North Africa, West Asia

Extractivism and resistance in North Africa

Should we see protests, uprisings and movements against extractivism as mainly environmental, or are these fundamentally anti-systemic?

Hamza Hamouchene
21 November 2019, 2.27pm
"Enough humiliation, enough marginalisation"
Courtesy of author.

Large-scale oil and gas extraction in Algeria, phosphate mining; water-intensive agribusiness and mass tourism in Morocco and Tunisia, are all aspects of an extractivist model of development that is accompanied by disastrous social and environmental consequences, affecting the most marginalised sections in society.

Extractivism refers to activities that over-exploit natural resources destined particularly for export to world markets. As such, it is not limited to minerals and oil: it extends to productive activities which overexploit land, water and biodiversity, such as agribusiness, intensive forestry, industrial fish farming and mass tourism. According to a new research titled “Extractivism and Resistance in North Africa” for the Transnational Institute, extractivism is largely incompatible with social justice and plays an important role in the ecological crisis in North Africa. It creates what Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, areas disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing, inhabited by people whose bodies, health, land and water are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital.

The various cases against the extractive sector in Algeria (Ain Salah and Ouargla), Morocco (Khouribga, Safi and Imider) and Tunisia (Kerkennah, Gafsa and Gabes), exemplify broader patterns of primitive accumulation in the global South, taking the brutal form of the extraction and pillage of natural resources, and the degradation of environments and ecosystems through the privatisation and commodification of land and water. This has intensified in recent decades, following the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and the infiltration of transnational capital, including the extractive type.

This predatory model of development finds itself mired in serious tensions, which generates protests and resistance. The rural working poor and the unemployed in Northern Africa are the most impacted. Comprising small-scale farmers, near-landless rural workers, fisherfolks and the unemployed, the movements emerging in the various struggles are resisting the looting of their subsoil resources, the despoliation of their lands, pervasive environmental destruction and the loss of livelihoods. Such movements, while fighting for their rights and livelihoods, are fraught with tensions and face contradictions such as demanding jobs in industries with high environmental and social costs. In order to understand the nature of these movements, we must attempt to answer the following questions: should we see these protests, uprisings and movements as mainly environmental, or are these fundamentally anti-systemic? Are these circumstantial episodes of resistance, or do they rather represent the latest development in the historical trajectory of class struggle against the latest capitalist offensive in North Africa?

Extractivism in the Maghreb/North Africa is not a new phenomenon. As a mode of accumulation and appropriation, it was structured through colonialism in the 19th century to respond to the demands of the metropolitan centres. This accumulation and appropriation pattern has entrenched North Africa’s subordinate insertion into the global capitalist economy, maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neo-colonial hierarchies. The Maghreb region plays a geostrategic role when it comes to the extractive sector, due to its proximity to Europe and the richness of its soil. Algeria is the third largest provider of gas to Europe, while Morocco and Tunisia are very important players in the production of phosphates, which are used as agricultural fertilisers, feeding global agrarian capitalism. Moreover, Tunisia and Morocco export considerable quantities of agricultural produce to Europe. This strategic importance is reflected in the North’s attempts to control these resources through political, military and economic pressure. The latter is seen in the use of ‘free trade’ deals, such as the ongoing negotiations around the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Tunisia and Morocco.

Northern African states facilitate the entry and operations of transnational extractive capital by passing laws favourable to extractive industries. The latest episode of this is the rushed attempt of the Algerian authorities to pass a more liberal and business-friendly hydrocarbon law in the midst of the current popular uprising. But resistance to extractive capital springs up and is led by the communities most directly affected by its destructive operations, as well as by the ‘new proletariat’ formed by the process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. There is no doubt that these social movements and mobilisations are bringing the internal contradictions of extractivism and capitalism into the open, thus helping to forge the class consciousness necessary to overthrow capitalism and build a sustainable alternative in its place.

While for more than three decades, successive governments in the Maghreb have banked on a neoliberal extractivist model of development, extractivism is not the route to take towards development, capitalist or otherwise. The ‘new extractivism’ championed by progressive or post-neoliberal governments in Latin America is not the solution either. The (re)-primarisation (the heavy reliance on the export of primary commodities) of the economies of Maghreb countries and the reinforcement of extractivism are hallmarks of the political economy of development in the region and in peripheries in general. Therefore, any exploration of ‘alternative development’ must necessarily deal with extractivism by opening up new horizons of thinking and by the construction of radical discourses that are anti-colonial and anti-capitalist. Ultimately, the struggle for a just transition towards post-extractivist development models will be fundamentally democratic and would necessitate a true regional integration, in an autonomous, that calls into question the subordinate insertion into the capitalist globalisation.

You can read the full study “Extractivism and Resistance in North Africa” here.

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