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Extractive industries, power struggles and the battle of ideas

23 Jul 2014

Extractive industries, power struggles and the battle of ideas

This contribution is published as part of the Young Scholars Think Piece Series which aims to provide promising young researchers with an opportunity to present their research on social development and contribute to the diversity of ideas within the development community. The winning pieces have been selected for their alternative perspectives and the way they highlight marginalized viewpoints and bringing neglected issues to the fore. 

Karolien van Teijlingen is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) and the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR). This think piece is an extended and modified version of her blog piece published by The Broker under the title The Amazon and the battle of ideas.

Extractive industries, power struggles and the battle of ideas

In 2016, the largest open-pit mine in the world will be opened in Canaã dos Carajás in the Western Amazon region of Brazil. Sir Pixilinga, one of the 25,000 inhabitants of this predominantly agricultural region, points at the tree-topped hills on the horizon and sighs, “That mine will surely change the face of our municipality.”1 He and his fellow residents are not the only ones in the Amazon facing the impacts of extractive industries. Continuously increasing demands of a planet hungry for commodities has opened the race for the resources of this naturally and culturally rich region. Currently, 21 and 15 per cent of the Amazon is under concession to mining companies and hydrocarbon companies, respectively according to the Red Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georeferenciada (RAISG). These extractive industries and related impacts have the potential to radically transform the social development of the territories in which they take place, for better or worse.

Within the many conflicts that accompany this race for resources, different forms of power are employed to gain control over natural resources. A recurrent element in these struggles is the use of discursive power. Remarkably, while discourses are omnipresent as extractive industries expand, a critical analysis of their nature and power remains quite neglected in research on the extractive industries. By scrutinizing the development discourses concerning the Amazon region, this think piece urges for a discursive turn in dealing with the extractive industries and local social development.

The Amazon as “tierra vacía”

Discourses, and the representations, narratives and images that constitute them, are used to implicitly or explicitly advance a particular worldview. Discourses consequently steer and legitimize certain interventions (or cover up others). If successful, they can even become taken-for-granted frames of reference, and the particularistic interests and power relations they promote may even become ´natural´ occurrences to wider society. No wonder that many researchers analyzing environmental disputes have come to conclude that “power is partly a matter of winning the battle of ideas” (Bryant, 1997:12).

Far too often, this battle of ideas is won by governments and companies, or a coalition between the two. The struggles over extraction taking place in the Amazon are no exception to this. For many centuries, dreams of ´El Dorado´ and resource booms led governments and merchants into the Amazon forest to extract its natural resource wealth. Their interventions were guided by the powerful discourse of the Amazon as “tierras vacías” (Marques, 2012): empty lands that should be occupied to secure national sovereignty and whose resource wealth should serve the rest of the nation´s progress. Other dimensions and perceived attributes of the complex Amazonian territories were however left out of this image. Particularly its populations were regarded as inexistent or backwards, in dire need of civilization and modernization. Later, neoliberal discourses were blended in, depicting the Amazon as an economic utility that should be integrated into the global market through large-scale extraction projects by private transnational companies. This integration through extraction would induce economic growth—and thus social development. Many of these extraction projects, however, did not reflect local population’s interests, failed to deliver the expected social development or even severely worsened living conditions. The most illustrative case is probably Texaco’s oil extraction operations in the Northern Amazon area of Ecuador, which caused disastrous and irreversible environmental and social impacts.

Winds of discursive change…

Over the last decades, some winds of discursive change have blown through the Amazon. The very literal view of the earth from space as a ‘small fragile ball’ changed worldviews and discourses on ‘our common future’. As a result, the sustainable development discourse has taken centre stage, trying to reconcile growth and ecological sustainability. The Amazon has gained importance in this international discourse as ´the lungs of the earth´ and a site for interventions like conservation, reforestation and carbon storage. Governments and companies engaging in extractive industries have been eager to adapt this discourse to create a ´sustainable mining´ discourse, complete with sustainable mining codes of conduct and sustainability reports. These efforts have not been without results, as large-scale mining companies are ranked ‘best in class’ by socially responsible investment funds and praised as champions of conservation by glossy magazines.2

More recently, discourses drawing on the concept of Buen Vivir (living well) have come to the fore in Bolivia and Ecuador and have been adopted by their left-leaning governments as paradigm shifts after decades of neoliberal policies. The roots of Buen Vivir3 have been attributed to indigenous cultures from the Andes and the Amazon who hold “a more holistic view of development as a fluid process that requires living in harmony within and across communities and the Earth” (Harcourt, 2011:430). In Ecuador, Buen Vivir became part of the new constitution approved in 2008, which is also the first in the world to grant rights to nature. The Yasuní-ITT Initiative, which proposed leaving substantial oil reservoirs underground in exchange of compensation, is probably the most famous and striking example of these innovative discourses on the natural resource wealth of the Amazon.4

… Or lurking discourses from the past?

Despite the (sometimes promising and innovative) shifts in discourses, it seems that the powerful “tierras vacías” discourse from the past still continues to loom in current politics on extraction and social development in the various Amazon states. As the extraction of natural resources and energy remains the main development policy for the Brazilian Amazon, the region has been dubbed the “modern colony” of the economic and political elite of Brazil (Marques, 2012). Furthermore, Amazonian communities that resisted mining operations have been labeled as “against progress” by Brazilian government officials (Mittelman, 2008). In Peru in 2008, former president Alan García tried to win discursive power over protesting Amazonian communities by portraying the Amazon as millions of acres of abundant land containing wealth that “Peruvians” should not be prevented from extracting because of a few “natives”, placing the latter outside the citizenship category (Bebbington, 2009). In fieldwork undertaken by the author in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2012, state officials depicted the Amazon as an extremely poor area, where “people live in real misery” because they live in wooden houses and work as subsistence farmers.

This view legitimizes the state’s approval of mineral and hydrocarbon extraction in highly biodiverse areas and indigenous territories and its intention to ordernar, or “tidy up” these territories in the name of social development. Those who oppose this point of view are labelled “extortionists”, “terrorists” and “dangerous” to the revolutionary project of the government.5 These recent uses of rather old discourses, together with the ongoing expansion of the extraction frontier, raise questions as to whether the alternative discourses on extraction, in particularly in the Amazon, should indeed be seen as signs of genuine paradigm shifts. Or whether these winds of discursive change should be rather seen as the strategic co-optation of counter-discourses in order to gain ground in the battle of ideas while continuing business as usual.

Community counter-discourses

Examples from South America show that, while the extractive industries have major impacts on local social development, the decision making over these industries is still very much guided by powerful discourses produced by companies and governments. Nevertheless, there are cases in which marginalized discourses of communities from the Amazon have been able to gain power over government and company discourses, change business as usual and govern their social development strategies. In Juruti Velho in Brazil, for example, the transnational bauxite mining company ALCOA intents to expand its mining operations into the land of various rural communities. In 2007, after decades of campaigning and negotiating, an association of 47 local communities managed to get collective titles over their land, preventing their resettlement. On the other side of the Amazon, the struggle against the Junín mine near Íntag in Northern Ecuador in the 1990s forced the Japanese copper company Bishi Metals to abandon the concession. Other cases in Latin America in which counter-discourses became powerful enough to alter or stop (at least temporarily) the expansion of extractive activities can be found in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala.

How did these communities manage to challenge dominant discourses on extraction and social development? In many of these cases, local communities formed strategic coalitions with (more powerful) actors at the regional, national or international level that enabled them to frame and strengthen their discourses. In Juruti Velho, it was mainly the role of Franciscan missionaries that facilitated the organization of the communities and their campaign for collective land rights. In the Íntag case, the local NGO Decoin, the national environmental organisation Acción Ecológica and its international network played a similar role.

The Young Scholars’ role in the battle of ideas

This think piece tries to make a case for the importance of the battle of ideas within power struggles over the extractive industries and local social development. By unveiling the discursive power at play, academics, civil society members, policy makers, companies and investors can play an important role in such struggles faced by Sir Pixilinga and his fellow community members from Canaã dos Carajás. Particularly young scholars should feel encouraged to critically study the powerful discourses that legitimize and steer interventions, reveal taken-for-granted concepts and explore how these are transformed into material practices and control. Equally important are the counter-discourses, the marginalized discourses and those historical events that are erased from current dominant discourses. Such a critical stance however also requires that we are able to scrutinize our own scholarly productions. Which are the discourses and frames that we ourselves take for granted in our writings and what do we implicitly endorse or reproduce by using them?

This think piece furthermore hints at the possibility of supporting and facilitating social movements and local communities with a counter-discourse, establishing coalitions with more powerful (civil society) actors across scales, enabling them to make their voices heard and change hegemonic discourses. The role of brokers and mediators, like researchers (including young scholars), journalists, ombudsmen and NGO representatives is crucial and one to consider closely.

Finally, although some might be sceptical about this, the governments and companies (and their investors!) that are willing to cede power and break with business as usual could learn from this particular take on resource-related disputes and start paying attention to the counter-discourses and the claims, interests and values they communicate. One means of doing this would be to integrate genuine participation by a wide range of actors in their operations, policies and funding requirements.6 Of course, this is not a panacea for conflicts in the realm of the extractive industries and local social development. Even the best designed participation process cannot reconcile a ‘no’ to mining with the interests of a mining company. However, many elements of the modus operandi of powerful actors in the extractive industries can be worked out and some battled-over ideas could eventually become shared ideas.

Bebbington, A. 2009. The New Extraction: Rewriting the Political Ecology of the Andes? NACLA Report on the Americas, September/October:12-20.

Bryant, R. 1997. "Beyond the impasse: the power of political ecology in Third World environmental research." Area 29(1):5–19.

Harcourt, W. 2011. "Editorial: Making the Non-business Case for Development." Development 54(4):429–432.

Marques, G. 2012. "Amazônia: uma moderna colônia energetic-mineral?" Universidade & Sociedade 49:32-45.

Mittelman, D. 2008. "The Stories of Juruti Velho." Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. Paper 24.

Nahum, J. and I. Castro. 2013. "Um capítulo da questão agrária na Amazônia: mineração e campesinato no município de Juruti (PA)." In Espaço, natureza e sociedade: olhares e perspectivas, edited by J.M. Gentil de Coimbra de Oliveira. 13-30. Belém: GAPTA/UFPA.

1 Documented during the author's fieldwork in the region.

2 Bauxite mining company Norsk Hydro, active in Paragominas and Trombetas in the Brazilian Pará state, was ranked first in its category by the Socially Responsible Investment Fund of the Belgian KBC Bank. The sustainability index in the 2013 Guia de Sustentabilidade of Exame magazine praised Vale, as it conserves a total of 13,700 km2 of forest, investing 70 million Reais or roughly 31.5 million US dollars (USD1 = 2.2BRL; July 2014).

3 There is great is risk of simplification of this concept, as there are diverse explanations and it should be understood in the context of a longstanding struggle over rights, territory and development of indigenous peoples and environmental organizations in the Andes countries. For further reading refer to, for example, Thomson, B. 2011. "Pachakuti: Indigenous perspectives, buen vivir, sumaq kawsay and degrowth." Development 54(4):448–454.

4 In 2013, this initiative was cancelled in a political clash between the popular President Correa, social movements and the international community.

5 These terms were used by President Rafael Correa in press conferences and radio interviews during the debates on a new mining law in 2009.

6 See also Environmental governance of extractive activities in Latin America and the Caribbean: the need to include local communities, a policy brief by the ENGOV: a collaborative research project between Latin American and European researchers.

    Karolien van Teijlingen is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Latin American Research and Documentation (CEDLA) and the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR). After obtaining a B.A. in Human Geography and Spanish , she completed a Research Masters in International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam in 2013 (cum laude). For her M.A. thesis, she conducted research on a copper mining project in the Ecuadorian Amazon region and the use of discourses on mining and development within the conflicts surrounding that mine. Recently, this thesis won the annual Thesis Award of the Netherlands Association of Latin American and Caribbean Studies. In 2013, she obtained a Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Scholarship which allowed her to explore issues of mining, development and environmental governance in the south of Pará, Brazil. This think piece is based on both research experiences.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.