Revolutionary Extractivism in Bolivia?

A march by La Via Campesina (Ian MacKenzie / Creative Commons)

A march by La Via Campesina (Ian MacKenzie / Creative Commons)

This article by Nicole Fabricant and Bret Gustafson was originally published on NACLA's website.

Across Latin America, the boom in oil, gas, and mineral extraction and export—extractivism—has intensified debate about the trade-off between social redistribution and socio-environmental impacts. In neoliberal countries where violent dispossession is intensified, extractivism is easier to critique. Yet in Bolivia, where recently re-elected President Evo Morales speaks of deepening a socialist project through what we might call ‘social’ extractivism, the ecological left is often at odds. Social extractivism uses money (rents) from natural gas and mineral exports to improve public infrastructures and alleviate poverty through redistributive policies. This positions the state in a key economic role and reverses, in some ways, two decades of free-market neoliberalism. If a lower poverty rate and 61% of the country voting for Evo is any indication, extractivism with a redistributive side has broad popular support.

So what is to critique? Critics have argued that extractivism, even with ‘social’ redistribution, destroys nature, deepens authoritarian politics, and furthers dependence on global capitalist markets. Critics charge that the apparent boom in the present masks the absence of a real economic vision for the future. In the name of Mother Earth, it follows, extractivism contributes to inalterable ecosystemic ruptures such as global warming. In contrast, those defending social extractivism argue that it is merely an instrument of economic transformation, necessary to address poverty in the present and lay the foundations for a new economy and society in the future. Compared to neoliberal regimes, it follows, Bolivia (and Ecuador) are socially and environmentally progressive, with the state using gas and mineral rents to promote economic diversification through industrialization, new local economies, and education for a post-extractive technology economy. Despite ongoing dependence on global capital, it is argued, this is the path toward twenty-first century socialism.

The debate has tended to stagnate around this well trodden back-and-forth, but we seek to further the conversation by returning our attention to social movement struggles—key spaces through which creative transformation emerges. Acknowledging the revolutionary opening created by the MAS, we consider the complicated new terrain of gender, sexual, racial, and ethnic inequities under MAS and “progressive extractivism,” question uneven land redistribution and access to resources in rural economies, and explore extractivism’s impact on the national labor scenario. Lastly, we conclude by considering the dilemma of North-South engagement and solidarity.

After revolution, patriarchy?

The MAS government has opened space for women even as the Morales administration has been criticized for reproducing patriarchal politics. Morales himself sometimes slips into the machista mode of speech – joking, for instance, about conquering opponents by seducing ‘their’ women. Yet the paradoxes of gender and sexuality in the context of extractivism go beyond ways of speaking or the formal inclusion of women. Certainly on the social and redistributive side, the widespread installation of natural gas lines in urban homes eases the domestic labor of women. Cash transfers for infant and maternal health, support of the elderly, and grants to schoolchildren have all contributed to women’s well-being.

Yet, in structural terms, extractive economies exacerbate gendered inequalities. Extractive regimes, compared to manufacturing and other economic activities, produce relatively few jobs. Most are semi- and high-skilled jobs that generally go to men. This repositions women as dependent on male earnings, much like the cash transfers reach women as mothers and wives. And as redistribution, transfers are significant but small compared to expenditures on the military, universities, regional governments, and municipal governments. As these more significant expenditures invariably move through masculine circuits of rent circulation the machista world of back-room, alcohol fueled patronage politics – men talking about conquering other men by way of their women – comes full circle. Thus, even after neoliberalism, natural gas fuels an economic structure and a patriarchal politics that work against gender equity.

Government policy can exert a counterweight to these structural forces, if there is a real commitment to ‘depatriarchalization’. And, to be sure, coinciding with the structural effects of extractivism, an ideological struggle continues around the politics of liberatory sexuality. Consider the recent abortion debate sparked by a court challenge from Patricia Mancilla, a MAS legislator. Reading the new constitution’s passage on women’s sexual freedom, Mancilla sued for the decriminalization of abortion. Two years of public debate followed, pitting this liberatory challenge against an alliance of evangelicals, the Catholic Church, right-wing parties, and self-proclaimed male revolutionaries of the MAS. In the end, the court ruled against women. Against this backdrop, feminist movements have renewed their struggles, even as some maintain critical support for the MAS. The issues extend into LGBTQ rights, domestic violence, and femicide. In a recent debate with Vice-President Alvaro García Linera, María Galindo of Mujeres Creando pointed out the ideological poverty of many MAS representatives, such as one who equated homosexuals to “enfermos mentales.” As it were, the revolutionary project relies on less-than-revolutionary alliances. Movements like Mujeres Creando are spreading into youth consciousness through bawdy public irreverence, street theater, graffiti, and media. Other women-led Indigenous movements like the Bartolina Sisas of the national peasant organization are also organizing around gender, the impacts of extraction, and small-scale agriculture. Women leaders associated with CONAMAQ (National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Qullasuyu) have been active in conflicts over mining and the TIPNIS highway, as well as broader issues like climate justice. These gendered articulations of cultural struggle and political-economic transformation are a critical point of solidarity and creativity for the ongoing change.

Race and ethnicity are also sites of struggle. The much-heralded embrace of indigenous rights by Evo Morales and the passage of anti-racism laws are a step in the right direction. In education, the MAS has taken steps that are an affirmative action of sorts. Yet institutional racism and the daily realities of racist micro-aggressions persist. In the cities, the anti-racist struggle has expanded through the efforts of young people and intellectuals, including those affiliated with the Observatorio del Racismo. In the rural regions, Indigenous organizations, with some exceptions, broadly support the MAS, but also continue to struggle for territorial rights, autonomy, and full participation as citizens. Again, the often dismissive attitude toward Indigenous demands displayed by the national oil and gas company and some representatives of the MAS itself, reflects a troubling and familiar coloniality that is still embedded in the extractive project.


In the formal economy, the position of working people has clearly improved with social extractivism: The MAS government has increased the minimum wage, decreed double year-end bonuses, and increased public sector wages. Yet things are not all rosy. Continued talk of the natural gas boom and the nation’s robust economic situation tend to heighten expectations and inflationary pressures that fuel demands for wage increases, especially for public sector workers, the most significant segment of the ‘formal’ economy. Yearly wage disputes and strikes –by teachers, doctors, police, and army officers – continue. Although nationalization restored national miners and oil workers unions, outsourcing and subcontracting still characterize the extractive regime’s production chains. Conflicts persist between state and non-state mine workers. The COB (Bolivian Labor Confederation) is – depending on political winds – a sometime ally of the MAS. Yet the COB remains focused on wage and pension issues in the formal sector, even though most Bolivians—several million in fact—live without access to a formal income.

The government speaks of industrialization and new jobs. Economic growth and rent circulation have generated much-heralded stories, such as the nouveau riche Aymara bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, extractivism-fueled growth – 80% of the country’s exports – is low-labor growth. The job-producing non-extractive segments of the economy grow more slowly. Thus, the percentage of labor in the ‘informal’ sector has remained stable, at about 65%, for the past decade, leaving people, especially the young, to struggle largely as precarious workers–receiving less than a living wage, no pensions, long hours, and unstable employment. While the increased circulation of cash undoubtedly means that the ‘informal’ economy may also perceive a boost, young women in particular face a more difficult scenario. Organized labor is thus a core area of struggle that must incorporate and mobilize young people—especially those on the urban margins—as key agents of transformative thought and action. Otherwise, amid social extractivism, young people will face more of the future imagined for them by neoliberalism: as pools of cheap exploitable labor, political subjects useful for reactionary mobilization, or surplus bodies to be targeted for criminalization.

Land, water, and the future of the countryside

The dilemma of urban labor is compounded by the expansion of rural agro-industry. The extractivism debate tends to gloss over how rural social movements continue struggles for land and sustainable economies and communities. Globally, the Via Campesina (global peasant organization) and Landless Peasant Movement (MST-Brazil) have militantly resisted biofuel crop expansion (soy, sugar), arguing that it leads to further environmental degradation and displacement of small-scale farmers. Even so, soy and sugar are expanding across Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Bolivia has taken steps toward assuring food sovereignty, but movements call for land reform and new models of agriculture, such as smaller scale organic farming. Movements are imagining an alternative socio-economic and political order through “embodied resistance.” Prior to the MAS consolidation of power, this involved occupations of under-productive latifundio (large expanses of land). Self-education, consciousness-raising, and self-organization all contribute to the pursuit of alternative agro-ecological farming settlements.

The landless movement in Bolivia has adopted the Brazilian model and occupied lands in eastern Bolivia. Here some mobilize the idea of the Andean ayllu – collective landholding patterns and kin relations – to bolster unity. Against agroindustry’s tactics for concentrating power and wealth, rural activists hope that land occupations give rise to alternative economies to reterritorialize the nation, similar to the Zapatistas. Many of MST’s ideas have made their way into the new Bolivian constitution. Yet the Bolivian landless must navigate a complex dynamic with the MAS as well as internal tensions between individual and collective property. Movements want to remain independent yet rely on the state for access to seeds and technology. And, as with other political alliances, the MAS has reached a kind of detente with the agro-industrial elite. This suggests continued soy expansion and the solidification of the agro-industrial model—all of which undermine radical land reform efforts, an ongoing terrain of struggle.

Extractivism on the ground: Socialism of the state, neoliberalism at the well-head?

From Mexico to Chile the extractivism debate has focused most on movements mobilized against or for specific projects. For instance, in Peru protestors in Cajamarca have challenged the expansion of the open-pit gold mine through demonstrations, road blocks, and strikes and have suffered from much police repression. In contrast, other communities support extractive industries, but demand more social and environmental regulation, mitigation, and compensation. Yet whether for or against, grassroots mobilization is exploding. Unsurprisingly, countries like Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Honduras, and Paraguay have moved toward the militarization of extractivism and the criminalization of resistance. Yet even in Bolivia and Ecuador some grassroots activism has been met with violence and a discourse of criminalization. These struggles will continue, however mitigated they might be by redistributive policies. Yet more importantly, movements are expanding into issues such as water, food sovereignty, and climate justice. New articulations – like Bolivia’s embryonic Green Party – are emerging. On questions of water scarcity, Bolivian grassroots organizers in both La Paz and El Alto are leading the way in questioning top-down international solutions and connecting to movements in other countries.

The alternatives: Returning to the north/south debate

Can we, as activists, deepen the debate on these issues by exchanging political knowledge and experience across the South and the North? Is there room for an older model of North-South solidarity? Or is the struggle and the path to follow now flowing in the other direction? Movements of the South need support as they experience the impact of global warming on a daily basis. More than continuing to critique Bolivians’ clamor for the benefits of gas, the struggle against the extractive industries in the North, in particular fossil fuels, is the key place to begin. Here, our on-going challenge is also to reinforce the connections between racial and gender inequalities, the gutting of democracy and public space, and militarized extractivism that degrades environments and criminalizes struggle. As the #BlackLivesMatter and #Ayotzinapa movements expand, there are embers of articulation coming from the global climate marches last September. Movement work to bridge these issues – as is ongoing in Bolivia and elsewhere in the Global South – is crucial. COP 20 of December 2014 in Lima has led to non-action. The challenge will be to sustain and articulate disruptive and creative grassroots movements across contradictory political scenarios. In the case of Bolivia, paradoxical as it may seem, fighting fossil fuels in the North while engaging the progressive potential of a sort-of-socialist natural gas-exporting regime in the South – and acting to deepen transformation – seems to define our own less-than-straightforward political path.

Nicole Fabricant teaches anthropology at Towson University, and is the author of Mobilizing Bolivia’s Displaced: Indigenous Politics and the Struggle over Land (UNC Press). Bret Gustafson teaches anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and is the author of New Languages of the State: Indigenous Resurgence and the Politics of Knowledge in Bolivia (Duke University Press). They also have a co-edited the book Remapping Bolivia: Resources, Indigeneity and Territory in a Plurinational State (SAR Press, 2011).

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