The Origins of Anti-Extractivism

The Origins of Anti-Extractivism

In Resource Radicals, Thea Riofrancos explores how conflicts between left movements and the left government in Ecuador produced a militant critique of the extractive model of development.

Ecuador's largest copper mine, Mirador, which was the target of major protests in 2019 (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP via Getty Images)

Booked is a series of interviews about new books. For this edition, Nick Serpe speaks with Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press).

Nick Serpe: Can you explain the overall scope and aim of Resource Radicals?

Thea Riofrancos: In the social science literature, there’s this sense that countries or states that rely on mining or oil for their revenues are doomed to some kind of pathology: they’re going to be authoritarian, or stuck in underdevelopment. There’s a related notion that resource politics are an elite affair: that what governs the global oil economy is corporations, or the members of OPEC, or oil ministers—and likewise for mining. What I learned doing ethnographic research in Ecuador is that resource politics is much more contested and interesting.

Focusing on resource politics as this vibrant field of contention gives a different view of the stakes of resource conflicts, and the innovative tactics, strategies, and discourses that movements on the ground articulate in the course of struggling against elite actors. I think this will resonate with people who are interested in forms of local resistance to pipelines and oil projects. These forms of resistance are not just localized or idiosyncratic events, but are really part and parcel of what resource politics is today. Communities, movements, and their allies have been empowered to set the terms of resource conflict. That’s the big global story.

The more specific story about Latin America is how communities and movements came to militantly resist resource extraction. There was a new radical stance that extraction was an all-around negative, that it would dispossess communities, and especially Indigenous peoples, of their territory and land, that it would harm the ecosystems that they rely on and live in, that it would undermine their collective rights and forms of local democracy. This is the whole set of ideas that crystallized as anti-extractivism.

I trace the development of that idea in Ecuador, where anti-extractive politics is particularly militant, vibrant, and salient. That’s in large part because radical resource politics has a long history in Ecuador, though its specific forms have changed over time. Movements in the 1980s, the 1990s, and the early 2000s were critical of the fact that Ecuador, like the rest of the Global South, had been plundered since the sixteenth century by European and then American powers. In this time period, radical resource politics took a more nationalist form, which resonated with Third World Marxism and revolutionary nationalism, currents that since the 1970s have had real influence across the Global South. In that framework, the problem with resource extraction was not primarily the environmental effects or the violations of Indigenous rights, but that the profits always went elsewhere. They benefited the Global North, the core, the colonial powers. In the conjuncture I study, which is marked by the Pink Tide of leftist governments and a period of really high prices for commodities, movements began to shift away from this revolutionary nationalist, or more ownership-focused, resource politics, and toward a more militant critique of extraction itself. Movements changed their ideas and strategies and discourses in relation to political-economic conditions.

Serpe: What do you think was going on in this moment, in this place, that allowed for novel political formations and ideas to emerge? I remember, in the mid-2000s, developing a strong interest in Latin American politics, because it really did seem, at a time of relative quiet on the U.S. left, like a place where hopeful and new things were happening.

Riofrancos: Part of why I was drawn to studying Latin America has to do with a family connection—my dad’s side of the family is from Latin America—but as a young leftist, a lot of it was exactly what you say. Starting in the late ’90s, there was a sort of nadir of left politics in the United States. Not that nothing was going on—there was the Battle of Seattle in 1999—but there wasn’t a left like there is today that actually saw some horizon of taking power. It was a resistance movement. At the exact same time, Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela. There was a real sense that the left could seize the state, and this had been a demand from social movements for a couple decades at that point—to be elected to office, to form socialist and Indigenous parties, to rewrite constitutions. They had a programmatic vision that I found lacking in the United States at the time.

But as my book shows, this isn’t just about movements entering the state. It’s about the dynamic between leftists in power and left movements—a dynamic that’s at moments collaborative, at other moments conflictual, or both at the same time. In Ecuador, there was more conflict than in many other cases. After a brief honeymoon, movements on the left, including Indigenous movements—I call the latter left-wing because they articulate a deep critique of capitalism and imperialism woven in with ethnic and Indigenous identity-based demands and visions—and radical environmental and labor movements began to target President Rafael Correa’s government (2007–2017) as a source of the problems that they saw in Ecuador.

Still, there was an early moment of heady inspiration. There were regional developments that were, though I hesitate to use the term, world-historic. It’s very unusual to have so many left-wing governments in the same region with similar visions in direct conversation with one another, trying to push forward a vision of socioeconomic transformation and regional sovereignty. That’s really momentous. At the same time, there was another momentous thing happening, with origins elsewhere on the planet: the commodity boom. This was an unusually long period of high prices for primary commodities from the early 2000s to 2014, when the oil price plunged. What was also unusual was how many commodities were affected, due to China’s period of rapid industrialization. In China, peasants moving off the land and becoming factory workers had to eat somehow; a lot of these food commodities came from Latin America, and a lot of the commodities that became iPhones or T-shirts, or whatever they became, also came from Latin America.

Democratically elected leftist governments in power had the economic room to maneuver, to spend on social programs and public infrastructure and unmet social needs: hunger, malnutrition, lack of affordable housing, sanitation, all issues related to poverty and inequality. Because Latin America had very low taxation rates, it was the resource revenues that gave these governments—whether it was Evo Morales in Bolivia, Chávez in Venezuela, or Correa in Ecuador—the ability to spend and do so quickly to live up to those campaign promises. That led to a virtuous political cycle. They got re-elected, and their approval ratings were very high. This also happened with the legislature and at the sub-national level. There was something approaching hegemonic political power on the left.

The other side to that virtuous political cycle was the rapid intensification of extraction, agribusiness (which we could put under the extraction rubric), and mega-development projects—energy projects, ports, highways, the logistical hubs that allow all these commodities to come to market. All of those types of projects, some of which we might deem socially necessary, have negative social and environmental effects, especially if they’re done very quickly, without proper regulatory frameworks, and without a real say for the communities that are most affected. Those negative effects happened everywhere in Latin America, but it was in Ecuador in particular, and probably Bolivia second, where those negative impacts were met with massive forms of resistance and direct action.

Serpe: You suggest that anti-extractivism crystallized because of the success of that hegemonic left project. I think there’s a temptation, reading this book from the perspective of someone in the United States, to see a common ideological conflict—growth versus the environment, the greens versus the reds—in all sorts of different places. What were the specific factors that contributed to the development of what you describe as a novel form of post-neoliberal politics in anti-extractivism? What were the conflicts on the ground and the ideological currents around this time in Ecuador?

Riofrancos: That temptation to simplify is there—and it should be resisted. Because the left coming to power and this novel form of militant environmental, Indigenous resistance against extraction are deeply connected to one another. One trigger for why the conflict developed and became as deeply agonistic as it was in the Ecuadorian case is because the left came to power during a commodity boom, intensifying extraction and spending that money on social welfare programs. From the perspective of the local communities affected by extraction, as well as radical environmentalists, some based in urban areas, the left in power became associated with rapacious extraction.

A second important enabling condition was the rewriting of the constitution. As I mentioned, Latin American leftists have been really focused on state power—attaining it and shaping it. One of the key ways to do that is by rewriting the constitution. We’ve had a lot of discussion about the constitution in the United States recently, but one of the things that’s often shared, left and right, is the idea that the constitution just is what it is, and there’s nothing to do about it. The best you can do is interpret it in a more liberal, or contextually specific, or progressive way. In contrast, Latin American leftists and Indigenous movements saw that in order to transcend not just neoliberalism but white and Creole power—the heritage of European supremacy—you needed to rewrite the constitution. In particular, you needed constitutions that made it clear that popular sovereignty was a governing principle that endowed not just individuals but also collectivities and social groups with rights. You needed rights that went beyond the liberal panoply of rights, like freedom of expression or assembly, and gave people rights to social and economic well-being. Ecuador’s 2008 constitution is the only in the world that recognizes nature as a subject of rights.

The Ecuadorian constitution also says that the state owns natural resources and can decide what to do with them. So, in the constitution itself, there’s an ambivalence. There’s a tension. Do Indigenous communities have the right of refusal? Do they have the right to a clean environment? Does nature have its own rights to reproduce and regenerate? Or does the state have the right, in the last instance, to say whether an extractive project moves forward? The 2008 constitution empowered both sides of this conflict with new legal tools to defend their positions. But it was movements, more than state actors, that took to the constitution to defend the anti-extractive struggle. They went to the courts to defend the rights of nature in the legal sense. They deployed the constitution in discourse, in their communiqués, and in how they framed things to the press and fellow activists.

The third condition that helps explain the content and the timing of this conflict over extraction was the Correa government’s early decision to prioritize mining. State finances in Ecuador, like in Venezuela, are financed by oil. Oil has been one of the most important sectors in Ecuador since the early 1970s. But oil was not enough to fund expansive social spending; Ecuador is not a huge player on the international oil market. Correa saw mining as this literally untapped potential. All of Ecuador’s neighbors have major mining sectors, a lot of which date to colonialism. But Ecuador, for various reasons, had never developed its copper or gold potential; oil was enough for the anemic forms of spending that the state was involved in earlier. Correa says, we’re going to keep the oil, but we’re also going to inaugurate a new period of large-scale mining, including open-pit mines. Many were constructed in areas that are extremely biodiverse, and are home to Indigenous communities, including some without prior direct experience of the circuits of the extractive economy.

What researchers have shown—and what is borne out by my ethnographic work—is that when you introduce a new extractive sector, there’s more open conflict over it. Once extraction is institutionalized, it tends to be normalized, which is why we see communities, unfortunately and tragically, living amid environmental devastation. It becomes the background, to an extent; and the industry becomes so powerful that it can repress opposition. But when an industry is new, and trying to expand territorially, it provokes new forms of conflict.

All of these factors are layered on one another. It was a new extractive sector in a setting in which people had new collective rights, in a moment when the left in power had raised expectations of what was possible, during a commodity boom spurred by China’s new role in Latin America.

Serpe: Turning back to the idea that these left governments strongly emphasized their desire to break with neoliberalism, what did neoliberalism mean to them, and what would a break from it mean? How does that compare to the way that the anti-extractivists start to think about breaking with the dominant economic model—with developmentalism itself?

Riofrancos: Ecuador’s really interesting in this respect. In Bolivia, for example, Evo Morales came to power after a whole life of involvement on the left as a trade union activist, as someone very clear about how his class and ethnic identity are sources of marginalization, and of the power of popular sectors. He came to power as a movement actor and participant. Correa had a very different route to power. Suffice to say, he is a heterodox economist—we might say left-liberal, except those labels don’t quite mean the same thing outside of the United States. He’s a left technocrat. He doesn’t have a revolutionary or movement background, he’s not organically connected to Indigenous communities or to other popular sectors. He’s from the middle class; he gets educated in the United States. His vision of neoliberalism, which was shared by many people in his cabinet and in his party, wasn’t what movements understood it as in the 1990s and early 2000s, when it was being implemented in Ecuador for the first time.

Movements understood neoliberalism as an incarnation of global capitalism, or of imperialism—a similar definition to what you might get in David Harvey’s work. It’s the latest version of capitalism, with all the bad old stuff and some new bad stuff. They had a systemic critique that saw neoliberalism as a class project; the domestic ruling class was at fault, and the Global North was also at fault. It’s a radical vision.

Correa and his government saw neoliberalism less as a terrible incarnation of capitalism but rather as a lack of state capacity. That’s how they defined it. It was a much less transformative vision, even though it had some truth to it. Left state actors in Ecuador saw in neoliberalism the reproduction of the historic incapacity of the Latin American state to properly regulate capital, to properly collect taxes from wealthy people, to regulate environmental and social and labor policy, and to have a coordinating function over the economy.

For inspiration, these state actors looked to South Korea. You used the word “developmentalism,” which is the idea that the state takes a real role in economic development, not supplanting private capital but working with capital to develop new sectors. This is also called industrial policy. On multiple occasions, Correa said what he looked to was not socialism, like Castro’s Cuba or other past experiments or new kinds of socialism, although he called himself a twenty-first-century socialist. Rather, the model was a state involved in incentivizing new forms of investment, higher human capital, and overall social well-being, in a way that was synergistic with capitalism.

When Correa came to power, the movements shifted their target of their opposition away from neoliberalism and toward extractivism—the extractive model of development. They saw this as deeply rooted in global capitalism and imperialism. The Indigenous perspective is important here, though non-Indigenous environmentalists also shared this idea—that Western civilization is based on infinite growth and expansion, rapacious extraction, and exploitative relationships between humans and between humans and nature. This, to them, was not just about a mode of production within modernity, but something like modernity itself.

It’s hard to sometimes say, among the left, whose critique is more radical. But I would say that the critique of extractivism was trying to get at something that was deeper than capitalism, or that was at the basis of capitalism, that prior forms of leftism and socialism had not adequately diagnosed and had therefore reproduced. If you don’t break with extractivism, they argued, however great your socialism is in terms of egalitarianism or social welfare, it’s going to reproduce some of the worst aspects of global capitalism.

Serpe: Where have things settled in this conflict at the present moment? With Correa out of office and Lenín Moreno having secured power, does this fault line between resource nationalists and anti-extractivists hold, or is the terrain shifting?

Riofrancos: I’m going to answer that with two endpoints in mind. First, the end of the Correa administration. He was in power ten years. Where did the balance of that conflict hang in 2017 at the end of his tenure? And then, where are we now?

Both sides won things, and both sides faced major limitations in their projects. A year after the period of commodity-fueled growth (which, as I said, lasted until roughly 2014), Ecuador went into recession. There were major questions around the viability of Correa’s massive social spending program without doing something more transformative, like really expropriating assets from the rich, whether through ordinary progressive taxation or through other forms of redistribution of property. Correa, to his credit, did attempt to do those things. He was semi-successful in making the tax system more progressive. But elites really pushed back. Correa had waited too long, in a way, because he had had seven years of resource rents that allowed him to spend without expropriation, and by the time he wanted to expropriate, there was lower growth, elites were guarding their piece of the pie, and the masses were less enamored of him because growth and spending were slowing down. He found himself in a really bad political position. But for many years, he was able to shore up this political-economic model quite successfully, and was time and again the most popular president in Ecuador’s history whenever polls were taken. Millions were pulled out of poverty and inequality dramatically decreased, but the commodity crash showed those achievements were precarious. They’re especially precarious now, with the pandemic.

On the movement side, they were not able to completely resist, let alone transform, an extractive model of development. However, they did have some real victories. They slowed down extractive projects. There’s a gold-mining project in the book that still has not been developed because movements there had strong urban-rural coalitions with very effective organizational structures; they got local anti-extractive people into office. It was one of the top five projects that Correa wanted to develop. Two, however, have been developed. There is a big open-pit copper mine in the Amazon that’s extremely concerning.

I don’t want to downplay how successful the movements were at stalling specific extractive projects, as well as shaping the terms of the debate with a radical, militant critique. Their limitations were in building a popular coalition that went beyond the localities most directly affected by extraction. This is the limit of a certain type of anti-extractivist resistance in general. Such resistance focuses on what Naomi Klein calls, in her book This Changes Everything, “blockadia”: the sites of immediate impact. Those sites are myriad and growing because extraction is always expanding, but as they are not generally the sites of the densest population, they don’t always align with building a movement that has lots of, say, urban working-class people in it or urban poor people or shanty-dwellers. Those groups are indirectly and sometimes directly affected by extraction, but they are different than an Indigenous or peasant community facing the onslaught of a mine dispossessing them of their territory. The challenge for anti-extractivism is to encompass a broader sort of popular movement of the type that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s against neoliberal elites and the IMF—the more heterogenous social movement that gave rise to the Pink Tide.

It’s a little ironic that Ecuador’s current president’s name is Lenín Moreno, because despite being Correa’s vice president from 2007 to 2013, Moreno has really betrayed even that more technocratic leftism that Correa represented. He’s signed deals with the IMF and he’s tried to implement austerity policies that were much worse than Correa’s when he faced that budget gap. He’s really been a disappointment for the left.

Moreno, as part of a deal with the IMF, agreed to eliminate a fuel subsidy that has been in place since the early days of Ecuador being an oil state. That subsidy made things like gasoline or motorcycle diesel cheaper for ordinary people. It’s a regressive subsidy, because wealthier people use more fuel and therefore get a bigger subsidy. But at the margins, it helps lower-class people much more than it does wealthy people. When Moreno decided, along with the IMF, to eliminate this in order to balance the state budget, there was a massive protest. They stormed the capital, they took over the national assembly briefly, they filled all the plazas, and it went on for at least twelve days. Moreno’s hand was forced, and he reinstated the fuel subsidy.

This hearkened back to the neoliberal era by provoking a popular movement that was broader than the anti-extractive movement. Lower-class and middle-class urban residents were out in the streets in a way that has not happened as much with protests focused on extraction. In the protests against Moreno as well as most other large-scale demonstrations in recent history, the key protagonist articulating broader protest demands has been the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), which have toppled so many presidents that scholars have called it the most powerful social movement in the hemisphere. They were articulators of anti-neoliberal protests in the ’90s and 2000s, anti-extractive protests during Correa’s time in office, and this renewed popular uprising against the cut to the fuel subsidy.

It’s an interesting tension to wrestle with the fact that the demand was for a fossil fuel subsidy, especially since these movements are also anti-extractive. But in this case, they were more concerned with defending ordinary peoples’ abilities to survive. What would a just transition in this context look like? What is a way forward to defend ordinary peoples’ livelihoods without being contingent on a subsidy to fossil fuels?

Serpe: I have one last question that ties together some of your work that’s not in this book—work you’ve done in the “lithium triangle,” in Chile in particular, and also in the United States, organizing around and writing about the Green New Deal. There have been critiques of the Green New Deal that point to the danger of a left-environmental politics that would turn the United States into a green social democracy while making various places in the world into sites of hyper-exploitation and extraction. Your new book project explores the conflicts within different countries alongside the international dimensions of potential conflicts that could emerge with decarbonization. Out of your research, do you see any promising signs for left-green politics in places in the Global North that engage seriously with anti-extractive politics in places like Ecuador?

Riofrancos: Yes. But it takes some thought. It’s not without tensions and dilemmas. I’m committed to a radical vision of the Green New Deal project in the United States—not a watered-down version, but one that has a transformative horizon of changing the basic priorities of how society is governed, how social groups relate to one another and to nature and to the government, what types of work are created and how much we work, how we live, what we eat—all of the multifaceted ways that a Green New Deal could change life. I’m also committed to internationalism, to solidarity, to global climate justice, and to avoiding the dangers of what we might call “green extractivism.” I’m borrowing that language from activists in Chile, who are very concerned about the expanding lithium frontier. Lithium is a key element for electric vehicles and renewable energy storage. The thing that allows me to align these different commitments is the possibility that those projects—a Green New Deal and international solidarity—can be complementary.

In order to hold those two goals together, we need to be honest about what confronting climate change and transitioning to renewable energy will require in terms of resource extraction and land use. There are going to be real physical, material effects in the world. Many of them are good, like the dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, which are killing people and ecosystems around the world, and dramatic reductions in localized pollution. But confronting climate change through a renewable energy transition does have negative material effects, too, in new forms of extraction. Everything needs to be hooked up to the grid, electrified, and that means wiring with copper. Renewable energy is not at all comparable to the level of toxicity of oil or coal or gas extraction, but solar and wind farms require a decent amount of land, and that can compete with other uses or values of that land.

Given all that, in the United States, how can we fight for a Green New Deal, a socially just renewable energy transition, that is less rapacious in how many resources it requires? Once you start thinking about how much an energy or transit or housing system requires in materials, you see all sorts of opportunities to be more efficient, to pull less stuff out of the ground.

An easy example is mass transit, cycling, and walking, as opposed to everybody driving an electric vehicle. We do need to electrify transit, and that does mean that we will need some lithium. It doesn’t have to come from South America. There are also lithium deposits in the United States, not that I’m necessarily encouraging us to extract those—again, there are environmental downsides to everything. Regardless, there’s lithium that will need to be used, and it’s relatively abundant in the world. But we won’t need as much of it if the vision is mass transit, and walking and biking when possible, rather than every single human on Earth having a Tesla. There are ways to think about the energy transition that don’t require as devastating an amount of extraction as either fossil capitalism or a less transformative vision of the energy transition, something like green capitalism, might entail.

This is a real risk that ecosocialists need to think about. There is currently an idea in the European Union called the Green Deal—not the New Deal, just the Green Deal—and China has made great strides toward investments in renewable energy and electrification. So there are governing paradigms out there that are quickly becoming hegemonic in different contexts that say that we can have green growth, that we don’t really need to change anything about how society is organized, that we can still have individual and privatized forms of consumption and over-consumption, all we need to do is swap out the energy that’s used.

We have the potential everywhere in the world, including here in the United States right now, to fight for something that’s more transformative. Part of that goal includes using fewer resources and having forms of prosperity, abundance, happiness, and community that are not as mediated through extraction and hyper-consumerism. That means thinking a little more deeply about the type of society you want to create. That’s how I hold together a commitment to the Green New Deal, a commitment to solidarity, and a commitment to internationalism.

Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College, an Andrew Carnegie Fellow (2020–2022), and a Radcliffe Institute Fellow (2020–2021). Her research focuses on resource extraction, renewable energy, climate change, green technology, social movements, and the left in Latin America. These themes are explored in Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press, 2020) and her co-authored book A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (Verso Books, 2019). Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Boston Review, The Baffler, n+1, Dissent, and Jacobin, among others. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and serves on the steering committee of the organization’s Ecosocialist Working Group.

 Nick Serpe is a senior editor at Dissent.