In regard to the search for alternatives, theorists and activists in the area of extractivism are very much divided on the key question of whether or not extractivism has a role to play in what Eduardo Gudynas (2020) describes as the post-extractivist transition towards a more inclusive, equitable and sustainable future. Coinciding with the view of those engaged in the resistance struggle waged by so many indigenous communities, activist scholars and theorists concerned with the design for a post-development ‘pluriverse’ and what Escobar (2018) described as ‘new ecologies for the 21st Century’, have reached a virtual consensus on the need to move beyond both capitalism and extractivism.
The narrow pathway towards a more sustainable future in the post-extractive transition, littered as it is with pitfalls and contradictions, has both a local dimension (resource nationalism, fiscal decentralization / investment of resource rents in the local “green” economy, community-based resource management) and an opening to the world market and global economy. This issue of globalization in the context of the world capitalist system raises several questions addressed by Nem Singh and associates in a study into the role that extractivism could play in the construction of a new industrial policy designed for an alternative and more sustainable form of natural resource development (Nem Singh, 2022).
New industrial policy?
At issue in the argument advanced by Nem Singh and associates is the question of how and under what conditions to secure the insertion of Latin America and other peripheral regions into the global value chains of these extractive industries. In this connection, Gary Gereffi in his 2018 book Global Value Chains and Development (pp. 11-13, 44-49) compares the differences in the way Latin America and East Asia were inserted in the global value chains of diverse extractive industries. Resource-rich Latin America, he notes, was inserted through production-driven value chains where the idea is to promote state expansion in domestic markets. Resource-poor East Asia, by contrast was incorporated through a buyer-driven commodity chain. Consequently, this avenue of incorporation produced very different state-business relations, which for Gereffi explains the differential successes of the two regions in combining extractivism with industrialism.
In moving forward on this front, Nem Singh argues the need to think about how global value chains are opening and closing economic opportunities for sustainable resource extraction and development. Latin America, he argues, will likely end up specializing in the production of lithium, niobium, rare metals, etc., to respond to the rapidly increasing demands for technology-intensive products and “clean energy.” Here, he argues for the need to search for entry points and opportunities provided by global value chains to reposition the economies in the region, to take better advantage of the region’s wealth in the development of extractive industries and new ways for capturing a greater share of surplus value and resource rents – to secure a more favorable position in the international division of labor.
In effect, Nem Singh argues for the need to combine extractivism with new industrial and energy policies that take advantage of the region’s natural resource wealth while mitigating the negative and destructive aspects of extractivism by means of substituting renewable resources for fossil fuels, incorporating indigenous technological innovations and advanced “green” technologies, and securing not only the informed consent of indigenous communities but their active engagement in any extractive project. This proposed solution to the extractivist problematic, hinges on the ability of companies in the extractive sector to negotiate technology transfers or to innovate indigenous technology, and for the governments to provide an appropriate institutional and policy framework for the extraction and sustainable development of natural resources – which for many activist scholars is socialism – and their incorporation into an effective strategy of resource-based industrialization.
A post-capitalist and socialist horizon?
On this point, Nem Singh and his associates agree with Gudynas that extractivism can and does take diverse form within both a capitalist and noncapitalist post-development institutional and policy framework that secures for producers and workers in peripheral region and developing economies to capture a greater share of the social product and to share in the benefits from the value added by labor in the production process of the emergent extractive industries.
The conclusion drawn by Nem Singh and several other analysts and theorists of extractivism is that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to combine a new industrial and energy policy designed for a more sustainable and inclusive form of capitalist development with a regulatory regime of natural resource extraction – neoextractivism, as we have come to understand it in the South American context of post-capitalist or socialist development (Svampa, 2019).
These authors have concluded that rather than viewing natural resource extraction as a curse and development trap it has in fact been central to Latin America’s economic prosperity and is likely to remain the region’s central model for economic growth. The assumption shared by these authors is that the contradictions of capital can be counteracted and socio-environmental conflicts ameliorated; that the destructive and negative socio-environmental impacts of extractivism can be compensated for and mitigated by means of prudent state state-regulated community-based resource management, appropriate conservation measures and a regime of corporate social responsibility, together with a technology fix (implementation of advanced convergent green technologies) and a new industrial policy.
Not all mining is extractivism as we know it
But on this point, there is no consensus. For example, Gudynas in his many writings has articulated an alternative dissenting view. Addressing the need for Latin America to position itself for insertion into the global production networks and the value chains of the emergent extractive industries, Gudynas argues that in a Latin America committed to the goal of social and environmental justice that there is no place for extractivism as we have come to know it, i.e., as a modality of capital accumulation and development.
His point is that no matter what policy and institutional reforms are put into place, the systemic workings of extractive capitalism, as well as its local impacts and spillover effects on public policies, are simply incompatible with the goals of social equity and environmental justice. On the other hand, he adds that this does not mean that there is no role for natural resource extraction in the transition towards a more socially inclusive and sustainable alternative future. On this point, he argues that it is important to clearly distinguish between extractivism as a modality of capital accumulation and economic activities and practices such as mining and agriculture on the one hand – and the appropriation of renewable natural resources under conditions of respect for both territorial rights and the right of communities to sustainable livelihoods on the other.
For example, not all mining is extractivism as we know it, i.e., as a mode of appropriation and profit-making within the institutional and policy dynamics of the capitalist system. Nor does resource extraction, or the appropriation of Latin America’s natural resource wealth, necessarily entail the predatory practices – the usurpation of the lands and lives of the indigenous population – associated with extractivism in the Latin American context. Indeed, in the post-extractivist transition and beyond there is undoubtedly a place for some forms of sustainable natural resource extraction involving mining and agriculture / forestry, fishing, and maybe even some types of hydrocarbon exploitation.
Complexity and diversity of extraction
To conclude this brief excursus into extractivism, what is needed is a closer look at the development and social dynamics of natural resource extraction, and further research into these dynamics from a critical development perspective. However, in consideration of the preponderance of the evidence provided by different studies, and mindful of the complexity and diversity of these extractivisms, it is possible to argue the following:
1. Given that dependence on the extraction of natural resources seems inevitable from a short- and even medium-term perspective, commodity-based economies will face the need to increase the sustainability and productivity of their extractive sectors, a very tall order under the circumstances and only possible in the context of a post-extractivist transition.
2. Many countries in the current context have failed to strike a balance between the purported economic and fiscal benefits of extractive industry growth and the heavy social and environmental costs in terms of environmental degradation, community displacement and social conflict, all of which are particularly acute at the local level.
3. Extractivism is an indissoluble part of today’s varieties of capitalism, but as a modality of capitalist development it cannot provide a pathway towards another world of inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.
4. Post-extractivism is part of a broader agenda of alternatives to capitalism, which provides an opening towards an alternate future that transcends contemporary ideas of development and progress.
5. Any pathway (and a post-extractivist transition) towards a more inclusive and sustainable form of post-development will require mobilization of the diverse forces of resistance on both the political front and the extractive frontier, as well as the activism and protagonism of the communities negatively impacted by the advance of extractive capital in the development process.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s After Extractivism text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. The references of this text are listed here. You can find more contents on the English-language After Extractivism website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Henry Veltmeyer is a professor of Sociology and International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University (Halifax), Nova Scotia, Canada. He is a prolific author on matters of Development and Globalization. He is also on faculty at the Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, in the Unidad Académica en Estudios de Desarrollo.