Ecopolitics and Environmental Nongovernmental Organizations in Latin America

Article excerpt

ENVIRONMENTAL nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) proliferated throughout Latin America during the 1980s. In 1979 some four dozen nationally based organizations addressed environmental concerns. By 1993 more than five hundred regional or national groups and up to several thousand community-based organizations were active (Myers and Bucher 1989, 3). The swift rise of environmental organizations during the economically troubled 1980s seems, at first glance, poorly timed. Yet now these little-examined organizations are recognized as key actors in shaping environmental and social policies throughout Latin America (Garcia 1992; Livernash 1992; Romero 1992; Meyer 1993).

To be fair, environmental conservation is not widely embraced by Latin Americans. The recent proliferation of environmental organizations suggests a broad but shallow stream of interest. As with most developing areas, concern about employment, infrastructure, services, and political repression takes precedence over environmental activism. "Nature conservation has not gained the same degree of support from a population that is more interested in addressing other long-term problems" (Barker 1980, 2). In some circles overt hostility toward conservation exists. Other observers contend that the developed world's focus on tropical forests is "aesthetic and scientific" but that their inhabitants perceive the ecosystem as their livelihood (Dickinson and Putz 1992, 265). For the poor of the developing world, economic opportunity, no matter how short-lived, will always take precedence over environmental protection.

In spite of these circumstances, one can cautiously write about a burgeoning and potentially powerful environmental movement in Latin America that qualitatively differs from North American counterparts. After briefly outlining the rise of environmental organizations as part of a large ecopolitical trend, this article examines the unique context in which environmental NGOs flourish in Latin America. It argues that increased environmental awareness, frustration with governmental institutions, new sources of "green" funding, and the ideology of sustainable development spurred the proliferation of these NGOs. After examining the reasons for their growth, the effect of the movement is demonstrated with case studies from Mexico and Venezuela that are based on surveys, staff interviews, and secondary sources. The article concludes with observations on the advantages and limitations posed by private conservation in Latin America and on the coincidence of NGOs with prevailing ecopolitical trends.


Concern for the environment has fostered many forms of activism. Institutionally, NGOs are among the most important participants in an emerging ecopolitical hierarchy (Wood, Demko, and Mofson 1989). At the base of this hierarchy individuals and organizations are working at the local, regional, and national levels to ensure that environmental concerns receive attention. In Latin America NGOs mediate environmental action and policies at these levels. In the upper levels multilateral and global environmental policies are shaped by established international organizations such as Green Peace, World Wildlife Federation, and Friends of the Earth, which advocate actions such as global CFC reduction and trade bans on endangered species.

North American environmental groups continue to have the most international influence. Yet when the United Nations Earth Summit was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it symbolically marked Brazil's--and by extension the region's--entry as a main participant at the global level of ecopolitics. Hosting the conference was especially important for Brazil because much concern has been directed at its ecological practices in the Amazon Basin. Although the international press has emphasized destruction of the rain forest, scant attention has been given to efforts by Brazilian agencies and NGOs to protect the many ecosystems in the country (Foresta 1991, 4). …