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The Latin American experience

In Latin America, probably owing to the relatively low level of scientific and technological development in most of the continent, and the imperative nature of other problems, public debates, struggles, and mobilizations in relation to scientific and technological development and human rights have been limited. Problems like computer technology and privacy, the risks and ethical implications of research in biotechnology, the ethical dilemmas implied in advanced medical treatments - matters that have become critical questions in industrialized countries - have yet to become significant political issues. Even in relation to important environmental threats - as a result of industrial development or the massive misuse of natural resources - Latin American reaction both at the government level and in a wide political spectrum has been, at best, ambiguous.

Every worldwide plan for conservation of natural resources and effective protection of the ecosystems of the biosphere brings about mistrust in Third World intellectual conscience that perceives several threats for countries in the periphery. Metropolitan centers, using ecological and protectionist banners as an excuse, could limit Third World countries' autonomy in relation to use of their natural resources, thus reserving natural resources for industrialized countries' needs. The Third World would have to carry out a very restrictive demographic policy, and very modest levels of technological and economic development. A development policy guided by these views of ecology would ratify the present division of the world between industrialized and underdeveloped countries, and increase the distance between rich and poor nations.19

However, during the past decade, political debates and social conflicts in relation to the implications of technical decisions (nuclear energy; construction of great dams; highways in the Amazon; exploitation of mineral resources; industrial plants without adequate anti-pollution protection, etc.) have been occupying an increasingly significant political space.

Nuclear Energy

Nuclear policy, perhaps the most important single political issue in scientific and technological debates in the industrialized world, has had some political relevance only in some larger countries of Latin America. The Tlatelolco Treaty, agreed to by 21 countries in 1967, was the first multinational treaty renouncing the use of nuclear energy for warfare. It prohibits the development, reception, and acquisition of nuclear arms and nuclear testing in the Latin American continent, not only by the member states but also by extra-continental nuclear powers.20 This treaty has not been signed by all Latin American countries, and according to conditions laid down by some countries, the nuclear ban will be obligatory for them only when all the governments in the continent have ratified it. Thus, for different reasons, the treaty is not in force in Brazil, Argen tine, Chile, Guyana, and Cuba. The treaty, moreover, lacks penalties for violations.

Nuclear arms have not been developed in Latin America in spite of the fact that at least some countries seem to have the required know-how.21 The military establishments in Argentina and Brazil have used each other's nuclear programmes as the threat that justifies the development of nuclear weapons.22 Research in that field seems to have been quite advanced in both cases. However, the end of the military regimes, public opposition to the nuclear arms programmes and a marked improvement in the relations between these countries seem to have halted both programmes. An expression of this new warmth in diplomatic relations is the signing in 1985 of the Protocol of Nuclear Security and Cooperation between Brazil and Argentina.23

Four countries in the continent (Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Cuba) have developed ambitious nuclear energy plans. Mexico planned for 20 nuclear plants. Brazil signed a contract for the construction of eight nuclear plants with Kraftwerk Union of Germany.24 However, these programmes met with severe political opposition as well as financial and technical difficulties. In Brazil, the military's nuclear programme met with opposition from leading industrialists and critics in and out of government for both technical and financial reasons.25 The military objected to public debates on nuclear policy, but opposition none the less continued. Resistance to the military's nuclear plans was strengthened by the opposition victory in the elections in São Paulo in November 1982 where some plants were to be located. Finally, in 1983, the Figueredo government announced the indefinite postponement of the construction of two reactors that were to be built on the São Paulo coastline. The completion of two reactors under construction was deferred.26 After the Chernobyl disaster public opposition to Brazil's nuclear programme increased. Important mass demonstrations against nuclear energy took place.27 The scientific community argued that the nuclear programme was unnecessary unless the objective was the making of nuclear weapons. The only operating plant in the country (Angra I) was closed by a judge in mid-1986 until evacuation measures in the event of an accident had been widely discussed by the local community. Scientists demanded public debate of Brazil's nuclear policy and insisted that the nuclear industry should not be self-regulatory.28 Because of public opposition, financial difficulties, foreign debt, and the end of the military regime, of the eight new nuclear reactors that were planned, six were cancelled and two were delayed.29

More as a result of financial difficulties than political opposition and the mass demonstrations against nuclear plants that took place in 1986, Mexico's planned 20 nuclear plants have been drastically reduced to two.30 Likewise, in Argentina, as a consequence of the new civilian government taking office and the severe economic crisis, four programmed nuclear plants were cancelled and one under construction runs the risk of being discontinued.31 Thus, after the spending of billions of dollars on these projects - products of the megalomania of military and technocratic elites - Latin American nuclear programmes have come practically to a standstill. Only in Cuba, where the closed nature of its political system limits public debate, does nuclear plant construction seem to continue unhindered.

Another Development

The questioning of scientific and technological decisions in Latin America is often explicitly part of a global critique of the present hegemonic style or model of economic and technological development from the perspective of an alternative model, the so-called "another development" or "ecodevelopment." Within the context of debates on alternative styles of development, there are well-developed analyses of the relations between basic human rights (and basic human needs), and scientific-technological development. The current model of scientific and technological development is questioned as being oriented more towards profit and the imitation of the consumption patterns of industrialized countries by a small privileged minority than towards the satisfaction of the basic needs of the majority of the population.32 Within this overall perspective, there is a wide diversity of approaches in contemporary debates, with varying degrees of criticism of Western scientific and technological development and its impact on Latin American society. Representative of current critical Latin American approaches in relation to technological development is the Technological Prospective for Latin America Project.33 The project starts with the basic assumption that any discussion on the scientific and technological requirements of Latin American societies demands, in the first place, an explicit definition of the characteristics of the desirable society. This in turn is defined as an egalitarian, participatory, and autonomous society that is intrinsically compatible with its physical environment. Only on the basis of such a socio-economic strategy, according to this perspective, can the social requirements of science and technology and of R&D be defined. This is obviously a political conception of scientific and technological development guise distant from linear-naturalistic or market conceptions of the technological process.34

Over the past few years the critique of the impact of modern technology has appeared beyond the limits of social science and has led to the emergence of a variety of grass-roots organizations. A radical critique of the hegemonic model of scientific and technological development is found in the multiple organizations and groups involved in research, experimentation and use of alternative or appropriate technologies. These groups are concerned not only with small-scale, decentralized, and democratically controlled technology, but also with an alternative to the civilizing model implied by modern large-scale technology. Technology is not assumed to be an independent or neutral variable in the construction of a desirable social order but as a tool that must be shaped according to demands that should be democratically defined according to people's needs.

Frequently, the issue of democratic control of scientific and technological decisions is not initially an explicit demand, but a by-product of debates and conflicts in relation to other issues. The questioning of specific technological decisions often leads to misgivings in relation to the legitimacy of the decision-making process in science and technology, and then to demands for other decision-making methods with increased public participation.

The Arms Industry and Military Expenditure

Military autonomy, long periods of military government, and the permanent threat of military coupe, in all but the most stable democratic societies on the continent, have made it almost impossible to carry out serious democratic debates in relation to arms expenditure or the arms industry in Latin America. Under military or civil governments, these topics are considered as strategic matters of state that should be protected from public interference. There are three main ways in which expenditure on military technology is directly related to human rights issues. The first, and most obvious, is the fact that weapons in the hands of the armed forces are almost exclusively used against their country's own population. Even if high-tech military equipment were not a necessary prerequisite for the thousands of desaparecidos in Argentina, there is no doubt that the hardware in the hands of the military proved to be much more effective against the Argentinian civilian population than against the British in the Falklands. In second place is the economic significance of arms imports in a continent facing a deep economic crisis and the impossibility of servicing its foreign debt without imposing insupportable sacrifices on most of the population by recessive economic policies.35 In third place - and more directly related to the issue of technological alternatives or the alternative use of resources for technological development - is the significance of domestic arms production. Know-how and financial resources directed toward research and development in the arms industry are assets distracted from other potential uses. While this is not a significant issue in the smaller countries (with no arms industry), it is a particularly salient problem in Brazil, which over the last few years has developed a full-fledged defence industry and has become one the most important weapons exporters in the world.36 The development of this arms industry clearly highlights the priorities of the Brazilian military. While most of the inhabitants of Brazil live below the so-called poverty line, the country has a US$10 to US$12 billion-dollar weapons industry,37 and has even produced such high-tech items as a rival to the Exocet missile, a computer-guided anti-ship missile that is supposed to be almost 100 per cent accurate.38

It is hardly possible to separate the technological issues (R&D expenditure, national priorities in scientific and technological development, possible alternative uses of the billions of dollars spent on imports of military hardware in a situation of deep economic crisis, the relation between arms imports and foreign debt, etc.) from the more explicit and direct political issues relating not only to military expenditure, but to the role of the military in society, the precarious nature of democracy in Latin America, and the massive and generalized violation of human rights by the military in most of the continent over the past decades. The present process of democratization of the continent has only been possible as a compromise in which the military establishment is not defeated but agrees to return power to an elected civilian government in return for guarantees that it will not be held responsible for the violation of human rights during the military regimes. In addition, it preserves a major voice in such issues as military expenditure. The end of military regimes has not involved a major alteration in the relative influence of the armed forces. In some countries this amounts to a virtual power of veto in relation to main societal decisions.39

Environment and Contamination

In recent years, environmental concerns have become a salient political problem in most of the continent. Environment-related issues are clearly the most significant science and technology questions that have become prominent political problems in Latin America. Over the last few decades the process of annihilation of the environment has advanced on an ever-accelerating scale, devastating rivers, forests, and topsoil and contaminating air and water. These are no longer problems that people read about in the newspapers or see on television. Mexico City, for example, is not only the biggest metropolis in the world, but easily the most polluted. The everyday living and health conditions of its 18 million inhabitants are dangerously affected.40 The life expectancy of babies born in this mega-metropolis is significantly reduced. The situation in São Paulo and Santiago is almost as bad. In these conditions, the environment is no longer the exclusive concern of an educated middle-class minority. The destructive impact of this model of development is so overwhelming that in spite of the pressing nature of other problems faced by the population, such as unemployment, or lack of housing and food, the right to a healthy environment has become a vital political priority for all sectors of society.41

The Development of the Brazilian Amazon Basin

The Amazon development plans are the result of a complex combination of military megalomania (an ambition to turn Brazil into a first-rate world power, as well as a certain degree of paranoia in relation to potential threats from neighbouring countries if all Brazil is not populated and developed), demands from multinational and national capital interested in exploiting the vast resources of the area, cattle ranchers eager for immense tracts of land, the urgent need to generate the enormous amounts of exportable goods required to repay the biggest foreign debt of any third-world country, and the pressing social problems inherited from the Brazilian economic miracle of the last decades. Brazil has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world, land holding is highly concentrated, there are millions of landless peasants. and high levels of unemployment prevail. For the Brazilian military and technocrats that have controlled the country over the last 25 years, the Amazon - the last great frontier- has seemed to offer solutions to these problems and ambitions.

The development of the Amazon basin exemplifies the potential negative impact of technological development on human rights. From this viewpoint, it can almost be considered as a typical case of what should not be done. The destructive potential of modern scientific and technological development is carried to its limit, while the use of all the potential of modern science and technology in respect of forecasting, prevention, and technology assessment is limited in so far as the decision-making process is concerned. In relation to basic issues such as the importance of the Amazonian rain forest for world oxygen production, or the impact of Amazonian fires on the greenhouse effect or the destruction of the ozone layer, there is still much disagreement among experts. However, in other cases, the problems have little to do with know-how or the capacity to predict or prevent harmful results. The development process in the Amazon basin could also be seen as an example of the potential of modern science and technology to forecast the negative consequences of certain technological decisions before their effect becomes irreversible, or their capacity to give early warning on significant adverse effects through environment diagnosis based on the most advanced technologies such as satellite surveillance. But facts by themselves, even universally recognized facts, do not necessarily lead to "correct" decisions. This depends on the political system and the degree to which the conflicting views and interests of all the relevant or affected groups or populations are considered. These are political problems, not problems of a strictly scientific or technological nature. Moreover, the closed, shielded organization of modern scientific and technological institutions, the aura of great proficiency and expertise that surrounds the whole scientific-technological enterprise of modern society and its accompanying technocratic ideology are vital limiting factors in any attempt to democratize the decision-making process in areas that have to do with science or technology.42

An overall idea of the global magnitude of these megadevelopment plans is given by some facts about the Gran Carajás project, just one of several development programmes proposed for the Brazilian Amazon basin. This project consists of highways, railroads, hydroelectric dams, large-scale cattle ranching, forestry, iron-ore and bauxite mining, and charcoal production, as well as several large pig-iron mills and aluminum-smelting plants, with an total investment of US$62 billion. It includes an area as large as France and England combined,43 covering 885,265 square kilometres, or 10.6 per cent of the total surface of the country.44 As has been the case with all other large-scale development programmes in Brazil over the past decades, the decision-making process is highly centralized in an Interministerial Council with no participation by the legislative or judicial branches of government or by organized labour.45 The environmental repercussions of these large-scale plans (which have been carried out with little assessment of their impact on the very fragile ecology system of the Amazonian tropical rain forest) have been well known for some time.46 Equally well known and documented has been the dramatic impact of these projects on the aboriginal populations that live in these areas.47 However, owing to the closed, repressive nature of the military regime, internal opposition to these programmes had very limited effect for some time.

The development of the Amazon basin became an important political issue not just in Brazil, but internationally, when domestic groups (ecologists, anthropologists, and others) were able to link their struggle with concerned international organizations. Some of these, like Survival International, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defence Fund, have acted as international resonance-chambers for local struggles, thus increasing their impact in spite of very inauspicious internal political conditions.48 The efficacy of these international organizations is enhanced by the growing conviction by environmentalists worldwide that large-scale destruction of ecological systems like the Amazon basin and tropical rain forest is not just the concern of Brazilians, since it imperils the very conditions that make life possible on the planet Earth. Equally important is the leverage gained by these groups from the fact that many of these projects are at least partially financed by first-world or first-world-controlled institutions, such as the European Community or the World Bank, over which they can exert direct political pressure.

This combination of national and international organizations in demanding a radical reconsideration of most of the development plans in the Amazon basin has had some impact. The Brazil Environmental Secretariat (SEMA) was created in 1973 and a national environment policy had been established by law by 198149. Major development projects now include - at least on paper - some environmental precautions and some form of demarcation for Amerindian land.50 International financial institutions - yielding to pressure by ecological organizations - have begun to demand some environmental safeguards as a prerequisite for continued financing. These and other forms of international attempts to have a say in the country's development plans have been interpreted by successive military and civilian governments as imperialistic intervention in the internal, sovereign affairs of Brazil. Nationalist and anti-imperialist banners now appear in the hands of right-wingers, landowners, and the military.51

"The international community cannot try to strangle the development of Brazil in the name of false ecological theories," foreign ministry secretary-general Paulo Tarso Flecha de Lima has stated. Foreign criticism of the government's alleged indifference to the destruction of the Amazon is "arrogant, presumptuous and aggressive."

The tough-talking Flecha de Lima was in the Hague in March 1990 to attend a 24-nation conference on the protection of the environment. In Brazil, the meeting added fuel to what some observers described as a dangerous xenophobia backlash.

Talk of "internationalization" of the Amazon has spurred the Brazilian military into adopting a high-profile position on the issue. A stream of statements made by the minister of the army, Leonidas Pires Goncalves, clearly shows the irritation of the military to ward both foreign and domestic environmentalist movements. He has explicitly ruled out their participation in any decision-making in the region.52

In the words of Jose Sarney, when he was President of Brazil: "We cannot allow the Amazon to become a green Persian Gulf. . . The ecology movement is a Trojan Horse destined to seduce youths and conceal bigger interests." 53

To counter international condemnation over the destruction of the rain forest, Sarney called a meeting of the presidents of the Amazon Cooperation Pact, signed by eight countries in 1978. The meeting rejected "attempts to impose conditions on the granting of resources," emphasizing that the eight countries had a sovereign right to the use of their resources.54

These conflicts illustrate the complexities of human rights in relation to scientific and technological development. Every conception of human rights implies a definition of certain subjects to whom the rights apply. By making reference to different subjects or groups to whom human rights may apply, the participants in the Amazon conflicts may all invoke the language of human rights. Whose human rights are more important? The rights of the Amerindians to survival, to their cultural identity and traditional lifestyles? The sovereign right of the Brazilian government to carry out large-scale development plans without any foreign interference? Or the rights of humankind as a whole, when the basic right to life by present and future generations might be imperilled by the sovereign decisions of an independent country?

Matters are complicated by the fact that important development decisions often mean that new groups of populations are involved. Before massive colonization starts, there are conflicts between aboriginal rights on the one hand, and government development plans, the interests of multinationals, large-scale cattle ranchers, etc., on the other. However, once hundreds of thousands of poor Brazilians from other parts of the country arrive - as small-scale gold prospectors (garimpeiros), or looking for land or employment- a new situation is created and the human rights issues involved are no longer so clear-cut.55

Scientific-Technological Development and Democratic Theory

In spite of all the areas in which scientific and technological decisions have become relevant political issues in Latin America over the past few years, these are not the most salient political problems on the continent. The economic crisis, the foreign debt, the critical poverty of an increasing proportion of the population, the systematic violations of human rights by the military regimes that have ruled most of the continent in the last two decades, etc., by far overshadow the political centrality of scientific and technological issues, even if usually these are intrinsically related. In spite of the increasing critical awareness by political groups, grass-roots organizations, and the intellectual community of the potential negative impact of uncontrolled scientific and technological development, the dominant ideology is still that of blind faith in science and technology as the solution to the continent's problems. This faith has been enhanced recent dominance of neo-liberalism in the economic and political establishment of almost every country in the continent.

Even democratic theory, the main concern of contemporary Latin American social sciences, fails to deal adequately with the main political issues involved in the dominant decision-making process in science and technology. Given the cardinal and growing impact of scientific and technological decisions in shaping multiple spheres of contemporary life, and their powerful positive and negative impacts in terms of human rights, a genuine democratic control of the main scientific and technological decisions can be considered as a condition without which it is hardly possible to speak of a democratic society. Fundamental liberties and basic human rights are denied, and cultural freedom and self-reliance made impossible, if basic scientific and technological decisions are imposed in an authoritarian manner with little or no participation by those who are affected by these decisions. Contemporary democratic theory - with its excessive emphasis on political and state aspects of social life - has as one of its basic challenges the inclusion of scientific and technological decisions as vital democratic issues, in opposition to technocratic and universalistic tendencies that today represent important obstacles in the struggle toward more authentically democratic societies.

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