International workshop: Natural Resources Economy in South America: Extraction, Sustainability and Citizenship

News | Posted on Wednesday 28 August 2019

On July 8th and 9th, York’s Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC) hosted a 2-day workshop on resource extraction in Argentina. Catch up with the presentations and discussions here.

On July 8th and 9th, York’s Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre (IGDC) hosted a 2-day workshop at the York Medical Society entitled the Natural Resources Economy in South America: Extraction, Sustainability and Citizenship. Led by Jean Grugel, Alejandro Peña, and María Eugenia Giraudo, the workshop draws directly from a GCRF-funded project in collaboration with the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina) on resource extraction in Argentina. The event follows up on the first workshop, which took place in Buenos Aires in March this year.

The event brought together academics and experts from both national and international research institutions and civil society partners, all connected through their research and interests in natural resource extraction in Latin America. While the presentations and discussions covered a vast swath of countries and topics – including questions of production, citizenship, urban spaces, sustainability, and the SDGs – underlying the debates and conversations held throughout both days was a discussion of what development entails for Latin America, and how interdisciplinary approaches are key in understanding the overlapping challenges in sustainability, governance, and citizenship that an intensive exploitation of natural resources brings. 

Daniel Blanco, Executive Director of Wetlands International Argentina, introduced the work of his organisation and the relevance of the ecosystem on which they focus: wetlands, where water meets land, including mangroves, peatlands, and marshes. Wetland systems are deeply interconnected, and one of the recently launched programmes of Wetlands International – called ‘Corredor Azul’ – focuses on the wetland system found across the borders of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, its heart being the Paraná and Paraguay Rivers. Several factors are driving the erosion and degradation of these systems. On the one hand, soybean production poses a serious threat, as the use of fire to incorporate new land and intensive agriculture that utilises agrochemicals both produce soil erosion and affect the health of the wetlands. On the other hand, lithium is a growing concern for wetland systems. While there is no lithium production in the proximities of the Paraná-Paraguay rivers, the growing extraction of lithium in the North of Argentina, and the water-pumping process that it entails, impacts the underground water and wetlands systems. Daniel raised questions and challenges in terms of regional and global environmental governance that are needed to protect these and other environments that provide key ecosystem services.

In terms of regimes of global governance, the workshop also addressed issues related to the SDGs and how they interact with natural resource extraction in Latin America. Karen Siegel, from the University of Glasgow, presented a paper developed with Mairon Bastos Lima on the implementation of the SDGs in South America, with a focus on agriculture and land use in Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Karen highlighted the emergence of narratives of ‘sustainable intensification’ and ‘green commodities’ in these countries that seek to make sustainability compatible with intensive agriculture by claiming, for example, that soybean can be produced sustainably. These narratives raise questions about the meaning of the SDGs in terms of widening inclusion and potential for change. Jessica Hope, from the University of Bristol, explored the implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia to highlight how the UN goals are facilitating the appropriation of language of radical difference to support extractive development. Her analysis delves into how the understanding of nature by indigenous populations and the articulation of this knowledge – what Arturo Escobar and Marisol de la Cadena refer to as the ‘pluriverse’  is amalgamated within the SDGs framework to facilitate extractivism and make the SDGs more inaccessible.

Indigenous populations are one of the most affected groups by natural resource exploitation and extractivism. Marginalised and invisibilized, these groups have increasingly been displaced from territories that are considered key in mineral and agricultural exploitation. Matthias vom Hau, from IBEI (Institut Barcelona Estudis Internacinals), presented an analysis of conflicts and indigenous land claims in Argentina. In this country, in order to address a growing number of evictions of indigenous communities, the government passed a law mandating a survey of indigenous land claims in 2006. In his study, Matthias focused on the variation found across provincial states in Argentina, and found that there are different pathways for the implementation of this survey, which is used as a tool of state formation, but also as a legitimising mechanism for expanding and making clear the extractive frontier. Philipp Horn, from the University of Sheffield, also focused on indigenous populations but this time within urban spaces in Bolivia and Ecuador, challenging the idea that indigenous populations are only linked to the rural sphere, and that in fact these groups have always been present in the city. Recent expansion of extractive activities and the infrastructure projects these activities promote have motivated further displacement of indigenous people into cities, with new urban dynamics of political practices emerging as a result.

These political practices, and the increasing role of corporations in the organisation of the geographies of extractivism, raise questions about how citizenship for indigenous populations is re-defined in a more inclusive or exclusive way. Penelope Anthias (University of Durham) presented research on this issue, arguing that there are different modes of ‘hydrocarbon citizenship’ emerging in the Bolivian Chaco, whereby historical grievances and struggles for greater autonomy by the local populations are confronted with alliances by the governing party, corporations, and regional elites – redefining in the process what is understood by the ‘plurinational state’ under President Evo Morales. Murat Arsel (ISS – International Institute for Social Sciences) presented work on introducing the use of technology – specifically the use of drones – as tools for indigenous oversight of the work of oil corporations in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He posed questions on the forms that ‘digital democracy’ can take and the potential for redefining legal frameworks for environmental protection.

In the first roundtable of the workshop, Alejandro Pelfini, from FLACSO Argentina, raised an issue connected to the role of technology and extractivism. Pelfini proposed to further explore the concept of ‘informational-extractive capitalism’ proposed by Castells and Calderon, and the specific characteristics of these extractivist activities, in which exports include not only the primary products, but also the technological innovations that are embedded in such products, such as, for example, in the area of biotechnology. The roundtable, which was chaired by Andrea Bianculli (IBEI and visiting researcher at the IGDC) and featured Pia Riggirozzi (University of Souhtampton), Philipp Horn, and Eleanor Jew (University of York), also discussed how extractivism, and informational capitalism more specifically, raises issues of accountability and legitimation. In that sense, a tension emerges from the urgency of addressing the environmental damages of intensive exploitation of natural resources, and the mechanisms for legitimation that arise as a result of the redistribution made possible by revenues generated from these activities. Extraction of natural resources in Latin America is therefore very closely connected to questions of democracy and inclusion in one of the world’s most unequal regions.

This is particularly relevant for the post-neoliberal regimes that characterised the region during the 2000s, at the same time as the commodity boom. Pia Riggirozzi and Jean Grugel presented their analysis of the complex legacies of post-neoliberalism in the region, in terms of its political economy – nature being one of the main sources for its economic development, through exports of primary commodities – and the terms of citizenship – on the one hand, becoming more inclusive with expanded welfare policies, and, on the other hand, curtailing environmental and land claims.

Looking more specifically at the political economy of the agricultural sector in Chile, Tom Purcell (Leeds Beckett University), in a work jointly developed with Martin Arboleda, looked at how the notion of extractivism requires a more expanded conceptualisation – one that incorporates issues of logistics, institutional frameworks, and the struggles that emerge across an increasingly complex supply chain. Also focusing on agriculture, but in this case Argentina, María Eugenia Giraudo presented a joint paper with Jean Grugel on ‘Imaginaries of Soy’, which argued that there is a developmental imaginary underpinning the political economic history and present of Argentina, and which can be extended to the rest of the region, with a focus on different commodities. The case of soy in Argentina is particularly paradigmatic, as it has shaped political cleavages, economic structures, and resistance to the social and environmental consequences of this model.

Also looking at Argentina, Alejandro Peña presented on the incipient exploitation of lithium in the North of Argentina, and how this commodity – embedded in global supply chains and sometimes proposed as a more environmentally friendly alternative – is creating new challenges for the environment (including the wetland systems discussed by Daniel Blanco) and the wellbeing of local indigenous populations. Juan Pablo Rud (Royal Holloway, University of London) took the focus on mining further, proposing a comparison between Peru, Ghana, and the UK, analysing the local economic effects and shedding light on how a comparison between developing and advanced industrialised countries can provide interesting insights into the effects of this extracting activities on local communities across the world.

The final roundtable featured Jean Grugel, Daniel Blanco, Penelope Anthias and Juan Grigera (King’s College London), as well as Matthias vom Hau acting as chair, and focused on ‘Priorities for Future Research’. To start the discussion, Juan pointed out that perhaps we need to discuss the limits of the concept ‘extractivism’ – to what extent is this a new phenomenon, when Latin America has always been characterised by a dependence on natural resource exploitation? How much more important is this sector now than at other points in the history of the region? Extractivism does, nevertheless, raise questions about under-explored issues linked to the extraction of natural resources, particularly connected to health, gender, corporate power, and the impact of new technologies. Following on from that, Jean Grugel highlighted the importance of interdisciplinarity, and of addressing inequalities in Latin America while also looking at the challenges in terms of environmental degradation. These two issues are usually debated separately, and a more interdisciplinary research agenda is urgently needed to address these questions. As Daniel pointed out, this can help develop new alternatives for land and water-use planning and efficiency, and looking at new political ontologies – such as that of indigenous populations – is important to work towards that aim.

During the two days, the excellent and varied research projects presented allowed for rich discussions on the complexity and significance of studying the political economy of natural resource exploitation in Latin America from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC