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Extractivism and resistance in Latin America

New edited collection analyzes the historical model that structures the economies, and political movements, of the region

Reviews

The stated goal of Steve Ellner’s edited volume titled Latin American Extractivism: Dependency, Resource Nationalism, and Resistance in Broad Perspective is to generate greater analytical daylight between the performance of neoliberal governments at the helm of extractive economies and the so-called Pink Tide progressive governments during the last two decades. Notably, the book seeks to challenge the contention by proponents of the neo-extractivist position, such as Eduardo Gudynas and Maristella Svampa, that though Pink Tide administrations did manage to make gains in the realm of social welfare, the derogatory consequences of continued resource extraction overshadow them.

Ellner, a retired American scholar who taught economic history and political science at the Universidad de Oriente, Venezuela, starting in 1977, acknowledges that the performance of Pink Tide governments regarding economic diversification, the environment, and relations with Indigenous peoples have been mitigated—yet he insists that they have been superior to the performance of neoliberal ones. Guided by the ideology of resource nationalism, Pink Tide governments largely managed to improve the terms imposed on foreign capital (through higher royalties, for example) in the resource sector and enacted more progressive labour legislation than their neoliberal counterparts. Importantly, they achieved these gains despite the existence of well-organized and -funded opposition movements that constrained the policy options available and “forced them to adopt populist strategies to reinforce popular support in the face of destabilizing campaigns.” This is a point, Ellner argues, that is not sufficiently countenanced by advocates of the neo-extractivist position.

The volume’s rich variety of chapters, in one way or another, contribute to the goal of putting into greater relief the region’s Pink Tide governments with its more neoliberal ones since the turn of the century. To begin, Kyla Sankey’s chapter on extractivism in Colombia sets a marker by outlining what governance under successive conservative governments looks like. She argues convincingly that rather than being a passive force in the midst of transnational globalization, backed by an alliance between neoliberal urban and conservative rural elites, the Colombian state played an active part in making the country more amenable to mining foreign direct investment. The process of mining becoming a major component of the Colombian economy was marked by a ‘predatory extractivism’ consisting of “land and resource grabs driven by multinational corporations…” that was facilitated by “dispossession, political violence, and corruption.”

In their chapter Alfredo Macias Vasquez and Jorge Garcia-Arias examine the structural constraints that limited Morales’ efforts to transform Bolivia and society. They argue that improved social conditions did emerge—funded by resource nationalism—but that Morales’ more ambitious developmentalist goals were constrained by the ‘financialized’ conditionalities imposed on the country by international financial institutions. This mitigated the Bolivian state’s ability to channel rent into other sectors of the economy so as to diversify it. The authors also identify endogenous constraints to diversification such as the overall heterogeneity of the economy with many sectors characterized by low productivity. They conclude that more assertive state intervention as well as a more concerted national planning strategy may have helped Bolivia to overcome exogenous constraints to economic diversification and development.

Emma Miriam Yin-Hang To’s chapter on the relationship between China and Venezuela insightfully evaluates whether it constitutes a case of ‘South-South Cooperation’ or ‘dependency.’ She argues that the relationship, in fact, consists of both types of frameworks in that the state-to-state relationship is characterized by cooperation while China’s private sector involvement in the Venezuelan economy exhibits characteristics of dependency. She concludes that though the bilateral relationship between both countries were less constraining and more advantageous economically for Venezuela, it was not able to break away from resource dependency.

Luis Fernando Augosto-Fernandez’s chapter seeks to clarify why governments labelled as neo-extractivist have received consistent electoral support throughout the tumult of the last two decades. He argues that it is due to their resource nationalism which facilitates the formation of interclass alliances, including with subaltern ones, glued together by anti-imperialist sentiments. He contends that analyses of extractivism often conflate opposition to specific mining projects with opposition to extractivism in general. His chapter concludes that pointing out that the relationship between Pink Tide governments and Indigenous peoples are complex in that some of them support certain extractive projects while others do not.

In their chapter on Bolivia, Maria J. Paz and Juan M. Ramirez-Cendrero insightfully explore the relationship between that country’s foreign direct investment policy and its goal of economic development. The authors concede that the state did gain greater control over its natural resource during the Movement for Socialism’s (MAS) tenure, but then fell short of diversifying its economy. They suggest that this was not due to continuity between the MAS and previous governments, but rather structural issues. For example, the state’s limited capacity made it difficult for it to involve itself in all aspects of hydrocarbon activities, which forced it to continue to rely on multinational corporations. Moreover, the authors also suggest that diversified support base of the MAS “hindered the developments of a more coherent and radical development strategy.”

Darcy Tetrault’s chapter on Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s presidency in Mexico examines the squandered opportunities of his tenure thus far. Notably, despite his resounding election victory and his party’s control of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, AMLO’s government’s policy in the extractive sector has been characterized by “the persistence of neoliberal logic.” For example, though AMLO has halted “granting contracts to private firms for exploration and exploration,” he has nonetheless decided to honour previously granted bids and created opportunities for private and foreign capital for participation in upstream activities.

Teresa Velasquez chapter pertaining to environmental conflicts over mining in Ecuador, again, argues that while the ‘progressive extractivism’ of Correa’s tenure did produce concrete social gains, it also split the country’s Indigenous community by adopting Indigenous conceptions of nature rhetorically, yet still pursuing extractivism in protected areas that hampered the government’s legitimacy in those communities. For example, a 2008 water law incorporated Indigenous terminology and promised more Indigenous involvement in water resource management all the while allowing for continued extraction in ecologically sensitive areas. The chapter ends, however, by highlighting that the accession to the presidency by the more right-wing Lenin Moreno reverted to neoliberalism in the extractive sector and abandoned references to Indigenous terminology.

In her chapter Amalia Leguizamón outlines how gender is an important variable in determining the unequal distribution of risks and benefits stemming from soybean extractivism in Argentina. Leguizamón explains how the industry has been a boon for both neoliberal and post-neoliberal Kirchner governments and how it contributed to poverty reduction when the latter were in power. Nevertheless, the industry also generates negative environmental and social consequences that are borne disproportionately by poor and marginalized communities. In view of this, the industry “reflects the gendered identity of the men who control it,” ideationally, in its domination of nature through the mastery of science. Moreover, gender is mobilized ideologically to win over consent for the industry by mobilizing discourses of ‘father knows best’ during neoliberalism and ‘father provides’ paternalism that underlay the redistributive programs of the Kirchner governments.

In a chapter that compares El Salvador and Honduras, Anthony Bebbington, Benjamin Fash, and John Rogan identify the key variables that they believe explain differential outcomes in mining policy. Accordingly, they argue that El Salvador’s mining ban can be explained by lukewarm elite support for that industry, weak transnational actors operating in the sector in that country, as well as sustained opposition mobilizations against mining projects. Attempts to apply stringent regulatory policies were more mitigated, however, despite equally important oppositional mobilization against mining in Honduras. Stringent mining regulations peaked during the Zelaya presidency but failed to reach the same degree as El Salvador given his ambivalent attitude towards the industry. Moreover, domestic and foreign elites were much more materially invested in perpetuating and expanding the industry given its centrality to their accumulation strategies.

The chapter authored by Tulane University postdoctoral fellow Zaraí Toledo Orozco shifts focus somewhat by comparing policy orientations towards small scale artisanal mining in the Andean region. Peru and Colombia, on the one hand, were focused on attracting foreign direct investment into large projects. Therefore, they sought to make mining regions safe for investment, which positioned small-scale mining as an activity to be policed and displaced. This led to more protests and violence in those two countries. Bolivia, conversely, accepted the reality of this type of activity and sought to foster a relationship of cooperation and institutionalization. Importantly, this decreased the violence in and around the sector in that county and allowed the government to impose some taxation and regulations. Nevertheless, Orozco points out that the downside of this more cooperative relationship is that protests by the sector managed to block stringent environmental regulations and that it has done nothing to reverse Bolivia’s dependence on the extractive sector.

Finally, Castriela Ester Hernández Reyes’ chapter examines the struggles of Black women against extractivism in Colombia. She does so by examining struggles that contested mining concessions granted to multinational corporations and white elites on the lands of Colombia’s ethno-racial communities without prior consent. Reyes provides the historical evolution of the struggle of Black Colombians and the changing legal framework that governed their rights. Moreover, she examines the intersectional nature of Black women in Colombia and how their situated knowledge and experiences constitutes an important source of opposition to extractivism in Colombia, a “racist mode of regulation, control, and governance of… [the country’s] ethno-racial communities.”

Latin American Extractivism provides an invaluable contribution to the literature on extractivism and governance in Latin America during the last two decades in general, however it will be of interest to a Canadian audience for two reasons. Firstly, though it is not explicitly a primary focus of the book from a conceptual perspective, Canadian extractive capital looms large as almost every example in the book of a mining project that generated protest involves a Canadian mining company—confirming what several books have deemed to be Canada’s imperial role in Latin America. Secondly, the edited collection provides insights into the quandaries faced by leftist governments in charge of jurisdictions where extractive capital is important. The Canadian left often looks to the United States and to Europe for lessons and models, yet it would do well to engage the Latin American left’s experience in government since the turn of the century due to their commonalities (specifically the importance of extractive industries and relations with Indigenous peoples in their countries).

On that note, from an analytical perspective, it would be fruitful to compare the experience of the Pink Tide regimes with that of recent Alberta and British Columbia NDP provincial governments. True, neither provincial government espoused anything resembling resource nationalism, nor were they as ambitious from a transformational perspective as the Pink Tide governments. However, insights could be gained into the nature of those provincial governments if they were put into dialogue with the experiences of the Pink Tide states described in this book. Moreover, beyond the experience of those Canadian examples, the contradictions faced by Pink Tide governments are the same ones that any potential leftist or social democratic government would have to face in Canada. Notably, the need to balance the imperatives of finding material resources to fund social programs or, more ambitiously, to transition out of capitalism without further contributing to global warming or damaging relations with Indigenous peoples.

Analytically, the book succeeds in differentiating Pink Tide governments from their neoliberal contemporaries in several important policy areas. However, it is not entirely clear how to think of the book’s overall project from a political perspective. More could have been written on why the policy differences between Pink Tide and neoliberal governments matter politically or why it is so important to add nuance to or reject the neo-extractivist position. For example, at the heart of the neo-extractivist critique of Pink Tide governments is that they largely accommodated themselves with global capitalism. In view of this, what does pointing to policy differences between Pink Tide and neoliberal governments mean in relation to global capitalism and the desire to challenge it?

That said, perhaps the strongest argument articulated in the book is that policy choices are never made in a vacuum; that opposition articulated in the political and economic arenas constrain and shape the policy options available to left-wing governments. Though this argument is brought up by Ellner in the book’s introduction, more frequent and detailed accounts of how oppositional social forces shaped the policies of Pink Tide governments in key conjunctures throughout the book’s different chapters would have been helpful for readers seeking to draw political lessons from Latin America’s experience these last two decades.

In the end, however, this book provides much food for thought for anyone who wants to think through the challenges of governing from the left in an age of globalized capitalism and climate change.

Marcel Nelson teaches political science in Ontario’s college system. He is a steward in his union local and his research interests include regional integration and the experience of left governments in Latin America.

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