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Thea Riofrancos’ Resource Radicals is a powerful and important book, grounded in the deft navigation of demanding field research and political and theoretical complexity. It offers more points of engagement than any brief commentary could ever address. In the response that follows I touch only upon one of these: the question of scale that I think animates much of the book (if not always explicitly), and in particular the relation between the local and the national “people”, which in this instance is often, if not always, a relation between Indigeneity and democracy.
In what seems to me the book’s most fascinating chapter (chapter 4), Riofrancos turns directly to the problem of scale as it surfaces in the politics of Ecuador’s constitutional guarantee of communities’ “right to prior consultation” — a guarantee that extends not only to Indigenous communities but to “any community whose environment is potentially impacted by policy decisions” (Riofrancos, 2020: 115). Though not specified by any particular scalar dimension, these various “communities” are implicitly understood as local, and the right to consultation posits by definition an inter-scalar politics — the national state is the “consultant” and the (local) community is the “consulted”.
In addition, insofar as the right to consultation is endorsed not only by national constitutions like Ecuador’s but by international standards like the ILO Convention and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (in the stronger form of Indigenous people’s right to “free, prior and informed consent”), the interscalar complexity reaches beyond the national and sub-national. These complications would be substantial even if the right to consultation was recognized and a common part of the resource development process. But it is not, and chapter 4 examines the dynamics in communities that have undertaken their own consultative processes when the state has failed to do so. As Riofrancos puts it,
[A]t stake in these conflicts is not only the implementation of an international legal norm, but the fundamental question of who rules. . . . [I]n an enactment of the ‘plurinational’ state set forth in the Constitution (itself a product of Indigenous mobilization and theorization), consultations multiply the sites of democratic decision-making and disrupt the monolithic nation presupposed by state actors who claim to represent the public good (often in explicit contrast to the particular demands of territorialized communities or social movements) (ibid., 116–117).
I might add that it is also a question of who or what is ruled: if democracy is rule of the people by the people, and communities asserting their rights “invoke the specter of democracy beyond the nation-state” (ibid., 116), then who are “the people” or peoples? Any answers to these questions are at least partially struggles over the politics of scale (Smith 2008), because the determination of who is and who is not the people in any one instance is, among other things, a scalar construction.
This plays a particularly important part in the community’s efforts to describe and give voice to its “people”, and in the state’s attempt to delegitimize the community-directed consultation process. Riofrancos notes how, confronted with the fact of the Quimsacocha consultation, President Rafael Correa “rejected the scalar logic of the consulta”, in an attempt to “deflate” it as merely a kind of downward scale jumping, through which the “community” gets smaller and smaller “in a never-ending search for the outcome preferred by its organizers” (Riofrancos, 2020: 127–128). Riofrancos makes it clear that these allegations are unfounded. Instead, they emerge from a frightened recognition on the part of the national state that the consultation is not just a minoritarian anti-extractivist radicalism making claims upon a purportedly plurinational state. It stands at the precipice of a much more radical claim, which does not end at the demand for the plurinational “multiplication of sites — and scales — of democratic decision-making” (ibid., 122) within the nation-state’s borders.
Keeping the charged indeterminacy of where these political struggles might lead at the forefront of the account is one of Riofrancos’ great contributions in Resource Radicals. It is clear that there is a tangle of political and ideological threads constantly being tied and untied, and that the various actors’ positions are founded in combinations of principle and expediency. Communicating this contingent logic is a real achievement, one I think only possible after the kind of long, detailed and engaged research that supports this book.
To the extent that the consultation process posits the legitimacy of the community as a scale at which democracy can and should function, it challenges the state and its institutions as the locus of the demos. But it also legitimizes them at the same time. These consultations are at least partly organized as a claim upon the state, and as a claim based in the state’s legitimacy as established in the Constitution. Asserting a political equivalence between the “democratic-ness” of what for short-hand I am calling the local and the national is also an acknowledgment of their differentiated but equally valid scales or spaces of rule. Indeed, if I understand correctly, a community’s claims as articulated through the consultation process ultimately derive their legitimacy because they are based in the (national) Constitution, and insofar as the state is the addressee of these claims and is expected to listen and act, they are a simultaneous acknowledgment of its role as final arbiter. As Riofrancos (ibid., 122) says, community-level “tactics did not refuse state authority; instead they repurposed nationally and internationally recognized forms of democratic participation in protest against the government’s resource policies. They deployed a constitutionally guaranteed participatory institution to both display and consolidate local resistance to a nationally strategic project”.
Riofrancos identifies some crucial, and fascinating, dynamics produced by this not-quite-contradictory, but no-less-complex politics of scalar legitimacy. She quotes, for instance, the Kichwa activist Monica Chuji’s critique of the state-centred consultation process: “the common good is a pretext to violate the rights of communities that are also citizens. We are also part of the state” (ibid., 135). This discourse seems to have features quite different from much of what is happening in, say, Indigenous politics here in Canada, where I live. Here, there is an increasingly influential anti-state theme to Indigenous political discourse (to the extent that it can be generalized, which is only roughly). In other words, much of the language through which Indigenous resurgence and refusal is articulated is not just anti-Canada, i.e. anti-Canadian state, but anti-state per se (Bhandar 2018; Coulthard 2014; Nichols 2020; Simpson 2017). Demands are less and less about the “democratic” rights of Indigenous peoples among others in a “plurinational” Canada, and more a rejection of claims to state sovereignty, not only on the part of Canada but on the part of that institutional complex we call “the state”. It is not at all uncommon to hear the territories on which I live described as “what is known as Canada” or “so-called Canada”. I could, of course, be missing something, but this seems quite different that the evolving state-local-Indigenous politics described in Resource Radicals. I don’t get the sense that processes under Riofrancos’ microscope involve quite a questioning of the legitimacy of the very idea of Ecuador, but rather of its jurisdiction (Pasternak 2017).
In any event, both the Ecuadorian and Canadian cases nonetheless highlight the powerful ways in which what I earlier glossed as “the local” might be superseded as Indigenous framings challenge the fundamental categories of western political thought and institutions. Indigeneity has the potential, perhaps, to operate as a supra-scalar or even anti-scalar field. It escapes or erases the problem of scale. This is part of its extraordinary power, just one part of its Indigenous thought’s increasingly crucial contribution to how to reconceive and unravel a seemingly endless concatenation of long-standing emergencies. This seems to have truly radical implications of the kind of which Correa was very right to fear, because the consultation framed partly as a question of indigeneity cannot help but to point toward a refusal of state sovereignty. Indigeneity is among the most fertile political zones for that most radical of propositions — that the state, and even the real or imagined demos upon which it is founded, are themselves without purchase on the land. You (or we, if I can speak as a settler) can scale jump all you want, from the board room to the UN, but ultimately you have no say here, on these lands we no longer call by their proper names.
Bhandar B (2018) Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Coulthard G (2014) Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Nichols R (2020) Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Pasternak S (2017) Grounded authority: The Algonquins of Barriere Lake Against the State. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Riofrancos T (2020) Resource Radicals from Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. Durham NC: Duke University Press.
Simpson A (2017) The ruse of consent and the anatomy of “refusal”: cases from Indigenous North America and Australia. Postcolonial Studies 20(1): 18–33.
Smith N (2008) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, 3rd ed. Athens GA: University of Georgia Press.