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Fueling Resistance

Challenging left development strategies in Latin America

No green reorientation of the economy is possible without state intervention,” Thea Riofrancos recently wrote in these pages. Weighing the prospects of the Green New Deal and Latin America’s Pacto Ecosocial, she underscored that “these transformative projects propose that climate justice is only achievable through a relationship between extraparlimentary struggle and left policymakers.” In a domestic context where the left is still largely locked out of power, the stakes of her argument might seem occluded. But in other, more hopeful parts of the world, they could not be any clearer, or higher.

In her new monograph, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador, Riofrancos reports on the struggle over the “green reorientation of the economy” that unfolded over the past decade in Ecuador under Rafael Correa’s Alianza País administration. Her focus is on oil extraction, which Correa pursued aggressively as a means to bankroll his ambitions for social development. While acknowledging the extraordinary progress made under Correa, Riofrancos tells the story of how his brand of extractivist state development is increasingly opposed by Ecuador’s indigenous communities, who want the oil to remain underground.

Bret Gustafson’s Bolivia in the Age of Gas considers similar contradictions that have been thrown up in Bolivia, where Evo Morales’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) administration relied on natural gas extraction to sponsor welfare investment. Drawing on over two decades of field research, Gustafson analyzes how natural gas wealth has reproduced certain dynamics—a reliance on foreign extraction companies, the burning of forest land—which contradict the  Indigenous aspirations that won Evo his historical mandate.

Taken together, these studies offer a gripping portrait of an increasingly important site of political struggle: the battle within the left over resource extraction. Over email, I asked Thea and Bret a set of questions about their books. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

—Ratik Asokan


Ratik Asokan: Can you tell us something about your political formations? What led you to write about Ecuador and Bolivia, respectively?

Thea Riofrancos: The seeds of Resource Radicals were sown in 2008, when my partner and I moved to Ecuador. We went there as solidarity activists: that is, as people involved in U.S.-based organizations in solidarity with movements in Latin America and in opposition to the imposition of free-trade policies and military intervention in the region. In Ecuador, beginning in the early 1990s, an array of popular sector movements came together in an alliance against neoliberalism and rapacious forms of resource extraction. In 2007, after decades of struggle, their ally Rafael Correa became the country’s first democratically elected left- or socialist-identified president. We were there to bear witness to the tremendous political and social transformation unfolding in the country. 

In that heady moment, I formed lasting relationships with activists in the Indigenous and radical environmentalist movements. This experience deeply shaped my political understanding, and also influences the narrative and texture of my book, which I hope conveys the feeling of being present in the thick of movement activity. In all, I lived in Ecuador for almost two years. I only began to write the book after I returned to the United States and enrolled in graduate school.

Bret Gustafson: My trajectory is not dissimilar. I went to Bolivia a long time ago, in the early 1990s. Since then, I have lived and worked in Bolivia for various periods of time, particularly with the Guarani people, who live in the Chaco lowland region in the east of the country. That’s the perspective from which I wrote my first book, an ethnographic study, New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (2009). Bolivia in the Age of Gas also grew out of my ongoing research and collaborations with the Guarani at various times during the fourteen years or so of Evo Morales’s government.

In a sense, the book tells the story of how the Guarani struggle was inflected by the rise of MAS, and in turn by Evo’s decision to expand the gas industry across their territories. Like Thea, I’m trying to do justice to the struggles I have witnessed.

RA: In Ecuador and Bolivia, the Alianza País and MAS governments, respectively, invested state resources—particularly revenue from natural gas and mining—into social welfare. Under their watch, poverty levels plummeted and social indicators improved across the board. While acknowledging the progress made by these regimes, you offer a more nuanced appraisal of their policies, stressing the contradictions inherent to their extraction-centered model of development. Can you elaborate on this? 

TR: Rafael Correa came to power promising to put an end to what he poetically described as the “long night of neoliberalism.” Decades of free-market policies, cuts to social spending, and financial crises had left the economy in ruins, while levels of poverty and inequality were terrible. Correa’s solution to all this was to generate state revenues through resource extraction—primarily oil extraction, but also gold and copper mining—and invest that money in social development and poverty alleviation. To a good extent, as you note, Correa’s administration was successful at this. Ecuador’s many social and indigenous movements welcomed social development and they were also opposed to neoliberalism. But their position subtly differed from the government’s in that they identified resource extraction in itself—rather than the distribution of extraction revenue—as the central problem. And they militantly opposed the practice. You could call this a contradiction within the left, as I sometimes do in my book. But you can also see is a generative argument, a struggle to articulate what a just society should look like.

Listening in on activist discussions, I came to understand that the issue of extraction—and by extension, of Indigenous sovereignty—was extremely salient on the political stage: dividing leftists against one another, dividing entire movements against one another, and perhaps most importantly, dividing certain social movements from the leftist state. Many different groups were drawing on the same left legacy, but they had reached very different conclusions about society’s relation to the natural environment. This was really eye-opening to me. Before then, I had not really thought about how or why the environment could divide the left.

BG: Evo also ran a campaign that was focused on the nationalization of natural gas. This was the issue that helped unify people across regional and class lines. To be honest, I thought that was a great idea, too. In the early days—2005, 2006—everyone I knew was cheering for MAS. I remember sitting way out in the Chaco with my Guarani friends and discussing how the revenues from natural gas were going to help us build new schools, new health centers; it was a very exciting time.

And let it be noted that MAS did win Bolivia a new level of geopolitical sovereignty. To an extent, the gas revenues allowed Bolivia to break away from the Washington Consensus and chart its own path. Of course, the IMF persisted in offering MAS its welfare-gutting expertise. But the response became: “Thank you for your recommendations, but we’re going to do it our way.” The biggest change was in the distribution of royalties and payment of taxes, which were renegotiated in a way that was much more favorable to the country. All in all, it was a pretty amazing break from neoliberalism.

A huge contradiction emerged between dependence on fossil fuel capital and Evo’s own Indigenous identity as well as his mandate to protect Indigenous rights.

But the planned nationalization was not completed. In the end, what happened was a kind of nationalization-lite. The government bought back significant parts of the hydrocarbon infrastructure—filling stations, pipelines, distributors—or at least it took a majority share alongside private investors. And it also started to rebuild Bolivia’s own national oil and gas company, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos. But MAS did not expropriate or expel the big foreign gas companies: Petrobras (Brazil), Repsol (Spain), and YPF (Argentina). Evo liked to describe the new situation as Bolivia having “partners” (socios) instead of “masters” (amos) or “owners” (dueños). Because of this, the old dependency was not overturned.

Once things started slowing down in 2013 or so, the foreign companies began to demand concessions, essentially saying things like: “Well, you need to ease back on Indigenous rights so we can do our job more easily.” Evo more or less conceded to their demands, which included other measures to reduce costs for the companies. He even tried to do away with the gasoline subsidy as early as 2010 but reversed it when people hit the streets. In this way, a huge contradiction emerged between dependence on fossil fuel capital and Evo’s own Indigenous identity as well as his mandate to protect Indigenous rights. As this contradiction widened, an indigenous critique and opposition to MAS gathered steam. By 2014 or so, a number of scholars from the left, like Luís Tapia and Raul Prada, were accusing Evo of having deepened capitalism in the country and even abetting a kind of imperialism. I have come to share their skepticism about fossil fuels and the kinds of political contradictions they produce, which never turn out to be very revolutionary.

Protest in Ecuador against Kinross, a Canadian mining company. Photo by Thea Riofrancos.

RA: Both Correa and Morales came to power riding on massive support from Indigenous and Campesino communities. Yet these communities today oppose the extractivist approach of Alianza País and MAS. How did this change come about?

TR: In the years leading up to Correa’s election, neoliberalism versus anti-neoliberalism was the primary framing of movement activity in Ecuador—and the Indigenous movement was very much a key protagonist. Yet during the same period, there was also an incipient, very militant critique of oil extraction emerging in Indigenous regions, especially in the Amazon (and within that, particularly in the southeastern Amazon). The previous neoliberal government had tried to set up new oil rigs in these areas in the ’90s. That was when many Indigenous communities—the Shuar, Achuar, and Amazonian Kichwa, among others—had begun to mobilize around a kind of proto-anti-extractivist agenda to defend their land.

“Proto-anti-extractivism” is a clunky and inelegant term, but I use it to suggest how, for indigenous groups, oil extraction came to be seen as the as the central source of the problems facing their community and environment. In terms of tactics, Amazonian Indigenous groups developed a militant repertoire of direct action, of resisting oil activity at the point of extraction, and of calling for, on a policy level, things like moratoria on oil extraction. This was something new. The highland and national Indigenous movements had called for democratic national ownership of extraction in the past; but no one had considered ending extraction itself before. In time, this full-fledged “anti-extractivism” was embraced by the Indigenous movement at the national level.

The thing to underscore here is that anti-extractivism went beyond—was more capacious than—Correa’s anti-neoliberal discourse. It is not that anti-extractive movements stopped opposing capitalism. Rather, they came to feel that Ecuador’s attempts to transcend capitalism through socialist developmentalism were reproducing the pathology of extractivism.

BG: In comparison to Ecuador, there is not a sizable anti-extractive movement in Bolivia. I think this is because the harmful effects of oil (oil spills and so forth) and mining (whole villages can be displaced by open mines) are much more visible than those of natural gas extraction. As far as I can tell, folks who live in the gas-producing Chaco region have largely acquiesced to projects, if not wholeheartedly supported them. There are sites of anti-extractive protests emerging around the potential expansion of fracking and new gas exploration in the national parks. And the concept of extractivism is now being applied in the context of large-scale agroindustry, primarily soy, and resistance to GMO expansion in the east. But on the whole, it remains a more marginal phenomenon, primarily situated in NGOs and research institutes.

RA: Ecuador and Bolivia are often lumped together with Venezuela as countries that succumbed to the “resource curse.” What do you make of this thesis?

BG: Political scientists love to talk about the “resource curse,” but it’s not a concept I find very useful. For one thing, it largely ignores the role that multinational firms and international organizations play in creating the conditions for financial collapse or stagnation in developing countries. When people bring up the “resource curse,” what they really mean to say is: “Look at this country, it tried to nationalize and all that led to was terrible levels of corruption.”

I do not think it’s fair to use that concept anywhere, really. Certainly not in Bolivia, which has been economically better off than most countries in Latin America over the past fourteen years. This is partly because gas is less volatile than oil. But MAS has also displayed better management acumen. For instance, it signed long-term contracts with international firms and other governments as well as a “take-or-pay agreement” with Brazil, which had to pay for gas whether they used it or not. Was there corruption? Sure. But overall, the situation is very different from Venezuela, where oil, which is extremely volatile, has been the only game in town. Luckily, Bolivia escaped that fate.

There is also a larger point to be made about development. People often say of Bolivia: it’s the Andes, there’s so much sun and there’s so much wind, why don’t they just invest heavily in renewable energy and take care of themselves? Well, yes and no. The country’s economy is still dependent on foreign currency—today it’s American dollars, tomorrow that might be Chinese Yuan—and to get foreign currency, you’ve got to export something, which is what drives extraction. The situation is complex and cannot be studied in isolation.

TR: I too feel that that “resource curse” is a term that is very constraining and not that rigorous. As Bret noted, it completely ignores the role that multinational firms play in shaping policy in developing countries. Resource curse theory proceeds on a kind of methodological nationalism, as if a state’s troubles arise only due to internal factors, and transnational flows of finances, resources, and other traded goods do not matter. It tells you nothing about how extractive resources have shaped the unequal development of global capitalism. But the truth is that “all states are oil states,” as Timothy Mitchell writes in his 2011 book Carbon Democracy. By that he means that all countries, whether they produce oil or not, are embedded in the power relations of fossil capitalism.

Let me also reiterate something Brett said about the relation between peripheral economies and the world market. Countries on the periphery tend to be dependent on the extraction and export of raw material to raise revenue, because their manufacturing capacity is not so advanced. 
This is a legacy that dates to colonialism. The result is that such countries are stuck on the losing end of an unequal exchange: the raw materials they export are not as profitable as the goods they import. The problem, far from having to do with a national pathology like the resource curse, actually exists at the scale of the world system.

The activists I was working with were political theorists in their own right.

Is there a way out? Of late, there have been conversations across Latin America about what a “Green New Deal” for the continent might look like. This has been inspiring to see. There’s the Pacto Ecosocial or the Ecosocial Pact, which came out of Argentina and has gotten lots of support from around the region. There’s also the Nuestra América Verde or Our Green America, which puts a greater focus on policy. Even the UN body dealing with Latin American development has been discussing green development, albeit in a more technocratic way. Interestingly, the movements advocating a new ecosocial pact concur on the fact that any kind of socioecological flourishing in the global south must be predicated on mass, it not outright, cancellation of global debt, which is one of the mechanisms that keeps countries trapped in a position of dependency.

YPFB facilities in Camiri, 2018. The sign reads: “In the service of the fatherland.” Photo by Bret Gustafson.

RA: You both take an interdisciplinary approach in your books, combining political science, ethnography, economics, and much else. Can you say more about your methodology? 

BG: The concept of extractivism demands a multidisciplinary approach. You can’t talk about extractivism without talking about geopolitics or patriarchy or settler colonialism or climate change. And you have to operate simultaneously at the level of world systems dynamics and microsocial relationships. Standard debates about oil essentially boil down to: “Well, did their GDP go up or did their GDP go down?” It’s far more interesting—and important—to ask: Does the recent spike in violence in X region have something do with an uptick in oil extraction there? In southeastern Bolivia, for instance, there seems to be direct correlation between the rise in human trafficking and the expansion of gas industry. You can only understand that through a multidisciplinary approach. A much richer portrait emerges when you present your ethnographic findings against the backdrop of larger political narratives.

TR: My academic training is in political science, but I had to go far beyond its disciplinary boundaries to make sense of extractivism in Ecuador. In the first place, there is very little writing by political scientists about mining. There is much more on oil, but what there is, as we discussed, tends to be very simplistic. To make sense of how extraction shapes and is shaped by politics and society, I had to deploy tools from other fields: anthropology, history, and geography.

Interestingly, while empirical political science approaches to resource extraction were not that useful for me (except as objects of critique), I drew heavily on my background in political theory. Activists and politicians in Ecuador are engaged, on an everyday basis, in envisioning new conceptions of what democracy might mean. In a way, the activists I was working with were political theorists in their own right. They used extremely sophisticated language to think about the relationship between state, individuals, and nature—in ways that I think the academy has not yet caught up with. As I said, they forced me to reevaluate my understanding of pretty foundational political concepts.

RA: The New York Times recently ran a special supplement on deforestation in the Brazil subtitled, “The Amazon Has Seen Our Future.” Their implication was that the havoc that Brazil is witnessing today will soon envelop the whole world. What are the lessons that the battles against resource extraction in Bolivia and Ecuador hold for other countries?

BG: Bolivia shows us that we can’t take for granted that progressive governments will necessarily be good for the environment. Evo Morales and MAS achieved something remarkable: they ameliorated poverty, redistributed resources, and dramatically changed the meaning of what it means to be Bolivian by franchising Indigenous groups. Let’s take nothing away from that. Yet in order to maintain power, they made a lot of compromises with dubious actors, especially with agroindustry and extractive industry, and this has contributed to the deforestation of the Bolivian Amazon and the fires there.

The lesson is that we have to be sympathetically critical, even when you are considering a figure like Evo Morales, who is basically a hero for most Bolivians.

TR: Let me answer from the angle of resistance, to complement what Bret said about state power. Ecuador shows us that under current historical conditions, there is real power in the hands of communities that are directly affected by the worst effects of resource extraction if they take direct action by stalling or obstructing extractive projects in any way, especially at key chokepoints, which tend to be on Indigenous territory. The chokepoint can be the mine or the oil field or gas field; it can also be somewhere along the transport chain, like a pipeline.

Not only does this kind of direct action have a material effect—slowing down or even ending an extractive project—it has a great moral and ethical power in that it makes visible how we are all imbricated in larger systems of extraction. You see this in Ecuador, just as you see it at Standing Rock.

RA: Do you have any thoughts on the recent elections in Bolivia? 

BG: Evo was ousted last November and the eleven or so months that have followed have been very difficult for Bolivia. Jeanine Añez oversaw an abusive, incompetent, and extremely corrupt government which dealt very poorly with the pandemic. Fair elections were finally held on October 18 and MAS won by an astounding margin—I think the final count was 55.1 percent of the vote—crushing second- and third-place challengers in a situation where a lot of people (myself included, on bad days) were worried the MAS might lose. As an electoral victory, that’s pretty amazing.

But none of the issues we discussed in this conversation have gone away. Will the new government offer an opening to agroindustrial extractivism? Will they continue with the expansion of GMOs? Will they deepen Bolivia’s dependence on the gas industry? Will they be able to redirect the state’s efforts in new economic directions? These are the questions facing President Louis Arce. Winning the elections was probably the easy part.

TR: I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. It’s worth adding that this time around MAS is coming to power during a period of low global growth and recession, not to mention the extreme economic and health devastation caused by the pandemic. It will be a challenge for them to simply take care of the Bolivian people.

Arce has indicated that he will maintain something like an extractive model of development based on natural gas, while also expanding into biodiesel and lithium. The latter two resources are often associated with the so-called “green economy” or “energy transition,” but their extraction has concerning environmental consequences, which have been borne out in Chile and Argentina.

Let me close by noting that the resounding victory for MAS and even more astonishing result on the Chilean referendum, where 78 percent of voters opted for a new constitution, proves that the Pink Tide is not in retreat, as it’s often said to be. In recent years, the election of leaders such as Macri (Argentina), Bolsonaro (Brazil), and Piñera (Chile) was quite frightening, and many were worried that neofascist hegemony might spread across Latin America. But I think that it’s harder to make that claim now. The political winds are shifting once again.