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Latin America: new governments, old economies


The New Latin American “Progresismo” and the Extractivism of the 21st Century *

by Carmelo Ruiz Marrero   
17 February 2011 
altThe advent of progressive governments in South America in the last decade gave environmentalists the hope that this would be the beginning of a truly sustainable economic development. But post-neoliberal “progresismo” has brought new complications in the environmental front, according to numerous activists and experts. 

The neoliberal period was marked by extractivism, meaning the centering of economies around the export of raw materials, such as minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural commodities. Numerous critiques came from the environmental movement and the left to the effect that extractivism is ecologically destructive and keeps the countries of the global South in misery, dependence and underdevelopment. They hoped for a transition towards a post-extractivist model, in which natural resources would be used in a rational and sustainable manner, and mainly for local use, thus facilitating a truly national, “endogenous” economic development. The new progressive constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia acknowledge this matter and are post-extractivist in orientation. Among indigenous peoples’ movements the post-extractivist posture is reflected in the philosophy of sumak kawsay, a term which translates roughly as “right livelihood” or “living well.”

Unlike in neoliberalism, in the new Latin American “progresismo” or “21st Century Socialism” the state has much more participation in the economy and directs part of the foreign exchange funds into social programs, and also China has replaced the United States as the main importer of raw materials. But little else has changed. Instead of post-extractivism now there is neo-extractivism. Extractive activities and the export of raw materials continue as before, but are now justified with a progressive discourse.

“In Latin America, in countries with progressive governments – and immediately Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador come to mind, and then others – there is no move toward a structural transformation of our region’s historical accumulation patterns. There is no substantial shift,” says Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta, former minister of mining and environment. “It’s not traditional neoliberalism anymore, but we remain within the extractivist logic. The form of production is still being over-defined by the primary products that we export, some are mineral resources, others are oil or other primary resources, but there is no change in the raw materials-exporting modality of this extractivism, and neither is our submissive form of insertion in the international market being questioned.”

Acosta holds that “we cannot talk of structural change, what has been done is a re-conversion from the old extractivism to a neo-extractivism or 21st century extractivism, in which the state has a larger participation in the income generated by mining and oil, where the state somehow controls the activity of transnational corporations, where there is a larger distribution of the income generated by these exports through a quite sustained social policy, but which is nevertheless paternalistic and clientelist, and we get then to another important element: social investment has improved but the pattern of accumulation and wealth concentration is not being changed but rather, the available surpluses of countries that produce and export raw materials are being distributed through social policies.”

Under neo-extractivism, “the objective of national development, as ‘endogenous development’, is lost; autonomy in relation to global markets vanishes. National industries do not recover, in some cases they are reduced,” says Uruguayan economist Eduardo Gudynas, executive secretary of the Latin American Center for Social Ecology. “Under this style of development, the employment generated is not enough, productivity gets replaced by larger volume of exports, and the pressure on natural resources increases, and with it, social conflicts. It is naively hoped that poverty will be reduced as a result of exports… to hope that raw materials exports will solve all our problems is naive and unfounded. It is still necessary to generate endogenous and autonomous development strategies.”

“Latin America faces an enormous environmental challenge,” points out Ignacio Sabbatella, a scholar at the University of Buenos Aires. “Instead of the profound political changes in the region in the preceding decade, the progressive governments have not been able to untangle themselves from the role assigned to them in the international division of labor, and in some cases they have furthered it.”

“Besides the negative impacts on nature, environmental inequities are broadened in regions where riches abound. Not casually but causally, environmental conflicts multiply where it is common to encounter local, peasant and indigenous populations pitted against mining and oil transnationals or resisting the displacement imposed by monocultures,” states Sabbatella, who together with Gudynas is a contributing writer in the ‘Marxismo Ecológico’ blog. “The strip mining megaprojects are multiplied tenfold in spite of the negative consequences to the environment and the health of nearby populations. Genetically engineered soy cultivation keeps expanding, at the price of putting national food sovereignty at risk, and agrochemical pollution.”

Others are much sharper in their critiques, like Argentina’s Rural Reflection Group (GRR): “Today the crudest developmentalism rules in Latin America’s progressive developmentalist governments… Extractivism and productivism are imposed, for they do not understand that transnational corporations are the danger and thus they become functional to global markets and to the growth of China as a great power, subsidized by the over-exploitation of the labor of our peoples and also by our raw materials. We are convinced that global markets are unconcerned by the discourses that emanate from Bolivarian socialism or whatever you might call it.”

According to GRR spokesman Jorge E. Rulli, in 21st Century Socialism “extractivism is defended, which leads to foreign investments and to the favoring of productivism over local demands for the preservation of natural resources, under the axiom that in order to fight poverty we must first make the pie grow… and this ‘mantra’ is being equally repeated by Correa in Ecuador, Pepe Mugica in Uruguay and Cristina K in Argentina.”

To give but one example, there’s Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plans to put oil wells in areas populated by indigenous peoples, and of great ecological sensitivity, such as the Amazonian jungle and the Chaco.

“Bolivia, with over a century of oil history and centuries of condemnation because of the extractivist resource policy, renews its gamble by giving away the country’s richest and best conserved lands to petroleum transnationals,” decries Catalan researcher Marc Gavaldà, author of ‘Las Manchas del Petróleo Boliviano’ (The Stains of Bolivia’s Oil) and creator of the documentary ‘Patagonia Petrolera’ (The Patagonia of Oil).

This invasion of oil wells has a bitter taste of irony, considering the pronouncements and postures of president Morales in international fora, such as the UN Climate Convention meetings in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010, and the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, organized and hosted by Morales’ government in the city of Cochabamba on April 2010.

“The new black offensive, adorned with the most oft repeated agruments of economic progress for the country, hands out in a platter millions of hectares of Amazonian and Chaco protected areas, as well as the last uninvaded indigenous territories so that the new partners with capital and non-local headquarters tear up the territory in the course of carrying out the most noxious activity in the planet,” warns Gavaldà. “That the Bolivian government keeps betting on the entrance of more petroleum corporations into its territory also facilitates the intensification of the sense of impunity of these companies, which have so far eluded any attempt at courtroom indictment.”

To those who oppose extractivism – with or without the “neo” prefix – from an ecological and anti-capitalist perspective, post-extractivism beckons as the alternative. But according to Gudynas, there are sectors that participate in the debate but do not understand the concepts of post-extractivism and sumak kawsay:

“On one extreme there are conservative critiques, with a neoliberal nostalgia, which consider all of this as mere indigenous claims, which promote laziness and would take our countries backwards. In the middle there are some academics, specially in economics, who view this debate as something very distant from their scholarship and research. Finally, from the other extreme, it is reduced to mere assistentalist plans, like in Venezuela, with a government-issued plastic card, identical to a credit card, but with a label about right livelihood.”

The Uruguayan economist explains that “nobody is proposing a return to living as hunter-gatherers in the jungle, this is about demanding that the people’s quality of life be put in center stage, and not the increase in the (domestic gross product). It is not a slogan that is separate from rigorous reflection, rather it is nourished little by little by complex conceptual bases, which include contributions spanning from post-material economics to ecological anthropology. It does not underestimate traditional knowledge either, it actually rests upon it and incorporates its lessons, such as agroecological practices and reciprocity. By the same token, Right Livelihood is much more than paying assistentialist bonuses, since it calls for profound changes in the economic dynamics and productive chains, and the redistribution of wealth.”

Acosta clarifies that post-extractivism does not mean rejecting the exploitation of natural resources, but rather “to establish the biophysical limits of exploitation, eliminating poverty and its cause, which is opulence”, and move towards a post-petroleum economy. “Oil is running out and given the growing rates of consumption we cannot keep on being oil exporting countries.”

In Gudynas’ view, it is imperative to participate in the debate and it would be a grand mistake to abandon it. “Some civil society actors confronting a government walk out of spaces of debate on Right Livelihood, deeming that the subject has been hoarded and controlled by state agencies. Their discrepancies are expressed by abandoning the debate. As a mirror of this situation, there are government actors that seem to think they know everything and do not tolerate criticism, and thus cut off dialogue with the citizenry, without offering opportunities to advance collectively in the construction of Right Livelihood.”

“Political and social transformation is an unavoidable condition for the democratic planning of the exploitation of natural goods and the care of the environment,” advises Sabbatella. “That also requires a cultural transformation that stimulates an ever more participatory democracy. Finally, even with good intentions, the transition towards an ecological society is no more than an utopia if the foundations of capitalist production and reproduction are not questioned and altered.”

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is an independent environmental journalist and environmental analyst of the CIP Americas Policy Program (, a fellow of the Oakland Institute and a senior fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, as well as founder and director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (, and more recently the founder of the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor. His bilingual web site ( is dedicated to global environment and development issues.


Verónica Gago y Diego Sztulwark. Alberto Acosta interview. Página 12, January 10 2011.

Marc Gavaldà. “La amnesia petrolera en Bolivia”. Rebelión, December 4 2010.

Eduardo Gudynas. “Buen Vivir, un necesario relanzamiento”. Acción y Reacción, December 16 2010.

Eduardo Gudynas. “Exportando Recursos Naturales, Otra Vez”. Acción y Reacción, January 21 2011.

Jorge E. Rulli. “Modelos alternativos y alternativas al modelo”. June 24 2010.

Jorge E. Rulli. Carta abierta los amigos de EnREDando y de Nodo Tau de la ciudad de Rosario. December 2010.

Ignacio Sabbatella. “Latinoamérica ante la crisis ecológica global: un problema de fondo”. August 5 2010.

Servicio de Noticias Ambientales (SENA). “Despilfarran la renta petrolera y minera en una ‘bonocracia clientelar’”. SENA, September 1 2010.

* Published in Upside Down World 

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