by Marie Podien and Karen Siegel
Justification for business as usual or potential for change?
This was the question that a group of international scholars from Latin America, Europe and Asia discussed in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals at a double panel at the annual conference of the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS) held at the University of Leicester, UK, back in 2019. A few years and several rounds of revisions later, some of the findings of the discussions have now been published in a special issue of the Bulletin of Latin American Research edited by Karen Siegel and Mairon Bastos Lima.
Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has pledged to “leave no one behind” and adopted the SDGs as its key framework. However, the SDGs are not legally binding and they can be prioritised, interpreted and implemented in different ways, and there is likely to be significant variation between countries and topics. While the emphasis of the SDGs on participation and inclusive decision-making may represent an opportunity for positive change, this cannot be taken for granted. How Latin American countries address the SDGs (or not), fostering a transformation towards inclusive and peaceful sustainable development or attempt to justify business as usual remains an important empirical inquiry in the current social and political context. The question of how to promote development that meets social and economic objectives in Latin America while being environmentally sustainable and peaceful is therefore a long-standing and contested challenge.
This topic is discussed in the special issue “Quo Vadis, Latin America? Human Rights, Environmental Governance and the Sustainable Development Goals”. The special issue consists of five articles,focusing on how environmental governance intersects with inequality, social exclusion and human rights in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals in Latin America. Three of the five papers investigate the role of the SDGs concerning human rights and environmental issues in Brazil, Chile and Argentina. Mairon Bastos Lima (Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden) and Karen Da Costa (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) examine the Bolsonaro government and its impacts on environmental issues. They expose misgovernance under the Bolsonaro administration regarding social inclusion and environmental politics. Nonetheless, the SDGs provide a tool for civil society to address and critique the missing environmental policies of the government. Despite that, because they are not legally binding the SDGs are not a strong mechanism to enforce implementation, and governments can use them as it suits them. The same problems can be found in Chile, as David Jofré (Research Center for Integrated Disaster Risk Management, Chile) describes. Civil society, and in particular grassroots groups that are critical of neoliberal extractivism as a development strategy, frequently feel excluded from public policymaking regarding environmental issues and many environmental activists do not trust the mechanisms of citizen participation. It will be interesting to follow how this plays out in a changing political context. Under Boric the Chilean government attempted to involve more diverse actors with a ministerial cabinet dominated by young women and including climate scientists, members of LGBTI+ and indigenous communities. At the same time, contradictions persist for example when politicians who preach climate consciousness hold their own private water rights and shares in extractive companies. It is perhaps a result of such contradictions that grassroot mobilizations are a very common form of resistance. The article by Lucas Christel and Elisabeth Möhle (both National University of San Martin, Argentina) about Argentina also examines different interpretations and valuations of sustainability and shows how this can lead to protracted conflicts which then negatively impact on possibilities for environmental governance. Their research also shows that the SDGs are not a strong mechanism for accountability and governments can just focus on the preferred goals and at the same time disregard others. Despite the different political systems, social and environmental problems, and applications of the SDGs in Latin America, the three research papers all conclude that the SDGs are not sufficient for fighting social and environmental issues and addressing long-standing inequalities. What is often missing is an integration and broader participation of civil society during governance processes. This in turn leads to problems and tensions in political systems and environmental governance.
The remaining two articles concentrate more broadly on the processes of sustainability politics and histories in Latin America. Both articles also discuss the role of European actors, with respect to the consequences of colonization or policy influence. Julia McClure (University of Glasgow, UK) expands on issues between indigenous communities in Mexico and the expansion of commercial interests disregarding indigenous property rights despite the efforts for a transition to more sustainable development. These tensions started with the imperialism of the Spanish Empire and are still relevant today and often use legal processes to acknowledge the rights of indigenous people but at the same time undermine their long-term interests. These problems also arise with the extraction of new green energy resources, so that existing attempts for a sustainability transformation often do not include social issues and still have significant impacts on indigenous communities including also their property rights. In the last article, the SABio research group in Political Science (University of Münster, Germany) led by Karen Siegel with Melisa Deciancio, Daniel Kefeli, Guilherme de Queiroz-Stein and Thomas Dietz examine to what extent and in which ways bioeconomy development fosters or hinders an inclusive sustainability transition. Three case studies from Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil examine how the concept of bioeconomy is implemented in different contexts and to what extent it may help to address socio-environmental concerns. The case studies show that different actors and different countries interpret and use the concept of bioeconomy differently. In Uruguay the government promoted the concept and encouraged the participation of a more diverse group of actors while in Argentina it was mostly a smaller network with strong links to the private sector that has taken up the bioeconomy approach. In Brazil, different and sometimes competing ideas of the concept of bioeconomy exist and are disseminated through different networks and groups of actors. The case studies show how approaches to sustainability like the SDGs or bioeconomy can be used and interpreted in different ways by different actors with different interests. This is important because it has implications for core values such as inclusiveness, but also legitimacy and effectiveness. It is clear that the concept of bioeconomy will not be able to transform a change in social and environmental sustainability alone but needs supporting political guidelines and institutions.
Overall, the special issue shows that although the SDGs can be important for strengthening civil society, they are not a sufficient framework to address environmental and human rights issues in Latin America. In the implementation of the SDGs it is often the case that only certain goals are taken into account while others are ignored. The SDGs then do not automatically lead to more sustainable and inclusive development. While this special issue focused on Latin America, the findings reflect some of the concerns that have also been highlighted in relation to the SDGs globally, as set out in the recently published first comprehensive global assessment of the political impact of the Sustainable Development Goals.