Environmentalists who oppose ‘extractivism’ on principle are oversimplifying the complex issues faced by the peoples and governments of Latin America today
May 21, 2014
by Federico Fuentes
“Any genuine campaign against South American “extractivism”, particularly by solidarity activists in imperialist countries, must start by pointing the fingers at those truly responsible for extractivism in South America: imperialist governments and their transnational corporations.”
A recent spate of high-profile campaigns against projects based on extracting raw materials has opened up an important new dynamic within the broad processes of change sweeping South America. Understanding their nature and significance is crucial to grasping the complexities involved in bringing about social change and how best to build solidarity with peoples’ struggles.
Many of the campaigns that target specific mining, oil, agribusiness or logging ventures share common elements. They have raised public awareness around a variety of important environmental issues such as water scarcity, forest preservation and sustainable land usage.
In some cases, particularly in Ecuador and Bolivia, these campaigns have influenced existing discussions on issues such as climate change, the rights of Mother Earth and the kinds of alternative development models needed to achieve radical change.
Another common aspect has been the central role played by rural indigenous communities. This is due not only to the fact many of these extractive ventures occur in indigenous territories, but also the leading role indigenous movements have played in recent years in the global environment movement.
As a result, issues such as indigenous autonomy and the right to prior consultation on ancestral lands before embarking on extractive projects have become increasingly intertwined with debates over resource extraction and the environment.
This is particularly true in Ecuador and Bolivia, where indigenous peoples constitute a sizeable minority, if not majority, of the population. In these countries, indigenous conceptions such as “Buen Vivir” (Good Living) and “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) have become part of common public discourse and been successfully enshrined in new constitutions that provide a framework for the new society that social movements are striving to build.
Another common element is that such campaigns can be found in almost any South American country, whether run by right-wing neoliberal governments, such as Colombia, or left-wing indigenous-led ones, such as Bolivia.
A new politics?
Given this, some on the left have concluded that South America is witnessing a new cycle of popular protests characterised by a clash between pro-extractivist governments and anti-extractivist rural communities.
For example, Upside Down World editor Benjamin Dangl says these campaigns are a result of “the wider conflicts between the politics of extractivism among countries led by leftist governments … and the politics of Pachamama, and how indigenous movements have resisted extractivism in defense of their rights, land and the environment.”
Argentine sociologist Maristella Svampa takes this idea further and says the emergence of a new model of capitalist domination in South America is responsible for this new cycle of protest.
Whereas social movements previously faced off against neoliberal governments beholden to the Washington Consensus, Svampa says the problem today is “neo-extractivist” governments under the grip of the “commodity consensus”.
She says this “consensus” represents a new “economic and political-ideological” order. It is underpinned by booming commodity prices that have driven an expansion in extractive industries and brought about impressive gains in terms of economic growth and national reserves.
However, Svampa says this “change in the mode of [capitalist] accumulation” has led to new forms of inequality and conflicts. The result has been “an eco-territorial shift” in popular struggles, which now focus on issues such as land, the environment and development models.
Uruguayan journalist Raul Zibechi claims these campaigns “signal the birth of a new cycle of struggle that will also breath life into new anti-systemic movements, perhaps more radically anti-capitalist in the sense that they question developmentalism and hold onto Buen Vivir as this principle ethical and political reference point.”
While the terminology is different, the commonality among these positions is evident.
Within this context, Dangl concludes that solidarity activists must not turn a blind eye to this conflict and instead focus on promoting these “spaces of dissent and debate in indigenous, environmental and farmer movements”.
No one in the solidarity movement would disagree with the need to show solidarity with those struggling against the negative impact of extractive industries. But a solidarity movement that confines its view of South American politics to a narrow “extractivism vs. anti-extractivism” prism could end up hurting those it claims to support.
Extractive industries exist in every South American country. However, those fixated on extractivism often neglect to point out that the reason for this can be found in the region’s history of imperialist domination. Progressive governments inherited economies that are deeply dependent on raw material exports because this is the role that colonial and imperialist countries have for centuries assigned to the region. Overcoming extractivism is therefore intertwined with overcoming imperialist control over the region’s economies. →