The dangerous myths of ‘anti-extractivism’

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Environmentalists who oppose ‘extractivism’ on principle are oversimplifying the complex issues faced by the peoples and governments of Latin America today

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by 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 characterized 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 imperialists 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 transnationals.

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 nationalizing the country’s gas reserves in 2006, the Bolivian state now captures over 80% of the profits generated in this extractive sector. This newfound 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 (healthcare, education, potable water, electricity, etc).

The government’s industrialization 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”, “sensible” and “indispensable” extractivism.

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 YasuniNational 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 organization, 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 organization. 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 extract from the mine if it was handed over to local communities. That is why protestors 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 privatizing forests. They serve to entrench inequalities between industrialized 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” alternatives is to hand over ownership of natural resources to local communities. This would give them control over what happens to the nation’s wealth. Asides from the large inequalities this could generate between regions, experience shows that such a policy does not necessarily block transnationals or governments who 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 societal-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 counter position 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 transnationals, 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 a 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 organized concrete initiatives, such as the Cochabamba Peoples Summit on Climate Change 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 edits Bolivia Rising and is  co-author of Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of 21st Century Socialism. A shorter version of this article appears this week in Green Left Weekly.


  • If the issue here is how to know whether progressive governments are really breaking with colonial patterns of extraction, then surely several criteria are involved. The author highlights who benefits from extraction, but that is only one consideration. Others might include (2) the extent to which extractive activities are allowed to jeopardize other forms of life and livelihood, (3) who has decision-making power over whether they go ahead, (4) the extent to which extraction replicates colonial antagonisms with indigenous people. If Ecuador and Bolivia are really on a different course than neoliberal Peru, for example, that should be demonstrable by these criteria. I don’t doubt that there are important differences, but the article didn’t address that question as systematically as it might have. And there are also lots of similarities, as the extractivism literature argues. Of course there is only so much two small and impoverished countries can do to buck global neoliberalism. But that would sound less like an excuse or failure of the imagination if the author had made a stronger case that these countries practice qualitatively different and less destructive forms of extraction.

    • Peter, my article was largely about the problems associated with “anti-extractivist” politics and not whether progressive governments in Latin America are breaking with imperialism. Perhaps that is why I did not address the issues you raise.

      However, I would say two things in response to your comment:

      1) To my mind you miss arguably the most important criteria for determining whether these governments are attempting to break the hold off imperialism over their nation’s economy, and that is whether the wealth from extractive industries is being used to diversify the economy away from its current dependency on raw material exports. A government could easily rate well on all the criteria you have raised and still have done little or nothing to break with colonial patterns of extraction if it doesnt address the problem at its root.

      In that regards there is clear evidence that at least some progressive governments are doing this. Bolivia, for example, will soon be in a position where it no longer has to import processed gas and will instead be exporting it. This means that the billions of dollars currently being used to subsidy the cost of imported processed gas will be able to be redeployed elsewhere. Similarly, the higher returns that Bolivia will gain from exporting processed gas will mean it can generate more wealth from less gas extraction. The end result of less dependency on imports, more wealth to redistribute and the potential to decrease gas exploitation.

      2) As to the other criteria, this is are obviously issues that are highly debated.

      However, if one goes beyond the hyperbole and hysteria, one would find it extremely difficult to point to a new project in Bolivia that fail criteria (2) and jeopardize other forms of life and livelihood.

      On criteria (3), this is once again a big topic of debate. Who should get a say in whether projects go ahead? Only local communities? And what if they agree, but other nearby communities don’t? This is a hugely complex question, as Bolivia is finding out, and will not be resolved overnight. What is clear in Bolivia is that of the very few extractive-based projects that have been initiated under Morales (almost all predate his government), the pattern has been one of seeking consensus in order to advance with a project. In some cases this has been a long-drawn out process, such as the new oil exploitation project between YPFB and PDVSA in northern La Paz, which was initiated as far back as 2007, has gone through a long and complex consultation and period and exploratory drilling has only begun in May this year. Meanwhile, TIPNIS is an example where even though its debatable whether the majority of local inhabitants supported or opposed the roadway, the project is not going ahead due to strong opposition. This is in stark contrast to, for example, the Conga project in Peru which has faced much stronger resistance, and equally strong stance from the government to move ahead with the project.

      Finally, on (4), again there are varying views on this. But there is little evidence so far to say that in Bolivia new extraction projects replicate colonial antagonisms with indigenous people. Firstly, because there just hasn’t been that many new projects (which is why the best the anti-extractivists can come up with is opposing an “extractivist” highway), and secondly, because those that have gone ahead have done so with the consent of local communities, while in situations where disagreements have arisen, the government has backtracked on its project.

  • The problem with this article is that I think it underplays class differentiation in the countries it is discussing. It therefore assumes that it is possible to still pursue progressive policies that benefit the majority while remaining locked into the world market. In a sense this is a policy that seems to be waiting for revolution in the in the imperialist countries, when that is far less likely than revolution in the Global South. In the medium to long term it might be right to say “it’s unlikely a single nation will be able to resolve all its problems on its own” but you have to start somewhere.

    The pressure for extraction will be far less in a country that breaks from the logic of the market. It should limit access to precious raw materials, eking them out for the future, not going for all-out exploitation typical of capitalism and not trash the environment in the process.

    An example on how not to combat extractivism: the Venezuelan government has had 15 years in which it could have weaned the country off the gasoline subsidy that keeps the price at an extraordinary 2.3 (US) cents per litre. It could have used the revenues released to promote more egalitarian forms of transport than private motor vehicle, financed more social programmes as part of the revolution and could have exported the saved fuel. Now, having failed to tackle this issue in that time, the government is faced with having to introduce rapid price rises, which could be extremely dangerous for it.

    See data in:

    • Phil, I see some important problems with what you say. Although I don’t know if you would identify yourself as “anti-extractivist”, they also reflect important shortcomings among the “anti-extractivst” left.

      Too often, when the anti-extractivist left try and develop concrete proposals for combating “extractivism” they discard important political considerations such as whether the social forces exist to implement such nice ideas.

      This is the case with fuel subsidies in Venezuela. Phil complains that the government could have combatted extractivism by diverting money away from this subsidy and towards social spending, public transport etc. No doubt, in theory that is true.

      But reality also shows that even among the most radical elements within Chavismo, there exists opposition to removing the subsidy, given the impact it would have on the poor via increased prices for fuel, food and other basic products.

      More generally, Venezuelan people continue to hold onto a deep-seated sentiment that cheap petrol is a basic right. The last time a government tried to increase fuel prices was in 1989 and it ended with the Caracazo uprising. This spectre haunts those that dare raise such a taboo issue and lingers in the minds of millions.

      To see what might off happened if the Venezuelan government had removed this subsidy, one can look at the example of Bolivia. In 2010, the removal of subsidies on gas triggered a tremendous revolt among the Morales government’s base of support, leading to the quick withdrawal of the policy. (see )

      Of course this does not mean the Venezuelan government has done nothing. On several occasions the government has stated that a public debate on the issue is necessary and argued that a reduction in the subsidy was required for economic and environmental reasons. Unfortunately, this position continues to be a minority one, including among the government’s working class base. This is why I doubt the government will remove it any time soon.

      Saying that the Venezuela government has “failed to tackle this issue” ignores all this. Instead, the “anti-extractivist” left reduces everything to a question of bad governments refusing to implement good policies. They pay no consideration to the existing political conditions or consequences of such decisions.

      This is also true when it comes to bigger picture issues. Here radical rhetoric tends to be used to justify conservative positions. Phil can accuse me all he likes of ignoring class differentiations and of advocating a position of waiting for the revolution, but the truth is that his alternative leaves a lot to be desired.

      Firstly, it is a bit silly to deny the possibility of pursuing “progressive policies that benefit the majority while remaining locked into the world market.” Really? So the massive redistribution of natural resource wealth (generated via exports)towards meeting the human development needs of the working classes via things such as funding for social programs, education, healthcare etc is either not possible or progressive?

      Phil’s position can be summed up in the nice slogan ‘one solution: revolution!’ Of course, revolutions in the global North could provide the possibility to begin repaying our climate debt to the South and aid them in pursuing anti-capitalist paths of developments. But given he does not believe this is likely to happen soon where he lives, he says its up to those in the Global South to begin on their own the process of building a new social order that “breaks from the logic of the market”, “limit[s] access to precious raw materials” does not pursue a policy of “all-out exploitation typical of capitalism and [does] not trash the environment in the process.”

      Leaving aside whether the governments in Bolivia can be said to be carrying out a policy of “all-out exploitation” and “trashing the environment” (they are not), neither Phil nor those on the anti-extractivist left have explained how one of the poorest countries in the world is supposed to throw off the shackles of the world market, much less “breaks from the logic of the market”.

      That’s because this is impossible, at least in one country. So in practice, behind the rhetoric lies a call (demand?) upon the poorest classes in the world to shoulder the burden of the climate crisis by forgoing the utilization some of the few resources they have at hand to meet basic human needs such as food, water, electricity, the kinds of things we take for granted in the North.

      A solidarity movement based on this logic is not one I (nor I imagine most of the Global South) want to be a part off.