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Extractivism and resistance in Latin America and the Caribbean

There is an unequal exposure to pollution depending on the systemic position of countries, power relations, as well as variables such as race, class or gender. Therefore, it is essential to politicize the debate of sustainability beyond conservationism. Español

María Villarreal Enara Echart Muñoz
6 February 2020
Activistas ambientalistas plantando arboles en Colombia. Wikimedia Commons.
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The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.

In recent weeks, we have been witnessing the mobilization of young people from around the world, demanding urgent measures from the leaders gathered at the Earth Summit in New York to protect the future of our planet. The importance of these protests for greater environmental justice must not allow us to forget other cries, other daily struggles in multiple territories, most of the time invisible which create what Joan Martínez Alier called The Environmentalism of the Poor, a concept which is behind the essential thought process necessary for creating solutions for the environmental crisis facing the planet.

The starting point is to understand that climate degradation is not democratic and does not affect everyone in the same way. There is an unequal exposure to pollution depending on the systemic position of countries, power relations, as well as variables such as race, class or gender.

Therefore, it is essential to politicize the debate of sustainability beyond conservationism, technological modernization or the internalization of environmental externalities, because more often than not, technical answers are offered, without taking into account the power relations and distributive issues. It is important to understand how the production and consumption of environmental goods and evils are unevenly distributed.

Environmentalism of the poor draws attention to the relationship between the expansion of capitalism, capitalist accumulation on a global scale, and ecological dispossession. It highlights several spatial fractures, which generate conflicts along the commodity production chains, during the extractive, transport, or waste generation phases, etc. Politicizing the debate involves incorporating the various struggles along these productive chains and trying to link them to the seriousness of environmental justice claims.

As a result, the cries of those who suffer the more direct consequences of environmental injustice tend to be ignored, as seen during the mobilizations of recent weeks. The violence and repression to which they are exposed demand urgent attention and greater transnational solidarity. According to Global Witness, in 2018, 164 defenders of the earth and environment were killed, and many more were silenced, with arrests, lawsuits or death threats.

More than half of these murders took place in Latin America and most of them are concentrated in the mining and extractive industries (43), agribusiness (21), water and dams (17), and forestry (13) sectors. The widespread impunity that guarantees the perpetuation of these acts, as well as the repression and criminalization of the populations that defend their territories and their right to life, are elements that account for the unquestioned progress of capitalist extractivism.

Extractivism can be defined as an accumulation modality based on the large-scale exploitation of natural resources for export purposes

Extractivism can be defined as an accumulation modality based on the large-scale exploitation of natural resources for export purposes, without concern for the impacts of its practices or sustainability. In full globalization, as a result of the incessant demand for raw materials and the provision of new technologies and better means of transport, extractive activities have expanded to include mining or oil exploitation projects, agribusiness activities, industrial tree planting, predatory fishing, construction of large infrastructure projects and large-scale luxury tourism.

In the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, extractivism is the historical model that structures the economies of the region. Since colonization, the peripheral insertion of Latin American countries into the capitalist economy was dependent on the central economies, through the exploitation and export of raw materials.

Therefore, the countries at the centre determined the production procedures and volume of exportable products, while industrializing their economies and using Latin American countries as markets for their manufactured products. The primary export model was consolidated after the independence processes and, despite national efforts and commitment to the regional strategy of Industrialization for Import Substitution (ISI), it remained throughout the twentieth century.

Due to the commodity boom at the beginning of the 21st century, this model experienced rapid growth, which determined the direction of regional economies. Contributions to the world system theory, especially those made by Immanuel Wallerstein, show that economic relations create a global system, in which the international division of labour benefits the nations of the centre that exploit the labour and resources of the peripheral countries.

In other words, the dynamics of the global capitalism market institutionalize the inequalities between the centre and the periphery, preventing the development of poor countries, while ensuring that rich countries are the main beneficiaries of the global chains of raw materials and wealth, generated by global capitalism.

Nowadays extractivism is the dominant model of production and development in the region. Its progress generates numerous socio-environmental conflicts, as well as the contamination and destruction of ecosystems, which end traditional ways of life and displace the population. Those who are directly affected, both individually but above all collectively, by extractive activities, do not remain passive in the face of these practices. They are protagonists of resistance and leaders in processes of struggle in favour of other forms of development. Discourses and practices of development, therefore, are the subject of dispute in the region and they formulate not only resistance strategies, but also alternative proposals.

Questions are not only asked about the failures and unfulfilled promises of Western development, but also about the ethnocentric, capitalist, colonial and patriarchal roots of this model in the countries of the South. Also questioned is the universal and homogenizing perspective that regards differences and other concepts of wellbeing as invisible.

The Environmentalism of the Poor, an approach proposed by Joan Martínez Alier, analyzes this process, illustrating how factors such as environmental racism, environmental pollution, and the destruction of ecosystems affect mainly Afro descendant populations, indigenous people and peasant women, especially in southern countries.

The struggle for survival is central to the issue of Environmentalism of the Poor, which involves the defense of land and natural resources by social movements and communities affected by the dominant development strategies.

As a result, criticism of development and the demand for new models of well-being are part of a global movement that exposes the asymmetries of economic growth, while promoting forms of environmental justice for the benefit of present and future generations. The protests and resistance arising from this framework also denounce the ecological debt of the countries of the North with respect to those of the South, and the continuous forms of exploitation without measure of consequences on territories or people.

For this reason, the struggle for survival is central to the issue of Environmentalism of the Poor, which involves the defense of land and natural resources by social movements and communities affected by the dominant development strategies. The defense, resistance and struggles of these groups include protests, blockades, occupations, artistic manifestations and strategic narratives about Pacha Mama in defense of natural resources.

Furthermore, given the state repression and criminalization of struggles and resistance, the above strategies cross borders and are linked to networks of international solidarity and transnational movements in favor of environmental and climate justice.

Starting from this premise, the Group of International Relations and Global South (GRISUL) developed Pacha: Defending the Land, a mapping of the struggles and resistance of the social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, which not only listens to, but also gives voice to these groups, highlighting their roles in the socioenvironmental conflicts resulting from extractivism. Our research used the database of the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJATLAS), a platform that brings together 2,903 socio-environmental conflicts, as well as the analysis of official documents and dialogues with local and regional organizations in defense of the environment.

Considering that Latin America and the Caribbean is the most dangerous region for environmental activists and opponents of extractivism, we selected 259 socio-environmental conflicts deriving from mining extractivism in the region. The chosen criteria being: the environmental, gender or ethnic impacts of these conflicts; the forced displacement that they provoke; the active participation of women, afro-descendants and indigenous people; and the role of multinationals and inferred alternatives.

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Source: GRISUL. Pacha: defending the land. Extractivism, conflicts and alternatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, UNIRIO: Rio de Janeiro, 2018.

Among the main results of our research is the expansion and diversification of extractive activities in Latin America and the Caribbean. Such a trend continued even during the progressive government cycles in South America, which implies, among other effects, the growth of mining activities in traditionally non-mining countries such as Uruguay, or the expansion of the extractive border in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico or Peru.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, extractivism, despite the renewed discourse of some of its practices, as well as attempts at lessening its effects through social policies, in truth remains harmful and has in fact increased, generating numerous socio-environmental conflicts. Extractivism causes environmental pollution, damage to health, violence, land misappropriation and the forced expulsion of the affected populations.

It also threatens food security and traditional ways of life, while affecting the permanent transformation of ecosystems, which reinforces the seriousness of actions of global phenomena such as climate change. Furthermore, these elements do not affect everyone equally.

The most affected groups are the Indigenous, Afro-descendants, peasants and women, historically more exposed to the enforcement of projects by the Latin American elites. In addition, the effects are reinforced by phenomena such as centralism, internal colonialism as well as the racist and patriarchal systems that historically characterize the countries of the region.

However, these affected groups take the lead in processes of struggle and resistance in defiance of the advance of this hegemonic development model. As the cases of the Aratirí (Uruguay), Pacific Rim El Dorado (El Salvador) or Conga (Peru) projects show, women play a central role in the processes of struggle and resistance. The Indigenous and Afro descendants are also key players in these processes.

Faced with the adverse effects of extractive activities, and the threats they pose to their collective rights and traditional ways of life, these groups react to expose their reality through organising marches and other forms of resistance. Marches such as “Water, Dignity and Life” or “Against Mining”, occupations, complaints and campaigns (national and international), as well as artistic activities, constitute the networks of solidarity and influence of a regional and global character.

Examples of these processes are the occupation of territories threatened by mining. Two examples being: Intag (Ecuador), the community organization in defence of territories in Challapata (Bolivia), Cajamarca (Peru) and Huasco (Chile); and the organization of the Saramaka people which fights to claim their ancestral territories, and their right to maintain their traditional practices of living in the state of Suriname.

Those who oppose extractivism and those leaders who defend life and territories face high stakes and often pay a high price. According to a recent article published in Nature Sustentability, 1,558 people were killed in 50 countries for defending the environment between 2002-2017. As we mentioned earlier, Latin America and the Caribbean is the most dangerous region for defenders of land and the environment. Brazil and Colombia are the most dangerous countries, and no Latin American State is far from this tragic domination.

In Brazil 700 defenders have been killed since the beginning of the 21st century, and according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, in just 10 years, 300 people were killed by criminal networks linked to the deforestation and land invasion industry in the Amazon, and only 14 of those cases were tried in court. In mid 2019, the deaths of Dilma Ferreira da Silva (coordinator of the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (MAB) in Brazil), Uriel Piranga Valencia (indigenous leader and former Cacique of Maticurú Reserve in Colombia), Sergio Rojas (indigenous leader Bribri in Costa Rica), Estelina López (land defender and member of the Luz y Fuerza del Pueblo Movement in Mexico), Jorge Juc Cucul (peasant and indigenous leader of the Comité de Desarrollo Campesino of Guatemala) are some of the many examples that illustrate the brutality of the violence that characterizes the progress of extractivism. Beyond the increasing number of murders, the violence that these people face is aggravated by the impunity that characterizes these crimes, as well as by the threats and judicial processes that these defenders constantly suffer.

Violence against these populations, in its multiple expressions, is exerted by transnational corporations, agents of organized crime, paramilitary groups and by state actors such as the Police, the Armed Forces or by those who should be the representatives of justice. Such actions are set up as part of the process of the criminalization of the defenders of the land and environment.

Campaigns to delegitimize and criminalize widespread resistance in Latin America and the Caribbean, accuse the leaders of threatening national security and of acts of “terrorism”, “sabotage”, “sedition”, or of opposing progress in their territories. The various forms of violence, as well as the stigmatization of the leaders of social movements and land defenders include threats against the defenders and their families, arbitrary detentions, court cases, evictions, forced displacement, and often murder.

These acts acquire particular characteristics in the cases of women and traditional communities, where sexual violence is added, and collective rape is used as a form of punishment or reprisal for the actions carried out by the movements.

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Source: GRISUL. Pacha: defending the land. Extractivism, conflicts and alternatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, UNIRIO: Rio de Janeiro, 2018.

A key element in understanding the complexity of capitalist extractivism in Latin America is that it is promoted by multinational companies in the North, but also increasingly by multinationals in the South, especially Asian and Latin American. For illustrative purposes, we highlight the case of the Brazilian multinational company Vale S.A.

This multinational is present in more than 30 countries around the world and, among other cases, is responsible for the rupture of the Fundão Waste Dam and for the rupture of the Brumadinho Dam, registered respectively in 2015 and 2019 in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. The consequences of the Mariana disaster include the permanent contamination of more than 300 km of the Doce River and the release of 60 million cubic meters of waste sludge that killed 19 people, destroyed villages and left more than one thousand inhabitants of the region homeless and without water, in addition to causing the death of various species of animals.

However, the most serious fact of this case is that, according to a report by the international group of specialists that analyzed the process, the company still goes unpunished. It is responsible for environmental and criminal crimes, since it knew the risks of the dam's activity and, despite this, the activities continued, putting the life of the adjacent population at risk. Similarly, according to the Comissão Parlamentar de Inquérito de Brumadinho, the breaking of the Brumadinho dam is the direct responsibility of Vale S.A, which did not take the necessary measures to avoid the disaster that left 249 dead and 21 missing.

Despite the destructive and lethal nature of the extractivist system, the responses of social movements and populations affected by these practices are not only limited to defending their territories and resisting their expansion, but to the strength and courage of the defenders of the land and environment, especially women, indigenous people and Afro descendants, and in the alternatives that they create. Cases of relevant examples include: the creation of the Gandarela National Park (Brazil), which includes forms of community tourism as opposed to a pre-existing mining project in the region; the emergence of projects inspired by the notion of Sumak Kawsay or Buen Vivir in Ecuador and Bolivia; and the creation of environmental protection legislation or the generation of alternative tourism networks to avoid mining in Sierra de la Ventana (Argentina).

Furthermore, the halting of mining projects in Intag (Ecuador), Cajamarca (Peru) or Challapata (Bolivia), some of which are still under dispute, has allowed the maintenance of traditional ways of life, through organic farming or livestock production for subsistence, but it has also led to transformation and innovation that includes forms of religious, ecological or cultural tourism.

According to Mariastella Svampa, the proposals made by these movements have a flexible, experimental character and are in constant transformation. Although the challenges they face are enormous, there is no doubt that they question the predatory exploitation of natural resources in search of economic growth and the supposed promotion of progress.

Those who resist and fight extractivism not only criticize the failure of this model in order to guarantee decent living conditions, but also the lethal nature of these practices. When organising the distribution of costs and benefits of the environment, attention is not only drawn the to possible changes in the ways of producing and extracting resources, but also to how they are governed. This way distribution is linked to demands that require that these groups paticipate in the making of decisions, to consider their needs for the recognition of their identities, thus taking on a politically democratic dimension.

In addition, they call into question the universality of the desire for consumption at any price, implicit in the Western hegemonic development model, as well as the homogeneity of views and ways of understanding the world that it fosters. In summary, they invite us to imagine the possibility of another world with different developments.

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Source: GRISUL. Pacha: defending the land. Extractivism, conflicts and alternatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, UNIRIO: Rio de Janeiro, 2018.

It is essential to show the struggles of these groups as part of a broad global movement in defence of our planet the Pacha Mama, and to see them not as isolated cases, or as victims of extractive projects, but to embrace their alternative proposals as part of an inspiring driving force, necessary for the transformation needed for environmental justice.

Note: This article and the maps used are the result of the research “South-South Cooperation and Development Models in Latin America”, carried out with the support of the Jovem Cientista do Nosso Estado Program, of the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (FAPERJ), and developed with the Research Group on International Relations and Global South (GRISUL) of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). We thank the GRISUL researchers for the work of collecting and organizing the data related to conflicts by extractivism (compiled in the booklet Pacha: defending the land. Extractivism, conflicts and alternatives in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2018. Available in Spanish and Portuguese also), as well as the Ateliê de Cartografia of Labmundo / IESP for the elaboration of the maps that illustrate this article.

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