By Marcela Valente | Inter Press Service
BUENOS AIRES, Jun 19 (IPS) - Fed up of waiting for existing parties to take up the cause of sustainable development and establish appropriate government policies to that end, environmental campaigners in Latin America have begun an increasingly high-profile battle for power in order to carry out their proposals themselves.
Under the umbrella of the Global Greens Network, made up of about 100 environmentalist parties around the world, the Federation of Green Parties of the Americas is composed of a dozen organisations that aim to influence political agendas across the continent by fielding their own lawmakers, mayors or ministers.
"Environmental issues are fundamental in our view," said Juan Manuel Velasco, a former environment minister for the Buenos Aires city government who is the first Green Initiative party candidate to run for Congress, in the Argentine legislative elections at the end of this month.
"Other political parties, whether on the left or the right, sacrifice sustainability in the interests of short-term productive development," he told IPS. "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."
The Argentine Green Initiative party was formed in 2006 and its members include former directors of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Greenpeace, and social or environmental activists who work in the city of Buenos Aires. This year, for the first time, it will be participating independently in the elections, without forming alliances with other parties.
This is the first time voters in Argentina are being presented with a genuine environmental option, Velasco said. Some years ago there was a Green Party in this country which was allied with the Humanist Party and was, according to some reports, linked to a religious community. This Green Party never joined the Global Green movement, which is secular.
The new Green Initiative party has no representatives yet in government institutions, but sees its first task as becoming a channel for the environmental movement's demands. Gradually its members hope to "win seats in parliament," and they do not rule out eventually fielding a presidential candidate, said Velasco.
The Brazilian Green Party has a longer track record. It was created in 1986 as the brainchild of a group of environmentalists, artists, academics and anti-nuclear activists, many of whom had lived in exile and had had contact with the political activities of European environmentalists.
One of the founders who was formerly exiled is Fernando Gabeira.
Now a congressman, Gabeira promotes draft laws on protecting the environment and fighting corruption. He is one of 14 Green Party members of the lower house of Congress. There are also 34 Green Party provincial lawmakers and 77 mayors, including Micarla de Souza, mayor of Natal, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte.
The Brazilian Green Party is also represented in the cabinet of left-wing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, by Culture Minister Juca Ferreira, who succeeded the internationally renowned singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil, another member of the Greens.
The party holds eight municipal environment secretary positions, and in the October 2008 elections Gabeira was narrowly defeated in a bid to become mayor of Rio de Janeiro.
In an interview with IPS the Green Party's international secretary, Marco Antonio Mroz, said the party's goal is to put forward sustainable development as an alternative path for Brazil's future. It proposes action to transform the existing pattern of energy generation, promote social justice and improve education and health.
Mroz said the party "is free from ties with the left and the right," and is determined to make progress in winning political power.
In the past, NGOs thought that environmental issues should permeate all the parties, but that view has changed, Mroz said. Now they believe that the only way to exercise leverage is through a party of their own that will not betray its principles, unlike other parties, even on the left, he said, referring to the Workers' Party (PT) that has governed Brazil since 2002.
According to Mroz, President Lula's PT "has adopted a strategy of economic development at any price."
For his part, Alfredo Sirkis, a member of the Rio de Janeiro state parliament, told IPS that environmentalists who joined the PT, like Environment Minister Carlos Minc who used to belong to the Green Party, "find themselves increasingly isolated, within the party as well as within the Lula administration."
In Sirkis' view, the message preached by the lone voice of the Green Party during the 1980s has been taken up by a large part of society, the media, the business community and other political parties, but "it remains to be seen whether they are really sincere," he said.
"We want a sustainable society and a sustainable economy," he said, warning that Lula's Chief of Staff, Dilma Rousseff, a presidential hopeful for the 2010 elections, "does not regard the environment as an important issue."
In Argentina, Velasco is equally critical of the "growth at any cost" model of production followed by the centre-left administration of President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and by his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández.
For example, the Argentine model encourages the expansion of export-oriented monoculture soy production, without concern for the depletion of the soil, said Velasco. Another illustration of production heedless of the environmental toll is mining under conditions that pollute water sources.
Under these circumstances, Brazil's Greens agree that their short-term aim must be to "increase their firepower" in Congress and in state and municipal governments, and they look forward to presenting their own presidential candidate in future. "That is our goal," Mroz said.
Mexico's Green Ecological Party was founded in 1986 and enjoyed fast initial growth. However, more recently its support has dwindled amid accusations of corruption, nepotism and breaches of Mexican electoral law, and the party has come under fire from environmental organisations and other members of the Federation of Green Parties of the Americas.
Velasco said Mexico's Greens have not always upheld the principles of the international Green Charter, adopted by the global movement in Canberra in 2001 and updated in 2008 at a Global Greens meeting in Sao Paulo.
One instance of this is the party's campaign for the re-introduction of the death penalty in Mexico, which is contrary to the Charter.
"It's true that every country has its own idiosyncrasies, but we cannot adopt positions that are opposed to our international commitment to promote development in harmony with nature," Velasco said.
In Chile, the Ecologist Party was registered in early 2008 and is legally recognised in three of the country's northern regions: Tarapacá, Antofagasta and Atacama. In the last municipal elections the party won a town councillor's seat in San Pedro de la Paz, in the southern region of Bío Bío. The party has no lawmakers in the national parliament.
Two leading environmental activists are members: Sara Larraín of the Sustainable Chile Programme, a prominent NGO, and Manuel Baquedano of the Institute of Political Ecology. Like the Green Initiative party in Argentina, this is the first truly "green" party in Chile, Ecologist Party president Félix González told IPS.
As the party is not legally constituted all over the country, it cannot compete in the Chilean presidential elections due later this year, and is backing former socialist lawmaker Marco Enríquez Ominami, an independent candidate. However, it aspires to win power in its own right.
"If we were in power, our policies would be different from those adopted by politicians today," said González. "During election campaigns, all the candidates become 'green' and are responsive to these concerns, but when policy-making time comes around, their positions change," he said.
González said environmental activists lobby political authorities to adopt their proposals, but this method of exerting influence has come to a dead end. So they created this party, which "sooner or later will govern the country," he said optimistically.
For its members, the environment is not just one of the issues; it is "the" issue. "It's a way of looking at every problem," González said, a view shared by Greens throughout Latin America.
With additional reporting by Fabiana Frayssinet in Río de Janeiro, Daniela Estrada in Santiago and Diego Cevallos in Mexico City.