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The term extractivism has experienced a slight change in its meaning throughout the last decades. Emerging from a term originally describing processes in the natural habitat, it has come to describe a way of running the economy in resource exporting countries, especially in Latin America.

It evolved from the Latin word ‘extrahere’, meaning ‘to pull out’. It was previously used to describe a process concerning tropical plants, which either left them intact or only some parts were harvested from them.

However, during the last couple of years the term has become increasingly important in Latin America, especially amongst scientists dealing with the recent economic developments of the region (see Altvater 2007; Bebbington 2009; Schmalz 2012). Contemporary discussion focuses on the efforts of left leaning governments using revenues from resource extraction to finance social programs for the poor and middle classes in their respective countries. Negative effects such as environmental degradation and social costs are also highlighted in critical approaches (See Acosta 2012; Gudynas 2009; Zibechi 2011). The main critics of the new economic organisation by governments are: Alberto Acosta, an economist from Ecuador; Maristella Svampa, a geographist from Argentina; and Eduardo Gudynas, an activist and journalist from Uruguay. In 2010, they started a working group in Quito, Ecuador assessing the negative impacts of extractivism.

In general the term extractivism can be divided into the so-called ‘traditional extractivism’ and into a new form called ‘neo-extractivism; or in Spanish ‘neo-extractivismo progresivo’ (see Svampa 2011). While ‘traditional extractivism’ deals with a well known way of getting hold of natural resources such as oil, gas or precious metals, being experienced for centuries in the whole region, the new form implies a social and political aspect in the entire process, which before was neither noticed nor discussed.

Governments of the twentieth century used to sell natural resources from their countries to international companies. These companies had relative freedom in extracting the wealth of the country involved, whilst not being submitted to strict controls. The producing countries were not able to profit from their resources as the companies and a small elite took advantage. As a result, corruption corruption and environmental damage occurred in most of the countries. Negative economic effects such as the so-called ‘Duch Desease’ followed short periods of increased earnings from the resources. After a short time of heated economic activity, the economy was usually damaged by the unbalanced domination of just one sector, which influenced in a negative way upon all the others (Acosta, 2012).

The new, more left-leaning governments (in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador) impose stricter rules on the companies and insist on a bigger share in the sale of natural resources. The profit gained from companies, which in some countries are partly or totally under state control, are used in establishing and maintaining social programs for the poor. Conditional cash transfers were installed amongst other countries in Argentina, Bolivia, and most prominently in Brazil. A considerable proportion of the population of these countries benefited from the programs.

While critics admit the positive results of the mentioned programs, they criticize the demobilizing effect of such programs on society and its potential to voice dissent. Moreover the new form of extractivism, according to these authors, strengthens the capitalist economy which on an affirmative level is attacked by the leftist governments. Nevertheless, according to criticism, governments do little or nothing to stop the exploitation of natural resources. The result of this activity is a reaffirmation of the capitalist system experienced before. Another point is the expansion of mining activities in sensitive areas inhabited by indigenous populations. Mining and the extension of plantations in these regions endangers the existence of people and nature endemic to these areas. The coming years surely will see a stiff discussion about the aforementioned issues taking in to account the effects of the extraction going on in most Latin Americas countries.

Sebastian Matthes and Zeljko Crncic

Please cite as:
Matthes,Sebastian and and Zeljko Crncic. 2012. “Extractivism.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/e_Extractivism.html.


Acosta, Alberto. 2011. Extractivismo y neoextractivismo. Dos caras de la misma maldición, in: Grupo permanente de trabajo sobre alternativas al desarrollo, Más allá del desarrollo, Quito, PP. 83 – 121

Altvater, Elmar. 2007. Die Illusion eines „Elpetrolado Latinoamericano“, in: Gabbert, Karin (Hrsg.), Rohstoffboom mit Risiken, Münster, pp. 22 – 40.

Bebbington, Anthony. 2009a. The new Extraction. Rewriting the political ecology of the Andes? In: NACLA Report on the Americas

Franik, D. 2009. Biokraftstoffe und Lateinamerika. Globale Zusammenhänge und regionale Auswirkungen; Berlin

Gabbert, Karin (eds.). 2007. Rohstoffboom mit Risiken; Münster

Gudynas, Eduardo. 2009. Diez tesis urgentes sobre el nuevo Extractivismo. Contextos y Demandas bajo el Progresismo; Montevideo

Schmalz, Stefan. 2009. Zur Geschichte der Biotreibstoffe in Lateinamerika. in: Franik, D. Biokraftstoffe und Lateinamerika. Globale Zusammenhänge und regionale Auswirkungen; Berlin; PP. 49 – 79

Svampa, Maristella. 2011. Neo-developmentalist extractivism and movements. An eco-territorial spin to new alternatives? Paper for the seminar „Societal Transformation and Political Steering in Latin America and Europe“, Brüssel

Zibechi, Raúl. 2011. Ecuador: The Construction of a new model of domination, in: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/3152-ecuador-the-construction-of-a-new-model-of-domination

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