Latin American Extractivism: Dependency, Resource Nationalism, and Resistance in Broad Perspective
Modifications made by Steve Ellner
Rowman Littlefield, 2021
After a long period of neoliberal restructuring, Latin America turned to the left in the early 20th century: not radically left, but moderately, hence the name “the pink tide” to refer to the governments in most of the region that advocated neoliberalism ideologically opposed and the Washington Consensus while at the same time spearheading the expansion of their primary goods sector. Their characteristic political innovation has been to tax their extractive sectors more heavily (and in some cases to expand government participation in them) and to redistribute that tax revenue to their citizens in the form of higher social spending, infrastructure investments and development projects.
As long as global commodity prices were high, the pink tide governments made significant strides in reducing poverty, but as soon as they fell, so did the pink tide. Progressive governments across the region lost elections or were driven from power. The question that remains is whether the pink tide was only made possible by the rise in commodity prices from 2000 to 2015, which was mainly driven by China’s rapid economic growth. One also wonders if the pink tide was a missed historic opportunity for the left in Latin America. The neoliberal structural adjustment policy in Latin America triggered huge waves of protests from the population, and these protests contained opportunities for more autonomous and less dependent development patterns in Latin America. Have the Pink Tide governments essentially pacified the protests against neoliberalism with higher social spending for the poor, while at the same time deepening their countries’ economic dependence and increasing their vulnerability to a volatile world market for primary goods?
Latin American Extractivism, a recent anthology of research articles edited by Steve Ellner, argues against an overly dismissive reading of the pink tide in Latin America and for a more careful consideration of the political patterns of contention that have surrounded the region’s turn to extractivism. In his introduction to the volume, Ellner targets critics of the Pink Tide who claim that all Latin American countries have been drawn into a “raw materials consensus” in which both conservative and Pink Tide governments focused on increasing primary production for the world market .
These critics envision that the left failed to establish a new development path during the Pink Tide era. Progressive governments thought they could manage “a creative tension” between expanding primary good exports on the one hand and fulfilling the aspirations of indigenous peoples and rural communities who have been the main supporters of these governments in various countries. Svampa (2018) notes that as the boundaries of capital widened with the development of geographically expanded export enclaves, the conflicts between the Pink Tide governments and indigenous / rural constituencies inevitably escalated. Resistance to extractivism was ridiculed as a betrayal of national interests. Regions that absorbed large amounts of dispossession and environmental degradation became victim zones for the nation’s general advancement. But this progress proved to be scant. As the prices of primary goods collapsed after the Great Recession, progressive governments cut their social spending, deepened extractivism, and became increasingly indistinguishable from their conservative opponents.
Ellner and the authors of this volume respond to these arguments by pointing out that the Pink Tide governments mobilized politically potent resource nationalism against foreign mining, energy, and agribusiness companies that were used to favorable investment terms from host countries to back up. Angosto-Ferrandez (Chapter 4) argues that resource nationalism is hardly a depleted force, despite the turn to the right in Latin American politics after 2015. In this regard, see the return of the Peronist left to power in Argentina in 2019, the explosion of a mass protest movement against social and economic inequality in Chile. It’s also important to note that the Pink Tide governments in Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, and Paraguay have not so much lost power as they have been driven out of power by hostile elites through legal maneuvers, military pressure, and fearless US support.
In addition, the weaknesses of the Pink Tide governments with regard to the resistance of the elites and external actors must be understood. In the case of Bolivia, Macias Vasquez and Garcia Arias (Chapter 2) show that the IMF’s structural adjustment policies required the maintenance of current account surpluses in order to demonstrate its ability to meet its international financial obligations. Brazil faced similar restrictions (Boito and Sahd-Fiho 2016). Macias Vasquez and Garcia Arias conclude that the problem for Bolivia was not to overcome extractivism through extractivism, but to try to achieve structural change in the economy without the influence of financialization on channeling the out the export of raw materials ”(p.71).
In the case of Mexico, the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) in 2018 with a majority of votes in a three-candidate race is further evidence of the resilience of resource nationalism. As Tetreault notes (Chapter 6), AMLO has sought to revitalize the role of PEMEX (Mexico’s state-owned oil company) in the Mexican energy sector by building additional refining capacity and restricting foreign energy companies’ participation in the Mexican hydrocarbon industry. AMLO has also urged foreign companies to reduce their stake in Mexico’s internal power grid (Hackbarth 2021). Much like other Pink Tide governments, AMLO was ready to deny and denigrate the concerns of indigenous and rural communities. Even more worrying is the assassination of 19 different defenders of the country, territory and the environment in Mexico during the first year of the AMLO presidency (Chapter 6). Nonetheless, AMLO has maintained high levels of public approval, not so much because its policies work (they don’t), but based on the appeal of resource nationalism.
A glaring loophole in this volume is the lack of any coverage of Brazil. Boiito and Sahd-Fiho (2016) examine how the Brazilian state was a contested terrain between different class factions – especially the internal and external bourgeoisie. This analysis suggests that Nicos Poulantzas, one of the leading Marxist theorists of the capitalist state, inspired the conception of the state as a material condensation of the changing balance of power between class forces. Such an approach would provide a more succinct illustration of the Pink Tide governments’ ability to open new development paths for their countries. in the Latin American Extractivism, Bebbington, Fash, and Rogan (Chapter 9) go furthest in this direction by focusing on the importance of political settlements within the state as the basis for the formulation of mining and water policies that are essential components of extractivism. Bebbington and his colleagues explain the success and failure of mining bans in El Salvador by focusing on “the importance of negotiations and disputes between elites and between elites and excluded groups in shaping politics” (p.218).
Other contributions to this volume focus on the ability of subaltern groups to shape the overall direction of extractivism in Latin America. Velasquez (Chapter 6) examines how indigenous ideas about nature in Ecuador could curb the extractivist policies of the governments of Raphael Correa and his successor Lenin Moreno. She suggests that “indigenousness is linked to the new form of governmentality in which the neoliberal state and international financial institutions have absorbed some of the demands of indigenous peoples without fully dealing with their demands for collective resource rights” (p.168). This sounds hopeful, but it is refuted by the steady right-wing march of successive governments in Ecuador, which culminated in the April 2021 election of the conservative billionaire Guillermo Lasso in April 2021, mainly because of the unpopularity of the outgoing Lenin Moreno (Toussaint 2021).
Leguizamon (Chapter 8) writes about Argentina and examines the conflict over the expansion of soybean cultivation through the development of capital-intensive techniques of no-tillage and the extensive use of herbicides. These chemicals migrate from fields to nearby households and communities, and driving a car exacerbates respiratory diseases, rashes, miscarriages, and birth defects. The resulting health concerns were taken up by mothers in poor neighborhoods who blocked the construction of a Monsanto seed company and became major protagonists of social and environmental justice in Argentina. The question Leguizamon raises is whether matriarchal care, which grows out of the domestic sphere of the household, can dampen the masculine and modernist pursuit of progress through the transformation of nature in public spaces.
Similar to Valasquez, Leguizamon emphasizes counter-hegemonic forces that are able to resist and potentially transform extraivist strategies of economic growth. Other essays in this volume follow a similar path. In Colombia, Hernandez Reyes (Chapter 11) uses the concept of intersectionality to discuss both the specificity of oppression and resilience of Afro-Colombian women in the Pacific province of Cauca. In Venezuela and Bolivia, Angosto Ferrandez (Chapter 4) and Toledo Orozco (Chapter 11), respectively, discuss the ability of indigenous peoples to engage with extractivism in order to promote their own interests in autonomy and cultural survival.
These are enlightening discussions, but I’m skeptical of whether they question the conclusions of the sternest critics of the pink tide (Gudynas and Svampas in particular) who suggest that extractivism is a developmental impasse for Latin America regardless of the political appeal of resource nationalism or the dubious ability of counter-hegemonial identities to push progressive extractivism (run by Pink Tide governments) in a more inclusive and positive direction.
There are several key issues these authors discuss that are not dealt with effectively in Ellner’s volume: the inability of the Pink Tide countries to transform the structures of the world market in such a way that their development interests could be furthered (Gudynas 2010). This was the legacy of the New International Economic Order of the 1970s, which neither the Pink Tide countries nor the developing world in general addressed. One reason for this is the tendency of the Pink Tide governments and their supporters to associate resource extraction with development and identify both with the interests of the nation.
What is needed, suggest Svampa and Viale (2021), is a completely different idea of internal and autonomous capacities for growth and development. The economic dependence of extractivism can be managed as a means to this end, but cannot be considered a core process of development. A crucial dimension of the problem is the relationship between rural and urban areas. Latin America is highly urbanized and progressive extractivism has benefited largely from the state’s encouragement of export-oriented development to urban populations at the expense of rural communities. Land reform and a shift to production for the domestic market could enable a different relationship between town and country.
Ellner’s band might have gone even further in this direction if he had been more focused on the dialogue with the perspectives he criticized. A welcome addition to such a volume would have been comments from critics – including writers such as Svampa and Gudynas – on the criticisms raised against them. Nevertheless, this volume is an important contribution to understanding the political, economic and cultural dynamics of extractivism in Latin America.
Further reading on e-international relations