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“The region has been a pioneer in considering as possible and necessary to discuss ways out of the extractive dependence model
Javier Llopis Puente*
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Interview with Eduardo Gudynas, Uruguayan researcher specializing in social ecology

Born in Uruguay, Eduardo Gudynas, analyst of environmental and development issues, and leading advocate of Nature, puts special emphasis on the need for a change of approach in the matter of extractivism. He is currently a senior researcher for the Latin American Center for Social Ecology (CLAES), based in Montevideo, a research associate at the University of California and in the US based environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council.

In the following interview with Javier Llopis Puente, Latinamerica Press collaborator, Gudynas makes a general assessment regarding the issue of extractivism that is present in the region which, as he points out, entails a discussion on development.

Researchers have said that the current extractivist model has reached its limit. Do you share this position?
Yes, I do; but this answer requires some initial clarifications. Future-looking assessments that take into account the depletion of natural resources date from the beginning of the 70s. It’s a great subject that includes a certain pattern of consumption that is heavily dependent on the appropriation of material resources and high energy costs. Within this broad subject there is a specific component which is extractivism. Such as we understand it, it is not a synonym for mining, just as an example, but a particular kind of appropriation of natural resources, which is characterized by the appropriation of large amounts with great intensity and high environmental impact, which are mainly exported as raw materials. This strategy of large-scale extractivism is environmentally, socially and economically unsustainable.

And faced with this unsustainability of the extractive model, there are those who have promoted the so called “alternative developments”, the “alternatives to development”. How do you think this debate has come across in Latin America?
The debate in Latin America on how to tackle extractivism and the link of this discussion to the alternatives to development has been very intense and, in many ways, it is at the forefront of discussion by leaders worldwide. The region has been a pioneer in establishing a link, and seeing as possible and necessary to discuss alternative ways out of this extractive dependence. To give an example, it is possible to have a mining industry for certain uses and especially for our own needs within the continent, to get disconnected from this dependence on the massive exploitation and exporting of natural resources.

And in that discussion, in which Latin America has been a pioneer, what has effectively been accomplished?
There have been no practical results because none of the current governments is encouraging an alternative to extractivism. And also because we recognize that much of the population believes that the vocation of our countries is to continue being suppliers of natural resources. But that does not preclude admitting that there are discussions underway of new alternatives that did not exist four or five years ago. For example, to propose an oil moratorium in Ecuador or a mining moratorium in Peru was seen before as an absurd position to take, one that would lead to the economic ruin of the country, and it was not publicly justifiable. That kind of discussion is just now beginning to be raised in other continents.

And about the “new extractivism” that, for example, has been promoted in Ecuador or Bolivia?
What has happened with progressive governments is that, as they matured, they also converted to extractivism. Of course the way how they structure it is different from how conservative governments do it because in countries like Bolivia or Ecuador there is a different presence of the state. The situation is more dramatic now because with the drop in prices of raw materials, these countries further reinforce the extractivism to try to offset the fall in those prices by increasing their volume on exports.

In an interview you proposed tax reform as a concrete proposal.
We have several measures in mind. There are certain extractive projects for which there is no real management alternative for possible environmental remediation; their environmental damage is undeniable. So there are projects that would be banned from the environmental point of view. We also need reforms in territorial ordering mechanisms, zoning the territories, where and how it is possible to conduct a certain type of mining, not a different mining, or no mining at all.

To tackle the economic dimension, we need to push for a tax reform. In several countries — a case in point is Peru — the taxation by the extractive sector is very marginal.

Another line to consider is that we need to have rigorous economic indicators to be able to decide what is worth doing and what is not. The conventional economic indicators never incorporate the environmental cost of the ecological damage or social damage. We need information channels and citizen participation in a way that local communities really know about the potential risks and potential benefits, or not, of extractivisms, and make it possible for them to make informed decisions.

These actions are necessary to avoid falling into conditions that end up generating environmental conflicts, because a good part of environmental conflicts is due to ignorance or fears of the local communities about what potential damages the extractive or oil venture might bring. We then put forth diversification options which do not make our economies so dependent on the export of raw materials. That would allow us to be able to build our own national food basket, and not fall back into buying some food items from the outside.

Is there a government now that has implemented these measures?
That may be debatable. To give you an example, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela increased the level of taxation for the oil sector. The only country that tried a tax adjustment on agricultural extractivisms was Argentina with taxes on n exports, but there is also much discussion about whether this was implemented and applied in the best way because it had the paradoxical effect of accentuating the dependence on soybean.

Wouldn’t that make a country lose competitiveness?
Extractivistic measures recognize this difficulty, and therefore restore the promises of various governments to move towards an effective regional integration processes. An essential component in these processes is to have minimum environmental requirements shared among countries in order not to cheat each other with unfair competition in the ecological side by saying: “I will scale back environmental requirements if your investment comes to my country.”

Beyond what the neighboring country may do, the first priority of a government in its country is to ensure the quality of life of its own people, the very integrity of its ecological heritage and to ensure the availability of employment and productive diversification for its own economy. In this way, the country cannot fall into the trap of lowering the environmental and social standards because the neighbor does it, because that would be a race straight to the bottom of the abyss.

And in the issue of sovereignty of the natural resources in the region, what has been the level of progress in Latin America?
When countries say that “oil is managed by the state company” they are exercising sovereignty. What has happened with extractivism is that afterwards the state-run oil companies end up making agreements with multinationals to export that oil. So we are witnessing a paradoxical situation where ownership of the natural resource is no longer a matter of dispute, as it was in the past, because there are now several raw material trading networks that accept that the first extraction step may be in the hands of the state. What we have found in the investigations done in CLAES is that in Latin America there are now in place all the possible property regimes in the extractive industry and, regardless of which property regime, all the social and environmental impacts are repeated in all of them.

Going back to the “alternatives to development”, do you see the concept of “Good Living” (Buen Vivir) as a contribution to these alternatives?
Yes indeed, the discussion regarding a way out of extractivism involves discussing development, but it also demands to have a reachable goal as a horizon of change. Currently, as a solution to extractivism, there are proposals that are called transitions away from extractivism and the orientation of these transitions are set in “Good Living”. “Good Living” would be like that objective that would allow us to focus on and order the transitions and to be able to determine which of the transitions are effective to move forward in that direction and which are not. We need a criterion for determining what things of the past will remain, what things can be reformed, and what truly new elements are needed to make it possible to organize a new articulation of policies and instruments. The novelty of the discussion regarding post-extractivism is that it is articulating measures that are very specific with that horizon of change focused on a transformation in the scale of values that “Good Living” represents.

In this transitions away from the extractive model, what are the key factors and in which should we put more emphasis on?
I do not use the word “model” because there is no extractive model. Also, the word “model” is very uncertain. We have extractive industries, but “extractivism” is not synonymous of development strategy. In a development strategy there is much more than just extractivism. There are extractive sectors. The alternatives to extractivism mention that all play a necessary role for that change. There are some urgent commitments with certain groups, for example peasants and indigenous people, because they are those most affected, but the idea that there are actors who take a leading role in the change, is not supported. All of them are necessary.

Then, when there are movements from workers, unions, feminists, indigenous groups, peasants, what is the way to articulate these demands towards the same path?
It is overwhelming to recognize that many of these movements defend extractivisms, especially in the cities, and they find it hard to see an alternative outside extractivism. I also find that the evidence is overwhelming that those people who have the most objections in the conflict against extractivism are those people who are in the affected rural areas. Therefore, the transitions involve a deep, intense and patient work of information, education, reflection and democratic dialogue to let the urban majorities see by way of example, that what happens in a rural corner of their country will in the end affect them, not only at the national level but also at the level of a world-wide scale.
On the other hand, I also think that the evidence is overwhelming that much of the urban majority, while on the one hand support those extractivisms, on the other hand they also realize that this way of life is unsustainable. So, they also demand for a good living, for a good quality of life. So right now, the main challenge is to show how that post-extractivist alternative does not imply an economic collapse for any country. The country that first begins to look for alternatives for a way out will be the country best equipped to deal with situations of collapse in the access to raw materials, collapse in climate change or in food availability.

So it is now just a matter of doing it?
There are at least two things lacking. There is a preliminary step which is to accept that there is a serious problem that is at many levels: local, national and global. Then, there is a need to recognize that it is possible to think of non-extractive countries, because it is very difficult sometimes to even imagine that possible future. And also, as there are economic interests behind extractivisms, those same economic interests fight the idea that there is an alternative other than theirs. And in third place is to just do it, but nobody will take a leap without the recognition that there is a horizon of possible change that may catch the one who just leaped, or if one thinks that will be the only one to take that leap. - Latinamerica Press.


Eduardo Gudynas/ Javier Llopis Puente
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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