Neoliberal Strategies for Securing the Unobtainable

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New Political Economy
ISSN: 1356-3467 (Print) 1469-9923 (Online) Journal homepage:
An Andean Avatar: Post-Neoliberal and Neoliberal
Strategies for Securing the Unobtainable
Anthony Bebbington & Denise Humphreys Bebbington
To cite this article: Anthony Bebbington & Denise Humphreys Bebbington (2011) An Andean
Avatar: Post-Neoliberal and Neoliberal Strategies for Securing the Unobtainable, New Political
Economy, 16:1, 131-145, DOI: 10.1080/13563461003789803
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Published online: 04 Nov 2010.
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An Andean Avatar: Post-Neoliberal and
Neoliberal Strategies for Securing the
Recent years have seen increasingly aggressive expansion of extractive industry in
the Andean-Amazonian region. Reminiscent of the film Avatar, this expansion
drives conflicts over land, territory and political control of space. This expansion
is occurring in both overtly neoliberal regimes and in self-consciously postneoliberal ones. This essay documents the convergence among the different
regimes’ ways of governing extraction and socio-environmental conflicts. We
draw on Executive level statements and policy positions as well as on statements
by indigenous peoples’ organisations. Among the reasons for this apparent convergence are: long-standing resource curse effects; the need to generate resources
to finance social policy instruments that are integral to the governments’ overall
political strategies; power and information asymmetries among companies and
governments; and international relations. The convergences among Bolivia,
Ecuador and Peru regarding the governance of extraction and the conflicts that
it catalyses suggests the need for great critical caution before using the terminology of post-neoliberalism.
Keywords: Extractive industry, mining, oil, natural gas, Amazon, postneoliberalism, indigenous peoples, Evo Morales
New Political Economy, Vol. 16, No. 1, February 2011
Anthony Bebbington, Graduate School of Geography, Clark University, USA. E-mail: [email protected] Denise Humphreys Bebbington, Department of International Development and Social
Change, Clark University, USA. E-mail: [email protected]
ISSN 1356-3467 print; ISSN 1469-9923 online/11/010131-15 # 2011 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13563461003789803
New Political Economy, Vol. 16, No. 1, February 2011
‘Enough is enough. These peoples are not monarchy, they are not
first-class citizens. Who are 400,000 natives to tell 28 million Peruvians that you have no right to come here? This is a grave error, and
whoever thinks this way wants to lead us to irrationality and a retrograde primitivism.’ (Alan Garcia, President of Peru, 5 June 2009)
‘Is it mandatory to get gas and oil from the Amazon north of La
Paz? Yes. Why? … combined with the right of a people to the
land is the right of the state, of the state led by the indigenouspopular and campesino movement, to superimpose the greater
collective interest of all the peoples. And that is how we are
going to go forward.’ (A´ lvaro Garcı´a Linera, Vice-President of
Bolivia, 11 September 2009)
‘It’s absurd to be sitting on top of hundreds of thousands of millions
of dollars, and to say no to mining because of romanticisms,
stories, obsessions, or who knows what.’ (Rafael Correa, President
of Ecuador, 11 October 2008)
When Ecuadorian indigenous leaders went to a Quito cinema to watch the recent
box office hit, Avatar, several of the film’s messages struck close to home (Spitzer
2010). Avatar tells the tale of a planet Earth in which today’s oil states (Nigeria,
Venezuela) are militarised battlegrounds where global powers use force to secure
access to oil. This is also an Earth so over-consumed that the United States looks to
outer space to secure the natural resources it needs to survive. There is no second
contradiction of capitalism (O’Connor 1998) at work here, however, because this
search for and extraction of natural resources appears as big, and highly profitable,
business. The film focuses on the encounter of one such business seeking out the
precious sub-soil mineral ‘Unobtainium’ on the moon Pandora, also home to an
indigenous people. The film charts the efforts of the company to use science, corporate social responsibility and military action in order to secure the deposits of
Unobtainium that lie beneath the homeland and sacred sites of one particular indigenous tribe. The film culminates in a series of violent confrontations with the
indigenous people ultimately victorious, company staff summarily dispatched
back to Earth, and a human supporter of the indigenous people going genetically
native. As Mayra Vega, a Shuar leader commented:1
It left a huge impression on us. For example, the movies are almost
real. It’s an example that makes us think a lot because the indigenous are defending their rights. We have to defend, just as the indigenous so clearly defended in the movie. We had an uprising; we
had a confrontation with gases. It’s the same as what we just saw
in the movie,
While some of the leaders’ observations were more ironic – Luis Vargas, an
Achuar, commented that ‘this is a Hollywood movie, so it’s practically a given
that a mestizo comes to the defence and leads [the people] to triumph’ – the
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
similarity to their own experiences with hydrocarbons and mining companies was
palpable.2 ‘[I]t’s reality, what’s happening now just in another dimension’, commented Marlon Santi, the leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities
of Ecuador. The only difference for Santi lay in the level of conflict – in his own
Sarayacu, the Kichwa population has been able to hold oil companies at bay
without extreme violence.
Not so elsewhere. Across the border in Peru, June 2008 saw an attempt by
the government of Alan Garcia to pass into law a series of decrees that
would, inter alia, ease third party access to collectively hold indigenous and
campesino3 land (Burneo 2008). Though primarily intended to unblock stalled
mining projects in the Andean highlands, this barrage of laws catalysed an
‘Amazonian strike’ led by indigenous organisations and involving river blockades and occupation of hydrocarbon installations. That strike ended when the
government agreed to revisit some of the laws, but when by 2009 it was still
dragging its feet, indigenous organisations mobilised again. That mobilisation
culminated in a standoff between protestors and the police on the Curva del
Diablo, a stretch of road outside the town of Bagua. By the end of the day,
33 people had been killed, including 23 policemen, 11 of whom had been
held hostage at an oil pumping station and deliberately murdered by their
Awajun-Wampis captors in retaliation for the shooting of indigenous people.
Even in a country so accustomed to violence and where some 70,000 people
were killed during the armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s (CVR 2003),
the events in Bagua rocked political debate and everyday conversation, and
absorbed pages in both national and international press (e.g. Vidal 2009).
This was not violence on the Hollywood scale of Avatar, but it was brutal –
and, as in Avatar, the killing was being done by indigenous people as well
as the armed wings of the state and industry.
The Peruvian government’s responses to Bagua were at best half-hearted, if not
cynical. A Commission was created to investigate events, and round-tables were
convened so that government and indigenous leaders could negotiate a way
forward. However, at the same time as indigenous leaders participated in round
tables they were also being pursued by public prosecutors as the intellectual
authors of the deaths in Bagua. Meanwhile, when the Commission finally delivered its report it was signed by just four of its seven members and two
members (a nun and the indigenous President of the Commission) produced a
dissident letter citing 43 reasons why they did not sign (Manace´s Valverde and
Go´mez Calleja 2009).
At the time of writing, and all this dissent notwithstanding, the Executive had
sent a bill to Congress (Proyecto de Ley 3917) to ease forced resettlement of
populations for projects that are of ‘public or primordial interest’ (Alerta Peru´
2010). Meanwhile, Awajun-Wampis leaders were meeting again to discuss the
possibility of new mobilisations, and lowland and highland indigenous and
peasant organisations have called for public protest against the new bill.
In the remainder of this essay we argue that beyond the terrible human
tragedy of Bagua, these events are of more general relevance to readers of New
Political Economy. We suggest that what occurred in Bagua can be understood
in terms of broader processes unfolding in the Andean-Amazonian region.
These processes raise difficult questions for those who claim that parts of Latin
America are now governed by regimes that can be characterised as postneoliberal, and also throw very troubling light on the prospects for crafting new
political economies in the many peripheral economies that are characterised by
resource extraction.
Violent environments: what difference does post-neoliberalism make?
Neoliberal violence
The violence in Bagua had evident roots in deeper processes of structural change
– the long history of usurpation of indigenous lands, the four decades of indigenous organising in the lowlands, the sustained failure of government to respond to
lowland territorial claims. However, its immediate precursor was what Peruvian
political and economic commentator Humberto Campodo´nico (2008) called a
‘torrent’ of decrees issued by the Executive Office under competencies given to
it in December 2007 by Law 29157. This law delegated to the Executive the
power to circumvent Congress and directly pass legislation necessary for implementing the terms of the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2006 with the United
States. These powers were delegated for 180 days from 1 January 2008, and on
their basis the Executive issued a hundred or so decrees, a great many of which
were issued toward the end of the 180-day period (hence the notion of
‘torrent’). A number of the laws had the effect of weakening communal forms
of property, facilitating private investment in areas historically occupied and
owned by peasant and indigenous communities, and strengthening the hand of
the state in achieving the outcomes it wanted on these properties. A leading constitutional lawyer, Francisco Eguiguren, deemed that a number of these laws had
nothing to do with the Free Trade Agreement, and that as such the Executive
Office had misused the powers given to it (CNR 2008). Other actors – including
indigenous organisations, legal defence groups and the Ombudsman – also considered that under the provisions of ILO 169 and Peru’s Constitution, several of
these laws should have been (but were not) consulted on with indigenous communities prior to their emission, and that as such they were neither legitimate nor
constitutional (Chase Smith 2009; Re´nique 2009).
Many of these decrees reflected the translation into legislative proposals of a
manifesto for Peruvian development that Peru’s President Alan Garcia had published (just two months before the passage of Law 29157) under the banner of
‘The Dog-in-the-Manger Syndrome’. He used columns in the leading national
newspaper, El Comercio, to lay out his views regarding the main factors preventing Peru from entering into a full-blown ‘take-off’ along the lines proposed by
W.W. Rostow (1960) in his theory of the stages of growth. In essence Garcia
saw two main problems: a land and resource tenure system that offered indigenous
and formally registered communities a degree of protection to rights of collective
property and of consultation prior to large-scale capital investment on their lands;
and a set of civil society organisations and activists that sought to defend these
rights. These organisations were, for Garcia, the dogs-in-the-manger who
wanted to prevent large-scale capital from deriving value from resources that
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
indigenous and peasant communities could not transform themselves. Garcia
(2007) complained ‘there are millions of hectares for timber extraction that lie
idle, millions more that communities and associations have not, and will never,
cultivate, in addition to hundreds of mineral deposits that cannot be worked.
That same land, sold in large lots, would bring in technology from which community members would also benefit but the ideological web of the 19th century continues as an impediment: the dog in the manger.’ Hydrocarbon expansion was
moving slowly because ‘against oil they have created the image of the “noncontact” jungle native’ while for mineral development the problem was that
‘barely a tenth of these resources are being exploited because here we are still discussing whether mining destroys the environment’, a non-issue for him. These
arguments imply a vision of development for Peru in which the role of modern
technology, private property, large-scale capital, and a combination of both
foreign direct and domestic investment are paramount – a development process
led by capitalists and in which the rest of the population participates as
It is entirely appropriate to share Richard Chase Smith’s view that this is a
manifesto for a ‘clear project of state reform that leads to an ultra-neoliberal
model oriented towards the concentration of land and natural resources in
private hands’ (Chase Smith 2009: 51): a project that is, furthermore, remarkably
well organised. A ‘torrent’ of a hundred or so new laws does not appear easily – it
requires an orchestrated network of lawyers to prepare these laws, guided and
resourced by interests committed to this project. But the question is whether
what is going on in Peru should be only, or best, understood as an exercise in
ultra-neoliberalism; and by the same token whether the violence in Bagua
should be understood as the product of one more dislocation of neoliberalism –
one more neoliberal, violent environment (Peluso and Watts 2001).
Post-neoliberal violence?
Peru’s neighbours, Ecuador and Bolivia, are pursuing projects deemed anything
but neoliberal – as much by international financial markets as by their own governments. After assuming power in January 2007, Ecuador’s president Rafael
Correa spoke of his new government as bringing the country out of its ‘long neoliberal night’. One of the indicators, for him, of this unbridled neoliberalism had
been the mining sector where, following reforms in the 1990s and early 2000s,
rights to the subsoil had been handed out indiscriminately, leaving a large part
of the central-southern highlands and Amazonian lowlands under concession.
Legislation was so neoliberal that once a private party requested a concession,
the state had to grant it; and to a very considerable degree, concessions could
be renewed indefinitely. During his electoral campaign, Correa had suggested
that Ecuador was on the verge of exploding such was the level of social conflict
induced by this situation.
Initially Correa’s government appeared to target the extractive sector as one in
which it was going to prove its post-neoliberal credentials and craft new ways of
governing the economy and natural resources. Indeed, the first Minister of Energy
and Mines, Alberto Acosta, was an ecological economist in the Mould of Joan
Martı´nez Alier,4 who sought to substantially rein in, if not ban, open-cast mining.
He and Correa also declared a commitment to a different way of managing oil (and
carbon). This proposal hinged around the sensitive field of Yasunı´-ITT (Ishpingo
Tambococha Tiputini) located beneath a protected area of astounding biodiversity
and occupied by Huaraoni and other indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation (Yasunı´ is, perhaps, Avatar’s Pandora on Earth). The government committed itself to pursuing an alternative proposal for the governance of ITT,5 in
which the oil would be left under the ground if the international community put
half the revenue that Ecuador would otherwise have received from the oil into a
trust fund that Ecuador could use for broad development purposes. On moving to
the Presidency of the Constituent Assembly – which was charged with writing a
new, post-neoliberal, constitution – Acosta carried these agendas with him, declaring that he would propose a ban on open-pit mining as part of the new constitution
(Reuters 2008). Indeed, early in its work the Assembly passed interim mining legislation that declared stringent environmental and social controls, rescinded many
concessions, froze a series of exploration projects until irregularities were
addressed, and laid a basis for the creation of a state mining company. Yet by the
time the Constituent Assembly was finishing its work in late 2008, the distance
between Acosta and Correa had widened. Acosta was sticking to his ecological
economist’s principles, while Correa clearly worried more and more about
growth. The parting of ways became so palpable that Correa began to intervene
directly by telephone in sessions of assembly working groups that were finessing
articles dealing with, among other things, extractive industries and the issues of
free, prior and informed consent.6
While all was not lost in the final constitution, the period since late 2008 has
seen both new legislation that is much more favourable to the large-scale
mining sector and a progressive hardening of Correa’s positions on the rights of
citizens to protest against extractive industry. If in late 2007 he was already
saying ‘[t]he ecologists are extorsionists. It is not the communities that are
protesting, just a small group of terrorists. People from the Amazon support us.
It’s romantic environmentalists and those infantile leftists who want to destabilize
government’ (Correa 2007), by late 2008 his position had moved from ridicule to
intolerance: ‘I’ll say it again, with the law in my hand, we will not allow such
abuse, we will not allow uprisings that block roads that attack private property’
(Correa 2008). By late 2009 a healthy number of mining protestors were being
pursued by the law, the government had moved (but then stepped back from)
rescinding the legal status of Ecuador’s most outspoken environmentalist nongovernmental organisation (NGO),7 and a radio station in the southeast of the
country had its license revoked on the grounds that it had broadcast radical statements of indigenous Shuar leaders during protests against mining.8
As the executive’s commitment to extraction hardened, the likelihood that
Yasunı´-ITT would become an oil field has also appeared ever greater. In
January 2010, Correa rejected a long-negotiated deal brokered by his own government with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Germany, Spain
and others that would have secured about half of the money required for the
trust fund. Correa insisted that the conditions tied to the use of trust fund resources
were too constraining: ‘if that is how it is going to be, keep your money and in June
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
we’ll begin to exploit ITT. Here we are not going to trade in our sovereignty’
(Correa cited in EFE 2010). His Foreign Minister resigned in response. The significance of the Yasunı´-ITT experiment failing would stretch well beyond
Ecuador – not only as a sign that efforts to keep oil underground are likely to
fail, but also because donors from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation
and Development (OECD), who over the last year have become inclined to
support such an initiative, are less likely to risk wasting their efforts and political
capital again.
While we cannot be sure of the reasons for this progressive hardening, many
of them may well be fiscal. A member of Correa’s first cabinet, by instinct an
environmentalist opposed to expanded extraction, recounts how, on seeing the
government accounts, they first became aware of just how far the structure of
government expenditure was dependent on the extractive economy. With the
output of current oil fields projected to decline, the minister could see no way
of sustaining social sector spending other than through expanding the oil frontier
southwards (that is, towards Yasuni) and opening up large-scale mining. One
imagines an ‘ah-ha moment’ of tragic revelation as the minister recognised
the resource curse incarnate, staring up at them from the accounts and challenging the foundations of several political-ecological principles they had hoped to
bring to their cabinet work.
This said, while fiscal concerns may constitute one set of factors that lead
towards expanded extraction, another is undoubtedly interest group and coalition
politics. The lobbies – both domestic and international – to expand extractive
industry in Ecuador are very powerful. In addition to the normal suspects (hydrocarbon companies, consultancies, civil engineering companies, publicly owned oil
companies) sit less frequently commented ones (extractive industry workers
unions and the military). In the Ecuadorian case the last of these is particularly
significant, the military having had at different times economic (income), strategic
(border security) and territorial reasons for wanting to see the expansion of
extractive industry. So, while Correa has his evident preferences as President,
he negotiates a way towards these through a web of influences and diverse
coalitions surrounding extraction.
The links between fiscal realities, extractive policy and political projects are
clearer in the case of Bolivia because the government makes no bones about the
matter. The issue of extraction figured prominently in the politics that culminated
in the election of Evo Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS).9 This process has
been reviewed elsewhere (Perreault 2006). Here the main point to make is that at
the core of MAS’s strategy on extraction is to secure surplus for redistribution: in
the words of Bolivia’s Vice President Alvaro Garcı´a Linera, ‘[t]he social-state
need[s] to generate economic surpluses that are the state’s responsibility’, ‘you
need to produce on a large scale, to implement processes of expansive industrialisation that provide you with a social surplus that can be redistributed and support
other processes of campesino, communitarian and small scale modernization’
(Garcı´a Linera 2009). The strategy for doing this has been two-fold. First has
been a form of hydrocarbons nationalisation that, while not involving outright
state ownership (Kaup 2010), has massively increased the state’s revenue from
hydrocarbons (by an order of seven, according to some claims by Morales).10
Second has been the concerted effort to extend the extractive frontier into both
traditional and non-traditional areas of extraction.
In addition to securing overall macroeconomic stability,11 this surplus is
needed, according to the government, for two main reasons. The first is to increase
transfers to those departments (sub-national administrative units) that currently
receive no or few fiscal transfers from extraction because they have little or no
hydrocarbon or mining activity within their boundaries. In the short term this
revenue would be delivered through a hydrocarbons tax (IDH) on existing
operations. Some of this IDH tax will be re-directed by central government to
non-producing departments. In the longer term, the goal is to open new extractive
frontiers in these departments so that they too can produce their own oil, gas and
minerals and hence receive royalties directly. The second reason is to fund the
range of social programmes initiated or broadened by the MAS government and
that together constitute an important programme of redistributive and targeted
social spending. The reach and visibility of these programmes12 has made them
central pillars of the viability of MAS’s political project.
Evo Morales himself has emphasised this association of targeted social spending and the extractive economy in his efforts both to justify the government
commitment to extraction and to criticise the position of environmental and
activist groups such as Fobomade (The Bolivian Forum on Environment and
What, then, is Bolivia going to live off if some NGOs say ‘Amazonia without oil’? … They are saying, in other words, that the Bolivian people should not have money, that there should be neither
IDH nor royalties, and also that there should be no Juancito
Pinto, Renta Dignidad nor Juana Azurduy (all cash transfer and
social programmes) (Morales 2009).
At times Morales implies that if there were other alternatives they would be
pursued, but that this is not the case:
necessity obliges us to exploit this natural resource, the gas, the oil,
for all Bolivians…. If there’s oil, gas, you know it is for all Bolivians and this money that we collect from oil, from gas, has to go to
all Bolivians. (Morales 2009)
Even if the extraction encounters resistance, it has to go ahead because its fruits
are for all and because there is no other quick pathway to increased social
Nonetheless, this felt necessity to extract has indeed triggered resistance and has
done so among MAS’s own ostensible bases, in particular lowland indigenous
organisations but on occasion highland organisations also. The chorus of discontent
from these groups has gathered progressively more adherents and visibility since
2008. Recently, for instance, the Consejo de Capitanes Guaranı´-Tapiete de Tarija
(CCGT), the coordinating body of indigenous organisations in Tarija (by far the
main gas producing department of Bolivia) issued a resolution complaining that:
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
we aren’t prepared to continue seeing our demands subordinated to
the interests and whims of other sectors and continuously passed
over…. We wish to express our concern and annoyance that our
territories are being permanently affected by natural resource
extraction activities and infrastructure construction without any
consultation with our organizations as laid down by constitutional
principles and current laws…. No argument can justify government authorities or representatives of state or private companies
simply ignoring all the rights that have been gained by indigenous
peoples and that constitute the essence of the process of change
underway in our country. (CCGT 2010)
The resolution ends stating that the organisations will be mobilised until their
demands are met.
In addition, if relations with the Guaranı´ in Tarija have become tense, those
with indigenous groups in the north of La Paz are yet more so. In this region
the government – through Petroandina, a joint enterprise of the Bolivian and
Venezuelan state hydrocarbon companies – is attempting to open a new hydrocarbon frontier in order that La Paz can generate its own royalties. The response
of the Confederation of Indigenous People’s of La Paz (CPILAP) echoes that in
Tarija, expressing a sense both that their rights have been passed over and that
they feel deeply let down by the government. Their Natural Resources Secretary
declared on January 2010: ‘we the indigenous peoples have been leaders in this
process of change, but the minute we ask respect for indigenous issues and
processes of consultation we’ve been accused of belonging to the right, and of
being part of separatist movements’ (Servindi 2010). As with the CCGT in
Tarija, CPILAP in La Paz also declared itself in mobilisation.
At the time of writing this increasing stand-off between lowland indigenous
groups and MAS seems acute, with the government showing no sign of stepping
back. On the contrary, the head of Bolivia’s state hydrocarbons company YPFB,
Carlos Villegas, recently stated that ‘[t]he issue of environmental permits and consultation and participation has become an obstacle (to investments)’ and that
‘[t]his year we want to undo these obstacles’. A new draft hydrocarbons law
reworking social and environmental safeguards so that ‘social issues will not
be an obstacle to investment’ is now on its way to Congress (quotations from
La Razo´n 2010).
New (geo-)political economies?
The argument here is not to suggest that contemporary political and economic
dynamics in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru look exactly the same. There remain
evident differences among the three countries’ policies and approaches to extraction. Peru does not speak of increased state investment in, or regulation of, the
sector, while Bolivia and Ecuador do; Peru appears to welcome capital from all
over, while Bolivia and Ecuador suggest a certain predisposition to collaborate
with state and private companies from Venezuela, Russia, Iran and others. There
are also political differences. Peru has not gone through a Constitutional Assembly
process, while Bolivia and Ecuador have rewritten their Constitutions in ways that
should offer new constitutional resources to indigenous and campesino populations.
In addition, the Morales administration in Bolivia is still more open and able to
negotiate and deal with its campesino and indigenous critics than is the case in
Peru, where such critics are more likely to be persecuted and demonised
(Ecuador appears to lie somewhere between these two positions). And evidently,
the use of armed police and military violence on protestors has been by far the
most severe in Peru (though it has not been insignificant in Ecuador either). So
we do not want to suggest that there is nothing that is post- in Bolivia and Ecuador.
However, there are also convergences among the three countries, and the
extractive sector seems to channel these convergences.14 All three countries are
encouraging the expansion of extractive industry as a pillar of macroeconomic
strategy, and they each link this expansion to the possibility of poverty reduction
and social investment. Of more concern is the sense that Peru, Ecuador and
Bolivia also share a growing intolerance of resistance to this policy and each
have greeted this intolerance with increasingly harsh rhetoric, criminalisation of
protest (or at least threats to this effect), and a tendency on the part of their executive branches to emit proposals for legislative reform that reduce the scope for the
exercise of citizen voice during the project cycle of extractive investment.
Another shared characteristic is that the extractive booms in Bolivia, Ecuador
and Peru are each part of a far larger re-ordering of Latin America’s geopolitical
economy and economic geography. Of central importance here is the so-called
Initiative for Regional Infrastructural Integration in South America (IIRSA),
US$69 billion worth of 514 infrastructural investments in transport, energy and
communications.15 The logic binding these projects together draws on the
shared historical imaginary of a geographically integrated South America in
which inter-oceanic roads connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the continent,
widened rivers (hidrovı´as) connect inland production zones (of soybean, grains,
bio fuels or whatever) with modernised ports, and pipelines and high-tension
transmission lines link sources of hydrocarbons and hydroelectricity to consumers,
exporters and energy-hungry sites of mineral extraction and processing. While
senior managers at the Inter-American Development Bank have said, in interviews, that there is no strategic relationship between extractive industry investments and IIRSA, the potential synergies are not lost on some of the industry
representatives we have also interviewed. These synergies include, for instance,
the building of ports that will facilitate mineral exports, the building of ducts
that facilitate the transport of hydrocarbons, and the building of power lines that
will, inter alia, bring electricity to extractive industry installations.
Synergies aside, the wider point is that South American geographies are being
profoundly reworked in ways that converge on the Andes-Amazon region. Of particular significance here are the roles of Brazil and, to a lesser extent, Venezuela.
In many respects IIRSA reflects a Brazilian vision of Latin America, while some
of the key regional players in the extractive and infrastructural sectors are also
Brazil based: Petrobras (hydrocarbons), Vale (mining), Odebrecht (civil
engineering) and the Brazilian Development Bank BNDES (finance). Meanwhile
PDVSA, Venezuela’s state hydrocarbons company is an increasingly important
partner in investment and technical expertise in Bolivia and Ecuador. But
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
another factor in this reworking is China. As the performance of the Chinese
economy places yet further pressure on the competitiveness of Latin America
(Phillips 2009), this only increases the dependence on, and proclivity to
promote, primary production and resource extraction as sectors in which a
subsidy from nature sustains at least some global comparative advantage.16 In
addition, in these sectors too, across all three countries, China appears as an
increasingly important foreign direct investor.
At one level these patterns (if that is what they are) might be read as a straightforward manifestation of the resource curse as a path-dependent effect of long
histories of extraction (Kaup 2010). Here we appear to have three national governments with extraction-dependent public budgets17 whose ability to diversify
their economies is circumscribed and who show signs of creeping authoritarian
practices in order to secure the extractive base of their macroeconomy, social
spending and political projects. These tendencies towards authoritarianism in
turn produce progressively more difficult contexts for social movements who,
for their part, seem increasingly predisposed to threaten, and even use, direct
action. If there is something to this interpretation then the implication is that
the spectre of the resource curse, if not determining all political outcomes, is at
least an important constraint on the possibilities of political innovation and of
the construction of government (and societal) practices that can make substantive
and not merely discursive claims to post-neoliberal credentials.
Other questions also arise. If the Peruvian experience is anything to go by,
protestors will demand that their localities receive a greater share of the
revenue generated by extraction, and the industry will support this in the hope
that it eases their operating difficulties. However, the experience so far from
Peru is that these transfers create even more conflict than the extractive projects
themselves (Arellano-Yanguas forthcoming a, forthcoming b). The difference,
however, is that these conflicts are now within local society and local government
rather than between society, enterprise and central authorities. In a context in
which extraction moves deeper into areas historically occupied by indigenous
peoples and claimed by them as territory, then the possibility must exist that conflict
within indigenous society will increase.18 This raises important questions about
the longer-term nature and viability of indigenous populations in these areas.
A further challenge to indigenous society will derive from the land tenure
debates that follow in the wake of the extractive frontier, and that – if they translate into legislation – will in turn help the further expansion of that frontier. Recall
that the spark to the deaths in Bagua was the attempt to facilitate private investment in areas of historically collectively governed and protected land tenure
arrangements. It should therefore be unsurprising that one of the first figures to
tread straight into the mire of Bagua was Hernando de Soto, declaring that the
introduction of private property rights would help resolve the growing conflicts
in the Amazon.19 There is no need to pass judgment on the legitimacy of de
Soto’s statements for one to conclude that to the extent that such tenure
changes end up being promoted across the Amazon (and Andes), then forms of
indigenous organisation and governance would change forever.
Finally, reading across the three countries raises troubling issues of geographical and social justice, for the logics and consequences of extraction seem very
similar regardless of the political project or ideological model. In each case, the
argument is made that the subsoil belongs to the nation, and that it should be
extracted so that its benefits can be shared by that nation. While the absolute
benefits that are actually enjoyed by this ‘nation’ may vary among the three
cases – the government’s proportional shares of the value of the subsoil may be
higher in Bolivia than in Peru – the distributional effects are similar. Value is
taken from certain spaces and distributed to others. The spaces that bear the
brunt of the externalities generated by extraction are in the vicinity of the wells,
mines, pipelines and smelters, and in none of these three countries are environmental safeguards and regulations handled with the seriousness necessary to
offset the risk that today’s sites of extraction will be tomorrow’s sites of contamination and reduced viability. Meanwhile benefits and opportunities accrue in other
spaces – in departmental and national capitals and more generally in areas of
demographic concentration. This seems to be exactly the same whether we are
talking of the north of La Paz in Bolivia, Yasunı´ in Ecuador, or Rio Corrientes
in Peru. And once again, these are spaces that are occupied by indigenous
groups who have been systematically and repeatedly disadvantaged by national
development models. That pattern shows no sign of changing, whether under
neoliberal or post-neoliberal regimes.
Taken together, the politics and economics surrounding extraction in these three
countries complicates distinctions between neoliberalism and post-neoliberalism,
raising questions as to what the prefix ‘post’ refers to. If it is supposed to refer to
differences in macroeconomic policy, then as far as the extractive economy is
concerned these differences are not that great. If it merely refers to differences in
political discourses and the ways in which nationalism, imperialism and capitalism
are talked about, then the difference implied by being ‘post’ would seem to be more
rhetorical that substantive. And if it refers to differences in political style and
practice, distinguishing regimes that are brazenly sympathetic to extractive
capital from those that are just actually sympathetic, then ironically the ‘post’-
neoliberal seems the less transparent of the two. To the extent, then, that Bolivia
and Ecuador have been sources of inspiration for those who hope for a postneoliberal agenda, the implication is that much more hard work has to be done to
define the substance of this agenda.20
Whether these various neoliberal and post-neoliberal dynamics around extraction will translate into replays of Bagua is impossible to say, though the increasing
assertiveness of Presidents and indigenous organisations alike is cause for
concern. What seems far clearer is that this is a pattern that translates into
replays of long histories of colonialism, of violent incorporation of peripheries,
and of resource dependence. In that regard, the post in post-neoliberalism seems
to count for too little.
This essay draws on research conducted during an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Professorial
fellowship held by Bebbington (RES-051-27-0191) and an ESRC doctoral fellowship held by Humphreys
Bebbington (PTA-051-2006-00005), while both authors were at the University of Manchester. For more
information in English and Spanish see The paper has been helped
Bebbington and Humphreys Bebbington
immeasurably by the support of, and conversations with colleagues at the Centro Peruano de Estudios Sociales,
Centro de Estudios Regionales de Tarija, Consejo de Capitanes Guaranı´es de Tarija, Fundacio´n Tierra-Bolivia
and Servicios Educativos Rurales-Peru, with Maria-Luisa Burneo, Guido Cortes, Fernando Eguren, Leonith
Hinojosa, Jennifer Moore, Herna´n Ruı´z, Cynthia Sanborn, Martin Scurrah, Teresa Velasquez and Ximena
Warnaars, and with members of the TCD seminar group in the UK, and by the comments of Gavin Bridge,
Manuel Chiriboga, Fernando Eguren, Nicola Phillips and Matthias vom Hau.
1. This and all other citations are taken from Melaina Spitzer’s report for Public Radio International describing
the leaders’ visit to the cinema (Spitzer 2010).
2. Another clear and striking similarity was with the mining company executive’s incredulity as to why these
backward peoples would not give access to their subsoil and agree to relocate in return for some schools and
social services. It is impossible to count how often we have we heard the same consternation, apparently
genuine at times, in our own interviews with extractive industry staff and consultants.
3. ‘Campesino’ most literally translates as peasant, though in many instances also conveys a far stronger sense
of culture and collective identity than does the English term.
4. Joan Martı´nez Alier is an influential ecological economist based at the Universitat Auto`noma de Barcelona.
5. The proposal had been floating around, and steadily elaborated over a period of years, in a process involving
civil society groups, activists and academics. See Rival (2009, forthcoming).
6. We draw here on interviews with elected representatives and advisors present in those sessions.
7. This occurred in March 2009 – the NGO was Accio´n Ecolo´gica.
8. Following outcries the licence was later restored until the completion of a legal enquiry into the behaviour of
the station (Moore 2010)
9. Morales took office in January 2006.
10. See his speech in El Alto on You Tube:
11. The Morales government has, counter-intuitively, become a darling of the international financial institutions
on account of its healthy budget surplus generated, above all, by gas.
12. As in the many billboards advertising them as evidence of Evo’s and MAS’s ability to bring new resources to
the popular sectors.
13. Speed is important here. Political logic demands that Morales (and Correa) show results within the electoral
cycle. Hydrocarbons offer one of the few ways of increasing government revenue in ways that are consonant
with this need to demonstrate rapid increases in social expenditure. Politically and economically, growing
and nationalising the hydrocarbon sector are more viable means of increasing resources for social investment
than is the expropriation of domestic wealth (be this through either direct means or large tax increases).
14. At least as regards the logic of expansion in the extractive sector, one is tempted to refer to these as ‘family
resemblances’ (Peck 2004) and not merely convergences.
15. For more information on IIRSA see According to IIRSA, by the beginning of 2009, 51 of its
projects had been concluded and 196 were being implemented, with a combined cost of US$38 billion;
another 103 projects were being prepared, with a cost of US$17 billion, and 31 projects had been defined
as strategically important and so were being given priority (IIRSA 2008). Given the scale of investment
in IIRSA, and the transformations in South American environments that it will catalyse, there is remarkably
little work on it in the academic literature.
16. Though, as Bridge (2004) has argued persuasively, much of the comparative advantage in mineral extraction
derives from policy frameworks, not geology.
17. As indicators of this dependence, note the following figures generated by Leonith Hinojosa within the context
of the programme on Territories, Conflicts and Development (
Between 1990 and 2007, mining and hydrocarbons constituted on average 7.5 per cent of gross domestic
product (GDP) in Bolivia, 13.3 per cent in Ecuador and 5.9 per cent in Peru. This contribution has,
however, increased markedly since 2000, and in 2007, the figures were 23 per cent for Ecuador, 12 per
cent for Bolivia and 11 per cent for Peru. The contributions of the extractive sectors to foreign exchange
are far greater. On average, between 1990 and 2007, extractives made up 57 per cent of total exports in
Bolivia and Peru and 42 per cent in Ecuador. Between 2004 and 2007, as commodity prices boomed,
these figures jumped to 70 per cent, 59 per cent and 68 per cent respectively. Calculating direct contributions
to government revenue is more complex – and not always transparent – but estimates suggest that in Ecuador
some 50 per cent of government income comes from the oil sector, while in Bolivia the average contribution
from oil and gas over the last decade has been 34 per cent (UNCTAD 2007). As another measure of Bolivia’s
fiscal dependence on hydrocarbons, when overall income from hydrocarbons fell by 35 per cent between
2009 and 2010, the central state’s total revenue from taxes declined by 12 per cent, and eight of Bolivia’s nine
departmental governments saw their budgets fall by 23 per cent on average (Fundacio´n Jubileo 2010). In
Peru, the contribution from extractives increased to 42 per cent by 2006. The trend lines for total GDP
and the percentage contribution of extractives to GDP move together in Peru and Bolivia, as do the trend
lines for the weight of extractives in GDP and government social spending, implying a clear link between
income from extractives and social investment (Hinojosa, 2009) Gudynas (2010) likewise notes that governments, above all the socially progressive ones, have used incomes from extractive industry for social policy.
The relationship is most direct in Bolivia, where the Direct Tax on Hydrocarbons was identified by the MAS
government as the means of funding its commitments to fund a universal pension programme (Renta Dignidad) and the social policies brought together in its programme Bolivia Digna (which included a Social Protection Network, the Juancito Pinto programme [a payment to keep children in school] and an integrated
community development initiative).
18. In the case of Bolivia, we have already noted this trend among the Weenhayek (Humphreys Bebbington and
Bebbington 2010).
19. See de Soto’s much seen and debated video at:
20. Thanks to Matthias vom Hau for pushing us on these issues.
Alerta Peru´ (2010), Pueblos indı´genas anuncian protestas y Gobierno insiste con su escopeta de dos can˜ones,
Alerta Peru´, 12 February 2010. Available from:
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16 February 2010].
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Peru’, Journal of Development Studies.
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Bridge, G. (2004), ‘Mapping the Bonanza: Geographies of Mining Investment in an Era of Neoliberal Reform’,
The Professional Geographer, 56 (3), pp. 406–21.
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Group, No. 128, pp. 4 –5.
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Chase-Smith, R. (2009), ‘Bagua: La Verdadera Amenaza’, Poder, July, pp. 48–53.
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commission] (Lima: Comisio´n de la Verdad y Reconciliacio´n).
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(EspanËœa), 11 February.
Fundacio´n Jubileo (2010), Ana´lisis del presupuesto general del estado 2010, Reporte de Coyuntura No. 9,
February (La Paz: Fundacio´n Jubileo).
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Latin American Perspectives, 37 (3), pp. 123–38.
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