“For Us, Extractivism is Lethal”

One of the strongest criticisms of the Pink Tide of leftist governments in office across Latin America in the first 15 years of the 21st century was their failure to break away from extractive economies. Now, with a new wave of progressives in power, if and how they will differ from their predecessors when it comes to resource exploitation and environmental policy is a key question.  

From the oil fields in the Ecuadorian Amazon to the metals mines in Bolivia, how are extractive industries shaping politics and economics in the region today, and how are social movements organizing to demand and secure environmental justice and reparations? In a recent episode of The Marc Steiner Show, cohosts Marc Steiner and Bret Gustafson sat down with Patricia Gualinga, Pablo Poveda, and Teresa Velásquez to explore these dynamics.

Patricia Gualinga is a Kichwa defender of the Amazon rainforest in her community of Sarayaku, Ecuador. Pablo Poveda is a radical economist who works at the Center for Studies of Labor and Agrarian Development (CEDLA), a non-profit think tank in La Paz, Bolivia. And Teresa Velásquez is an associate professor of anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino, and the author of Pachamama Politics.

This conversation is an edited excerpt. For the full interview, listen to the podcast or read the full transcript.   

Marc Steiner: The crisis with extractivism in Latin America, is really is a 400-year legacy. What is that historical legacy and how does it affect this moment?

Patricia Gualinga: For Indigenous peoples, extractivism has been terrible, fatal. It has destroyed our nature. And the states and the companies have not followed the law, the constitution, or even court rulings. For us, extractivism is lethal. It implies the disappearance of the peoples and the violation of all our human rights.

Pablo Poveda: In Bolivia, capitalism was not born from the internal contradictions of the Bolivian economy, but came from the outside. Therefore, there was no development of a strong internal economy and there was no mass expropriation of land for campesinos. And now these forms of backward production, which the ruling MAS party refers to as the plural economy, are functional to capitalism, the exploitation of labor, and the exploitation of nature.

This history sets the foundation for present day extractivism and the cycle of gas extraction from 2000 to 2022.

Bolivia cannot overcome its position as a country dependent on revenues from exporting unprocessed raw materials in a framework of capitalist relations of production. And now Bolivia is waiting for the renewable energy transition to exploit new raw materials, like lithium.

Bret Gustafson: Patricia, tell us a little bit more about the current relationship with the government in Ecuador.

Patricia Gualinga: This government is no different from the previous government or the one before that. This government is also extractivist, and it is right wing. There have been strong Indigenous mobilizations where people have lost their lives. The problem is that the entire economic model in Ecuador is based on extractivism, whether it’s oil mining, forestry, the list goes on.

In this sense, there is a very strong struggle we are waging in our territories. In the north, we have weekly reports of oil spills in the Amazon, mostly from pipeline failures that are contaminating water sources. And in the south, where our Shuar brothers and sisters are, we know that there is open pit mining with all kinds of rights violations.

The tactics are always the same. They try to divide the local people with promises that are never upheld. The government stigmatizes, persecutes, and criminalizes protest leaders. This has intensified in recent years. There has always been repression, but with the previous government of Correa this became much more visible and the new government has followed the same recipe. So, for us, whether governments of the Left or the Right come into power, we have not seen great changes because the model is always the same.

Bret Gustafson: Did the arrival of the Left changed anything at all in relation to this longer history of extractivism, whether in Ecuador or Bolivia?

Patricia Gualinga: This entire extractivist practice has generated corruption at all levels. We cannot say that we are living in a country where these returns are reaching those most in need. There is an overwhelming level of corruption that has led to Ecuador being in a profound crisis, and things have become very polarized.

I don’t consider myself of the Left or of the Right. We are peoples who demand social justice, respect for the rights of nature and the real implementation of a plurinational state.

Teresa Velásquez: Both neoliberal governments and the so-called socialist government bet on mining as a tool of development, as a model of development to “reduce poverty.” And this puts at risk the watersheds and the territories of Indigenous people and small farmers.

Of course there are some minor differences between the past or current neoliberal governments and the Correa government. Both have opened the doors to foreign mining companies, but there was still a difference at the very beginning of Correa’s political project when it was still a broad-based coalition movement. We saw an openness to the demands of the anti-mining movement in the early years. For example, in April of 2008, the Constituent Assembly admitted a decree that basically reverted mining concessions that had been granted without prior and informed consultation with communities or that were located in ecologically sensitive zones. But because Correa did bet on mining, he never implemented this mining mandate.

Although the constitution that came from the “Citizen’s Revolution” process did incorporate some important advances that support Indigenous and environmental agendas—changes like recognizing Ecuador as a plurinational country. It also recognized the right of what is called the good life or buen vivr or sumak kawsay, as well as the rights of Pachamama, or Mother Earth. However, this did not fundamentally resolve the problem of the economic model. The economic model continued to be based on extractivism.

Marc Steiner: Pablo, could you talk briefly from your perspective about what’s happening in Bolivia?

Pablo Poveda: This progressive government of the MAS in Bolivia emerged from a political crisis of neoliberalism. The MAS party represents itself to social movements as a savior, the party that is going to overcome the extractive model. However, in reality, what has happened is that it has made itself functional to capitalism so that the exploitation of natural resources continues.

This government promised to overcome the extractive model of the economy and lead us to live well, and that there will be industrialization. However, economically, the results are terrible. The cycle of gas is coming to an end. Traditional mining is in a downturn. The total nationalization of mining was proposed, but that did not happen.

There has been a proposal for two big projects. One is the extraction and industrialization of lithium by the government and the other is the industrialization of iron with investments of millions of dollars. But they’re not profitable and it has not happened. They say they’re progressive, but it is with capitalist content.

Marc Steiner: So are we saying that no matter who’s in charge, no matter which party wins, we’re not seeing any difference at all? I’d like to explore what that means because I think it’s a very complicated and important subject.

Teresa Velásquez: I think it’s more about how do we re-envision socialism? How do we re-envision the Left? And I think from the perspective of the anti-mining movement, what’s more important is that whoever’s elected is moving away from the extractive economy, and that includes oil mining, gas, extraction of forests and things like that. Their alternatives would be agroecology, community-based tourism, redistribution of land, redistribution of water. Some of those coincide with the socialist or progressive principles, but it’s not the kind of Left that we have seen necessarily in Ecuador and other parts of Latin America because they’ve stayed within the same model of extractive development.

I think people are asking and pushing for is a redistribution of resources and of power and a truly democratic system that’s going to consider the voices of communities, of women, of Indigenous peoples, of Afro Ecuadorians; the people who’ve really have borne those effects of the extractive industry and everything that’s come with it.

Marc Steiner: Is there no difference at all between the Left and the Right and when it comes to extraction?

Patricia Gualinga: There is a difference in discourse. Some come with a beautiful way of speaking, but they apply the same formula. I think really no government has really known the state and the people that they govern. In Ecuador, we are so diverse, they come to impose an ideology and a way of governing that does not correspond with what we are really living.

For us, as Indigenous peoples, each millimeter of rights has been fought for with deaths, with so much struggle. But I do believe that we have a holistic vision that could transform the vision of our country and make it more equitable with greater solidarity.

Marc Steiner: What we’re talking about here is the intense power of international capital. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. How do we build another future is the question.

Patricia Gualinga: The situation is very complex. We have attended several United Nations conferences. And since the Paris Conference, extractive companies try to prevent any forward movement in climate negotiations. That’s terrible because we have very minimal influence in those conventions. Those companies also fund the meetings, and they are in constant communications with governments. If things continue in this way, there really won’t be a real possibility of change.

Sometimes people ask me why I participate in these conferences, and I say, really, it’s to bother them. It’s to interrupt, to tell them that we are here, that we’re not going to allow them to continue to act as though we don’t exist. We’re going to continue to be in resistance.

The solution really comes from strong communities that have autonomy, that have a vision of conservation. But that conservation must connect with the global level, with global benefits. We are fighting so that our people can really live well, that we can live sustainably, and that our vision can transform the vision of the Western world that is based on fossil fuels. You might say that this is a utopian vision, but this is our utopian vision.

Pablo Poveda: We’re in the fourth industrial revolution, and I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for the hope of humanity. The problems are the social relationships of production. And these debates that are about overcoming extractivism are taking place within the frameworks of capitalism. And we have to overcome that.

I think that we should bring together the different sectors of society in the search to save the planet and really seek an energy transition that stops climate change, that overcomes capitalism, and brings together different parts of society. It is a very hard and a very long task for a society that wants to liberate humanity from capitalism.

Bret Gustafson: Here in the United States, we often look to Latin America for the solutions that we want. We want there to be a progressive transformation. But I think we need to also be a little more militant in our own opposition here in the United States to extractive economies that we live under and that our consumption maintains elsewhere.

Teresa Velásquez: I’m thinking of my students right now. We can educate them, helping them make the connections around extractivism, water contamination, climate change, racism in both North and South America, and empower them to take action.

From my perspective, I believe that this vision of the future also comes from Indigenous people in the United States and in Latin America. This vision is for a more sustainable future also has to be anti-racist. The future has to be anti-genocidal. It has to support the life of human beings and also non-human beings. And especially in Ecuador and also in the United States, it has to include the right to protest.

Marc Steiner: Where do you all think the future could take us now? How can we get there? What does it look like?

Patricia Gualinga: We have to keep trying, because we can’t just accept what they’re doing. However, if we talk about progressive governments, Lula just came into power in Brazil. We’re very happy about this because we did not want Bolsonaro by any means. Petro won the presidency in Colombia, and we are also happy about that because we did not want the other candidate. Let’s hope that these governments do the right things.

Marc Steiner is the host of  The Marc Steiner Show on The Real News Network. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues.

Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. He is co-executive editor of NACLA and author of Bolivia in the Age of Gas (Duke, 2020).