NOVEMBER 1, 2020
VICTORIA DEL PORTETE, an Ecuadorian town, had decided the time had come for a vote.
Residents of the marshy Andean village came to the parish council building in 2011 to vote “yes” or “no” on the following question: are you in agreement with mining activity in the wetlands and watershed of Kimsacocha? The results, counted by hand, became undeniable by day’s end. Ninety-three percent of the participants said they didn’t want foreign gold extraction in the vicinity of their watershed. “No one and nothing will stop our fight in defense of water and in defense of our territories,” one organizer said afterward, “to construct a better Ecuador, without mining in our territories.”
Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa arrived at the village not long after with an entourage of apparatchiks and pro-government reporters. Correa reprimanded the anti-mining activists for their “lies,” painting the electoral outcome as the result of rural zealotry. Those who voted no, he said, suffered from “mental fundamentalisms.”
The scene was absurd. Four years before, they were from the exact demographic that brought him to power when he promised to reverse “the long night of neoliberalism” facilitated by the US imperium.
Correa’s election was a part of the “Pink Tide” of left-wing governments elected to power across Latin America in the early 2000s, which seemed, at first at least, to offer a light at the end of the tunnel after over a century of nightmares. Latin America had been battered by the turn of the millennium. Several decades of genocide, Dirty Wars, and scorched-earth campaigns crushed the dreams of social change. After that, poverty hemorrhaged under IMF structural adjustment programs in the first decade of globalization. Ecuador was spared from the violence, but not the poverty. So the economic gains made under the Correa government were just as real as his popularity — he was the first president to win in the first round of voting, an unprecedented gain in history. But his demise, and greatest controversy, was caused by oil.
In her new book Resource Radicals, Thea Riofrancos analyzes the split in the left over the usage of fossil fuels, tracing the historical arc of “anti-extractivism” under the shadow of a left-wing government hell-bent on Black Gold. She is generous toward both what she calls the “Left-in-Power” and the “Left-in-Resistance,” understanding the forces stacked against Correa’s project and not wanting to diminish the tangible reductions in poverty his project yielded. But it’s not hard to surmise, as the co-author of a book on the Green New Deal, where her ultimate sympathies reside. By examining how activists envisioned a post-petroleum future, Riofrancos transcends the superficial debates on the legacy of the Pink Tide and, in turn, helps chart a path forward for creating a society as equitable as it is ecological.
Resource extraction became the central point of contention between Rafael Correa and the social movements that brought him to power during his tenure in office — a lightning rod of diverging political passions that reached their peak in the era of 21st-century socialism that “raised deeper questions about the state, democracy, and the ecological foundations of global capitalism.”
The language of resistance in Ecuador underwent several transformations through the latter half of the 20th century.
After a mid-’70s stint in resource nationalism, a project as brief as it was ill-fated — ending, as much does in Latin America, with a military coup — Ecuador slipped into the “long night of neoliberalism.” For three decades, successive lame-duck governments upheld deregulatory economic policies that allowed foreign transnationals to siphon oil wealth abroad while imparting little to none of the benefits to Ecuadorians themselves. Bitterness over this gave rise to “radical resource nationalism,” a mass movement to appropriate oil wealth, later put into practice by Correa.
But at the same time, emanating from indigenous groups in the Amazon during the 1990s — where oil extraction wasn’t just the abstract theft of wealth, but the destruction of the landscape — the first seeds of an alternative ideology were being planted. “Anti-extractivism” regarded the land as not just a place of economic sustenance but of cultural identity, and saw the ecosystems as of equal importance as humans. The point, for them, wasn’t to take hold of oil. It was to transcend the need for it altogether.
Growing angers over Correa’s addiction to oil, and all the problems that produced, caused social movements from below to jettison the platform of resource nationalism that many had embraced in the neoliberal era, up until the ’90s. They now recognized that the violence of extraction wasn’t just the purview of right-wing regimes. Correa’s leftist administration was in many ways the precondition for a new generation of activists to reject fossil fuels tout court. The Hegelian cycle of history, in one sense, seemed to have arrived at an eco-socialist synthesis.
“If even a self-identified leftist government,” she writes,
could reproduce, or, worse, intensify the rapacious exploitation of nature and the subordination of indigenous communities to a homogeneously defined nation, in the process violating collective rights and centralizing power, then, social movement activists concluded, the root of the problem was not the ideological stripe of elected officials but the “civilizational” model that encompassed socialism and capitalism alike.
The Pink Tide, for all its contradictions, casts a new light on what the struggle for justice in Latin America meant.
For centuries, rebels, activists, and dissidents saw themselves as fighting against an older order, inherited from the Spaniards, upheld by successions of US client regimes. The apogee of Correa, and in particular, the 2007–’08 rewrite of the Constitution, was seen by many as a collective projects on the part of all social classes to reverse that sordid history, to undo the entirety of that crusty past and recreate a future Ecuador. The slate was clean now. Because of this, activists didn’t see themselves as fighting against the past so much as battling to define the terms and conditions of the future.
In the yearlong process of its creation, the fiercest, most protracted battle was whether oil or mining concessions would require “prior consultation” — meaning the state was obligated to inform residents beforehand — or “prior consent” — meaning the government needed explicit approval from the community affected before the project could be green-lighted. They lost that battle. But seeing the Ecuadorian Constitution as their own creation, they decided to interpret in such a way that they could still hold their own votes at the local level and decide whether or not to accept an oil or mining concession. For them, Riofrancos asserts, the national government wasn’t the sole locus of democracy.
At the core of this debate was a deeper dissonance in how both anti-extractivists and resource nationalists understood the system they were revolting against. Correa and company saw neoliberalism as the absence of the state, meaning that the solution was to strengthen the national government so it could “inform” residents of oil extraction and redistribute the wealth as they deemed fit. The country’s oil wealth, after all, was the “subterranean patrimony of the people,” and although how to distribute it could be debated, the need to extract it was considered axiomatic.
For anti-extractivists, neoliberalism represented less of a weakening of the state than a repurposing of its deeper function. According to their more radical analysis, state power wasn’t so much neutered by neoliberalism as it was refitted to protect the sanctity of capitalism. The regulatory apparatus of the government was deconstructed, rendering it more difficult to rein in corporate excesses such as labor abuse and pollution. And the repressive apparatus was strengthened, meaning that state security forces would be better equipped to quash protests of those who organized against those excesses.
Alongside battles over who could reject oil extraction concessions, there were epistemological battles over who knew the most about its effects in the first place. Was it the national government that wanted the resource rents from well-meaning social programs, but was removed from the toxicity of the site of extraction? Or was it the people who lived next to the mines and would have to see the water poisoned, the flora wilt, and the landscape sicken with the patina of death?
Correa denied there was anything political about oil and mining. He worked hard to deploy a technocratic discourse, stripped of any political content, pushing back against what they called the “misinformation” and “lack of understanding” on the part of anti-extractive activists. In a sketch at a pro-mining convention, not long after a successful nixing of a mining concession, participants amused themselves by ridiculing the anti-extractivists as backward peasants, “fundamentally clueless about what the process of large-scale mineral extraction entails.”
Once again, anti-extractive activists turned the state’s logic of “misinformation” on its head: the government, they argued, was the one that in fact didn’t understand oil and mining. Bureaucrats in Quito were far removed from the true damage that extraction entailed in the high-altitude páramo or the upper Amazonian watershed.
“The government — everyone — says that there won’t be damage,” a government bureaucrat conceded to Riofrancos one morning over coffee in Quito. “It is a lie. The people of the southern Amazon know what has happened, from their own family members, an accumulated experience from, for example, those who have migrated.”
In his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon counterpointed what he called the “Official Landscape” of mapped mining concessions and mathematically registered quantities of resources with the “Vernacular Landscape” of rural residents, indigenous people, accumulated stories and histories. “It was the territory itself that invalidated pro-mining information discourse,” Riofrancos writes, recounting a trip to a mountainous zone slated for mining extraction. Anti-extractive activists weaponized knowledge of a vernacular landscape, accrued through time spent in natural zones under threat, to fight the imposition of an official one. As one activist put it, referring to a government minister who dismisses the damage done by mining to a forest — “what a shame that she doesn’t know the territory.”
In Latin America, the utopian belief that equitable left-wing societies can be created through fossil fuel extraction can be just as naïve as thinking green energy is harmless when implemented by the right. Environmentalists can fail to grasp how green energy — when implemented in the context of militarized right-wing governments — has, in some cases, produced state violence and economic inequities reminiscent to those produced by the oil or mining industries.
Honduras provides one notable example, where, in a country run by a US-backed, far-right “narco-dictatorship,” corporate paramilitaries have massacred scores of unarmed peasants seeking to retake stolen land used for African palm plantations for ethanol. In Oaxaca, Mexico, as scholars such as Alexander Dunlap have laid out, corrupt officials hire gunmen to kill, intimidate, and dispossess campesinos of their land for wind-farming projects.
At the same time, leftist anti-imperialists can be seduced into seeing oil extraction as a panacea to social ills, justifying it as a necessary evil and downplaying or ignoring its ecological fallout. In some cases, they regurgitate state propaganda that environmental and indigenous groups serve as “fronts for imperialist powers.” But government-financed extractivism ended up deepening the same capitalist injustices that Pink Tide governments proclaimed to reject in the first place.
The rise of anti-extractive discourse was perhaps most remarkable for its recentering of nature itself as one of the primary actors in human society. After being left out of anthropocentric discussions about development for centuries, the residual effect of mining and oil on nature was considered not as an afterthought but as something of supreme importance — the main reason extractivism should be rejected in the first place.
“Anti-extractivism,” she writes,
radically decentered human beings: crude and ore were political protagonists; wetlands and mountains were moral agents. It was a truly post-neoliberal project: the activists and intellectuals who crafted this discursive-political strategy sought not only to transform the regime they had labeled neoliberalism but also to transcend the repertoire of anti-neoliberal resistance.
The battle for eco-socialism, if it can be realized, is bound to be long. Anti-extractivism as an ideological vision was solidified under Correa. But a coherent mass movement capable of implementing that vision has yet to emerge.
The possibility for that was delayed yet more by the return of the ancien régime of US hegemony under Correa’s centrist successor, Lenín Moreno, who went on to expand oil extraction. He dismissed indigenous anti-extractive groups, saying they’d been co-opted by his leftist predecessor — the same president against whom they first resisted.