Political Environments: Development, Dissent, and the New Extraction

September 1, 2009

Conflicts over natural resources are on the rise in Latin America. In 2008, the honeymoon between Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa and the country’s indigenous social movements quickly soured after he announced plans to introduce large-scale mining. Tumultuous protests ensued, though Correa won his reelection. The same year, a secessionist movement in eastern Bolivia, driven to wrest control of hydrocarbon resources from the national government, culminated in a massacre of indigenous government supporters in the department of Pando. In June, at least 33 people were killed, including civilians and police, after shooting erupted at a road blockade set up near the Amazonian town of Bagua, Peru, to protest the government’s plans to ease private investment in the countryside. And in July, Marcelo Rivera, the founder of a local Salvadoran environmental group that opposes gold mining, was murdered. Since then, at least two more outspoken mining opponents in El Salvador have narrowly escaped murder attempts.

Such conflicts are likely to recur. Even with a global downturn in foreign investing, capital has been flowing steadily into the region’s growing mining and hydrocarbon sectors, as governments push the extraction agenda. Indeed, as Anthony Bebbington writes, the presidential decrees that touched off the violence in Peru were “only the most brazen” expression of a new continent-wide push to open up frontiers to various extractive industries. The articles in this issue make clear that conflicts over natural resources occur in a variety of “political environments”—from neoliberal Peru to anti-neoliberal Bolivia. The aim of this Report is thus to showcase examples of natural resource conflicts in which development projects and environmentalism collide, in the context of the region’s “new extraction.”

Governments that promote extraction have shown little sympathy for dissenters, who are variously dismissed as naive and misguided. Their positions are often portrayed as somehow anti-national; after all, extraction is said to underwrite development and social programs that benefit the nation. In Ecuador, Correa has called his opponents on mining “childish,” “nobodies,” and “allies of the right.” Yet, as Paul Dosh and Nicole Kligerman note, Correa has also taken much of the credit for the country’s new Constitution, which contains some of the most progressive environmental provisions of any constitution in the world. The “natural resource protections granted in the Constitution,” they emphasize, “stem more from the grassroots than from the National Palace, and this tension is likely to foster continued conflict in the months and years ahead.”

Addressing Bolivia, Linda Farthing writes that the Morales government has employed both environmentalist and developmentalist rhetoric without resolving the conflict between both orientations. Thus, while having praised Mother Earth and called for her to be respected, President Evo Morales also recently echoed Correa’s arguments against extraction skeptics: “What, then, is Bolivia going to live off if some [environmental] NGOs say ‘Amazonia without oil’?” It would be a mistake, however, to ascribe this push for extraction to governments alone. The social pressure to satisfy the Bolivia’s dire economic needs through extractive industries is as strong as ever.

Colleen Scanlan Lyons’s piece on the opposition to the Porto Sul infrastructure project in Bahia, Brazil, depicts a different scenario. There, a kind of reconciliation between economic development and environmental stewardship is being proposed from the grassroots opposition to the project, which will provide transportation infrastructure to facilitate mining and agro-forestry exports from the interior. The project’s opponents reject it partly on the grounds that it will spoil locally conceived plans for development through ecotourism and organic farming.

For the sake of contrast, this Report includes an update by Katherine T. McCaffrey on the struggle to reclaim Vieques, Puerto Rico, in the years since the U.S. Navy vacated its base there in 2003. While it doesn’t involve extractive industry, the Vieques issue centers on local residents’ fight to secure a better future for themselves by demanding that the military clean up its toxic mess after decades of bombing exercises. Ironically, the cleanup has been stymied by the navy’s former base land’s having been designated as an eco-friendly sounding “wildlife refuge.”


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