Latin Americans debate ‘extractivism’

In a comprehensive review article in the Fall 2014 issue of Green Social Thought, long-time Left Green activist Don Fitz offers an insightful analysis of the current debates over ‘extractivism’ in Latin America.  While most environmental and indigenous activists are highly critical of the elevated levels of resource extraction that are occurring under nominally leftist governments in South America, proponents argue that it is unrealistic to reverse this trend, now that countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are aiming to use the proceeds from oil and mineral extraction to benefit their majority populations. Fitz’s article also serves as an introduction to four reprints offering very different perspectives on this question.

The table of contents can be downloaded here, and Fitz’s article here.  These are available only as pdfs from the magazine, not as separate web pages; links to each article can be found on the GST home page.

Don Fitz’s article begins:

The controversy over extractivism in Latin America has become a lot hotter. Though social justice and environmental activists have sought a partnership for years, this could become a wedge issue. The debate is core to our conceptualization of what type of society we are working to build and how we plan to get there.

Historically, social justice advocates have pointed to economic growth as the road to eliminating poverty. Inspired by authors such as Andre Gunder Frank and Eduardo Galeano, they understood that “underdevelopment” is not a result of Latin American countries’ lagging behind Europe and the US. It has flowed from their wealth being drained as they produced raw materials for rich countries. Could they break out of the “underdevelopment” cycle by keeping the profits from extracted raw materials?

A new generation of Latin American authors has challenged the focus on extractivism because of the damage it does to indigenous cultures, the environment, and the health of current and future generations. Yet, their challenge is itself being challenged by those who insist that governments such as those elected in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Brazil are improving the quality of life of millions of people by retaining a much greater proportion of extracted wealth.

One Reply to “Latin Americans debate ‘extractivism’”

  1. While Don Fitz raises interesting issues in his comparison of two perspectives on extraction as a tool for development, he overlooks scale ad the nuts an bolts of democratic procedure.
    Human life has always involved extraction as well as the rearrangement of natural elements–gravel, stone, lime, compost, wood, iron–into a more usable form. We exist in relationship to the environment, in many ways enhancing it, as with the development of food crops and domestication of animals. But this relationship is two-way. We must respect the integrity of natural entities and systems even as we alter them to suit our needs. This is not an easy adjustment to make. Making that determination is fundamentally political.
    The question then becomes, at what scale should such political determinations be made? Clearly not at the global level under the direction of multinational corporations–as stateless in their social responsibilities as they are deeply embedded into state governmental structures. At this point in history, the federal state–whether capitalist or organized as a planned economy operating within a global economy–has proved itself fundamentally corrupt. There are simply too many opportunities for the federal political class to enrich itself using the official leverage they wield. Thus the tragedy of the decline of populist politics in Mexico.
    What does that leave? I would say it leaves the municipality. Not the township that exists as a creature of the wider state, whether that be socialist or capitalist, but as is modeled on indigenous communities in southern Mexico. There, the community owns the land with use-rights extended to members; assemblies make strategic decisions, and all are required to contribute labor to community projects. Such communities are not autarchic but their relations with surrounding areas are deliberated upon and designed to serve the interests of the entire community. In such a community design, cyanide-leaching systems of gold extraction would be prohibited in the interest of preserving the water needed for both human consumption and the environment.
    Where does such a model leave the city? In need of fundamental restructuring, I’m afraid. As it now stands, world cities are a parasitic outgrowth of the global economy, essentially colonial both toward their hinterlands and internal underclasses. It is their demands for extractive resources that are tipping the climate into an irreversible tailspin even as their elites redefine human relations to be a matter of consumption and social control.

    Charles Simpson

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