Two views of ‘extractivism’ and ‘buen vivir’

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The debate continues: Is ‘Buen vivir’ an effective and just development alternative to mining and resource extraction industries in Latin America?

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Miners rally in El Alto, Bolivia

Miners rally in El Alto, Bolivia

In The dangerous myths of ‘anti-extractivism’, published last week in Climate & Capitalism, Federico Fuentes argued that environmentalists who oppose ‘extractivism’ on principle are oversimplifying the complex issues faced by the peoples and governments of Latin America today.

“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.”

Readers Phil Ward and Peter Gose submitted thoughtful comments on the article, and Federico Fuentes responded. Those exchanges are in the Comments section below the original article.

We have received two other submissions that are too long to appear as Comments. Since they add important points to the debate, and both deal with the complex issue of the ‘Buen Vivir’ philosophy and its relationship to economic development in the Andes, we have decided to make both available in PDF form.

Re-contextualizing Anti-Extractivism:
Buen Vivir and the New Left in the Andes

by Matt Ford

Matt Ford is a graduate student in the History Department at California State University, Fresno who has travelled extensively in the Andean region. He disagrees with Fuentes, arguing that “extractive industries rarely—if ever—better the lives of communities. Most often, they destroy indigenous and subsistence cultures and replace them with a destructive, non-harmonious western culture of mining or oil.” Fuentes, Ford says, fails to understand that “‘anti-extraction’ is not merely an ‘anti’ movement, but part of the larger philosophy of Buen Vivir. At the heart of Buen Vivir is a critique of western modernity and development, both of which are absent from Fuentes’ article.”

Good Living for Whom?
Bolivia’s Climate Justice Movement and the Limitations of Indigenous Cosmovisions
by Nicole Fabricant

Nicole Fabricant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Towson University in Maryland. She is currently studying movements to overcome water scarcity in El Alto, Bolivia. She argues that moving beyond ‘extractivism’ in the South does not seem like a real possibility in Bolivia, which is deeply dependent upon resources like natural gas.  Fabricant says that essentialized indigenous constructs such as Buen Vivir, detached from political and economic realities,  can be easily commoditized and used to advance corporate and rightist agendas.

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.



  • The Fabrikant article is a hatchet-job. First of all, not all (in fact very few) anthropological arguments about the contemporary viability of Andean lifeways and agrarian practices claim that they are timeless or outside of a relation to capitalism. Some indigenous politicians may make these claims, and sometimes under the influence of NGO colonialism, but that is not the whole story. The undeniable fact remains that millions of people in the Andean countries practice subsistence agriculture and herding and that they are fully aware that these activities are threatened by climate change and various forms of extraction. Yes, these same people also typically want access to money and higher consumption standards, but at the end of the day, they tend to value their agrarian practices more. As a case in point, the Peruvian community where I did research on these topics over 30 years ago is in the process of expelling mining companies over their treatment of the land, despite an initial enthusiasm for the economic benefits they brought. To dismiss the reality of these agrarian systems as a romantic outsider construction is monstrously irresponsible. Contemporary anthropology may reward such hopelessly bad scholarship, but don’t expect people in the Andes to think very highly of it.

    • I do not think these criticisms of Nicole Fabricant’s paper are valid. What Peter Gose says about subsistence agriculture and herding and his observations in Peru are entirely consistent with Fabricant’s argument. My interpretation of her position is that, while there may be some practices and knowledge that are of value in traditional cultures, these cannot be transplanted wholesale to current conditions in the Global South. This is especially the case when it comes to the issues facing the poor and oppressed in urban areas. Indeed, it might be found that new form of social organisation, provided they are acceptable to the people involved, are more “eco-friendly” than traditional, indigenous ones.

      Fabricant argues that there are political statements coming from the anti-climate change movement in Latin America the over-generalise the lessons of traditional culture, something that Gose agrees also happens. As she references these statements, it should be easy enough to check how significant this phenomenon is.

      • I certainly agree that rural indigenous forms of organization can’t necessarily be transposed to urban contexts or scaled up. What I object to is (1) the reduction of rural indigenous culture to a discursive fabrication and specifically (2), the implicit disqualification of real rural indigenous environmental concerns on the grounds that they may be coopted by the “ecological savage” stereotype that emanates from some quarters in the global north. Rural Andean people can and regularly do arrive at their own environmental politics independently of all that, and deserve solidarity from ecosocialists, not dismissal as a discursive cipher.