On December 14, 2016, leftist President Rafael Correa declared a state of emergency in the province of Morona Santiago in the Amazonian region of Ecuador, deploying hundreds of troops and national police. This marked the culmination of years of clashes at the site of an open-pit copper mine in the area of San Carlos, which indigenous Shuar activists had occupied in protest against the expansion of mining and the threat posed to their territory and livelihoods. Between 2009 and 2015, three Shuar were killed by state forces while either protesting mining or defending their water rights. The months leading up to the 2016 state of emergency saw military raids and the violent dispossession of Shuar villages, leaving homes, tools, and agricultural plots destroyed. In mid-December, the conflict reached its peak in a clash that left a policeman dead, prompting Correa to call in the military.
The state of emergency officially lasted three months. But as of late 2017, there were ongoing reports of checkpoints, harassment, and criminalization, and the mining camp was still a militarized zone. Correa continued to verbally attack the Shuar in his weekly public addresses, and Shuar communities continued to protest.
This contentious episode occurred during Correa’s last year of ten in office. His Pink Tide administration coincided with a commodity boom that dramatically increased oil revenues. Resource rents underwrote an expansion of social spending and across-the-board reductions in poverty and inequality, and improvements in a host of human development indicators, from sanitation to nutrition. But those resource rents depended on an extractive model of accumulation predicated on violent forms of dispossession. The growth of extractive industries—and the razing of Amazon rainforest that often went with it—also contributed to climate change.
Resource rents proved economically precarious as the commodity boom went bust. In the fall of 2015, Ecuador plunged into a recession. The next budget slashed social spending, reducing state pensions and the number of people eligible for the administration’s successful cash welfare program. The cuts, along with increases on import taxes, still didn’t close the budget gap. Meanwhile, Ecuador was now billions of dollars in debt to China, which controlled 90 percent of oil shipments due to a loans-for-oil arrangement. Chinese firms are also behind many of the country’s largest metal-mining operations, including the San Carlos project.
In this respect, Ecuador, where I conducted fieldwork between 2011 and 2016, is an exemplary case of the inspiring and tragic arc of the Pink Tide. For all its important achievements, the promise of transformation devolved into austerity, debt, and dependency—not to mention outright conflict between social movements and a leftist government. What went wrong?
For the first decade and a half of this millennium, Latin America was the only region of the world where leftist governments coexisted and contended with the social movements whose struggles had cracked the hegemony of the Washington Consensus. Together, they opened up the possibility of radical transformations across state, economy, society, territory, and nature.
Today, across much of the region, that possibility seems to be in retreat, while in the United States we are witnessing the renewal of socialist politics and more militant movements. With a new crop of elected officials taking office on the backs of these movements, the U.S. left is beginning to confront some of the same kinds of strategic dilemmas its Latin-American counterparts did during the Pink Tide. Even across our starkly unequal hemisphere, leftist activists and candidates in the United States can learn from the complex relationship between the left-in-power—elected officials—and the left-in-resistance—social movements—that marked this turbulent era in Latin America.
When the left is in power, both governments and movements claim the mantle of representing “the people” and pursuing greater equality. As a result, the left-in-power is marked by a two-sided dilemma. First, from the position of governance, how do you occupy the state at the same time that you seek to transform it? Second, from the position of the left-in-resistance, how do you protest the state when the government’s avowed goals align with longstanding demands from below? How do you discern between top-down “cooptation” and grassroots success?
The relationship between the left-in-power and the left-in-resistance doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The inevitable reaction from the domestic right and transnational capital imposes a serious constraint on leftist governance, and complicates the strategies of leftist movements. This would be the case for the left anywhere in the world. But in Latin America this constraint is more powerful due to the condition of economic dependency.
Pink Tide governments inherited, and intensified, a model of accumulation based on the extraction and export of natural resources. This model enabled important forms of socioeconomic inclusion for the masses, while simultaneously undermining more radical transformations.
Meanwhile, anti-extractive movements had the capacity to stall or disrupt oil and mining projects at the local level—but faced the challenge of assembling a popular-sector coalition with the power to transform the extractive model. In a warming world riven by inequality, it’s more vital than ever to understand the achievements and the limitations of both of these leftist orientations to extraction.
For the left-in-power, hydrocarbon and mineral resources provide crucial revenues to fund social spending and public infrastructure. In a deeply unequal society, such policies directly benefit the majority of the population and consolidate the political support of the economically precarious masses. Equally important is their ideological resonance. A long history of popular demands for expropriation and nationalization, often rooted in oil- and mining-worker militancy, framed resources as the collective property of the people.
However, it is precisely the goal of economic sovereignty that the “extractive model” renders elusive. Instead, that model has implicated Latin-American countries in new forms of dependency—especially tied up in China’s ascendance—and made them vulnerable to the boom-and-bust cycle of global commodity markets. Extractive sectors show us some of the clearest continuities between neoliberal and avowedly post-neoliberal reforms.
The reliance on resource rents also undermines the core leftist goal of equality. In boom times, resource rents enable material benefits for the least well-off precisely because they do not require income redistribution, let alone expropriation.
Echoing the postwar social democratic bargain in core capitalist states, itself enabled by abundant cheap energy, commodity-export-led growth is a positive-sum game: governments can boost the incomes of the poor without reducing the wealth of the rich, thus ensuring the political support of the former without provoking the reaction of the latter. But when the bust inevitably slashes state revenues, even left governments resort to austerity measures. In Ecuador, over the ten years Correa was in power, the population living in poverty declined from 37 to 22 percent. This is an impressive achievement by any standard. But it’s telling that the downward trend plateaued in 2014, the year that oil prices dropped precipitously.
In such a context, what are the opportunities for and challenges to social mobilization from below? Across Latin America, scholars have noted an escalation in resource-related conflict in mining and oil sectors, and in response to large-scale infrastructure and energy projects. This is a global trend but is particularly pronounced in Latin America, which saw a rapid growth in investment in these sectors, accompanied by conflict as well as state repression. According to University of Ottawa scholars Paul Haslam and Nasser Ary Tanimoune, between 1998 and 2012 there were 133 mining-related conflicts in Latin America, representing 21 percent of total mining properties. The vast majority of these are open-pit mines, which are particularly disruptive to ecosystems, livelihoods, and indigenous and campesino territories. While conducting fieldwork, I witnessed a proliferation of protest activity, usually near planned sites of extraction but also in urban spaces, with the participation of directly affected communities, often organizationally linked to regional and national indigenous federations, and allied radical environmentalists. As researchers Sara Latorre, Katharine Farrell, and Joan Martínez-Alier showed in an article in Ecological Economics, conflicts in response to “accumulation by dispossession,” whether oil extraction or shrimp farming, that began when politicians courted foreign investment during the neoliberal period continued under the Correa administration. And with Correa’s avid promotion of large-scale mining, resistance to this new extractive sector expanded.
Extraction occurs in particular places, as do its most immediately palpable socio-environmental consequences—soil and water contamination, deforestation, disruption of ecosystems, displacement, migration. Such localized impacts in part account for the proliferation of local protest. Geography, however, is not destiny. Rather, the relationship between local communities—starting with their very identification as “directly affected,” itself a legal category—and extractive projects depends on prior experiences with popular organization and perceived threats to preexisting economic livelihoods.
Under the right conditions, local communities can exercise powerful collective resistance. Given their direct entanglement in the extractive process, they have the capacity to stall and disrupt projects. What Naomi Klein refers to as “blockadia”—a loose, horizontal network of communities in resistance to extractive projects—is absolutely essential to keep as much oil, coal, and natural gas as possible in the ground, where they must stay if we have any hope of averting the worst of climate change. When communities join together in broader alliances, such protests can potentially shape policies beyond the local level.
However, an anti-extractive strategy that centers on directly affected communities is also by its nature a limited one: the legal and moral force of their grievances and demands is rooted in claims to spatial proximity and, often, particular rights like prior consultation, linked to that proximity or to their indigenous identity. Even though this strategy has proven effective at contesting specific projects, its geographic constraints make it a tenuous basis for a wider popular movement against extraction.
A territorially diverse coalition must include not only people who aren’t immediately harmed by extraction but also those who stand to benefit from resource-funded social programs and public infrastructure—a population that, under prevailing conceptions of “directly affected,” is much larger than frontline communities. In the absence of a rural-urban popular alliance capable of both contesting and taking state power, it is hard to imagine how the extractive model of accumulation will be transformed.
Fortunately, across the Americas, there are inspiring examples of such coalitions. Last year in El Salvador, an alliance of anti-mining groups, progressive Catholic leaders, and national environmental NGOs pressured the government to adopt the world’s first national ban on metallic mining. For this movement, the defense of water was a central concern. Activism against large-scale mining first scaled up to the national level in 2005, in response to neoliberal policies that courted private investment in the sector. But as political scientist Rose Spalding has shown, anti-mining activism in El Salvador is rooted in community organizations that date to the late stages of the country’s civil war, which ended in the early 1990s. Refugees who had fled massacres returned to villages that had largely been abandoned by the state and turned to collective self-governance as a form of survival. The result was a dense network of rural communities linked together in an umbrella organization—a powerful front of resistance when large-scale mining reached the extraction permit stage in 2004.
In direct response to the national anti-mining movement’s demands, deputies of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) introduced a bill to ban large-scale mining in 2006. Eleven years later, the law was adopted unanimously by El Salvador’s legislature. A number of factors account for this success: dense organizational structure linking affected communities together; the movement’s ability to frame the national conversation around impacts on the country’s vulnerable water system; the innovative use of municipal consultas on mining (all of which registered community opposition); and the strong support of progressive Catholic bishops as well as FMLN deputies in congress. This movement-party dynamic, built on longstanding ties between rural community movements and the FMLN, was essential to channeling popular power into policy change.
Even such successes in blocking extraction, however, present a further challenge, for both the left-in-power and the left-in-resistance: identifying alternatives.
Some policymakers in Pink Tide governments embraced a contradictory stance of intensifying extraction in the present to fund an ever-deferred transition to a new economic model. But there has been little progress in decreasing reliance on resource rents. Meanwhile, activists’ proposals tended to align with the local scale of anti-extractive organizing, such as ecotourism and organic agriculture. While such livelihoods are essential to building a post-extractive economy, they face the challenge of addressing the substantial material needs of most of the population—and may struggle to gain broad political support.
Those of us pushing for a post-extractive transition must grapple with two challenges: divestment from existing oil and mining projects and implementing moratoria on new projects, and replacing extractive revenues with taxes on the rich and reinvesting existing rents into non-extractive sectors.
This transition must address the complexities imposed not just by a compressed time frame but by disparate geographic conditions. Local resistance to extractive projects is absolutely vital. Keeping a maximum amount of fossil fuels and mineral reserves in the ground is a prerequisite for any kind of a just transition. But that won’t be possible without a deeper economic transformation at the national and regional levels, from a model based on extraction to one that prioritizes social and environmental reproduction.
The urgency and complexity of such a transition brings us back to the thorny relationship between the left-in-power and the left-in-resistance. Such transformations at the level of public policy are unthinkable without a muscular coalition of popular movements with the capacity to disrupt the daily operations of extractive capital and, in its place, build new forms of solidarity.
Thea Riofrancos is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Providence College. Her forthcoming book is Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press). Her writings have appeared in n+1, Dissent, Jacobin, In These Times, and NACLA. She is also the co-chair of Providence Democratic Socialists of America.