06/08/2010 12:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Second Act for South American Left: Are Greens the Answer?

Having overstated the political potency of Colombia's Green Party, I've felt a bit shamefaced in recent days. In the Andean nation's first presidential runoff election, Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus garnered more than 20% of the vote, which allowed him to proceed to the second round on June 20th. But while the news was certainly encouraging for environmentalists across South America, Mockus' electoral performance failed to live up to expectations.

Indeed, prior to the election some pollsters predicted that Mockus might even beat conservative challenger Juan Manuel Santos outright in the first round. Such prognostications led me to pen an article speculating about what a Mockus presidency might mean for the wider region in an environmental and geopolitical sense. In the end, however, Mockus received less than half the votes which Santos garnered, and some observers now openly suggest that the Green Party faces daunting electoral math and cannot hope to prevail later this June.

In light of the electoral returns, I suspect that the Mockus phenomenon may have more to do with Colombians' fatigue over corruption and a lawless, runaway state than any yearning for a cleaner, greener environmental paradigm. Indeed, it's a little odd that Mockus would run as a green to begin with. To be sure, as the former mayor of Bogotá he cleaned up urban air quality by backing a new and more efficient public transportation system. Yet, Mockus is more widely known as an anti-corruption campaigner than an environmentalist.

If the 58-year-old Mockus is elected, he will be the first Green president in the world. Mockus seeks to promote greater preservation of water and forest resources and biodiversity, the use of alternative energy and the need for "rational and responsible consumerism." Through technology, he has become an idol for starry-eyed, progressive Colombian youth, just like Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The former Bogotá mayor has hundreds of thousands of Facebook fans, and campaigners have organized "flash mobs" where hundreds of supporters converge on parks and shopping malls and, at a given signal, display their green T-shirts to bewildered pedestrians.

Martin Von Hildebrand, director of the Colombian environmental organization Gaia Amazonas, isn't taken in by the hype. "Unfortunately," he remarks, "the environment is not high on any candidate's agenda." Judging from a recent communiqué, the Association of Indigenous Councils of the regional department of Cauca is similarly unimpressed. While the Indians view Mockus' willingness to respect the law as an improvement on the rogue Uribe administration, they say such an approach doesn't go nearly far enough. The green candidate, they argue, should overturn investor-friendly "neo-liberal" laws, cease his support for the free trade model, and abandon the notion of unsustainable agricultural productivity.

But even if Mockus does not embody all the hopes and aspirations of environmentalists or indigenous peoples, this political maverick has inspired nascent green parties across South America. Even if he does not win the second round and goes down in defeat to Santos, Mockus will have demonstrated that parties like his may have a political future in a region hardly known for its adherence to green principles.

Green Parties Look For Inspiration

For Marina Silva, the prospect of a green upset in Colombia is promising. A presidential hopeful on the Brazilian green ticket, Silva is a former Minister of Environment who recently broke with the Lula administration. As I discuss in my current book, No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan), Silva has a compelling bio. A longtime campaigner for Amazonian preservation, she grew up working as a rubber tapper and was a colleague to murdered environmental activist Chico Mendes.

Reportedly, Silva is intrigued by Mockus's political success and is seeking a meeting with the Colombian green candidate. Alfredo Sirkis, founder of Brazil's Green Party, remarked "The growth of Mockus in polls in Colombia and that of Marina Silva in Brazil demonstrates that Latin American society wants a new alternative left; democratic and ecological." Sirkis adds that the idea is to "establish an initial axis with Mockus, who represents the proposal of urban transformation for the Greens, and Marina, who has global prestige as a defender of the Amazon," and later integrate political movements from other Latin American countries.

The Brazilian Green Party has a much longer track record than its Colombian counterpart. Founded in 1986 by environmentalists and others who had lived in exile and came into contact with European greens, the party has successfully elected its members to Congress and municipal positions. Though the Brazilian environmental movement cheered the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Workers' Party, initially touted as Brazil's first "green president," it later broke with the popular leader. Lula, they declared, had turned his back on them on virtually every issue ranging from Amazon deforestation to genetically modified food to nuclear power. When Lula criticized Minister Silva for delaying key public works projects, the former rubber tapper lost patience and left the Workers' Party.

Political observers say that in the upcoming election, Silva could attract middle class, left-wing voters concerned with the environment, in addition to women voters who would normally vote for Workers' Party candidate Dilma Rousseff. Silva is doing somewhat more poorly than Mockus in voter surveys: according to the polls, she is running third after Rousseff and opposition candidate José Serra, respectively. In advance of Brazil's presidential election, which is fast approaching in October, Silva is reportedly interested in learning more about Mockus' successful use of the internet as an organizing tool.

Meanwhile in Argentina, greens are looking for inspiration. There, Presidents Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have promoted a "growth at any cost" model of production predicated on soy exports. Irked by the economic bent of the government, environmentalists formed the Argentine Green Initiative party in 2006, and this year they will be fielding candidates in the country's elections. So far, the party has no representatives in government though organizers hope to win some seats in parliament and one day field a presidential candidate of their own.

In neighboring Chile, the Ecologist Party has no lawmakers in the national parliament but has made some gains at the local municipal level. In the last presidential election, the party backed socialist and independent Marco Enríquez Ominami, the only candidate who opposed large development projects such as the HidroAysen Dam project slated for southern Patagonia and the Pascua Llama gold mine. Though Ominami went down to defeat, the Ecologist Party aspires to one day win power in its own right.

Green Parties: Next Wave of South American Left?

To be sure, leftist governments that have taken power in South America over the past ten years or so have fallen short on the environment in many respects. In my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan) and on my website, I discuss these shortcomings, from Venezuela to Ecuador to Brazil. "We consider that it is important to create an alternative left-wing pole in Latin America to face off against the authoritarian, populist and anachronistic left of Chavism and of the Castro brothers in Cuba," says Sirkis. The veteran Brazilian green adds that the second left wave in South America ought to emphasize sustainability, respect for democracy and human rights.

Fed up with a political establishment which had failed to heed calls for sustainable development, environmental campaigners recently set up the Federation of Green Parties of the Americas. The group aims to field its own lawmakers, mayors and ministers in order to influence the political agenda across the continent. "Other political parties, whether on the left or the right, sacrifice sustainability in the interests of short-term productive development," remarks Juan Manuel Velasco, a former environment minister for the Buenos Aires city government. "In contrast, we think that development is a non-starter if it runs counter to the needs of future generations, and that a long-term perspective on growth is essential," he adds.

South American Greens' Greatest Challenge: The Amazon

Arguably, the biggest challenge faced by South American Greens is preservation of the Amazon rainforest. An area which comprises 40% of the South American land mass, the Amazon touches on eight separate countries. One of those nations, Colombia, has witnessed vast deforestation as a result of coca leaf cultivation which is used to produce cocaine. It's a vexing environmental dilemma which any future Colombian leader will have to face.

The history of this problem goes back some years. When the authorities clamped down on coca production in Peru during the 1990s, the planters simply picked up and went to Colombia, where coca production skyrocketed fourfold. More than three million acres of rain forest -- an area larger than Yellowstone National Park--were cut down to cultivate opium poppy and coca leaf.

Speaking recently to a conference of police officers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Colombian vice president Francisco Santos Calderón decried land clearing and deforestation resulting from coca production. Indignantly, Santos declared that Brits using cocaine should be more conscious of the environmental impact of their drug habit, and added that Colombia had lost more than two million hectares of rain forest in the last 15 years to coca production.

Saving the Andean swathe of the Amazon rainforest will necessitate a radical overhaul of traditional counter-narcotics strategy. The U.S. should bail out the coca farmers as a means of reducing deforestation, yet Washington continues to pump billions of dollars to the Colombian armed forces in a failed bid to stamp out the crop militarily. Ideally, that money should be funneled toward crop substitution outside of the rainforest in a massive, Marshall-style cash infusion.

Mockus may understand the need for such an ambitious plan, but nevertheless advocates a continuation of the drug war and maintaining strong ties with the U.S. That is unfortunate, but there may be some reason for optimism: Colombia's Green Party stresses the need for greater economic development directed at regions afflicted by the drug trade. Moreover, the party also wants to further dialogue amongst regional governments in an effort to come up with alternative drug strategies yielding more positive results. Mockus says he favors educational campaigns highlighting some of the darker sides of the drug trade.

At times Mockus sounds a little simple minded, arguing that deforestation can be addressed simply by adhering to the letter of the law and eliminating the drug trade. "In my opinion Colombia's biggest environmental problem is illegality," he says, adding that "If we're not able to change the culture, we're not going to address environmental problems." At other times, the Green Party candidate sounds like he wants to pursue a more sensible overall policy but can't quite bring himself to make a clean break with the past. "I would like a certain stepping back from current anti-drug policy so that Colombian society can explore all the implications of drug trafficking: the supposed benefits for some sectors and the costs borne by youth, the environment, the justice system and institutions," he says. "No one is going to resolve the problem of drug trafficking but Colombians."

For South American Greens, the Amazon may be a key litmus test of how effectively regional parties may handle pressing environmental problems. Mockus' ecological agenda, however timid, is a welcome step in the right direction. If he wins the election, perhaps we may see some long overdue and meaningful debate about the rainforest. But even if he loses, South American greens may recognize the rainforest as a crucial issue affecting the region, one which could potentially lead to a much needed "phase 2" for the South American left.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave, 2010). Visit his website,