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n the summer of 2019 I toured a copper mine turned museum sponsored by Canadian mining companies and various branches of the Canadian state. The first thing our tour guide did was ask how many of us had used copper that day. Given that we were somewhat of a self-selecting, mining-nerd crowd most of us raised our hands, knowing that in the world we inhabit we interact with mined minerals constantly. The tour was designed to emphasize the ubiquity of minerals in everyday life and the necessity of the mining industry. And indeed, as I have argued elsewhere mining makes the world I live in possible (Davis Matthews 2019). I am from Toronto, where much of the world’s mining industry is headquartered and where capital is raised. I directly benefit from mining through my Canadian pension, through access to land as a settler, through my desires and comforts being prioritized over those negatively impacted by mining. How does our praxis of solidarity shift when we recognize we are all impacted (differentially) by resource extraction? This question was at the forefront of my reading of Thea Riofrancos’ (2020) Resource Radicals. Her analysis points to the limitations of liberal individualist conceptualizations of democracy. Who is impacted and in what ways matters. Struggles around resource extraction and related injustices, of which I have been involved in since 2013 with the Toronto-based Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and 2016 with Yes to Life No to Mining, often emphasize those most negatively impacted. There is good reason for this because mining companies have been responsible for targetted assassinations (Imai, Gardner, and Weinberger 2017), sexual violence (Manning 2016), and environmental disasters (Marshall 2018). However, there are important questions those of us who benefit need to ask ourselves about how we can be in solidarity from the places we are in and how we can take collective responsibility for the benefits we receive. Though focused on Ecuador, Resource Radicals has important lessons for international movements, especially in the framing that Riofrancos offers of extraction as both a hyperlocal and hyperglobal phenomena. This framing is productive for those who benefit from mining to hold and understand the differential impacts.
Rather than orienting this review around critique, I have oriented each of the following paragraphs around a key question that Riofrancos offers thinking on that I believe are essential for movements both against extractivismo and more broadly against capitalism and colonialism as well as towards abolition, a world in which many worlds can fit, disability justice and more. These questions are essential to academics wanting to do research in ways that are responsible to and work alongside social movements.
How do we define who is impacted and who should have a say? What kinds of collectivities does resource extraction create and rely on? Riofrancos’ analysis of community and state responses to resource extraction points to the limits of democracy and liberalism in fomenting more just worlds. Mining injustice quickly demonstrates the limits of liberal democracy; the impacts of mining are distributed unevenly and representative democracy frameworks in which everyone gets one vote may not actually be appropriate with such an uneven distribution of benefits and harms (2020: 116). Communities facing mining reject one person one vote and instead make decisions based on investments and impacts (2020:124). In this context, communities are refusing the limited modes of resistance legible to the state and companies and the state then frames opposition to mining as coming from a place of lack of knowledge or irrationality (2020: 107). Riofrancos’ analysis resonates with my own experiences of industry conferences where dialogue and consultation are emphasized but consent is rarely spoken of beyond how a company or state might get consent; the problem as they see it is getting the right information to misinformed communities rather than addressing valid concerns. Extractivismo relies on liberalism, the vision of a rational society comprised of equal participants, in order to reproduce itself. Extractivismo is a powerful framing precisely because it helps us to hold the unevenness and the ways that this model goes beyond mining and shapes movements for solidarity, agriculture, academic careers, and more. Extractivismo creates and relies on unevenness while simultaneously relying on the liberal mythos of an even playing field (Appel 2019). It is essential that those of us doing academic work on extraction not reproduce this same dynamic; Riofrancos, through her clear and precise holding of the uneven distribution of harms and investment in movement building, skillfully avoids this reproduction.
How is the concept of sovereignty brought into struggles? What happens when there are competing notions of sovereignty? Riofrancos’ intervention into the ways we conceptualize sovereignty is important to me both as an activist and a scholar. In Ecuador, the left-in-power points to the idea that resource nationalism is a path towards sovereignty, while the left-in-resistance argues that extractivismo entrenches unjust international relations and undermines Indigenous sovereignty. Both the anti-extractivismo left (left-in-resistance) and the left-in-power draw on the concept of sovereignty in their struggles. In international movements against extraction, sovereignty is most often called upon in the context of Indigneous sovereignty, without necessarily considering the ways in which resource-sovereignty may be an important tool in the short term for national sovereignty. Riofrancos analysis points to the ways in which anti-extractivismo movements can easily be framed as imperialist, sometimes rightly so. International solidarity is often framed in media stories through an outside agitator narrative that both takes away agency from people on the ground and erases the various motivations behind international solidarity. This is a dynamic it is very important to be cognizant of. In The Black Shoals, Tiffany Lethabo King (2019:146-149), drawing on Billy-Ray Belcourt and Christina Sharpe, suggests a grammar that is useful in thinking about international solidarity differently. King, specifically addressing the relationships between Black studies and Native studies, suggests that sovereignty can involve some element of being beholden to one another.
How do we build international movements that both respect sovereignty and recognize that we all have a stake in these struggles? If sovereignty can be about being beholden to each other, affected by each other, Riofrancos’ reflections on what it means to be impacted by mining can be productively brought into conversation with international solidarity. Riofrancos (2020:97-98) writes that through the decree on consultation communities can be impacted but not affected. In order to participate, people need to conform to a particular vision of citizenship that involves rationality and an understanding of complex legal mechanisms (2020:107). States and corporations have a vested interest in de-limiting who can claim to be impacted and how they can be heard. If we are all impacted by mining - some of us through benefits- then we are beholden to each other, and solidarity can begin from a place of responsibility to one another rather than a model where some of us imagine ourselves as ‘helping’ others from a place of innocence. This would mean that solidarity is partially about taking the lead from those negatively impacted - but it also means that those of us, like myself, who benefit need to build understandings of how we benefit and how to intervene. This is our responsibility in building toward a more just world and one way that academics can work productively alongside movements.
How do we balance being strategic and being visionary? This question is at the crux of the conflict on the left in Ecuador and throughout many other spaces. I have dedicated my work to understanding the languages and temporalities that companies operate in. I hope this knowledge can be supportive to individual communities but I worry that a focus on individual corporations is limited in terms of an internationalist and solidarity based strategy that leaves no one behind. For example, a tactic often taken up in solidarity with those negatively impacted is compiling complaints to securities commissions about not disclosing certain risks to shareholders as those are who companies are accountable to. But in some ways these strategies, borne of crisis response, delay bigger questions - are we going to let mining companies convince us that they are the solutions to the climate crisis (Mining Watch 2019)? What kinds of worlds do mining companies rely on and engender? What is our vision for a post-extractive world and how do we want to build it collectively across the uneven distribution of harm and benefit that mining is symptomatic of? Riofrancos ends the book with a call to create mass movements against extraction, and the book offers a lot to those of us who are attempting this, especially towards generosity across ideological differences in leftist spaces. These differences remain important in identifying what parts of a long term vision we share and what parts we differ on; in short, how we might work towards a more just world together.
Appel, H., 2019. The licit life of capitalism: US oil in Equatorial Guinea. Duke University Press.
Davis Matthews, M. (2019). Mining Makes This World Possible. Upping the Anti (21). Accessed here.
Imai, S., Gardner, L. and Weinberger, S., 2017. The 'Canada Brand': Violence and Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America. Osgoode Legal Studies Research Paper, (17).
King, T.L., 2019. The Black shoals. Duke University Press.
Manning, S.M., 2016. Intersectionality in resource extraction: a case study of sexual violence at the Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 18(4), pp.574-589.
Marshall, Judith (2018), Tailings dam spills at Mount Polley and Mariana: Chronicles of disasters foretold. Report, Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, August.
Mining Watch (2019), Turning Down The Heat: Can We Mine Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis?. Report, Mining Watch, November.
Riofrancos, T., 2020. Resource radicals: From petro-nationalism to post-extractivism in Ecuador. Duke University Press.
Merle Davis Matthews is a white settler from treaty 13 territory, lands in relationship to many Indigenous nations including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishinaabe, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples. The land they are from is also home to many of the world’s junior mining companies and this is what their work as PhD student in Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota (on territory in relationship to Dakota and Anishinaabe peoples) focuses on.