Latin America’s Relationship with Oil

Latin America: a land plundered for centuries. An examination of oil extraction, colonialism, & the “discovery of the new world.”

Five hundred years ago, a man by the name of Christopher Columbus arrived on the shores of the Canary Islands, an archipelago off the coast of South America. However, both Columbus and his crew believed they had found India and were clueless of the fact that the indigenous people canoeing and wading into the water welcoming them, were not the people of India. Even today, we are reminded of expert navigator Columbus’s mistake, when we refer to Native Americans as “Indians.” Fortunately for Columbus, the indigenous people were equally mistaken of his identity and crew of white skinned, bearded men, as they believed Columbus to be one of their revered gods who was prophesied to return. Who knows how Columbus would have been received if it weren’t for this coincidence.

This encounter is often referred to as the “discovery of the new world,” despite the fact that humans had found and colonized the land thousands of years before. *Ehh but that’s just a side note*.  

However, this so called  “discovery” would mark the beginning of the conquest of (what would someday be known as) the America’s. From this point forward, Spain would send ship after ship to Christianize the “barbarians” they conquered, mainly to extract the natural resources laying above and under the land.

Welcome to capitalism.

After its introduction to the new world in the late 1400’s early 1500’s, Latin American has never quite recovered, or been freed from, the greedy hands of foreign nations. Even today, this area of the world is raped of its resources in what has been termed Neo-extractivism. However, today, the Spanish greed for gold and silver has evolved into foreign and corporate demand for textiles, cheap labor, food, and oil. While all of these products generate profit for Latin America, they have also created undeniable social and environmental injustices. For the purpose of this initial article, I’d like to solely focus on oil, because of its especially negative impacts on not only the countries it comes from, both those who demand it – as it threatens global climate stability (A.K.A. It’s causing climate change.)

While oil extraction is a threat to the environment, global climate stability, indigenous traditional livelihood, and dependent countries’ economies, it synonymously generates profits that, in the recent years and historically, have been used by governments and leaders to fund social programs. These social programs ultimately help the country’s poorest gain access to resources like education, health care, and market goods. Most Latin American countries have come to despise the global capitalist system that has eaten away their homeland and culture; however, more recently, the political figures of the 21st century have continued to develop the fossil fuel industry in order to keep their economies and people out of crisis.

In almost all cases, the developments of fossil fuel extraction have increased dependency on oil and led to extreme carbon dioxide production when it’s burned domestically and (mostly) in other nations. Oil extraction has provided countries a quick fix (but impermanent) solution to ease poverty and become less reliant on the colonial powers that still hold control of Latin American land. 

There is just no simple answer to, “Is neo-extractivism all bad?” Yet, from an environmental and long term perspective, petro-based economies are based around non-renewable resources that eventually will be used up; if these countries have not developed alternative sources of revenue and invested in renewable energies, they will crash.

With this long term perspective, it’s easy to simplify the complexity of the situation and ask, “Why haven’t the Latin American countries dominated by oil switched to renewable energies and completely halted neo-extractivism?” But the reality is much more complicated. In Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil, leaders have expressed their support to protect the environment and the poor who are most affected by the negative impacts of extraction and climate change. However, attempts to negotiate internationally and hold the Global North accountable for the destruction their consumption causes in Latin America, (not to mention their own emissions) have not been entirely successful. And why have they not been successful? Partially because oil billionaires and companies have influenced (corrupted) the decision making bodies who make environmental legislation and action.

So… what can be done? I do believe there is a way for Latin American countries to obtain renewable-energy-self-sufficiency that will help preserve the environmentally, culturally, and traditionally diverse areas, while continuing to develop.

We need mass protest and mobilization not only in the global South, but also the global North, in order to counteract the power of big oil. As a global community, we need to recognize and adopt some indigenous beliefs about Pachamama (Mother Earth), which emphasize consuming and acting more conscientiously. We all must support the representation of indigenous and poor communities, and pressure our own governments to address environmental injustices and oil dependency.  On top of this, International Climate Conferences and organizations like the United Nations must be more radical in actually creating strict legislation, enforcing it, and punishing those who violate agreements. Other nations owe it to Latin America, a land they have plundered for centuries, to support the economies of Latin America, while they transition away from their dependence on oil and extraction. As for a new energy source to replace oils revenues, there is not one answer. It will take a culmination of many renewable energy sources: wind, hydro, solar, geothermal and wave tide action, which all have their negative impacts, but at least do not fuel emissions like oil, coal and natural gas.

This sounds like a Global revolution…

Is that what we need?

Photo Credit: Photo by Midia Ninja, Amazon Watch

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