How ‘anti-extractivism’ misses the forest for the trees

Federico Fuentes
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.
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.
The label “extractivist” also conceals the real differences between governments that do the bidding of transnationals and imperialist governments, and peoples’ governments trying to use their country’s resources to break imperialist dependency and improve living standards for the majority.
The latter is the strategy that the Bolivian government is implementing, with the active support of its people. By nationalising the country’s gas reserves in 2006, the Bolivian state now captures more than 80% of the profits generated in this extractive sector. This new-found wealth has facilitated a seven-fold increase in social and productive investment by the government since 2005.
The results of this policy are evident in a declining poverty rate (from 60.6% in 2005 to 43.4% in 2012) and the massive expansion in access to basic services (health care, education, potable water, electricity, etc).
The government’s industrialisation process also means that by the end of 2014 the country will not only be able to meet its domestic gasoline and liquefied petroleum gas needs, but will also be able to export processed gas. Redistribution of gas rents to other productive sectors has meant that growth in the manufacturing sector has outstripped that of mining or hydrocarbons.
These advances towards processing raw materials at home and diversifying the economy are just a few examples of how the Bolivian government is attempting to overcome the country’s extractivist past. According to Benjamin Kohl, they represent steps towards a “general loosening of transnational control” over the Bolivian state and economy.
There are ongoing debates over how successful left-wing governments in places such as Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador have been in achieving their stated aims — and the problems in pursing a development model that continues to rely on extractive industries.
However, framing the debate as one between proponents and opponents of extractivism ignores the fact that almost no one proposes closing down all extractive industries, particularly in light of the devastating impact it would have on the peoples and economies of South America.
Even some of the keenest critics of extractivism in Latin America, such as Uruguayan ecologist Eduardo Gudynas and Bolivian radical intellectual Raul Prada, acknowledge the need to differentiate between what they term “predatory”, “sensibleand “indispensableextractivism.
It is also true that most movements against specific extractive projects do not propose ending all extractive industries and that within local communities involved in such campaigns a variety of views exist.
One example is the complex situation in Ecuador surrounding the proposal to carry out oil drilling in the Yasuni National Park. While environmental groups, urban youth collectives and some indigenous groups have run an important campaign against the proposal, some of the local indigenous communities have expressed their support for the project.
Ecuador’s main indigenous organisation, CONAIE, did not come behind the recent push for a referendum on the issue because of differing views over the project within its ranks. CONAIE president Humberto Cholango explained, "We have had internal difficulties. This is because CONAIE is a very broad and diverse organisation. There are many nationalities in the Amazon region who say ‘look, we are the owners of this land and we do want exploitation’. These positions exist. We have to listen to these voices.”
A similar scenario was played out in the dispute over the Mallku Khota mineral deposits. While some foreign observers and NGOs saw it as an example of indigenous communities exposing the Bolivian government’s extractivist mining agenda, the reality on the ground was somewhat different.
While environmental concerns featured prominently in the campaign, protesters were not driven by some anti-extractivist agenda. Rather, the main driving force was extreme poverty and the economic opportunities some felt could be extracted from the mine if it was handed over to local communities. That is why protesters demanded that the existing transnational by replaced by a local cooperative, because, in the words of Damian Colque, a “mallku” (leader) of the local indigenous federation, “We want to be agro-miners.”
The debate clearly is more complex than a simple “for” or “against” extractive industries. Yet, too often those who seek to confine the debate to one that only involves extractivist governments and anti-extractivist indigenous movements ignore the existence of this diversity of views.
It is important to distinguish between legitimate campaigns against specific extractive projects, and those that seek to use such campaigns to advance their own agendas.
A good example was the conflict over the proposed roadway through the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) in Bolivia. Again, some observers were quick to project an anti-extractivist character onto the protest and campaigned against any roadway going ahead. Yet, most of the communities involved in the protest simply opposed its proposed route.
Putting aside those communities that supported the project as it stood, there is clear evidence that among those communities that protested some believed it should instead cut through a different part of the Amazon outside TIPNIS, while others felt its trajectory should run closer to the local villages so that they too could access the roadway. Even the main spokesperson for TIPNIS communities, Fernando Vargas, made clear on several occasions that they never opposed the roadway, just the proposal that it cut through the centre of TIPNIS.
This is just one example of where a clear disjuncture existed between the demands of the protesters and those seeking to advance their anti-extractivist agenda.
“Anti-extractivism” has also been used to greenwash anti-environmental alternatives, particularly in the absence of any concrete proposals coming from radical extractivist critics over how to meet popular needs.
One example is the promotion of “carbon off-set” schemes. Such schemes pay communities in the global South to protect certain forest areas to “offset” the continuing pollution caused by companies in the North. At the request of certain NGOs, the TIPNIS protesters raise a demand that indigenous communities be able to receive funds from proposed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) projects.
Numerous indigenous and environmental groups have denounced such schemes as tantamount to privatising forests. They serve to entrench inequalities between industrialised imperialist countries and those dependent on extractive industry exports — without promoting any meaningful reduction in polluting practices.
Other proposed alternatives include setting up local enterprises in areas such as eco-tourism, sustainable logging and small-scale mining as a way of raising funds to meet local needs. None of these business projects have yet to eradicate poverty, but all have led to the further integration of local rural communities into the capitalist market.
Another “anti-extractivist” alternative is to hand over ownership of natural resources to local communities. This would give them control over what happens to the country’s wealth. Aside from the large inequalities this could generate between regions, experience shows that such a policy does not necessarily block transnationals or governments that are able to co-opt communities to advance their projects.
One thing these alternatives share in common is that none represent a viable alternative for the vast majority of people, many of them indigenous and former farmers, who are forced to live in cities as a result of social, economic or environmental factors.
Numbering in their millions, these people also face the consequences of extractive industries, including climate change and environmental degradation. Their demands and struggles may take a different form, but they are no less legitimate. For all the talk of an “eco-territorial shift” in popular struggle, the majority of protests in South America continue to focus on demands around access to basic services, infrastructure and employment conditions. These “spaces of dissent and debate” also deserve to be respected and amplified as they are an equally vital component of the struggle for change in countries such as Bolivia.
After neoliberal governments were defeated and new constitutions written in places such as Bolivia and Ecuador, important society-wide debates have opened up over how best to make reality novel notions such as Buen Vivir, the rights of Pachamama and indigenous autonomy while also meeting peoples’ development needs.
Different views have been expressed between and within social movements regarding these issues. However, all directed against the devastating social, economic and environmental impacts of imperialist exploitation and towards the struggle for a better life.
A view of South America that is blind to this and only sees "extractivist" governments and "anti-extractivist" rural indigenous communities is a disservice to the struggles of the majority. It tends to silence, rather than amplify, the voices of some of those who have been at the forefront of recent rebellions.
It also runs the risk, in the name of saving some trees, of destroying the entire forest.
The narrow extractivism/anti-extractivism counterposition has been used to foster divisions among social movements, weakening the unity needed for radical change to achieve radical change.
There is ample evidence to show that foreign governments and NGOs have been working to stoke, rather than resolve, tensions among the regions’ diverse social movements. Such forces are happy to promote “anti-extractivism” if it serves to bring down popular governments and roll back changes.
However, rather than exposing this, some activists advocate that the solidarity movement also pick sides.
For example, Bret Gustafson admits that in Bolivia, “a country marked by deep poverty in which gas has been construed as a means of national salvation, there is little popular opposition to the extraction of natural gas”. This leads him to conclude that, for solidarity activists, the ability to forge bonds of solidarity is largely limited to reaching out to “those on the urban margins, particularly youth, and the rural peoples and communities affected by extractivism”.
It seems that the majority of Bolivians, who are also victims of the country's dependence on a resource extraction-based economy but don’t share Gustafson's anti-extractivist views, are not worthy of support.
Rejecting the limited politics of anti-extractivism does not mean that solidarity activists cannot support those fighting the impacts of extractive industries.
One key role we can play is introducing some of the crucial debates and discussions taking place in South America in our own countries. Effective solidarity requires explaining the context of debates and conflicts within South American countries, and between these countries and imperialism.
This also requires accurately explaining the different positions that exist between diverse social movements and their varying stances towards progressive governments. We can do this while understanding that ultimately only they can resolve their differences.
In the meantime, we should continue to oppose the meddling of imperialist governments and transnational corporations, thereby ensuring that the region’s social movements can best resolve these issues free of foreign interference.
We must also remember that radical change requires building social forces strong enough to implement change while resisting the inevitable attacks from local elites and imperialist governments. As the battle for a better world is inherently global, it is unlikely that a single nation will be able to resolve all its problems on its own.
Bids to “expose” the gaps between the anti-capitalist rhetoric of some leftist governments and the reality of ongoing resource extraction largely miss this critical point. Any chance South American countries have of breaking out of their role as dependent, raw commodity exporting economies depends on the creation of a new global order, starting with the reshaping of hemispheric relations.
This is precisely what the Bolivian government has tried to do. It has not just denounced capitalism and imperialism at global summits to a world audience, but organised concrete initiatives, such as the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba that brought more than 30,000 people to Bolivia in 2010 to discuss and develop radical policies to confront ecological disaster.
Solidarity activists should spend less time fixating on gaps between rhetoric and reality (which will always exist in any unfinished liberation struggle) and more time explaining why, as long as imperialism exists, these processes of change will continue to face tremendous obstacles and dangers.
Let’s refocus our view on the biggest challenge facing us all. This means recognising that, as Nicole Fabricant and Kathryn Hicks put it, “only a popular uprising of unprecedented scale will prompt nations of the Global North to take their responsibility to the rest of the globe seriously, and restrain the coercive forces that constrain states like Bolivia”.
[Federico Fuentes was co-author with Roger Burbach and Michael Fox of Latin America's Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism and is a regular contributor to Green Left Weekly, were a shorter version of this article first appeared.]

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