Overview:

Colombia's latest step toward ratifying a key environmental accord is part of a wave of green democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean with lessons for us all.

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On July 26, Colombia’s senate ratified the Escazú Accord, a pan-Latin American and Caribbean agreement that takes a distinctly democratic approach to environmental reform. If the next vote goes as planned, President-elect Gustavo Petro is expected to sign the document after he takes office on August 7. At that point, Colombia will fulfill a commitment started in 2018, when the regional agreement was formally adopted in the Costa Rican city of Escazú.

The full name of this accord, while a mouthful, outlines the distinct nature of its approach to green policy. This “Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean” presents green policy as a civic matter, best achieved by empowering civilians to engage more directly with the political process when it comes to environmental affairs. This is a far cry from many of the green policies better known in the West: regulatory frameworks, that is, which represent environmental reform as a dialogue primarily between state governments and free-market private industry.

But what if our approach to public policy focused on returning ownership of the democratic process to the people instead?

Can we even imagine a democracy beyond neoliberalism anymore?

Neoliberalism: An ideology that presents the maintenance of a capitalist “free” market as the core site of political action. Its implications vary with the theorist (including the classic triumvirate: Buchanan, Friedman, Hayek) and practitioner (most notably, Reagan and Thatcher), but most view human societies as primarily shaped by competitive economic relationships. In this context, citizens are consumers best served not by public welfare programs but by state actions to reduce limits on private enterprise. Most neoliberals reject the idea that the state should have any greater moralizing function, and regard our economic choices as the most direct form of democratic action available to us.

I highly recommend NPR‘s “Capitalism: What Makes Us Free?” as an accessible overview of key events in U.S. economic history that turned both the Republican and Democratic parties toward neoliberal policy-making, such that the two-party system now offers far less economic choice than many citizens realize.

The Latin American and Caribbean turn to green democracy

In practice, the Escazú Accord entrenches civilian rights to timely, accurate, and culturally accessible information about key environmental topics, to improve local decision-making processes. It further calls for the use of as many third-party sources as possible to shield this intel from the whims of sitting governments, and incentivizes both public and private organizations to provide accurate information about the environmental sustainability of their products and services.

Public participation is also required at every step of environmental decision-making, not just as a last-minute consult for new state ventures well past their planning phases. In member states, which range from Mexico through the Caribbean and all across South America, the public has the right to know about and provide input into the nature of the project, the people in charge, the technologies to be used in its development, the anticipated environmental impact, and monitoring plans. State authorities then have a responsibility to take this input under advisement and offer a public response to all such concerns in their final decisions.

In turn, these public responses offer citizens even more political leverage if they wish to contest the decisions made with respect to any of the above, or to otherwise seek justice for procedural abuses. The agreement also puts the onus on state governments to protect social leaders from threats to their environmental advocacy work (no small task for countries like Colombia, where such people are still assassinated at high rates), and compels participating states to provide the necessary resources to regional organizations to fulfill all these accessibility requirements.

What these obligations amount to is a decentering of “business as usual” for environmental policy. The agreement reframes democracy away from closed-door negotiations between private industry and government, into the light of public forums and accountability. Is this an easy task in practice? Of course not. Nicaragua ratified this accord in 2020, but the country is essentially under the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega, so the chances of any legal rights being protected there are slim.

However, in countries where civilians have actively fought for a better democracy, this agreement has already offered ambitious visions for a different world ahead.

While dismay is a reasonable response to democratic failures closer to home, let’s not fall prey to the delusion that our own nations ever contain the be-all and end-all of political discourse.

Chile’s new, green constitution

Early in July, an assembly of Chilean citizen representatives submitted one of the most progressive and eco-conscious constitutions the world has ever seen. The assembly was formed to quell the deep social unrest that broke into months-long protests in 2019 over neoliberal policies that have eroded the middle class in Chile since the reign of CIA-influenced dictator Augusto Pinochet. Although his victim rate was devastating enough, at over 40,000 people killed, tortured, or otherwise imprisoned, his 1980 constitution is also seen as having set the country on a path of increased socioeconomic stratification.

Chile’s new constitution was drafted by a citizen’s assembly expressly designed to represent a broader range of civilians than is often seen or heard from in political office: half women, and many directly representing Indigenous and rural laboring classes. It still has to pass a national referendum, but last year’s election of President Gabriel Boric, the youngest president in Chilean history, and a man who ran on a campaign to tax big business, increase public spending, and promote a more green-democratic agenda, suggests that this is very possible.

(Granted, forums like The Economist are displeased by this draft constitution, which they consider economically reckless, and are advocating strongly for its rejection. Local neoliberals feel similar, so a significant uphill battle remains.)

If accepted by its citizens, the new Chilean constitution, which champions clean energy as the bedrock of future economic growth, and entrenches environmental rights as more essential to civilian thriving than capitalist enterprise, would mark the strongest direct challenge to neoliberal operating principles to date.

Ambition and outcome

Chile’s constitutional reform is certainly in keeping with the aims of the Escazú Accord, signed now by 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries. But it also owes its development to Ecuador’s groundbreaking 2008 constitution, a world first for the rights of nature. Though implementation of Ecuador’s constitution faced many challenges, it continues to yield court decisions that expand protections for natural settings and animals against encroaching economic interests.

More importantly, though, South America has a different historical engagement with democracy than Western neoliberal discourse fully encompasses. The region’s storied struggle with exploitation plays an obvious role, of course. Even today its countries remain key sites in international resource battles, while still struggling under massive debts to global financial systems. But it’s more than that. At stake not only in these new constitutions and accords, but also in measures like 2020’s Ecosocial Pact of the South, is the legal concept of buen vivir, “good living” or “living well”.

Buen vivir is antithetical to the dollar-based indicators for national wellbeing used in Western systems. But it doesn’t fit easily into all our notions of sustainability policy, either, because many green economy initiatives are themselves still neoliberal in conception and follow-through. And in some ways, buen vivir actually shares a concern with neoliberals–at least, the ones who don’t think the state should be engaged in moralizing activities. After all, the push for green democracy seen in the Escazú Accord and Chile’s proposed new constitution in no way calls for offloading moral decision-making to the government itself. Quite the opposite.

In these new green democracies, far removed from so much of what counts for lively and wide-ranging debate in Western neoliberal politics, the call is expressly to give average citizens back their power to directly dissent from and engage with state initiatives. To provide local action groups with the tools they need to stay apprised of what the government plans to do, and with whom, in time for regional initiatives to step in and protect the eco-social welfare of their homes as they see fit.

There are many forms of worldly revolution. Many ways in which global humanists seek to empower themselves and others.

So while dismay is a reasonable response to democratic failures closer to home, let’s not fall prey to the delusion that our own nations ever contain the be-all and end-all of political discourse. Look up. Look out into the world. The struggle continues everywhere–but as with Latin America’s new environmentalism, you might just find inspiration for your activism in the conversations happening elsewhere.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.