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Extraction and Militarism in Latin America

Laboratorio de Paz

In recent years Latin America has been able to maintain itself on the margins of the economic crisis that is hitting most countries in Europe as well as the United States. The region is showing positive macroeconomic indicators that speak of growth and poverty reduction. These figures, which have to be interpreted with care due to their quantitative emphasis – leaving qualitative evaluations unaccounted for – are defended by the majority of governments, from the most conservative to the so-called 'progressive' ones, as an expression of the 'success' of their social policies. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), which permanently compiles these sorts of statistics, affirmed that in 2012 the continent showed the lowest percentage of people living in poverty (28.8 % of the total population) in the last 30 years.

Why is it going so well for Latin America while things go so badly for the rest of the world? The answer is: 'Because of demand for natural resources and energy.' But don't just believe us. A report from the Wall Street Journal confirms 'In general, Latin America has had very good performance during the last decade, especially due to China's appetite for the region's natural resources, which has propelled a spike in natural resource prices (...) Increases in the prices of its products have benefited all of the economies of the region.' Let's remember that this happens in the context of economic globalisation, where different transnational actors and emerging actors (like China, India and Brazil) guarantee the flow of capital through their territory, offering their 'comparative advantages' to the world market. Latin America's comparative advantages continue to be natural resources, minerals and hydrocarbons.

It is no longer a merely theoretical posture to state that today, independent of the ideological hue of the government, the extractive module is the one that dominates the region. The United Nations expressed in a 2006 report regarding its main exports: 'Higher petroleum prices have benefited hydrocarbon exporting countries such as Bolivia and Colombia, and to a lessor extent Ecuador and Mexico. Chile and Peru reap benefits derived from the unprecedented prices of metals and minerals.' A ranking from 2011 in the magazine América Economía established that 28% of the exports from the 500 largest companies in Latin America were in minerals, 12% in agricultural products and 10% in petroleum and gas. Just the top four companies (in decreasing order, Petrobras, PEMEX, PDVSA and Vale) had sales in 2010 to the order of 376 billion US dollars.

The expansion of extractive industries, implemented by conservative and progressive governments alike, is carried out in a way that dodges its social and environmental consequences. Because of this, the main social conflicts in Latin America today are protagonised by rural and indigenous communities who are fighting against the big mining extraction projects. According to the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts, during 2012 there were 184 active regional conflicts, 5 of which are cross-border, involving 253 affected communities.

Resistance does not distinguish between progressive or conservative governments. Right now in Ecuador there is a huge mobilisation to reject the presidential decision to extract oil from the Yasuní National Park, as well as the approval this past Match of the first large-scale mining project in the country. In Bolivia an indigenous president had decided to construct a highway that crosses the Isiboro Sécure Indigenious Territory National Park, where 5000 indigenous people live, in order to open up new areas for extraction. In 2011, four people died in protests defending the land. In Peru, more than 20 million hectares have been dedicated to mining projects. The 'Conga Mines' project, located 73 Km from the city of Cajamarca, provoked a broad protest mobilisation which was able to stop the project for the moment. The Peruvian Defensoría del Pueblo (People's Defence) has noted that 60% of conflicts are of a socio-environmental nature. In Argentina, after the nationalisation of YPF, Chevron has announced its participation in the extraction of the 'Vaca Muerta' field in Neuquen, provoking mass protest mobilisations in Mapuche communities. In Venezuela the past 3 March, the Yukpa indigenous leader Sabino Romero was murdered, having occupied lands to pressure for the recognition of land tenancy rights and fight against the mining of coal in the Perijá Mountains. In the south of the country, in Bolivar state, Pemona communities twice disarmed military detachments that were carrying out illegal mining in their lands. In the rest of the continent there are similar struggles.

Extractive militarism

When one tries to link the increase in militarism in the region with the expansion of extractive industries there is a tendency to consider only the influence of the United States in its so-called 'back yard', as if the world were still frozen in the time of the 'Cold War'. To this situation you have to also add the development of Latin America's own militarism as a guarantor of the model of capital flows towards the global market. Uruguayan Raúl Zibechi has commented on this: 'There is no extraction, no mining, no soya, no monoculture, without militarisation of society... This is not an error, militarisation is part of the model. There is no open cast mining, mega mining, without militarism. If one lives in the city, it's not apparent, but if you get a bit closer to it you will see an ever more militarised environment.'

Real militarism should not be understood as just the physical presence of soldiers or open armed conflicts. As the Mexican Ana Cerceña has said, 'Capitalism militarises in different ways, you must understand that militarisation is not just putting a soldier or military base in some place. Instead, it converts politics into politics with a military mindset, into politics with visions of the enemy.' For that reason we must understand militarism as the exaltation and primacy of its values – authority, discipline, hierarchical order, obedience, homogenisation of thought, violence and extermination of the other as a method of resolving conflicts, amongst others – and models of military behaviour being placed above other types of more civilian rationalities.

One expression of Latin American militarism, linked to resource extraction, is countries' appetite for buying arms. The data of the Stockholm Institute for Peace Studies established that in 2012 Latin America spent 34.1 billion dollars on arms and defence – an increase of 4.2% compared to 2011 numbers – while those expenditures decreased in the rest of the world.

Looking at the greater protagonism of the military in society and the arms race, one common tendency in the region has been the criminalisation of protest. The book 'When Rights Tremble: Extraction and Criminalisation in Latin America' (Cuando tiemblan los derechos: Extractivismo y criminalización en América latina) notes that 'Criminalisation in countries of Latin America confirms that this occurs with the goal of intimidating or silencing the voices and actions of resistance to extraction activities and projects, mines as well as hydrocarbons, and in some cases agricultural-industrial activities or the approval of laws having to do with these same activities, which are of interest to companies or states, whether those states are neoliberal or define themselves as leftists.' Part of the criminalisation has been the promotion and use of anti-terrorist legislation against protesters, which ranges from Sebastián Piñera's Chile – with laws that date to the time of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship – to Nicolás Maduro's Bolivarian Venezuela, with a law adopted during Hugo Chavez's term in office, paradoxically influenced by the International Monetary Fund's manual on writing anti-terrorism legislation. In their data sheet on the theme, the IMF stated that crimes identified as terrorism can 'discourage foreign investment and distort international capital flows.'

Article based on Rafael's webinar presentation during WRI's eCouncil. See recording here

Traslation: Ian Macdonald