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Turning the Pink Tide Green

Left governments in Latin America have successfully nationalized much of the mining sector, reclaiming foreign profits for social spending. The next step is to get beyond extraction altogether, taking cues from indigenous movements that have long been fighting for a green future.

A demonstrator waves a flag near the Presidential Palace of Carondelet in Ecuador. (Photo by Jorge Ivan Castaneira Jaramillo / Getty Images)

In her book Resource Radicals, political scientist Thea Riofrancos traces the conflict between social movements and the self-styled, post-neoliberal administration of Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Her analysis centers on the polarization within the Left over “extractivism,” understood as an economic development model based on the hyper-exploitation of natural resources for export, usually by foreign firms, during Latin America’s so-called Pink Tide.

Riofrancos counters state-centered narratives to explore the role of movements in shaping state action. She emphasizes the materiality of discourse — language’s capacity to “shape the world” — and its dynamic, contested, and collective nature. In so doing, she points to the power of movements to both strategically wield and transcend the institutions of liberal democracy.

As Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen note in their introduction to NACLA’s recent issue on climate justice in the Americas, the US left has much to learn from its comrades to the south. To that end, this new work offers a timely analysis of the dilemmas of leftist governance, the relationship between movements (the “Left-in-resistance”) and the state (or the “Left-in-power”), and the challenging road to a future beyond the oppressive paradigms of capitalist development that have dominated our societies since conquest.

The Left in Conflict

Riofrancos frames the inter-left struggle in Ecuador as a conflict between opposing forms of “resource radicalism.” The Correa administration drew from a Latin American left-nationalist tradition, forged in response to colonial pillage and imperialist appropriation. From the structuralist critique of the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America and the Caribbean, to Marxist dependency theory and militant national liberation movements, the Latin American left sought to break with the region’s dependent insertion into the global capitalist economy as exporter of raw materials, vulnerable to the fluctuations of global markets — re-enforced during the post-2008 commodity boom. For radicals, this might be achieved through expropriation, nationalization, and redistribution of resource rents.

Popular movements, in turn, increasingly rejected extraction as a development model altogether. Anti-extractivism emerged from indigenous movements that sought to defend local territories and ecosystems against industrial intervention. Under Correa, organizations that once, in the heyday of neoliberalism, advocated nationalization of extractive industries, now formulated a new horizon: “a post-extractive vision in which the polity was not a machine that ran on fossil fuels but a plural collectivity comprising cultures and ecosystems alike.” The anti-extractive movement “radically decentered human beings.” In this way, writes Riofrancos, “it was a truly post-neoliberal project” characterized by its decolonial transcendence of liberal and Marxist debates alike — both of which it understood to reproduce “the developmentalist pathology that was the essence of Western civilization.”

Riofrancos reviews the history of popular indigenous mobilization in Ecuador throughout the twentieth century, tracing the origins of the formidable Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas de Ecuador (CONAIE) to leftist peasant rebellions in the first half of the twentieth century, and indigenous territory defense against state incursions into the Amazon in the latter half of the twentieth century. Over the course of multiple anti-neoliberal indigenous uprisings throughout the 1990s, CONAIE’s demands for land reform and plurinationality were joined by calls to refound the state with a new constitution. While most social movements during this period demanded nationalization and the redistribution of extractive profits, Amazonian communities were spurning oil extraction entirely. Nevertheless, these divergent critiques formed an alliance as part of the broader movement against neoliberalism. Resource nationalism and anti-extractivism would not fully come into opposition until the election of a leftist president.

Rafael Correa took office in 2006 on the back of the anti-neoliberal protests, riding the “Pink Tide” that surged across the continent. As president, he pledged to assert national control over natural resources, and worked to develop the mining industry in Ecuador. Correa’s “post-neoliberal resource nationalism” was framed against the neoliberalism of the preceding era, as well as mid-century, oil-based developmentalism. The approach was aided by the China-driven commodity boom, which provided the material base for the redistribution of resource rents to historically marginalized sectors across the region.

Social spending — financed by oil revenues, but also Chinese loans — drove important reductions in poverty and inequality during this period. But big business benefited too: “Historically high resource rents […] enabled the Correa government to attend to social needs without deeper transformations in class relations.” Crucially, the Correa administration sought to redistribute, not expropriate, resource rents: “this was a nationalism amenable to courting foreign capital and deepening global market integration.”

In this context, social movements’ rejection of Correa’s “resource nationalism” was facilitated by the administration’s reduction of long-standing demands for sovereignty and democratic control to “a contract model that increased the state’s take and the redistribution of revenues.” Correa’s push for a national mining law in 2009 accelerated the fusion of the prior anti-neoliberal critique with the nascent anti-extractivism consensus.

The administration, however, was not a monolith. Riofrancos emphasizes that a range of positions existed among bureaucrats on the issue of extraction. Some state actors framed recourse to extractive rents as the regrettable yet necessary fuel for a future transition away from primary export dependency. Others, including Correa himself, embraced the abundance of natural resources as a blessing and stressed the importance of regulating, rather than transcending, extractive industries. He rejected anti-extractivism as irrational, naïve, and even treasonous, and set nature and the social good against one another, positing anti-poverty measures and anti-extractivism as mutually exclusive.

In accusing anti-extractive movements of being stooges of empire and tools of foreign NGOs, Correa propagated talking points frequently deployed by foreign extractive corporations to delegitimize community opposition. Despite the straw man of foreign NGO interference, however, it was local organizations that suffered as the primary targets of state censure and repression.

Constitutional Claims

Riofrancos traces the fraying relationship between social movements and the Correa administration during the Constituent Assembly, which convened to draft the 2008 constitution. There, delegates sought to regulate — but not abolish — mining concessions, even as a consensus emerged against the economic, social, and environmental impacts of the extractive model and resource rent dependency in the Americas. Convened by a popular referendum at the onset of Correa’s term, the assembly was torn between the administration’s neo-developmentalist reforms — a “state-centric interpretation of ‘post neoliberalism’” — and the more radical, anti-capitalist, and decolonial horizons of social movements.

The result was “a fundamentally ambivalent text produced at the intersection of an ongoing dispute between two closely related, but mutually opposed, leftist political projects.” Ecuador’s 2008 constitution embodies the contradictions of emergent anti-extractivism and radical resource nationalism: it grants rights to nature, aspires to the indigenous-rooted notion of buen vivir, and provides for community decision-making over extraction. At the same, it establishes state control over subsoil resources.

The debate over the right to prior community consultation, which had already been established for indigenous communities by Ecuador’s ratification of the International Labour Organization Convention 169, became contentious as a minority of delegates insisted on prior consent, which would render consultations binding. Social movement representatives, as well as high-ranking delegates from Correa’s Alianza PAIS (AP) (which held a majority of seats), supported this notion, but the president and many more AP delegates opposed it arguing that it would allow minority extremists to compromise broader national interests. Correa’s camp was able to successfully turn the resource nationalism forged in a prior period by these very movements against them, and the majority position prevailed.

Nevertheless, the final text is ambiguous, not least because it allows for the full implementation of international human rights instruments, to which Ecuador is a signatory. Among these is the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mandates “free, prior and informed consent” from communities impacted by extractive projects. And in this contested space, anti-extractive movements claimed expansive rights.

The new constitution was ratified with 69 percent of the votes in a 2008 referendum. CONAIE member groups encouraged voters to ratify the document, at the same time lamented its limitations. Later, however, these groups positioned themselves as defenders of the constitution, using it to bolster their positions in disputes against the administration.

Movement organizations claimed “constituent power,” writes Riofrancos, in their selective or even misreading of the document, effectively affirming their powers of self-determination, which were never enshrined in the text. “Through their contentious actions,” she explains, “these activists kept constituent politics alive: they enlisted the Constitution in their struggle over resource extraction and claimed to defend it against the very state that it refounded.” In this way, these actors were “at once invoking and producing the text’s legal authority.”

[Post]-Neoliberal Technocracy

Riofrancos shows the Correa administration’s penchant for substituting technocratic regulations for sweeping popular demands. Such was the case with Decree 1040, which responded to the call for binding consultations with a managed process of information, transparency, and participation. This left the final authorization of extractive projects in the hands of the state. So, too, with the 2009 Mining Law, challenged by CONAIE and other groups in the Supreme Court, which “conceives of participation in informational terms” and consultation as a tripartite process between the state, the corporation, and the community — this, despite the constitution’s provision that the state acts as exclusive consulter. The administration’s definition of prior consultation was “an information session for a predetermined extractive project.”

To illustrate this point, Riofrancos draws on ethnographic observations of a 2011 community-led consultation process that overwhelmingly rejected a gold mine in the southern highlands. In the perceived absence of government enforcement, social movement groups in Ecuador organized consultations themselves. It’s a tactic widespread throughout the Americas; in El Salvador, internationally-observed municipal referenda were used to pressure for the passage of the world-historic 2017 national ban on metallic mining. In Ecuador, writes Riofrancos, these transgressive, unsanctioned elections “invoke the specter of democracy beyond the nation-state.”

Together with private industry, Ecuadorean officials wielded a technocratic, regulatory approach to extraction, and dismissed anti-extractivism as politicized and misinformed. The anti-extractive movements, in turn, embraced the political nature of their struggle, while claiming a superior cultural and ecological understanding of the territory.

Officials framed the conflict over mining as the work of interested activists manipulating local populations. The state acted, then, as a neutral bearer of expertise that could mediate, inform, and regulate this manipulation. There was also dissent within the administration, however. Some bureaucrats questioned the quality of environmental impact assessments and the process of information dissemination on the ground — disagreements that reflected the deeper disputes over extraction in general.

Broadly speaking, for the Correa administration, neoliberalism was understood as an absence or weakness of the state; whereas, post-neoliberalism was an expansion of state power and expertise. “This rendering of post-neoliberalism,” writes Riofrancos, “divorced from a critique of capitalism, ironically reveals a deep affinity with neoliberal governance: both seek to disembed the economic from the social and political, and in the process reify them as distinct spheres of social life.”

Learning From the Pink Tide

Across Latin America today, a resurgent right threatens both resource nationalists and anti-extractivists alike. “In a warming world riven by inequality,” Riofrancos warns, “it is more vital than ever to understand the accomplishments and the shortcomings of both of these leftist orientations to extraction.”

Bitter, often violent conflicts over resource politics were widespread and escalated across the region as extractive industries flourished throughout the commodity boom of 2000–14. Though, Correa’s pointed antagonism to social movements was unique among a larger cohort of leftist administrations who “inherited, and intensified, a model of accumulation based on the extraction and export of natural resources.” Administrations like Correa’s successfully leveraged resource rents for major social gains, but Riofrancos underscores that the persistent dependence on primary commodity exports undermined the very sovereignty that these nationalists pursued. As a result, Pink Tide governments forged new forms of dependency, including subordination and indebtedness to new powers, China in particular.

Furthermore, continued reliance on private industry perpetuated familiar patterns. Most Pink Tide governments opted for association with foreign extractive capital rather than expropriation: “It is thus perhaps in extractive sectors that we see some of the clearest continuities across neoliberal and avowedly post-neoliberal reforms.” Administrations “prioritized extraction over manufacturing,” reproducing long-standing dependency on imported capital goods and technologies, while competing with their neighbors for foreign investment: “They thus betrayed promises of regional integration and mutually reinforced their peripheral status.”

In plurinational states like Ecuador, diverse “peoples” may lay claim to resource wealth, so, the Correa administration’s hostility to anti-extractivism cleaved divisions within the previously anti-neoliberal coalition. During the economic upturn, redistribution of extractive profits diluted the force of the anti-extractive critique. But the resulting rise in consumer power was a boon to private capital and, with the absence of strong state regulations, prompted consolidation in sectors like construction and pharmaceuticals. The new reactionary middle class soon turned against its maker, a phenomenon that deposed Bolivian vice president Álvaro García Linera also cites as a factor in the Left’s defeat. When the bust came, Pink Tide administrations resorted to austerity, and found themselves politically vulnerable.

Riofrancos also points to limits of the anti-extractivist critique, in which extractivism is often a “total, ideologically closed system” whose overthrow is rendered nearly unimaginable. She notes, furthermore, that “post-extraction is also hard to pin down, and the vision can slide into a montage of imagined precolonial pasts and hazy extraction-free futures (organic agriculture and ecotourism are frequently alluded to).”

Post-extractive utopian visions are usually modeled on small, rural, indigenous communities that pose serious challenges in terms of both scale and strategy. In order to build a viable coalition, Riofrancos contends, anti-extractive movements will have to transcend the communities directly impacted by the industry to include those who benefit from resource rent–funded social programs. She points to El Salvador’s anti-mining movement, which was built on wartime community organizations — and international solidarity relationships, it should be added — to mount a successful national campaign against the industry.

Short of a tremendous revolutionary rupture, the possibility of a post-extractive society requires a challenging post-extractive transition that would involve channeling existing resource rents into the collectivized, ecological infrastructures and industries that must ultimately replace them. This transition, Riofrancos posits, would not oppose redistribution (“socialism”) and anti-extractivism, as occurred under Correa, but rather deploy the former to achieve the latter.

Such a transition is the subject of A Planet to Win, in which Riofrancos and her coauthors grapple with the local and global dimensions of post-carbon emancipation. In the final chapter, “Recharging Internationalism,” the authors consider the case of Chilean opposition to the extraction of lithium, a key input for energy-efficient batteries. It’s an important example, given that “some amount of lithium will be necessary for decarbonization.” This post-extractivist vision doesn’t preclude extraction itself, but begins to address the so-called pathologies of the extractivist paradigm through decommodification, democratization, and decolonization.

Riofrancos’ proposal raises questions long wrestled with on the Latin American left, debates with which the author is familiar. Mid-century nationalist developmentalists sought to throw off the yoke of primary commodity export dependency, launching state-directed industrialization initiatives to leverage traditional export profits into protected national manufacturing sectors. But these projects soon found themselves constrained by persistent reliance on imported capital goods and technology, and unable to employ the masses displaced from traditional export and agricultural sectors — to say nothing of the reprisals from revanchist oligarchs and the emissaries of US empire, disturbed by excessive market intervention.

These structural limitations led critical theorists like Andre Gunder Frank to famously conclude that the global capitalist system could only produce “the development of underdevelopment” in the postcolonial periphery. In the words of Brazilian Marxist Ruy Mauro Marini, “the fruit of dependency can therefore only be more dependency, and its liquidation necessarily supposes the abolition of the relations of production that it entails.” In reconciling socialism and anti-extractivism, Riofrancos embraces a productive rapprochement between Marxist and decolonial paradigms that are often — though by no means always — brought into conflict within contemporary Latin American critical thought.

Horizons of Struggle

Conflicts over extraction and development continue to play out across the region, be it in Mexico where indigenous communities are leading the resistance to the imposition of infrastructure megaprojects developed by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s nationalist, nominally left government, or under Honduras’s postcoup narco state, where movement leaders like Berta Cáceres are systematically assassinated for fighting so-called green energy projects, from hydroelectric dams to monoculture plantations for biofuels.

Today’s crises only raise the stakes of these struggles. As planetary temperatures rise and our economic foundations buckle yet again, bourgeois democracy manifests its abysmal failures. We need a militant political imagination to supply the long-derided cookshops of the future.

Riofrancos offers a sober assessment, from the Left, of the virtues and limitations of Latin America’s left-in-power and its movement adversaries, providing a meaningful contribution to contemporary struggles. Her scholarship is an example of internationalist solidarity in critical practice, the kind to which we may all aspire, and to which our current moment demands.

If we hope to foster equitable societies on a habitable planet, the governing left will have to transcend the totalizing mandates of capitalist accumulation, which, in the words of indigenous historian Nick Estes, “seeks above all else to extract profits from the land and all forms of life.” Riofrancos’ research points us in the right direction.