strategies to be able to turn climate action from rhetoric into actual projects on the ground.

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