12, December, 2012

ELLA Expert Review: Extractive Industries and Conflict Management

Here Prof. Anthony Bebbington of Clark University offers his reaction to the ELLA knowledge materials on Extractive Industries and Conflict Management.

Short URL for this page:

ELLA Expert Reviews: As part of ongoing efforts to ensure quality in our research and communications, the ELLA team asks recognised experts to conduct reviews of the knowledge materials in a given theme and produce a short written response. The purpose is to highlight a range of distinct perspectives amongst experts in the field and link readers with additional research, cases and arguments that the original ELLA materials may not cover.

In the spirit of discussion and debate, we encourage you to share your own comments about the ELLA materials and the review in the comments section below.

The ELLA Briefs and Guide to extractive industry conflicts constitute a remarkably useful, accessible and manageable suite of resources.  While one can never say everything – least of all in 40 pages – these Briefs say a lot.  One of their great merits is that they make clear that conflicts have to be understood and transformed rather than just managed.  Here we see the eye of the social scientist and historian more than that of the politician or technocrat.  This way of framing problems is very welcome.  It helps remind the reader that conflict is a social fact more than a social problem, a phenomenon that is at least as omnipresent as cooperation. 

The approach taken in these Briefs also reinforces the historical lesson that conflicts can be, and have been, productive – indeed, they are not only, or even mainly, destructive.  Social conflict may have spiralled into violence that has destroyed institutions, infrastructure and peoples, but it has also been the motivation force behind the creation of laws, policies and institutions that foster social inclusion, equity and environmental health.  In the language of Karl Polanyi’s classic interpretation of modern social change, The Great Transformation, conflict is essential to the processes of “the double movement” through which the deepening of capitalist markets is accompanied by efforts of society to rein in these markets such that their most adverse effects are softened and the commodification of nature and human life is kept in check.[i]

Of course, it is not the job of a set of Briefs such as ELLA’s to cast this big picture, but keeping such abstract themes in mind remains helpful: they remind us that larger issues may be at stake in extractive industry conflicts.  They suggest that these are not only conflicts over particular mines, wells or concessions – they are instead conflicts over how contemporary capitalism should be governed, how its benefits should be distributed, and how the relationships between a politics of recognition, economic growth, citizenship and social investment will be negotiated.  In some instances these conflicts are also signals that the institutional capacities and the political coalitions that would commit to building more inclusive economic development do not yet exist.  At times, then, conflicts can “call for” regulatory reforms that are not conceivable in the short to medium terms.

If there is value to reading conflicts “in the round” in this way, then several questions arise.  Where, institutionally, will this aggregate reading occur? Are there ways to ensure that this interpretation is conducted intelligently rather than in a purely self-interested manner (be it the interests of political parties, business, social movement elites or others)?  And what are the conditions under which such an intelligent reading can be converted into a more thoroughgoing and feasible programme of state and social reform?  The Briefs point to some possible answers to these questions.  They note the very important role of the media (though the relative intelligence of the media will depend on its relative independence).  They draw special attention to the role of Human Rights Ombudsman Offices, and I too remain more and more convinced of the vital role that independent Ombudsman Offices can play in translating the signals conveyed by conflicts into programmes of institutional reform.  The Briefs also note the role the academy (formal and informal) might play in these processes.  Less is said about political parties.  This is a gap because, both in the form of individual parties and parliamentary commissions, surely parties constitute a vital channel through which society is interpreted and political agendas are elaborated.

There are then certain “macro-institutional” capacities that need to exist in order that the larger messages of extractive industry conflict can be translated into broader platforms for reform. I say this not, I hope, as a pie-in-the-sky academic unaware of how the “real” and “practical” worlds work, but rather because I believe that such “macro-institutional” translation is already happening in the region.  One example, I think, is El Salvador, where attempts by political parties, ministries, researchers and parts of the press to make sense of the early stages of mining conflicts have indeed cast their interpretations (and responses) at a state-wide and national level.  In that case, the process has led to a legislative proposal (yet to be decided on) to postpone all mining until a far reaching process of macro-institutional reform has been well advanced.[ii]  Bans on extractive industry would not be the end point in all countries of course, but the message is that there are political networks and institutions out there trying to make “big picture” sense of, and elaborate “big picture” responses to, extractive industry conflicts. 

Of course, in other instances political networks have interpreted extractive industry conflict as little more than the work of political manipulators, and have argued that the appropriate response is not institutional change but instead the diffusion or elimination of these particular and individual conflicts.  That of course is another political option.  But for those who do feel uncomfortable with that option, the implication is that beyond elaborating instruments of consultation or rent management, it is yet more important to support and work with those political networks that are committed to making a different sort of sense out of extractive industry conflict.   Such networks are the sorts of social coalitions whose importance has been emphasised in institutionalist approaches to development associated with the likes of James Robinson, Daron Acemoglu or Mushtaq Khan.[iii]  If one takes these writings seriously, then much emphasis should be placed on building the coalitions that will support the institutional arrangements through which extraction can be transformed into inclusive development.

The Briefs chose to focus on consultation, indigenous peoples, rent management and instruments for regulating small-scale mining.  This choice is entirely well-taken and indeed it draws on some of the most important lessons and innovations in the region.  The decision to address the governance of small scale mining is especially important as there is so little written on this topic.  I have no quibbles with how these Briefs lay out their arguments – and I am particularly impressed by how didactically written they are.  These are documents that one can use to organise workshops, to structure discussions, to itemise and reflect on critical factors, and much more – and I have already passed them to students and colleagues.  My commentary (for it is commentary, not critique) is pitched at a different scale and asks a different sort of question that lurks behind the Briefs – namely, what are the political conditions that can help bring innovations such as these into being, and how have these conditions emerged over time?

So, in short, I am in admiration of this Guide and Briefs.  Had their authors had more pages it might have been interesting to stretch beyond South America and the Andes to include Central America and Mexico, which are also experiencing growth in extractive industry investment and associated conflicts.  Addressing the Central American and Mexican context would also allow reflection on additional themes – or perhaps more precisely, on contexts which give a different twist to some of the contextual factors discussed in the Briefs. 

First, bringing together El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru would, for instance, have allowed reflection on the interactions between extractive industry and the socio-political landscapes of relatively recent post-conflict countries.  This interaction has been managed in very different ways across the region – from El Salvador’s caution regarding the ways extractive industry conflicts might interact with the scars and enmities left behind by the civil war period, through to Peru’s and Guatemala’s almost cavalier disregard of their post-conflict past, and on to the use of prior experience of civil war as a means of delegitimising protest on the grounds that it reflects one more bout of terrorism (as has been argued in Peru, for instance).  Again, the question arises: why have there been such different responses across these countries, and what lessons might this hold for other post-conflict countries that are entertaining or experiencing extraction?

Second, there is no doubt that the governance of extractive industry conflicts has intersected with free trade arrangements and treaties in Central America and Mexico.  This same interaction is on the agenda in Peru right now as well.  Again, a comparison across different Latin American sub-regions might have allowed for reflection on the relationships between trade agreements, investor rights and protections, and the factors that influence how governments handle extractive industry conflict and how these might influence the sorts of social coalitions that structure likely paths of institutional change.

Third, there is a growing and serious problem regarding the intersection of extractive industry and the narco-economy in Central America.  This phenomenon has also been invoked in Peru and the small-scale mining Brief refers to the issue for the case of Colombia.  I am not sure how much innovation there has yet been in finding ways to govern the narco-extractives interaction, but it is a serious problem and one that will be with us for a while.  Some discussion of how Latin America has at least begun to think about this relationship might be very useful.

Finally, I’ll close this commentary by noting, for each of the four Briefs, one topic that seems to me to be missing or underdeveloped (recognising, once again, that Briefs cannot do everything in six or seven pages).

On Rent Distribution and Conflict Management: the argument that systems which transfer shares of rent to subnational authorities have tended to be more conflictive is compelling.  This raises the question, however, of how to move forward in cases where such systems already exist.  Efforts to re-centralise control of rents are likely to be at least as conflictive, and possibly even more so – as experience in Bolivia has revealed.  In systems that are already decentralised, should the emphasis be on trying to re-centralise anyway, or on addressing some of the local factors that contribute to conflict?

On Managing Conflict Through Consultation: the Brief says little (at least head on) about the asymmetrical relationships of power that surround consultation processes.  While an argument can be made for not talking about “power” (for example, because the term can alienate certain readers), this may be one case where it is important to call a spade a spade.  The sources of asymmetry are multiple: companies and governments control more formal information, are more able to interpret this information, and arrive at consultations with all the trappings of authority, among others.  Companies and governments thus tend to control and define the terms on which consultation will occur.  Importantly, when subnational populations push back and seek to exercise more control over these terms, as in the popular referenda noted in the Brief, government and judicial response has been to declare the consultation illegal or non-binding.  Such responses are one more manifestation of the asymmetries on which consultation processes are built.  An argument can be made that more than focusing on getting the design right for consultation processes, the emphasis should be on how to address up-front the many sources and forms of asymmetrical power relationships.

On Indigenous Peoples, Conflict and Extractive Industries: a core issue here is the relationship between the governance of extraction and the existence of different degrees of political autonomy within the nation state.  While all nation-states recognise certain subnational autonomies (e.g. for local government), the presence of indigenous peoples complicates the issue further because international conventions recognise specific additional rights (themselves implying domains of autonomy) and in some cases national recognition of indigenous territory recognises further elements of autonomy.  The larger issue, then, is how nation-states build agreed-upon systems that combine centralised authorities and subnational autonomies, and then how the expansion of extractive industries affects and is affected by this on-going process of nation building.

On Small-scale and Informal Mining: while it is frequently the case that small scale-miners enter into conflict with indigenous populations, in some cases small-scale mining has itself been framed as a traditional and ancestral activity, organised by indigenous or Afro-Latinamerican populations.  At times, such as in Colombia, this “ancestral mining” is defended as part of an effort to stake out and defend claims to territory.  This presents an interface between questions of indigenous peoples, autonomies and extractive industries that is different from those addressed in the Brief on indigenous peoples and in the bullet point above.

Further reading and references:

For some of my own work on conflicts and extractive industry, see: Bebbington, A. (ed). 2012. Social Conflict, Economic Development and Extractive Industry: Evidence from South America. Routledge, London.   

For an approach to social coalitions and territorial dynamics, in Spanish: Berdegué, Julio A. et al. 2012. Territorios en Movimiento: Dinámicas Territoriales Rurales en América Latina. RIMISP, Santiago. 

[i] Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.  Beacon Press, Boston.

[ii] For the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Mining Sector in El Salvador (in Spanish), see:    http://www.marn.gob.sv/phocadownload/EAE_minero_metalico.pdf.

[iii] See, for example: Acemoglu, D., Robinson, J. 2012.  Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Random House, New York.; Khan, Mushtaq. 2010. Political Settlements and the Governance of Growth-Enhancing Institutions. Working Paper. Unpublished. 


Anthony Bebbington is Higgins Professor of Environment and Society and Director of the Graduate School of Geography at Clark University. He is also a Research Associate of the Centro Peruano de Estudios Sociales, Peru and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. Tony’s work addresses the political ecology of rural change with a particular focus on extractive industries and socio-environmental conflicts, social movements, indigenous organisations, livelihoods. He has worked throughout South and Central America, though primarily in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and more recently in El Salvador.

Other ELLA knowledge materials relating to Extractive Industries and Conflict Management:





Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>